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

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Badger cull: the police respond

In the interests of balance I have reproduced below the letter I received this week from the Deputy Chief Constable of Dyfed Powys Police regarding the way they are policing the badger cull. The letter was written in response to my raising with the police concerns, which I have blogged on previously:

'Thank you for your letter of 22 June 2010 highlighting your concerns regarding Police actions at the public meeting at Rhosygilwen in Rhoshill on Monday 14th June 2010.

My colleague, Assistant Chief Constable Nick Ingram, held a meeting with three representatives of 'Pembrokeshire Against the Cull' (PAtC) on Monday 21st June 2010, where the subject of the police allegedly filming persons and vehicles attending the meeting was raised. ACC Ingram assured the representatives that the police vehicle was not filming and was parked in this location to avoid being blocked in. Whilst there are a number of police vehicles in Pembrokeshire equipped with camera equipment, the vehicle in question is not yet fitted with a recording device.

The meeting also discussed and addressed several other concerns expressed by the representatives, including the use of the army to assist with security and the use of 'riot' police at Brithdir Mawr. This was not the case.

In response to your specific concerns, I will re-iterate what ACC Ingram has said, that the police have not recorded and are not holding details of vehicles or residents who attended this meeting who attended this meeting, and police presence at future PAtC meetings will be through invite only.

A model Council

Neath Port Talbot Council is one of the few Labour-run authorities left in Wales and Labour Assembly Members, MPs and Ministers are fond of referring to it as a model of best practice, arguing that councils run by other parties would do well to learn from their example.

It will be interesting therefore to see how these same Labour politicians react to today's news that this self-same Council has been unable to secure agreement with its trade unions on changes in working practice and are now considering dismissing its entire workforce and re-employing them on new terms and conditions.

This 'model Council' is facing up to the realities of managing public services within the context of rapidly diminshing resources and is doing exactly the same as every other local authority in Wales in seeking to drive down its costs by removing restrictive and expensive practices. If this had been Liberal Democrat-led Swansea, or Tory-run Vale of Glamorgan though the Labour critics would have been condemning them loudly.

My point is that this playing party political games over the management of public services is not clever and not constructive. Applying different standards to councils depending on who runs them is just hypocritical.

The actions of Neath Port Talbot are not ideal but I understand why they have been put in this position. I hope the nuclear option can be avoided and an agreemnent reached. If we are to protect jobs and services then everybody needs to be more flexible. Not all stakeholders have accepted this yet.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The impact of the budget

At least one Labour Assembly Member has already raised the Observer story on the briefing from Tim Horton of the Fabian Society and Howard Reed from Landman Economics in the chamber. But as Ed Long on Liberal Democrat Voice points out, you should be very careful about believing everything you read in newspapers.

This report from the Fabian Society and a supposed economic expert is neither. It performs a numerical magic trick in order to draw a graph that can be superficially labelled ‘regressive’. Real questions can and should be asked about welfare reforms when the exact breakdown of the cuts is revealed. If there are cuts to social housing, for example, then the poorest families will face a very real financial loss, but trying to argue that all spending can be valued at the point of delivery and then subtracting this value from income is merely a smoke and mirrors game to justify spending at the status quo.

His criticism is echoed on Liberal Vision who compare the graph from the Appendix A of the Budget, which shows the actual material impact of all measures on each income decile by 2012/13 to that produced by the Institute of Fiscal Studies.

They say that the IFS graph shows that the impact of the budget from decile 2 to 9 income groups is broadly progressive or proportional, from 9 to 10 highly progressive, and only from 1 to 2 slightly regressive. They add that the actual cash impact of the changes is about £25-50 a year between those on £14,000 and those on less. At the other end those on £50,000 or more will be paying an average of £1,000 a year more than those around £38,000, or £1,650 a year in total.

They add: The other point of attack is that to be progressive the Budget depends on previously introduced measures not yet implemented, for example the 50% tax rate. There is something in that, however it is the case that the Coalition could have reversed those measures. It is the Coalition, not Labour implementing the changes.

Broadly then the ‘regressive Budget’ narrative is not supported by the evidence bar in one small part of the distribution where there has been gross partisan exaggeration of a tiny difference. One more than made up at the other end of the income scale if that is your notion of fairness.

From bottom to top the facts show the impact of changes this Government will introduce are progressive, just not uniformly for every group.

This budget has been difficult and I am not happy about all of it. Clearly many people will lose out but in accepting that we should not get carried away and exaggerate its impact as Labour and their fellow travellers are doing.

We should not forget from where we are starting and that immediate action is necessary to put the economy on an even keel. I am aware that even that statement is controversial but it is the reality and I am just pleased that the Liberal Democrats are there to moderate the worst excesses and ensure that fairness remains at the heart of this government's economic policy.

Lembit 4 Mayor

Just in case anybody thought Lembit Öpik is not serious about being the Liberal Democrat nominee for Mayor of London he has got an embryonic campaign team in place and a website here.

This is already a much improved approach to that he took for his Presidential campaign, which consisted largely of a series of poor jokes and a segway.

His website says that the former MP is a good liberal with a lot of political experience plus the celebrity factor that is needed for a mayoral campaign:

Lembit himself has said “I can see why people are keen on me to consider standing – and it does make sense. Boris has proved that London genuinely respects strong characters. Also, I’ve got a pretty clear and well reported political philosopy – left of centre and libertarian. What I don’t yet know is London’s view of my potential campaign. I don’t want to waste anybody’s time; but if the Capital’s residents are interested in hearing more about my agenda, I’m keen to share it. In essence, I want to make London the most free Capital in the Western World. I welcome people’s views – and I can’t stress enough, if that’s what people want, they actually have to say so, or I won’t be standing!”

I can hardly wait.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Who polices the Police?

I have suggested on this blog on a number of occasions that the way that Dyfed Powys Police are dealing with the badger cull in North Pembrokeshire is unreasonable and disproportionate. The community itself is upset because they have never seen anything like it before. They are rightly resentful at the way that their right to peaceful and democratic protest is being undermined by paranoia and over-reaction on the part of the Labour-Plaid Cymru Welsh Government and other authorities.

However, in many ways, unacceptable as much of the police action is in North Pembrokeshire, it is nothing compared to what is going on elsewhere, where partially understood new powers are being abused, often in ignorance by police officers who are trying to get a job done, but doing it badly.

This article in today's Guardian is a case in point. They report that two journalists have won an out-of-court settlement after the Metropolitan police admitted failing to respect the freedom of the press when officers prevented them covering a protest. The details are shocking:

One of the journalists, film-maker Jason Parkinson, almost had his half-smoked cigarette swiped from his mouth and was called "scum" by an armed diplomatic officer during the incident at the Greek embassy in London in December 2008.

He and photojournalist Marc Vallée were covering an impromptu demonstration outside the Greek Embassy in Holland Park, west London. The demonstration echoed simultaneous disturbances in other parts of Europe and in Athens, where protesters were angered at the police shooting of a teenager.

The journalists, from London, had the lenses of their cameras either pointed away or covered by police when they arrived to document the protest. Footage caught on Parkinson's camera captured the incident, which occured after they were moved away from protesters trying to access the embassy.

The armed officer pulls the lens off a camera being held by Vallée, who snatches it back. The officer then places his hand over Parkinson's camera, while an argument ensues. "Take your hand away off my camera... you can't touch my camera," Parkinson said. "I can," replied the officer. As he walks away the officer can be heard saying "scum".

Moments later, the officer tried to remove the cigarette from Parkinson's mouth. The film-maker can be heard saying: "What – you're going to pull the cigarette out of my mouth now as well? What's the point of that?"

They are later frogmarched away from the scene.

The Metropolitan Police have now recognised that they failed to respect press freedom with regards to the two journalists and have paid them £3,500 each in compensation. But it took 18 months to get to that point.

Chez Cotton, who acted for the two is quite clear what she thinks happened. She said that her clients had been treated with "contempt and aggression" by the armed diplomatic officer. "That the officer has been content to be filmed whilst doing so is shocking and makes it even more worrying that my clients appeared to be moved away by the police, apparently because they did not wish to be filmed whilst carrying out what appeared to be extremely brutal arrests using force."

This is the State that Labour created with its suppression of civil liberties and its endless Acts of Parliament on law and order issues. Will the coalition government start to reverse that tendency? We will have to see.

Welsh Government manufacture another crisis

If ever there was a non-story then it is this example of faux outrage and artificially inflated crisis spread across a full page of this morning's Western Mail.

The paper reports that Welsh Government Ministers are once more complaining that they were not consulted, this time about Iain Duncan Smith's proposals to encourage jobless people to leave housing estates to seek work. They conclude that the UK Government do not understand devolution and yet so unbalanced and uncritical is this piece that not once is the proposition advanced that in this instance it is Labour and Plaid Cymru who have got their knickers in a twist about the correct placing of responsibility.

Welfare benefits are of course not devolved and if Iain Duncan Smith wants to make proposals about enabling English Council tenants to seek work elsewhere then he is perfectly able to do so without once consulting the Welsh Government, who has no business in interfering. Equally, the Welsh Ministers would be the first to sound off if Westminster started to question our right to pass Wales-only legislation in a devolved area.

Of course we do not know if this just affects English tenants because the proposals have not yet been published and that is the point. The Secretary of State has put forward an idea which needs to be worked up and as part of that process, he will undoubtedly consult with Wales if that is needed.

Is that how it is to be from now on? Whatever Westminster proposes Wales questions and puts up a wall in an effort to frustrate them. If the respect agenda is lacking then it seems to be more on this side of Offa's dyke than elsewhere.

And Carwyn Jones and his cabal of Ministers cannot even be consistent. After all when a Labour Minister proposed precisely the same sort of thing as Iain Duncan Smith two years ago there was not a peek out of them. In 2008 it was not an affront to devolution, now it is. Could they get anymore obvious? And why do the Western Mail (and the BBC to a lesser extent) play along with this farce?

When Cheryl Gillan was barracked by Labour backbenchers in the Assembly chamber I suggested that they all needed to grow up. I think that the same applies to Welsh Cabinet Ministers too. Because if they do not start taking a more mature and considered approach to the political situation they now find themselves in then they will begin to actively undermine the whole devolution project. It will certainly be more difficult to secure a 'yes' vote for full law-making powers whilst Ministers are playing these games.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

What exactly did Labour promise?

As there is nothing else on television I am catching up on Thursday's Welsh political programmes and was intrigued at the interview on ITV Wales' Sharp End with Ed Milliband. During that conversation he stated that Labour had promised in their manifesto to look at the Barnett formula, the mechanism used by Government to calculate how much money comes to the Welsh Assembly.

This is the first time I have heard such a claim so I had a look myself. Although the wording is fairly imprecise I think it is clear that what is being promised is not a review or even an acceptance of the Holtham Commission's conclusions, but a continuation of the floor that was put in place by the Treasury to protect the Welsh budget against a decline in public spending.

That is a far cry from the rhetoric of Labour Ministers in the last few weeks in calling for Holtham's conclusions to be accepted by the UK Government. Not only did they have 13 years to effect this change, but it was also ruled out by the Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liam Byrne in February of this year, by Alistair Darling during the General Election and it seems the Labour manifesto.

The only conclusion that can be reached is that Labour are both talking with forked tongue on this issue and trying to rewrite history. We should not let them get away with it.

Another Labour black hole

Just when you thought that the economic mess left behind by Labour could not get any worse the Observer reveals that Gordon Brown's Treasury has been dramatically understating the cost of paying public sector pensions.

The official bill to taxpayers for future retirement payments is put at £15bn a year, but the actual cost is £30bn, according to John Ralfe, one of the UK's leading pension experts.

This means that costs of £120bn to £150bn have gone unrecognised in government accounts since 1997.

The Office for Budget Responsibility put the figure close to Ralfe's, at £26bn, in its report on the UK economy.

"Government accounts have been flattered by hiding a £15bn annual cost," Ralfe said.

"They fiddled the figures. The Treasury under Gordon Brown moved the goalposts. It had a pernicious effect because if they had come clean on this earlier, there could have been a gradual series of measures to make the cost of public sector pensions more manageable, rather than having to take action all at once."

He added that the real pension benefit for teachers was about 28% of their salary, double the official cost of 14%, and that for civil servants it was 33%, compared with the official figure of 19%.

The disparity is a result of a sleight of hand by the Treasury in 2001, when officials fixed the "discount rate" – used to estimate the cost of future yearly pension bills at current prices – at a level that made liabilities appear much smaller.

The effect was to disguise the true state of public sector pension costs, with drastic action now required to reduce their claim on the nation's purse.

This is just another example of how Labour have been hiding the truth about our public finances. It is little wonder that the coalition government has had to take drastic action to put things back on an even keel.

A moderating influence

I think it is fair to say that for the Liberal Democrats one of the most unedfying parts of the coalition agreement was the section on immigration. However, according to today's Mail on Sunday, who clearly do not approve, we are having some success in watering down Tory proposals even on this aspect of the government's programme.

They say that Home Secretary Theresa May has been accused of watering down a Tory pledge to bar immigrants unless they can speak good English. The promise was a central part of David Cameron’s Election campaign. But it has now been disclosed that the families of asylum seekers allowed to settle in the UK will be exempt from the ban.

The paper quotes Labour MPs who say that the Conservatives have been forced to drop their hardline stance by their Liberal Democrat ­Coalition partners. They say that the Lib Dem tail is wagging the Conser­vative dog in this Coalition. The reality is of course contained in a a little-noticed Commons written reply last week which said:

‘The new language requirement will not apply to dependants of refugees and people granted humanitarian pro­tection in the UK.’

The Government granted the exemption after being warned that forcing refugees’ dependants to learn English breaks Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which gives everyone ‘the right to a family life’.

Lawyers say a refugee could argue that as they cannot return to their country, they can gain their ‘right to family life’ only by having it allowed in the UK – whether or not they speak English. Britons whose foreign spouses cannot speak English could get their right by emigrating.

A Home Office spokesman said: ‘In compelling circumstances where a refusal of leave would amount to a breach of Article 8, we will consider granting discretionary leave outside the immigration rules.’

Still it is nice to be noticed.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Doctor Who: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Daleks (The Peter Jones-y Edit)

Hat Tip: miss_s_b

The need for effective scrutiny

One of the reasons I think as to why there has not been too much fuss about the decision to cut £2 million from S4C's budget is the lack of information about what they actually spend their £100m plus grant on. This article in today's Western Mail will not help their cause.

They report that the TV channel has come under fire after a Welsh language countryside programme took out a £1,000-a-month lease on a Land Rover:

S4C presenter Dai Jones – known as Dai Jones Llanilar after the village near Aberystwyth where he farms Welsh Black cattle and sheep – will be using the Land Rover Discovery to visit locations for his programme, Cefn Gwlad.

He also fronts two other S4C programmes, Fferm Factor and Rasus. It has been estimated that his income from presenting these programmes may run to £185,000 a year.

We can of course all argue about the value of this sort of expenditure and whether it should be allowed or not. But the fact is that S4C has a bit of a reputation for showing some extravagance in its expenditure and the only way that they can properly counter that is if they are effectively scrutinised.

That does not happen at present due to the Department of Culture Media and Sport having other things to do, whilst no Parliamentary Committee has so far seen fit to summon them on a regular basis for a thorough grilling.

As I have said previously the case for devolving responsibility for the channel to the Welsh Government (along with the money of course) is growing stronger. At least then Assembly Committees would have the right to question these issues.

Satellites and insects

This morning's Western Mail reports the full extent of the war that is to be waged on Wales' knotweed problem. They say that a team at the University of Glamorgan are to use a satellite imaging system to identify the precise locations of the plant.

The paper confirms that a Japanese insect which is a natural predator of knotweed is due to be introduced to Wales next month. The scientists are also exploring the potential of a British fungus to destroy knotweed. In the Swansea area alone, one of the worst affected regions of the UK, it is thought to have a collective mass of 62,000 tonnes.

Professor Denis Murphy, a leading biotechnology expert based at the university, hopes the combination of initiatives will result in knotweed’s eradication.

He said he was alarmed by the danger it poses to Welsh homes

“We have found knotweed along the M4 and it’s literally next door to peoples’ back gardens.

“Japanese knotweed is among the most aggressive and invasive plants in the world. It can grow up to one metre within the space of just three weeks.

“Satellite imagery can more accurately monitor the spread of the plant and can pinpoint areas where it is likely to grow, enabling it to be treated more effectively. We conducted a pilot study at several sites in Wales, and hope that the techniques developed could lead to improved detection of the species worldwide.”

I have already expressed my unease at the use of this insect to tackle knotweed. These include how they will adjust to a different climate and the danger that they might attack other plant life. I think therefore that we need to watch this experiment very closely.

Friday, June 25, 2010

For whom the bridge tolls

It has taken a long campaign by Liberal Democrats like Mike German and John Warman amongst others but at last a Liberal Democrat Transport Minister has announced that we will be able to use credit cards to pay the tolls on the Severn Bridge before the Ryder Cup lands on our shores in September.

The next stage of course is to get rid of the tolls altogether. Mike German is to use his last week in the Welsh Assembly to stage a debate calling for abolition and no doubt will be promoting this campaign in the House of Lords shortly after.

Put simply, the £5.50 cost of crossing these bridges is a tax on entering Wales and a disincentive to business. It should be scrapped at the earliest possible moment and in any case in 2016 when the bridges come back into public ownership.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Respect works both ways

Interesting as this Western Mail story is about Labour and Plaid Cymru kicking off over the recent budget, one has to ask why exactly it is news? Essentially, the newspaper has handed over a significant chunk of its content to partisan political propaganda.

Carwyn Jones and his Deputy believe that Wales got nothing from the budget and argue that it will hit us disproportionately, as if everything had been hunky dory before. But let's face it, it was not the Coalition Government who landed the country with an £800 billion debt, who presided over a rise in unemployment in Wales greater than in nearly every other part of the UK and who have run a centralising wasteful government from Cardiff Bay for the last three years. That is Labour and in the case of the last part, Plaid Cymru as well.

Something had to be done and we have done it and as I pointed out yesterday there is in fact plenty for Wales there including taking 50,000 low earners here out of tax altogether and cutting £200 off the tax bill of many others, restoring the earnings link for pensioners from next year, putting an extra £2 billion into the child element of tax credits and cutting National Insurance contributions for new Welsh businesses.

Yes, Wales is a low wage economy overly-dependent on the public sector but that is not our creation. Liberal Democrats have insisted on some protection from the wage freeze for lowly paid public servants and we will do all we can to preserve jobs here, but you cannot tackle a deficit of these proportions without some pain. And let us not forget that Labour's last budget proposed £77 billion of cuts and tax rises for precisely those reasons.

The biggest cheek though is the claim by the Labour First Minister that the budget contained nothing about Barnett reform. He knows that there is a commitment to look at that in the coalition agreement as part of a Treasury-led review after the referendum and that this will go further than just funding. But, more to the point, what has Labour done about it over the last 13 years? Nothing.

In fact as late as February of this year the Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury was ruling out the Barnett formula, something that the then Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer also did during the General Election. It is a bit rich therefore for Labour to be attacking us for not immediately doing what they had ruled out doing when they were in power.

If anybody has let down Wales it is Labour and their Plaid Cymru friends. We are now having to sort out their mess and in doing so the interests of Wales will be paramount.

Update: David Melding has a more considered view here.

Parliamentary Democracy out of control

Just in case anybody thought that things were getting a bit partisan in the House of Commons, it seems that the Ukrainians know how to have a real political dust-up.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A necessary measure

There is no denying the fact that yesterday's budget was difficult. It was difficult for the Liberal Democrats who never envisaged that their first taste of power at a UK level would be so tough, but above all it is difficult for the country and the many people who will have to tighten their belt so that we can get the country back on track after the last few disastrous years of Labour government.

The situation facing the new government was dire. It inherited a £155 billion deficit and debt of near £800bn, whilst the independent Office of Budget Responsibility recently revealed that the growth assumptions of the former Chancellor were over-optimistic and the structural deficit was £12 billion more than we had thought.

Labour are obviously spinning that the depression had nothing to do with them and there is no denying that it was an international phenomenon. However, it did not hit every country in the same way. In particular the high level of debt, which Vince Cable amongst others had been warning about, and the failure to properly regulate the banks left Britain vulnerable. Labour cannot escape responsibility for that.

It has also been pointed out that the rhetoric of the Liberal Democrats before the election is in marked contrast to their actions in government, particularly over the issue of early cuts and VAT. I cannot pretend that I am comfortable with that. If anything it flags up that we need to be much more circumspect in future election campaigns.

However, it is clear that we had no choice on both counts. Events in Europe meant that we had to act to protect Britain's creditworthiness. The state of the nation's finances and those subsequent events meant that the situation had changed between those election pronouncements and entering government. The VAT rise was one of the few options available to us to balance the books.

It is right of course that VAT is a regressive tax but it is less so than most sales taxes. It does not apply to food or children's clothes for example. It mostly applies to luxury goods and even where it does affect gas and electricity it is at a lower rate, 6% now I believe. It does of course also affect many other goods and services, which may not now be affordable to some people. That is regrettable.

This budget though did contain many good things and clearly showed the Liberal Democrats' moderating influence. These include:
In addition the new Government remains commited to measures to tackle climate change including incentives for low carbon investment, the creation of a green investment bank and help for householders to invest in home energy efficiency improvements.

I believe that most people understand the need for tough measures to get the economy under control and will accept that this budget is necessary. Our challenge now is to make it work.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Plaid Cymru need to get a grip says Western Mail

It seems that I am not the only one to notice the failure of collective responsibility within the One Wales Government. This morning's Western Mail takes up the theme by pointing out that despite the Welsh Government last year, welcoming the granting of planning permission to the Pembroke Power Station, and the jobs that go with it this has not achieved uniform support within one of the governing parties.

They say that Plaid Cymru's President-elect has been accused by one of her Labour allies of putting hundreds of jobs at risk and undermining her own party leader by backing a legal challenge to the new power station.

The newspaper's editorial agrees and suggests that Plaid Cymru needs to get its act together. After all they are meant to be a party of government:

As Labour itself has long known, there are downsides to being in government. Until 2007 Plaid had never had a taste of real power – except, of course, at local council level.

Throughout the greatest part of its 85-year history, Plaid has built itself as a party of opposition.

Now, however, as a partner with Labour in the Assembly Government, Plaid’s ministers have to accept collective responsibility for decisions arrived at in Cabinet.

Last year, the Assembly Cabinet welcomed the granting of planning permission to the Pembroke Power Station, and the jobs that go with it.

Jill Evans, of course, is not a member of the Assembly Government.

She is not even an AM, but an MEP. And in September she will become Plaid’s president.

Ms Evans is not bound by the constraints that go with membership of the Assembly Government, and is comfortable operating in an arena – the European Parliament – where there is not an administration, let alone collective responsibility. She is used to ploughing her own furrow, whether it be opposing the establishment of a Defence Academy in the Vale of Glamorgan or now in trying to halt a power station in West Wales.

Until now, Labour has made limited mileage out of the inconsistencies between the policy positions of Ms Evans and her party leader Ieuan Wyn Jones. But once she takes over as party president in September, such differences will be exploited mercilessly by Plaid’s opponents in the run-up to next May’s National Assembly election. If the party doesn’t want to be made to look foolish, it needs to develop a consistent approach to important issues. Allowing the party leader to opt out of the party’s official opposition to nuclear power because he happens to represent a constituency where a nuclear power station is located is bad enough – but for the party leader and president to have diametrically opposed positions on significant policy issues is an absurdity.

They go on to say that Plaid had a disappointing set of General Election results last month and there is a sense that the party needs to develop a new sense of purpose. They add that with a small number of notable exceptions, it cannot be said that Plaid politicians are making the impact they should be. Most of the Assembly group, in particular they believe, appear to have lost the campaigning zeal that presumably brought them into the party in the first place.

I could not have put it better myself.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Summary justice

Marina Hyde has a startling article in this morning's Guardian over the way that South Africa is coping with the law and order side of the tens of thousands of football fans who have descended on their country for the World Cup.

Personally, I was a bit shocked to see on last night's news the fan who dodged security to say hello to David Beckham in the England dressing room being led manacled from a South African police van, but it seems that this is the tip of the iceberg.

Marina Hyde writes that in its keenness to dispel its crime-ridden image before the tournament, South Africa agreed to the establishment of 56 World Cup Courts across the country, staffed by more than 1,500 dedicated personnel, including magistrates, prosecutors, public defenders and interpreters:

Intended to dispense speedy justice, they sit late into the night – or rather they twiddle their thumbs late into the night, because a mere 25 cases have been heard at the time of writing. According to the Mail and Guardian newspaper, that clocks in at a competitively priced £160,000 a conviction.

The most high-profile cases have been the two Zimbabweans who robbed some foreign journalists on a Wednesday, were arrested on the Thursday, and began 15-year jail sentences on the Friday; and the Dutch women who wore orange dresses to Soccer City stadium and were charged with "ambush marketing" for Bavaria beer. The ladies appeared before Johannesburg magistrates last week – despite their arrest being denounced as "disproportionate" by the Netherlands foreign minister and an embassy official – and were bailed to return on Tuesday on criminal charges which carry a maximum penalty of six months.

Obviously, offences of theft and assault are serious matters and need to be dealt with but 'ambush marketing'? The explanation is that in 2006 South Africa placed on its statute book in 2006 something called the 2010 Fifa World Cup South Africa Special Measures Act:

The women in orange are accused of contravening two sections of this law, namely the parts that prohibit "unauthorised commercial activities inside an exclusion zone" and "enter[ing] into a designated area while in unauthorised possession of a commercial object".

What is so radical about the legislation, though, is the fact that it makes such activity a criminal rather than civil offence. Not only does this arguably debase what it is to be a crime, but it contravenes rights enshrined in South Africa's constitution. In March, Fifa successfully pursued a low- cost airline for using pictures of footballs, vuvuzelas, and stadiums in its advertising, causing a South African legal expert to voice amazement at the "excesses" of the World Cup legislation, and to lament the choice the government made "to placate Fifa" at the expense of freedom of expression.

Even China stopped short of criminalising this sort of activity, which frankly is an affront to human rights and freedom of expression. It must surely be very worrying when a government can bolster commercial profitability by making it illegal to undermine the efforts of sponsors. Perhaps we should examine more closely any laws Labour brought into effect to support next year's Olympics. This commercialisation of the state must be reversed. It has already gone too far.

Has the budget happened yet?

It is said that anticipation is nine tenths of the pleasure but in terms of tomorrow's budget it seems all that is being accomplished is that we are prolonging the agony. This is the longest day and already it seems like a year, yet it has barely started.

The papers have been full of dire warnings for weeks about the consequences of George Osborne's debut performance, without having any idea at all about what he will say and do.

People have been throwing up horror stories and then treating them as fact so that they can knock them down again. We even have politicians on the Government side pledging to rebel on certain measures that people think will be in there but do not yet know for certain that they will feature at all.

In this morning's Western Mail, Professor Hugh Pennington quite rightly argues that food hygiene should remain a priority, however already we can see the difficulty as in Wales this area of expenditure is twice removed from the budget process.

Public protection is a non-hypothocated area of expenditure, which is the responsibility of local government. Their financial future depends on the grant they get from the Welsh Government, who are in turn dependent on the Barnett consequentials of the UK Government's spending decisions. It does not get more complicated than that but then that is democracy and do we really want to change it? That was a hypothetical question by the way.

In the case of Hugh Pennington's concerns there are of course statutory responsibilities involved and the opportunity for the Welsh Government to top up resources with a direct grant or to strengthen regulations but I think you see the dilemma. There are just so many priorities and so little money.

And then there are the implications of a budget that has not yet happened in terms of macro economic policy. The jury is out on this of course but we should bear in mind that the UK economy does not sit in spendid isolation. Pressures on Greece and Spain show that we are subject to international market conditions and that confidence is key in terms of Britain's credit ratings on which depends the country's solvency.

Actually there is no consensus on what needs to be done but my piece of advice for what it is worth is that although many people accept the need for drastic measures to get the inherited deficit under control the Chancellor needs to note their concerns and wield the tools at his disposal with fairness, protecting the weakest in our society, and with some care. I think and hope that the presence of Liberal Democrats in government will ensure that this happens.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A worthwhile ban

It has always been my view that banning things is an action of last resort and that there has to be clear benefits for the vast majority of the population before it can be considered.

The smoking ban fell into that category because it amounted to a health and safety measure for workers in pubs, bars, nightclubs and other premises where secondhand smoke damaged their health. Their right to work in a smoke free environment trumped the right of others to smoke because, let's face it, the smokers could always go elsewhere to enjoy their guilty pleasure. I have not yet seen a convincing case to take these measures further without slipping into nanny-statism.

The one thing that I am happy to ban is the exploitative tactics of private wheel-clampers and I am pleased to see that the new UK Government propose to do precisely that. Although landowners do have the right to protect their land against illegal parking and obstruction the tactics that have been employed by many of the companies who operate a clamping regime go beyond what is reasonable. In many cases they are seeking to sucker the motorist into paying as much money as possible to recover his/her vehicle, instead of properly managing the land concerned.

As the Mail on Sunday says: Motoring organisations have been deluged with complaints about rogue clampers who fail to properly display parking regulations – then charge extortionate fees to free vehicles.

More than 1,900 companies have the power to hit drivers for up to £800 a time to release cars left ‘too long’ in supermarket, hospital or railway station car parks.

Now Ministers have drafted proposals to abolish all private clamping in England and Wales, 20 years after the practice was outlawed in Scotland.

Under the Home Office plans, firms involved in the £240million-a-year business would only be able to immobilise cars if they are contracted to do so by local authorities. Without an official council warrant, firms would be restricted to issuing parking tickets.

And it is not just private companies who profit. The paper adds that the Labour Government made more than £15million in five years by selling the names and addresses of six million motorists to wheel clampers and car park operators:

The information was passed to unscrupulous operators such as convicted criminals Darren Havell and Gordon Miller, who ramped up profits for their Portsmouth wheel clamping company by deliberately blocking in drivers with a van and immobilising cars as they were being driven away.

Abuses include charging drivers three times for the same parking offence, failing to offer any appeals process, and insisting on cash-only payment – then frogmarching motorists to cash machines if they cannot pay up. And as Labour MP, Rosie Winterton says it is "vulnerable elderly people, young mothers with children, and people who can least afford it are being stung for large amounts of money."

What is most heartening is that it is a Liberal Democrat Minister who is leading this clean-up. Transport Minister, Norman Baker is working with Liberal Democrat Home Office Minister, Lynne Featherstone to get the change in place as soon as possible. I hope that they succeed.

The art of leadership


Saturday, June 19, 2010

Split in One Wales coalition widens

There is an interesting post on the Degwm blog concerning the growing split within the One Wales Government over the First Minister's decision to veto the closing down Lansdowne School in cardiff so as to make way for a new Welsh-medium school.

The author says that Plaid Cymru have been distributing a leaflet in Cardiff West urging residents to attend a meeting about the decision. He says that the leaflet goes on to attack the Labour Assembly Government for its refusal to close down the schools and then says:

The fact that Plaid Cymru are its coalition partners is only mentioned when its explained in the leaflet that given that Plaid Ministers’ were not consulted about this and was a unilateral Labour decision’

Plaid Cymru have form on this of course. They try to be in government whilst also positioning themselves as against it in the hope of having the best of both worlds. In reality all Ministers have collective responsibility for the actions of each other. Thus Ieuan Wyn Jones is as culpable as Carwyn Jones for this decision.

After all how would Plaid Cymru feel if Labour AMs started an active campaign to overthrow the Welsh Language Measure whilst Labour Ministers sat back and did nothing on the grounds that Alun Ffred Jones had not consulted them? I think they would be pretty sore and who could blame them.

If there is one thing this leaflet shows however it is that the rift within One Wales is widening, whilst many Plaid activists cannot wait to get onto the streets and attack Labour in the Welsh Assembly elections.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Welsh ministers bomb in Llandudno

Roy Noble proved an excellent speaker at last night's Welsh Local Government Association Conference but all the talk was of the Welsh Government's redeployment pool. That is because delegates had spent most of the day listening to the Assembly's Local Government and the Finance Ministers lecturing them about fiscal responsibility.

The reference to Wales' premier leisure pool underlined the fact that whilst local Councils are already taking hard decisions and reducing their workforce, the Labour-Plaid Cymru Government are abolishing Quangos and reorganising the health service without laying anybody off. Instead they continue to bear the cost of surplus staff whilst looking for a role for them.

Local Government Minister, Carl Sargeant told the Conference that he was prepared to use new legal powers to force councils to work together in service areas if they failed to do so voluntarily. He also said he expected councils to share senior managers when existing post holders left.

However, the WLGA's leader, Councillor John Davies was adamant that councils should not shoulder a disproportionate share of cuts and that all public sector bodies should be prepared to do so:

He said: “We need to emphasise the need for an overall coherence in the design and implementation of a Welsh fiscal cuts programme. This means creating a sense of common sacrifice across all public bodies with no participants feeling that they are being asked to bear a disproportionate share or that incongruous standards apply.”

He made a pointed reference to the controversy surrounding NHS reorganisation last year when, despite a big reduction in the number of health bodies, senior officials whose jobs disappeared were kept on the payroll, adding: “Common messages on job losses, for example, are not possible at the moment with a no redundancy policy in health and redeployment pools in the Assembly.”

The WLGA leader also argued that the £200m Communities First programme, aimed at raising prosperity in Wales’ poorest communities, should be disbanded, with the money saved diverted into the schools budget.

What was emphasised at the dinner was that local government is already involved in a huge number of joint working projects. These arrangements are not easy and often do not make the sort of savings that Ministers claim for them. And why are Ministers not insisting that Further Education, Higher Education and health are more proactive in cross-sectoral joint working on back office systems for example?

Given the inability of the Welsh Government to get its own act in order and to not take hard decisions itself this rhetoric by Ministers is increasingly looking like a diversion tactic or maybe they are just preparing the ground to hammer local government disproportionately in the next budget.

Update: Former Bridgend Council Leader Jeff Jones has more to say on this issue over at Wales Home. He has some strong views on Welsh Government priorities and on how fit for purpose our current public service structures are. He also has this to say about collaboration:

Unfortunately, collaboration is not that simple. The example often quoted by many is the joined up service approach of Western Australia. Even there, however, the gains were exaggerated and there were real problems as a report of the State’s Auditor General showed. Collaboration requires not just a real commitment from the partners it also often requires initial funding to introduce the new systems. The Assembly pumped nearly a million pound and was due to give the authorities concerned another £9.5 million into the failed South East Wales Shared Service Project. Over £ 10 million for set up costs on a project that was only concerned with one back of office function HR in just 10 authorities. Even then the consultants argued that it would take at least 7 years before any of the authorities saw any savings from collaboration. This poses the question of where will the pump priming money come from when the Assembly is talking of cutting 37% off its capital funding in the next three years?

Collaboration also takes time. Audit Scotland estimated that that from out line business case to operation in any waste collaboration would be in the region of 6 years. In any case in areas such as waste because the Assembly wants a zero waste society costs even with collaboration are going to rise by billions of pounds by 2025. The simple fact is that unless authorities are already way down the track with collaboration then it will not help protect so called front line services in the next few years. The time scale is too tight except for minor collaborations in certain areas such as legal and planning where the savings are really peanuts compared to what is required.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Liberal Democrats set out plans to retain independence

The Guardian reports that the Liberal Democrats are to adopt a new structure that will enable them to keep a distinctive voice while in coalition.

They say that the party high command have modified the demands of Simon Hughes, the new deputy leader, to appoint independent spokespeople to shadow every government department:

Instead, in proposals put to the party's MPs, a series of small backbench select committees will be set up, spanning several government departments, with one chair and vice-chair chosen to orchestrate policy development and Lib Dem questions in the house.

The chairs will be appointed by Clegg and are not supposed to be the committees' only spokesperson since they could come to rival the coalition's official appointment. The chair and vice-chair will represent both MPs and Lords.

There is also a suggestion those committees will have access to government departments.

This is a very welcome proposal as it underlines the party's determination to avoid the accusation that we are being subsumed by the Tories. More importantly these committees will provide a useful forum by which MPs can exert influence and lobby for certain positions.

This is of course not a new development. In countries where we are used to coalitions such as Wales and Scotland the two parties have operated similar arrangements so as to ensure they retain a distinctive voice. It is something the UK will have to get used to as well.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Will I stand again for the Assembly?

Last Friday was the closing date to apply to be a Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly candidate for constituencies around Wales. I did not put my name into the hat.

I took this decision after long and hard consideration. The Welsh Liberal Democrats came within 500 votes of winning Swansea West, within my region at the General Election. There is every possibility that they can build on that success and take this seat in 2011.

However, there is no point in just swapping a regional Assembly Member for a constituency AM, which is what the system is designed to do. We need to build the Welsh Liberal Democrat group beyond the six members we have had since 1999. That means that we need to win Swansea West and hold the regional seat.

I have represented Swansea, Neath, Port Talbot, part of RCT and Bridgend as a regional member since 1999. I very much enjoy that role. I have not abused that position by concentrating on only one part of the area. I have held surgeries and dealt with casework in all parts of my region, whether it be Maesteg, Llanharan, Gilfach Goch, Porthcawl, Rhossili, Gorseinon, Winch Wen, Manselton, Killay, Sketty, Uplands, Glynneath, Port Talbot or Glyncorrwg.

I have taken up issues and campaigns on behalf of local people, given evidence at planning inquiries, supported local organisations and visited a range of venues and projects across the whole area. I feel that I have an affinity with every part of my region, not just Swansea where I live and have spent my whole political life. I cannot easily turn my back on that.

Of course I am taking a gamble. That is the nature of my profession. Like Glyn Davies in 2007 I could easily become a victim of my party's success. However, on the basis of the votes cast in May this year, the Welsh Liberal Democrats could win both Swansea West and a regional seat in 2011.

But to do that we need to have the right candidate topping the regional list. That is why I have decided to stay with the list and seek my party's nomination to top it once more later this year. To be frank I believe that I have a 50-50 chance of being re-elected, with Swansea West looking a very good bet indeed for the Welsh Liberal Democrats. But if I did not do this then we might have a lesser chance of winning both seats.

This has not been an easy decision but I am convinced it is the right one.

Shooting badgers

This morning's Western Mail carries a story about a farmer and a former magistrate who has been fined for trapping and shooting a badger which had dug up his garden, within the cull area.

This underlines a particular danger with the Labour-Plaid Cymru government's cull, that people may consider that it is OK to take the killing of badgers into their own hands. It is not. They are a protected species and the legislation passed by the Assembly to implement the cull does not change that.

It is absolutely wrong that there should be one law for individuals and another for government officials and contractors. There is now overwhelming evidence that pursuing a vaccination route for badgers is both more cost effective and more humane. That is why Ireland is abandoning its cull in favour of vaccination.

What will it take to make the Welsh Government see this?

A decision at last?

I know I am in danger of repeating myself but really the date of the referendum on Assembly powers does not matter provided that it is held before the Assembly elections and that we do not confuse things by holding it on that day.

The other consideration is that we get it right and that is why the failure of the previous Labour UK government and the present rules out an 2010 autumn poll. It is also why I welcome the announcement by the Secretary of State for Wales that she is now considering a referendum in the first quarter of 2011.

Of course the other complicating factor in all this is the view of the Presiding Officer that we can wait until October 2011. He is concerned about turnout, as research shows that the more people who vote, the better the chance of a 'yes' vote.

On this issue I have to disagree. I believe that it is important that a new Assembly Government hits the ground running after May 2011 certain of its position and knowing precisely what powers it has for its four year term. The last thing we need is a six month period of uncertainty in the run up to a referendum. That would be a distraction and would undermine good governance.

This is one issue that needs to be settled early rather than later.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Watching the watchers

I attended an excellent public meeting at Rhosygilwen in Rhoshill, just south of Cardigan last night, organised by Pembrokeshire against the cull. There were well over 200 people there, many of whom are landowners and farmers concerned at the impact this cull will have on their livelihoods and its potential to actually spread the incidence of bTB amongst badgers and cattle.

There were some excellent presentations on the English trials on vaccination together with a lot of information as to the future development of these vaccines and their efficacy. What was clear is that vaccinating badgers is more effective than culling in the long term in reducing bTB and no more costly. Also, because it has widespread acceptance amongst landowners, it will not require the increasingly bizarre and unacceptable police tactics to put it into place that are being used by the Welsh Government at present.

I spoke on the civil liberties aspect of this cull and in particular the rather concerning tactics that are being used in Pembrokeshire. These include surveillance of those opposing the cull, the taking down of videos from YouTube, removing posters from shop windows, stopping and searching opponents under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the intimidation of elderly and disabled residents through the unannounced appearance of masked contractors escorted by 'suited-up' Police Officers on their land, who refuse to allow the residents the opportunity to establish whether correct procedures are being followed by arresting them for obstruction.

Rather bizarrely the Police turned up at last night's meeting as well and mingled with residents before being asked to leave. Whilst they were in the hall it transpired that they had parked their vehicle so that it faced the entrance to the car park with a camera facing outwards. When I asked the officers they said that the camera was switched off but they were not very convincing.

This may seem innocent if it were not for the increasing number of reports from residents that what appears to be happening is in fact what is happening. This, from an e-mail I received last night, is one example:

After attending a PAC meeting at the Malgwyn Hotel in Llechryd earlier in the year where the vehicle was parked somewhat similarly, although not as prominently, and I thought nothing of it at the time, it was only a few days before I was stopped in my vehicle for a supposed stop-check. At the time I did think it strange that I was stopped after being followed for about a mile, whilst the driver immediately in front of me was driving like somebody drunk, so much so that when the police car flashed me to stop, my first thought was to get out of the way so he could pursue the idiot driver in front of me. I am not the only person having attended that meeting who was stopped for stop-checks very soon after either, there have been a few of us…..

But I digress…..

There is a feeling amongst us, especially those of us who have had any sort of prominence within PAC are not only being followed at times by the police, but that emails are being read, and phone calls listened in to.

Now it could well be that we are becoming a little paranoid, and that in turn could be interpreted as understandable after the recent history of police/wag actions, and arrests, but when the local police officers, put in place specially because of the cull, and who are supposed to be impartial and support the local community, park their vehicle in such a way that it leaves a feeling that they are recording the movement of members of the public attending a perfectly civil, non-threatening and peaceful meeting such as last nights, something needs to be done.

It is clear that there has been a complete breakdown of trust between many residents and the police over these sorts of tactics. something I find unsurprising. The question is whether Welsh Government Ministers endorse this sort of behaviour or not? Do they know it is going on and will they stop it now that they have been told?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Clegg calls for action on the deficit

Nick Clegg is due to make a keynote speech today in which he will defend the Liberal Democrats' change of heart in favour of making immediate cuts so as to tackle the deficit.

According to the Daily Telegraph Clegg will say that it is vital to take action to tackle the £145 billion deficit:

He will tell the Institute of Government in London: “It [cutting the deficit] is the only way we can get our public finances on a sound footing. And to do anything else would not only be irresponsible, it would be a betrayal of our progressive values.”

Stressing the urgency of the problem, Mr Clegg will say that “choices that were available to us just two months ago are no longer available”.

The crisis in eurozone countries has increased the charges to governments that want to borrow money. He will say: “We have to take action now so that we can still be in control of our future.”

Mr Clegg will also accuse ministers in the Labour government of being in denial.

Whatever the arguments that Labour will employ against this there is no doubt that they would have implemented similar cuts. The only difference appears to be on timing and opinion is split on what impact that will have on the recovery.

Spending may well stimulate demand for example but if Britain loses its AAA credit rating it will have an impact on exchange rates and interest rates, which in turn will wipe out any economic advantage from that spending.

It is a fine judgement but in this case I am more inclined to trust Ministers who have access to the books rather than a Labour party whose failure to regulate the banks helped to get us into this mess in the first place.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Going rogue

It is no surprise that Vince Cable has put his name to a cross-party committee report on the Future of Banking. After all it repeats much of the arguments he was making about the banking sector during the General Election:

In a report today, fully endorsed by Cable, the commission concludes that bankers should be given formal ethical training before they can take a position. Their performance should also be overseen by an independent body similar to the General Medical Council for doctors or the Legal Services Board for lawyers. "A crucial element will be the power that this body should have to discipline members who fail to uphold the code [of good financial practice] and in extreme cases remove their ability to practise," it says.

The study, developed by the consumer organisation Which?, also calls for an urgent clampdown on bankers' bonuses, including measures to link remuneration for senior executives to levels of customer satisfaction and complaints.

It calls for frontline and branch staff in banks to be banned from taking bonuses for sales, after finding examples of bankers earning six times higher rewards if they sold mortgages with additional mortgage protection plans.

In a move that will alarm the banking community, the report also recommends that the coalition government's banking commission – set up by the chancellor, George Osborne – should "consider urgently" breaking up the banks so that their speculative casino activities are quarantined from their everyday savings and loans business.

Reforms would also remove so-called "moral hazard", the idea that bankers have an incentive to behave recklessly if they know they will be bailed out by the public purse. It suggests that under a reformed regime, taxpayer lifeboats would be offered only to retail and commercial banks.

The Observer highlights that the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King has advocated similar radical reforms, whilst the Chancellor of the Exchequer has also leant towards these ideas. The paper suggests that the fact that Vince Cable has put his name to this report is seen as a clear sign of government thinking.

Balls taken to task

I have already commented here on Ed Balls' proposal to rewrite European treaties and undermine the free market principle on which the EU is built by restricting the ability of central Europeans to come and work in the UK. However, the comments on the Observer's website deal with the issue far more authoratively than I am able to, leaving the Shadow Education Secretary's argument in tatters.

I was particularly struck by Wiktor Moszczynski's argument that the decision in 2004 to lift transitional restrictions on the free movement of labour between the UK and central European member states of the EU was the right thing to do. He says that the input from hard-working Poles and other EU nationalities was highly beneficial to the growing pre-recession British economy:

What was wrong , as the Federation of Poles in Great Britain repeatedly reminded the government, was the lack of proper statistics on how many central Europeans were arriving here, where they were finding work and settling and how this would impact on local services. Large cities could absorb these new arrivals relatively easily, but smaller country towns would find themselves exposed to an unexpected drain on their financial resources and their social fabric. It was this blindness to the uneven impact on communities which was the government's most serious error, and not its decision to open the British labour market. This lack of interest in the new local needs made the existing population nervous and it allowed the redtop press and extremist organisations to come up with their own statistics which resulted in considerable inter-community tension. Mr Balls's belated change of heart will only increase that tension.

The charge against the previous Labour government therefore is not that it did not listen and consequently made a wrong decision but that it was incompetent and insensitive in how it administered that decision. That is a far more serious charge and one that Ed Balls must answer to alongside all the other Labour Ministers vying for their party's leadership.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Good cop, bad cop

Is it me or is there an interesting dynamic developing within the coalition government in which Nick Clegg says what he is really thinking, whilst Cameron takes the more diplomatic route?

This seems to be perfectly illustrated by today's Telegraph in which they report that although the Prime Minister is being criticised by some business leaders (and newspapers it has to be said) for his failure to demand that Mr Obama tone down his antagonistic statements, his Deputy is being a lot more forthright:

Asked about Mr Obama’s suggestion that he would like to be able to sack Mr Hayward, Mr Clegg said: “I don’t frankly think we will reach a solution to stopping release of oil into the ocean any quicker by allowing this to spiral into a tit for tat political diplomatic spat.

“I’m not going to start intervening in a debate which clearly risks descending into megaphone diplomacy.” His words, during an official visit to Madrid, highlighted the continuing reticence of Mr Cameron over what has come to be seen as the first test of the “special relationship” of the Coalition.

Rather than heralding a split such a contrast in the style of the two men can actually prove helpful to the Government in their approach to such issues and in sending the right messages to foreign governments. In this case, Cameron can tell Obama that he feels his pain and understands the President's position, but that not everybody in his coalition government feels the same way so could he please back off just a little bit and give BP some room to sort this mess out.

Meanwhile, I don't think I am the only Liberal Democrat who is enjoying Clegg's European tour, where his familiarity with language has left the Foreign Secretary floundering a bit. We may be in government with Euro-sceptics but it is becoming increasingly obvious that a Liberal Democrat presence may well give the Government more influence in Europe than it deserves.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Minister suspends badger cull

The BBC report that the Rural Affairs Minister has decided to suspend the cull on badgers in Pembrokeshire pending the outcome of the appeal by the Badger Trust, which is due to be heard at the end of this month:

On Wednesday, Ms Jones said she was determined to continue with the cull, saying the assembly government had been advised that the appeal was not to be listed for hearing until between November and February.

But she has now announced that the cull will be delayed after finding out on Wednesday afternoon that the Court of Appeal had agreed to bring forward the hearing to 30 June.

She said: "In light of the fact that the hearing will now be held very quickly, I can commit to a delay in removing badgers until the judgement is delivered.

"I do so in anticipation of an early and positive judgement for the Welsh Assembly Government."

She added: "We will continue with our scientific approach that underpins our eradication programme.

It is of course difficult to anticipate the outcome of the appeal hearing so I suspect that this statement has quite a bit of bravado about it. However, the Minister is surely deluded if she believes that this cull is supported by scientific evidence as is made clear in this podcast. Start five minutes in.

Getting money to the front line

Interesting article in this morning's Western Mail reporting on the views of education expert, Professor David Reynolds that the schools funding crisis in Wales will not be solved unless we slash the number of education authorites.

Although I don't believe that such a reorganisation should be driven by cost pressures alone, I believe that the Professor is right. I have written in more detail on this issue here. Many of our local Councils are too small to deliver the functions required of them. More importantly reorganisation could be used as an opportunity to give Councils more responsibilities and powers as a quid pro quo if you like for having less Councillors and covering larger areas:

To achieve this we should reforming local government so as to create eight or 10 unitary councils elected by the single transferable vote system in multi-member wards. There would be fewer councillors, approximately a third less, making between 800-900 across Wales but in return they would be better remunerated so that they could devote a substantial amount of time to delivering and scrutinising services and acting in a more strategic way. Each council would be run by a full time cabinet with no more than 10 councillors in each executive body and have a number of strategic directors.

At the same time, the heath boards should be disbanded and their functions should pass their functions to the democratically elected councils, thus creating a single health and social care function that would eliminate duplication and waste and be accountable to local electors not the centre.

And let’s not stop there. All of post 16 education needs to be transferred back to councils so that they could deliver the 14 to 19 agenda as a seamless whole and incorporate the very important vocational education delivered by further education colleges into their service provision.

Councils should also acquire greater strategic control of transport within their area including the power to deliver cross-modal transport solutions and a wider economic development remit. And these bigger unitary authorities should be the ones delivering regeneration initiatives such as Communities First on behalf of the Welsh Government, not the Government micro-managing it from the centre. There are many other central government functions that might be better delivered by such a strategic locally elected body. That is a matter for further discussion. My purpose here is to start a debate and to get people thinking about a way forward.

This is very much a personal agenda and not one I have put before my party as yet, but it seems to me that it is the sort of radical empowerment of local people that the Welsh Liberal Democrats should be talking about at the next Assembly elections.

Badger Cull: What the Minister said in Plenary

This is from the record of proceedings fof the Assembly on Wednesday for questions to the Minister for Rural Affairs, Elin Jones:

Peter Black: Minister, you will be aware of the huge concern in north Pembrokeshire at the activities of your contractors and officials in visiting farms and intimidating elderly people and pensioners in particular, wearing masks and being escorted by large numbers of police officers. How does that activity fit in with your vision of a rural Wales that is socially and economically well-off, and what impact will that sort of activity have on tourism in that part of Wales?

Elin Jones: Tuberculosis as an animal disease has a huge influence on securing a viable farming business in Wales. We need to eradicate it, and that is a No. 1 priority for me.

Later on the regional Labour AM for Mid and West Wales also asked about the cull:

Joyce Watson: You will know, Minister, that the Badger Trust has won the right to appeal against the legal foundation of the proposed badger cull based on the argument that there is insufficient scientific evidence to go ahead with the cull. In light of that decision, could you tell me how this might affect your strategy to eradicate bovine TB from Wales; and whether you will await the outcome before proceeding with the cull?

Elin Jones: I am aware of the fact that the Badger Trust is appealing the decision, but the work on progressing the eradication of TB in that area of west Wales will continue until a judge tells us as a Government that we are not able to do so.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

More trouble for Plaid Cymru

As the current examination of the Welsh Language Measure and the associated consultation is meant to be an open process with no pre-conceptions on the part of the Minister, then I am sure that the latest letter from 14 Welsh organisations, including teaching union UCAC and Friends of the Earth Cymru will not cause him a problem. However, I am not so sure that he will so easily convince his Labour allies of the merits of all their suggestions.

The letter says:

We had a welcome opportunity to present evidence and receive a fair hearing for our ideas to strengthen the Measure from the citizen's perspective. Among those ideas, we want to see an unambiguous statement that the Welsh language is an official language in Wales, a statement never before included in previous legislation. Now is the time to take that step.

The evidence shows that linguistic rights, official status and an independent Commissioner would improve services through the medium of Welsh for our members across Wales.

These are the amendments that we would like you, as Minister, to table to the Welsh Language Measure.

The Welsh language is of course a red line issue for Plaid Cymru in the One Wales Government. If they cannot deliver on the expectations of their supporters then they may well find problems in maintaining their core support at next year's Assembly elections.

Counting the cost

Higher Education Minister, David Willetts' view that the cost of hundreds of thousands of students' degree courses is a "burden on the taxpayer that had to be tackled" is at best unhelpful, at worse downright provocative.

He has taken the argument about tuition and top-up fees beyond the carefully crafted compromise of the Coalition agreement and started to make judgements on the value of a university education.

Whereas it is right that we should not be setting meaningless targets in terms of the number of students going to university and that we value vocational qualifications as an equally valid route, there is no doubt in my view that far from being a 'burden', students and the graduates they become are a valuable investment in this country's future.

It is for that reason that we need to widen opportunity and ensure that nobody is put off from going to university by the possibility of debt. We must also seek to prevent these graduates from being unduly penalised for the advantages that they get from bettering themselves.

It is right that we do not pre-empt Lord Browne's review into tuition fees and David Willetts has said that he does not wish to do so. However, I cannot see any other interpretation to his remarks.

The agreement on tuition fees in the coalition document is the most unhappy part of that deal. It goes against the party's instincts and we do not need to have upstart Tory Ministers rub it in our face.

The one hope is that as far as we are concerned the outcome of that review is not set in stone and that we may be able to mitigate its impact if it produces an unfavourable result. Certainly, we have the fall-back position of abstaining if necessary but I am sure we would rather be more constructive than that.

That is only possible if Tories like Willetts shut up and stop trying to steer the agenda in a particular way before that review has reported.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Badgers in the Assembly again

This is from yesterday's questions to the Business Minister in the Assembly Plenary. I have just asked a question of the Rural Affairs Minister as to how her officials are conducting themselves in North Pembrokeshire and will post that and the response tomorrow.

Peter Black: Minister, I asked you two weeks ago whether you would ask the Minister for Rural Affairs to make a statement on the activities of Government officials in Pembrokeshire in relation to the culling of badgers. You will recall that Government officials are going around with a large police presence and covered faces, and are effectively intimidating local people, many of whom are elderly and infirm, in the pursuit of that cull. Since I asked you that question, I have had further communication with residents in that area who refer to the fact that the police, in pursuit of the cull, are stopping cars under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005, and questioning residents who are driving in this area. This behaviour is not only unacceptable on behalf of any Government, but the reasons given by the Assembly Government about why contractors have to act in this way do not stack up in terms of the overwhelming evidence that residents are only seeking to establish the identity of contractors and those who are working with them, and that they are peacefully trying to enforce their rights. Therefore, once again, will you ask the Minister for Rural Affairs to make a statement on this issue so that she can answer for the conduct of her officials and those contractors that the Assembly Government has employed to carry out this cull?

Jane Hutt: There are issues in preparing the pilot scheme, and it is important to record that, when issues of this nature were brought to our attention on 18 May, the contractors were simply trying to carry out their work but were concerned about harassment and intimidation. That is why they took action to protect their anonymity. Those challenges have to be considered sensitively and we must ensure that the preparatory work is done in consultation and is practical, so that the police and local communities are engaged in those preparations.

Hyperbole in the Commons

From the maiden speech of Jonathan Edwards, the Plaid Cymru MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr:

"After less than a decade in front line politics, he has already established himself as one of the greatest figures in the history of the national movement, and one of the most significant political figures of our time in Wales. When he returns form his studies in the USA, his destiny is clear – and that is to serve our people in our own Parliament in Cardiff – and to lead our people to our political freedom."

Is Adam Price working as a speechwriter for his successor? If he does come back and secures election to Welsh Assembly maybe we should start referring to him as Moses.

Badger cull faces a new legal challenge

The BBC are reporting that the Badger Trust has won leave to appeal against the legal judgement that backed the Welsh Government's proposed badger cull in Nortn Pembrokeshire.

The appeal is against the outcome of a judicial review held in April, which upheld the government's right to mount the cull. The Badger Trust argued that Welsh Government and Rural Affairs Minister Elin Jones had not shown that a cull would "eliminate or substantially reduce" the rate of TB infection, as the law meant it had to; and that ministers had a duty to weigh the harm to the badger population against the possible benefits to farmers, but had not done so.

It seems that Mr Justice Elias agreed that these two points were "arguable", and granted the Trust leave to appeal. Despite this the Government say that they are going ahead with their operation to kill badgers as planned.

A poor decision

The decision by the UK culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt to scrap the independently funded news consortia for Wales was the wrong call.

Mr. Hunt believes that these consortia are not a good use of public money and wants to use the money to fund the roll-out of superfast broadband instead. He also wants to reform local cross-media ownership rules and look at the potential for commercially viable local TV stations in the UK nations and regions.

I have no problem with any of that but I do think that Wales and Scotland were a special case and that there should have been a dialogue and a more considered approach to our situation before this decision was taken.

Geraint Talfan Davies in fact sums up the situation perfectly: "Whatever the applicability of local TV in England... the equation in Wales is quite, quite different and what is needed here is support for a really strong national news service for Wales, [that is] competitive with the BBC."

Wales' position is unique. We have a national democratic institution and a growing Welsh political and cultural identity. That needs to be reflected in the diet of news, current affairs and drama we are fed by the media. There needs to be some diversity in the delivery of that service so as to reach the maximum possible audience and so as to stimulate debate and healthy competition.

At present there is no national newspaper as such, certainly not one that reaches all corners of Wales. Although we have strong regional radio stations, it is the BBC that dominates both in this medium and in television. ITV has been struggling to compete for some time and is now cutting back on its provision.

In these circumstances it is not more local services that we need but a rival national provider to keep the BBC on its toes and offer choice to viewers. The least that Jeremy Hunt could have done before making this decision is to have come to Wales and seen this for himself.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Where power resides

There was an excellent interview with new Tory MP, Jonathan Evans on Radio Wales this morning in which he defended Nick Clegg for his 'slip of the tongue' in the House of Commons yesterday.

Mr. Evans confirmed that it is his general intention to vote 'yes' in a future referendum on enlarging the Assembly's powers but he stated what he thought is an important caveat. He is concerned at the way the Welsh Government interferes in local decision-making and expressed a particular concern at ministerial rulings on Cardiff schools.

He said that instinctively he believed that powers should be devolved to communities and that this is an agenda that should be pursued by the Welsh Government. He said that if we are to give the Assembly further powers then this should be conditional on them dispersing them further.

I have already written on my view that we should be giving greater powers to local government, including control of health as part of a general reorganisation that would see fewer and bigger local Councils and a third less Councillors. However, the issue posed by the referendum is quite different.

When people are asked to vote they will be given the choice of transferring full legislative powers on the 22 policy areas devolved to Wales. That is quite different to the administrative powers which would be passed down to local councils under my scheme or indeed, under the proposals of Jonathan Evans. And that is a crucial distinction.

Unless the new Cardiff North MP is proposing making local authorities legislative bodies then there is no reason why his positive vote in a referendum should be contingent on further administrative devolution. They are two separate issues.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Clegg's slip of the tongue

I made a point this afternoon of putting Nick Clegg's first Commons performance as a Minister on the computer as I worked and was actually very impressed with the way that he handled the experience.

He was compelling in the way he put the argument for constitutional reform and brushed off all attempts to derail him, whilst also showing that he wanted to build consensus and work with the opposition to get it right. A more comprehensive account can be found here.

It was almost a flawless performance except for one small mistake. When asked by Wrexham Labour MP, Ian Lucas what the government's stance will be in a referendum on further powers for the Welsh Assembly, he said: "Yes, the government does support a yes vote in that referendum.

"As for the timing of the referendum the Welsh secretary of state and the first minister are meeting today with a view to identifying a date most likely in the first few months of next year to hold that referendum."

However, despite widespread welcome around Wales for this unexpected commitment the UK government later denied that its policy on the referendum had changed. Officials said that Clegg's remark was a a "slip of the tongue" and that he meant to indicate his support for the referendum, in which ministers are expected to remain neutral.

It is easily done. In my eagerness to please in one of my first outings as a Deputy Minister in the Welsh Assembly I committed the government to £1.5 million of extra spending on affordable housing. Fortunately, the Minister agreed to bail me out and found the cash from another budget.

Still, Clegg does appear to have developed a certain blind spot when it comes to Wales in recent weeks, missing the opportunity to make obvious points to reinforce our party's strong support for fiscal and political fairness on a number of occasions.

It is a blind spot that needs to be corrected soon before it is misinterpreted and used to undermine the Welsh Liberal Democrats' longstanding committment to a full law-making Welsh Parliament and reform of the Barnett formula. These feature in part in the coalition agreement. It would just be nice if the Liberal Democrat leader talked about them a bit more.

R.I.P. Stuart Cable

The art of management


Balls picks a fight with Brown

It is no real surprise that Ed Balls has sought to distance himself from his former mentor and political ally, Gordon Brown in his quest for the Labour leadership. What is surprising however is the issue he has chosen so as to define the difference and the consequences of his suggested alternative.

Balls claims that Brown blundered by ignoring the immigration issue during the election and yet my recollection is that not only did Labour use this issue quite heavily but that it also featured strongly on the telephone, in leaflets and in face-to-face contact as part of their counter-attack against the Liberal Democrats in the last week.

Mr. Brown's confrontation with Mrs Duffy in Rochdale did not show that he was 'not having the conversation' as Balls claims but that was the former PM was incapable of relating to ordinary people on a one-to-one basis.

What is particularly interesting however is the terms by which Ed Balls seeks to define the immigration debate. He does not talk about quotas or points systems but about the need to restrict the free-movement of labour within the European Community, a solution that would require the renegotiation of treaties and possibly even British withdrawal from the EU altogether.

There is no denying that Eastern European immigrants taking advantage of EU rules have been a source of tension within communities. But there is another side to this coin. That is that Britons too are emigrating to Europe to work in large numbers, and to stop inward migration would inevitably raise barriers that will prevent our citizens taking up jobs elsewhere as well.

In fact the whole free trade area depends on the movement of Labour. Once you have unpicked that element then you are no longer part of a club, which benefits our economy by billions of pounds each year and create thousands of jobs.

Although Ed Balls has opted for a popularist and superficially attractive option on immigration, the fact is that his defining moment is badly thought-through and contrary to the national interest.

If he really told Gordon Brown to take this course then the Prime Minister was well-advised not to listen to him. All Mr. Balls has succeeded in doing is to show that he is not fit for national leadership.

Labour in the bin

Labour everywhere are looking for anything and everything to throw at the new coalition government in an attempt to discredit them in an orgy of indiscriminate negativity, however one group came unstuck this mornning.

Tweet4Labour, who specialise in 140 character attacks, quoted a BBC news item this morning and in doing so implied that the new government had wasted £32,000 on an "executive" range of recycling waste bins to impress visitors.

However, closer reading of the item reveals that the internal report referred to was in fact published in 2007 and that the bins were purchased by the previous Labour Government. Oops!

No doubt their next tweet will be condemning the former Labour Minister, who was responsible for this expenditure, though to be fair it is unlikely that an item of this nature would have crossed his or any other minister's desk.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Chicago to Pembrokeshire

What has Chicago got in common with Pembrokeshire? Actually, I cannot think of a single thing but that has not stopped Wales on Sunday columnist. Matt Withers posing an important question.

In his column today he embarks on a rant about the finances of Welsh local authorities, albeit one that is scant on facts and substance:

Spare the tears when the councils claim vital frontline services are facing being slashed if their already-tight budgets are cut – in truth, while those in the private sector have faced years of cutbacks, redundancies and uncertainty, local authorities have continued to spend money like a drunken scratchcard winner in a regional nightclub. Only less wisely.

Any business which operated like a council would go bust within six months, having built up several layers of pointless bureaucracy, many replicating each other, over-paying staff for non-jobs and yet still providing below-par services.

But no, say the councils! Cut our budgets and we’ll have to lose teachers, lose binmen! Tish and pish. There are swathes of people who could lose their jobs tomorrow without any noticeable effect.

People might notice if a teacher or binman loses their job. But they’re unlikely to take to the streets in protest at an Assistant Director of Corporate Governance getting the chop. And nor is anybody likely to notice.

What Mr. Withers may not have noticed is that local Councils across Wales have already made tens of millions of pounds worth of cuts and are projecting further cuts and the loss of thousands of jobs in the future.

It is easy to write this stuff so as to fill a blank space in a newspaper but delivering it whilst protecting services takes time. Most Councils have already streamlined their management and plan to do more. There are projects underway to share services, though there is a great deal more that can be done on this front not least on joint back-office systems with education and health, and a huge amount of work is underway to cut out fat.

If the level of duplication that is alleged is there (and no doubt there will be some) then Matt Withers will surely be offering his services as a consultant to help cut it out. He will make a fortune.

I have already written about my own view that we can work with less and bigger Councils, with responsibility for health and further education and a third fewer Councillors so as to drive forward economies of scale and to improve the democratisation of public services.

In the meantime, perhaps I can help him with his final query. He says that it has never been explained why Pembrokeshire needs more elected councillors than, say, the city of Chicago with its population of 2.9 million.

The answer lies in the fact that Chicago notoriously has a directly-elected Mayor, supported by a huge bureaucracy. Its Council members are full-time, unlike those in Pembrokeshire and there are other layers of government at state level, including State Representatives, State Senators and a Governor. The odds are that Chicago has more politicians representing its interests than any county or City in Wales.

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