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Thursday, September 30, 2010

On the need to improve Wales' record on patents

From yesterday's Plenary Record:

Peter Black: Minister, I fully accept your intentions with regard to driving the research and development agenda in Wales. However, you will be aware that the number of patents that come out of higher education institutions in Wales is relatively low in comparison to other countries and universities of similar sizes. Given that the registration of these patents is crucial in turning these ideas and research into business ideas and high-quality jobs, how are you encouraging higher education institutions to address this particular failure?

Leighton Andrews: The development of patents is important, but I must tell you that 4.6 per cent of active patents are developed in Wales, which is a higher percentage than that achieved by all English regions, except London and the south-east, Yorkshire and Humberside and the east of England. So, I think that that represents a fairly significant success rate. I am sure that there is more that can be done, and I have had representations made to me by a number of people suggesting ways in which that may be done, and I have asked officials to look at it.

Storm clouds gather around Welsh Health Minister

Kirsty Williams and the Welsh Liberal Democrat team have been really effective in the last few weeks in exposing the mismanagement of the health service here, firstly in the Health Minister's failure to be transparent and accountable over a half million pound consultancy report and the lack of strategic direction it exposes and secondly on cancer services.

However, it is not just the opposition parties who are dissatisfied with the Health Minister's performance, it seems that there are rumblings amongst her One Wales partners as well.

This Plaid Cymru blog from Wrexham puts things far more starkly than even the Liberal Democrats or the Tories have done so far:

I can't believe that Edwina Hart has survived Kirsty Williams's exposure of her 'allegedly' misleading the Assembly. She must have a bloody charmed life, problems within the Wales NHS are being exposed daily but we seem incapable of exploiting them so as to force a ministerial resignation. Surely she cannot possibly survive anymore bad news stories about the NHS.

According to Inside Out these are not just the fruitless ramblings of some Plaid member tapping away in their back bedroom. They say that the views expressed appear to be those of Wrexham councillor Arfon Jones who was also Plaid’s parliamentary candidate in May.

A sign perhaps that the One Wales coalition is starting to come apart at the seams?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Dr. Who and the badger cull

I am told that this article in the Bucks Free Press opposing the badger cull was written by Colin Baker, the sixth Dr. Who. All we need now are the Daleks on our side and we cannot lose.

The Miliblands self-destruct

The new Labour Leader's first speech to his party's conference in that role was upstaged yesterday by yet another 'live microphone' incident. This time the culprit was his brother, who allowed his frustration to get the better of him.

The New Statesman say that during the leader's speech, ITV news cameras picked up the elder Miliband, with a look of pure murder on his face, leaning towards Harriet Harman as she happily applauded his brother's condemnation of the Iraq war. According to the station's lipreaders, he said: "Why are you clapping? You voted for it." To which Harman is said to have replied: "I'm clapping because he's leader and, as you know, I'm supporting him."

This is a very bad start for Red Ed, not just because his brother could potentially become a source of discomfort outside of the Shadow Cabinet, but also because it shows how difficult it is going to be to distance Labour from complicity in the 'illegal' Iraq War.

Whatever, the Labour Leader's own record on this issue, members of his new shadow cabinet, right up to and including the Deputy Leader, voted to go to war. How many of them have admitted publicly that they were wrong?

The Iraq War could well remain an albatross around Ed Miliband's neck, just as it was around that of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Lib Dem Councillor cleared in Scientology row

Wales on-line reports that Cardiff Liberal Democrat Councillor and Welsh Assembly-hopeful, John Dixon has been cleared of accusations that he breached the code of conduct by calling the Church of Scientology “stupid” in a post on Twitter.

Cardiff Council’s Standards and Ethics Committee decided by seven votes to one that the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, Peter Tyndall, was wrong to suggest that Mr. Dixon may have breached the code because he signed off his comments as CllrJohnDixon. They concluded he was acting in a private capacity.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Peter Hain on vote reform

Former Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain is half right when he tells this morning's Western Mail that Labour should support electoral reform in next year's referendum. The idea that they should do so to drive a wedge between the Liberal Democrats and the Tories is though misguided and misplaced.

What a number of Labour people do not seem to have grasped is that the coalition is here for the long term, that both sides understand there will be differences of opinion and that we are mature enough to deal with those and move on, even if it does mean legislating to put in effect the will of the British people contrary to the views of many Tories.

Nevertheless, Mr. Hain has shown an understanding of the situation that seems to elude many of his other colleagues. He says:

“We can’t, however, just be a party of protest. We will support people struggling for their jobs, but we have got to have a credible alternative again for government.

“Being seen to be a leading force in the AV referendum is a very important part of it, because the Tories don’t want it, and it would be a great victory for the progressive cause in British politics.

“It would cause big tensions in the coalition, whereas if it was lost – this idea the Liberals would pull out is moonshine.”

He is right that this is a progressive reform, presumably that is why Labour had it in its manifesto. What is incomprehensible to me is that many in that party seem to want to campaign against their own manifesto commitment, just because they lost the election and have been thrown out of office.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Red Ed and the business world

Despite the government having a Business Secretary, who refers to bankers as 'spivs and gamblers', it seems that many in the City are far more comfortable with the Coalition Government than they are with the prospect of Red Ed Miliband taking the reins of power.

According to the Daily Telegraph business groups fear that the new Labour leader will push for more Government intervention in business, deliver more power to the unions, back the break-up of banks, and target high-earners.

All this of course is fairly predictable stuff from the usual suspects but it does reflect a feeling I have been picking up whilst talking to my constituents over the weekend that the new leader has some way to go to prove that he will not be a creature of the unions and that he is not going to drag the country back into unsustainable debt.

Many view his election as a swing back to the left by the Labour Party. No doubt many activists will breathe a sigh of relief if that turns out to be true but I am not so sure that it will go down as well in the country at large.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Massaging those statistics

Hands up all those who recall Labour Deputy Leader, Harriet Harman claiming last month that 32,000 people have joined Labour since the General Election, one third of them ex-Liberal Democrats?

At the time I asked how she could know? After all the Labour membership form does not ask you to provide information about previous political affiliations. In addition, the Liberal Democrats have not lost anything like 1,000 members in that period, never mind 10,000. In fact we have had a net membership increase of around 4,000.

Well the bright light of the Labour leadership contest has put her claims into context. The party issued the voting figures by constituency together with the number of ballot papers issued. So we know that they currently have a membership of 177,559.

This is 559 more than they reportedly had in May 2007. Hardly the massive advance that Harriet and John Prescott were reporting. In fact if I were less charitable I would say that they were gilding the lily a bit in an effort to get the party back on track. Do they really think the voters are that gullible?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Britain regrets the Iraq war says Clegg

There are times during the early days of this coalition government when you have to check yourself to ensure that it is really happening, in a good way of course.

I had such a moment on Thursday evening as I was driving home and the radio was reporting that Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg was giving assurances to the Indian Government that we will do all we can to help them get the Commonwealth Games off the ground.

Another such moment was this morning when I read that Clegg was to tell the United Nations that Britain regrets the Iraq war. This is precisely what I want to hear from my Deputy Prime Minister and underlines once more that Liberal Democrats are sticking to their principles in power.

The Daily Telegraph says: Mr Clegg will promise to world leaders that the Coalition will regain their trust in Britain, and will commit to multilateralism by calling for a greater role for the UN in conflicts.

In a passage about the "values" of Britain's new foreign policy, Mr Clegg will say that he and David Cameron will take a more "realistic" approach.

"In recent years we have learned – in some cases the hard way – that democracy cannot be created by diktat," he will say. "Freedom cannot be commanded into existence."

The passage clearly suggests regret over Britain's role in the war Iraq, which was not explicitly backed by the UN Security Council.

The Liberal Democrats consistently opposed the invasion. The Deputy Prime Minister caused controversy earlier this year by stating that it had been illegal while standing in for Mr Cameron at Prime Ministers Questions. It forced Downing Street to issue an unusual statement explaining that the Coalition did not have a view on the legality of the war.

Mr Clegg will today acknowledge that Tony Blair damaged relations with some of Britain's most important international allies by tying itself to George Bush's US government.

"The new coalition government, now five months old will restore Britain's international reputation by pursuing a hard-headed foreign policy based on liberal values," he will say.

I know that when it comes down to the crunch it is not always possible to pursue an ethical foreign policy, but I have more confidence in this current administration to do so than Labour's warmongerers, who fought an illegal war at the cost of thousands of lives.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Fuel poverty and the palace

If this story in today's Independent is correct it is astonishing. They say that the Queen's deputy treasurer wrote to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to ask whether the Royal Household would be eligible for a grant to replace four combined heat and power units at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle:

He asked: "Community Energy can fund up to 40 per cent of the capital costs of implementing a community heating scheme... Since we are already grant-in-aid funded [the Queen receives £15m a year for the upkeep of her palaces] we would like to know whether the Household [would] be able to benefit from these grants. I look forward to your comments."

The paper continues:

Under this scheme administered by the Environment department, schools, hospitals, councils and housing associations have been awarded £60m for heating programmes which benefit people on low incomes.

Taxpayers already contribute £38m to pay for the Royal Family. Yet some of the buildings which would have benefited from the energy grant were occupied by minor royals living in grace and favour accommodation on the royal estates. Surprisingly the Government offered no resistance to the proposed application and cleared the way for the Queen to take advantage of the handout.

But by August 2004 the documents show that Whitehall officials had changed their minds and poured cold water on the whole idea. In an email sent to the Palace it was diplomatically explained that the funds were aimed at people on "low incomes".

The official wrote: "I think this is where the Community Energy Funding is directed and ties in with most allocations going to community heating schemes run by local authorities, housing associations, universities etc. I also feel a bit uneasy about the probable adverse press coverage if the Palace were given a grant at the expense of say a hospital. Sorry this doesn't sound more positive."

I cannot even give any credit to Palace officials for trying this on. After all the Royal household receives a substantial chunk of money from the taxpayer and the Queen is not short of a bob or two. Surely they had the commonsense to realise the bad publicity this would bring.

More importantly, why did they not think of those who these schemes were designed to benefit and why did the Government allow it to go on so long before they put their foot down?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Lessons from Conference

There is a good blog post from Andrew Sparrow on the Guardian website in which he outlines ten things he has learned from attending Liberal Democrat Conference. Obviously a number of journalists were attending our conference for the first time this year and were pleasantly surprised to see that we did not live up to the myth.

These are the highlights of Andrew Sparrow's post:

1 The Lib Dems have made up their minds about the coalition – and they like it. Journalists came to Liverpool expecting to find evidence of a grassroots backlash against Nick Clegg's decision to go into coalition with the Tories. Well, forget it. There have been grumbles, but (this week) they have been inconsequential. In so far as you can say what the party as a whole thinks, it's broadly happy with the coalition, and expects it to last.

3 The Lib Dems are not turning into a rightwing party. Sometimes Lib Dem ministers and Tory ministers can sound quite similar. At a fringe meeting last night, I heard the Tory Oliver Letwin say that he enjoyed working with Danny Alexander and that he had "yet to find any major difference between us". But you don't have to spend long listening to the debates here to realise that Lib Dem activists are quite unlike their Conservative counterparts. The Lib Dems are defnitely more "leftish" and at a Tory conference you are unlikely to hear a self-proclaimed atheist transexual speaking up for gay marriage in a long debate on equality.

4 The Lib Dems understand coalition politics better than the media. Westminster journalists like me are often asking the Lib Dems how they will fight an election against the Tories after five years of coalition. Lib Dems are genuinely bemused by this. They point out that this is not a problem in Scotland, Wales, local government or continental Europe – all places where three-party politics is more entrenched than Westminster. At a fringe meeting last night, Ashdown asked delegates to put their hands up if they had shared power with another party. Dozens of them responded. Then he asked if anyone in that group had had a problem fighting an election against their coalition partners. No one thought it was an issue.

6 The Lib Dems are beginning to believe they could benefit electorally from being in coalition with the Conservatives. Conventional wisdom says smaller parties always get eaten up in a coalition. In May, many Lib Dems seemed to believe this. But they have noticed that voters seem to like parties cooperating and Chris Huhne told the conference this week that they should make a virtue of the fact that they're a collaborative bunch.

10 Miriam González Durántez is going to be an interesting figure in our national life. Clegg's wife received plaudits during the election campaign for getting on with her job and refusing to play the conventional role played by the leader's spouse. This week she had a ding-dong with Channel 4's Jon Snow and gave short shrift to an interviewer from the Times. It won't be dull while she's around.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A failure of transparency

When is a report not a report? When it is merely a document which was part of a much wider five year framework for the NHS as a whole or just an example of "numerous inputs and analysis" or even when it is a process not a publication. Confused? So are we.

Yesterday Kirsty Williams stood up in the chamber and produced a 71 page report on the NHS that has cost taxpayers tens of thousands of pounds and which the Health Minister has twice denied existed.

As the BBC report says: The McKinsey document made public by the Welsh Liberal Democrats identified criticisms of the way strategies have been implemented in the Welsh health service.

It said: "Our discussions have highlighted several reasons why strategy implementations have fallen short in Wales."

It noted:

The document also made a number of recommendations to make savings. These included:

This is an important document and deserves to be properly scrutinised. The fact that the Minister can avoid such scrutiny by just denying its existence shows the limitations of written and oral questions.

It is also worth noting that it is Kirsty Williams and the Liberal Democrats who have once more exposed this travesty and shown that we are the real opposition in the Assembly. As BBC Welsh Affairs Editor, Vaughan Roderick says this is 'an early political hit for the Lib Dem leader on the first day of the new term.'

This is also acknowledged on the Change of Personnel blog, which states:

But apart from the obvious questions of why the report’s existence was denied and not published so that it could be scrutinised by Assembly Members in Committee, it puts into sharp focus the role and priorities of the other Opposition Leader in Cardiff Bay Nick Bourne.

Kirsty and her team should be congratulated for uncovering another little gem that WAG would rather have stayed buried and on the first day back after the Summer Recess, but what must the Tories be thinking that yet again it is the Welsh Lib Dem leader, not the supposed real Leader of the Opposition Tory Nick Bourne’s who is making headlines at WAG’s expense.

It’s worth asking yourself when was the last time Nick Bourne made an impact in FMQ’s or at any other time recently and what does it say about his political judgement and the poor quality of his advisors, that this information along with the International Business Wales expenses scandal was unearthed by a Lib Dem team less than half their size and with fewer resources.

We will continue to put the pressure on.

Jumping the gun on the Severn Barrage

As I drove back from LIverpool yesterday morning I heard an interview with Energy Minister, Chris Huhne in which he was asked about the Severn Barrage project and made it clear that no decision has been taken. He said that he could not at this stage give a timetable as to when that decision would be made, because it is a complex and difficult project and he needs to work through all the submissions before coming to a conclusion. That is the reality of being in government, you cannot work to media timescales, no matter how much pressure is applied. You have to get it right.

I was astonished therefore to see this morning's Western Mail announce that UK Ministers are looking at slimmed-down alternatives to the huge tidal energy barrage in the Severn estuary. Well of course they are. They are looking at all the alternatives.

I am not sure where the Western Mail got the idea that no public money will be involved. The Govermment has said that it wants to carry out a series of infrastructure projects to boost the economy and this could be one of them. However, I continue to be astonished that journalists and opposition politicians believe that Ministers can easily put their hands on £15 billion for projects like this, which will inevitably cost much more than that. We are in a time of austerity for goodness sake.

Perhaps if the media exercised some restraint in its expectations about new capital projects then it might help us be taken more seriously in the Treasury when we ask for cash.

The other bizarre aspect of this article is the apparent surprise that a shoots barrage might be under consideration. Not so long ago Welsh Liberal Democrats and our counterparts on the other side of the Bristol Channel set up a study group, which developed policy in favour of a more environmentally-friendly shoots barrage. That policy was debated and passed by the Welsh party conference and also the Federal Conference. It is party policy and this is a Liberal Democrat Minister. Of course he is considering that option actively but things change, other information becomes available, government has more resources to consult and model alternatives and so it may not be the final choice.

I remember at the time that we were mocked for setting up that policy group and told that we were wasting our time. It does not seem like a waste of time now, does it?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

S4C and the spending cuts

This morning's Western Mail reports that Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt was informed in writing twice by S4C that it would be unlawful to force the broadcaster to take a cut of £2m in its funding this year. Despite this his department continue to insist that the cut was agreed by the S4C Authority:

Mr Thomas, a former Heritage Minister, said: “These letters were not released by the DCMS voluntarily. We had to threaten to take the department to the Information Commissioner before they reluctantly passed them to us.

“The letters show that on two occasions S4C’s chairman made it clear to the Secretary of State that it would be unlawful for the S4C Authority to agree to a voluntary cut in the funding of the channel. Despite that, Jeremy Hunt seems determined to press on with cuts, regardless of the law. What subsequently happened was that members of the authority decided for their own reasons to create an internal crisis by forcing out Iona Jones, the chief executive. This seriously weakened S4C and put it in a position where it is extremely difficult for it to defend itself against cuts that are being imposed by the DCMS.

“In these circumstances, it has been necessary for people external to S4C to take the lead in defending the channel from cuts that would devastate its ability to provide programming in line with its obligations.

“The legal advice is clear, and Jeremy Hunt needs to be aware that he is likely to face a legal challenge if he pursues these cuts.”

Whatever was said or not said in various meetings and letters it seems that a legal position has now been established that if further cuts are to be made to S4C's budget then a change in the law will be required. However, we do need to keep our perspective on this issue.

Personally, I think S4C do an invaluable job though I have reservations about their accountability and the transparency of their corporate arrangements. It is important that this TV service is protected as much as possible.

However, if I were asked to choose whether we should cut £2 million from S4C or the health service, then I believe I would choose to protect the health budget as a priority. I suspect that is also the view of the vast majority of people in this country.

The Assembly Anorak

Thosse very nice people over at Wales Home have posted a profile of me. I am sure I will come to terms with it soon.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Minister poised to make the same mistakes on bTB

Rural Affairs Minister, Elin Jones is to go to a farm in North Pembrokeshire this afternoon to announce that she will be ressurrecting her plans to cull badgers in the area as part of a bTB eradication strategy. This time though she will be defining the area of the cull in the order and taking more care with the consultation after the fiasco she presided over last time.

The Minister has issued a written statement to Assembly Members in which she acknowledges that an injectable vaccine for badgers is already available but argues that this will not eradicate the existing pool of bTB. Nobody has said that it would, but it would certainly stop it spreading and it will take just five years for those badgers already infected to die out naturally. She says she has set up a working group to develop a vaccination policy for Wales. That development at least is very welcome.

Also welcome is the increased emphasis on cattle control measures and the zero tolerance approach against those farmers who do not test on time and who ignore the measures that have been put in place to minimise the infection of cattle by other cattle.

However, that is where the logic of the Minster's position ends. She says that all the evidence suggests that a combination of culling badgers alongside strict cattle control measures will be the most effective strategy in reducing bovine TB in cattle. That was certainly not the conclusion of the UK government's culling study, which ran from 1998-2007 and was conducted by the Independent Scientific Group. The most up-to-date conclusion of that group was 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 Minister is hoping that the 28% reduction in bTB she now estimates will be delivered by the cull will be considered to be 'substantial' by the courts, and that this will therefore be sufficient to justify overriding wildlife Acts designed to protect the badger. What she does not explain is how she arrived at this figure when her previous plans only envisaged a 9% reduction in bTB.

It seems to me that even on the new figure, and in the light of the ISG evidence, the Minister will still have difficulty passing the test set by the courts when they overturned her last order. She could find herself arguing this case right up to and beyond the Assembly elections. It is also likely that she may lose again, leaving the other measures in the order in limbo and hindering her cattle control measures.

It is significant that the Minister states that she does not envisage eradicating the badger population in North Pembrokeshire. She estimates that there are 1400 affected badgers in the area but does not claim that she will cull them all. She says that she expects the badger population is the Intensive Action Area will not disappear completely and that it will recover to its pre-cull level within five to ten years.

If that is the case then what is the point of her policy? Badgers will still be infected by bTB from other animals, including the cattle and she will have to start the cycle all over again. This is clear evidence in my view of the short term impact of her policy and its dependency on electoral considerations rather than rational science. The only long term solution is vaccination, but this needs to be started now not at some indeterminate time in the future.

The Minister is not just gambling with her own future, she is also gambling with the future of farmers as well through her obstinacy. The delays involved in obtaining the necessary powers to implement cattle control measures caused by arguments over the cull, will mean that bTB will continue to spread at a faster rate than it need do.

She will also once more be creating dissension within the various communities of North Pembrokeshire affected by this cull and will no doubt return to the regime of police and Assembly Official intimidation to put her policy into place, forcing landowners to allow access, putting their own biosecurity at risk and creating the danger of infection through the resultant pertubation.

This is a failed policy from a failing Minister and her Labour colleagues, including the First Minister, who resisted a cull when he was Rural Affairs Minister, need to get a grip and tell her to think again.

Update: The Badger Trust has now issued a statement which is reproduced below:

In announcing a further proposal to kill badgers in Wales, Rural Affairs Minister Elin Jones said she remained determined to tackle the bovine tuberculosis crisis in Wales. But culling could make no meaningful contribution and could make the epidemic worse. This would not be eradication of bovine tuberculosis and was the conclusion of the greatest scientific field trial ever undertaken in Britain costing £50 million over nine years.* Worse, the Badger Trust stresses that the plan would also interfere with the stringent cattle-based measures Welsh farmers are already taking.

Ms Jones says “most experts” agreed that badgers played an important role and that bTB could not be beaten unless the disease was tackled in both wildlife and cattle. However, she fails to name her “experts” or to indicate their status or qualifications to call any role of badgers “important”.

She also says “our critics claim that vaccination of badgers is the answer”. This is not the stance of the Badger Trust. We agree with her that vaccination could only prevent or reduce infection transmitted by badgers. That said, vaccination has a key advantage: it avoids the perturbation effect when badger social groups are disrupted by culling and could be helpful alongside cattle-based measures, in particular annual cattle testing. Badger Trust points out that dangerously, there is a higher number of overdue herd tests in Dyfed than in the rest of Wales (six as opposed to four percent), according to the Jan - June 2010 official statistics and half the overdue tests are in Dyfed, the specified area of west Wales. This is where Ms Jones promises a draft order that would allow the Welsh Assembly Government to pursue “a badger control strategy”.

Under the proposals, there would be an annual cull of badgers over a five-year period. A ruling by the Court of Appeal in July ruled that an earlier order, the Tuberculosis Eradication (Wales) Order 2009, which applied to the whole of Wales was unlawful. The new draft order is specific to an Intensive Action Area, covering north Pembrokeshire and including areas of Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire. However, Ms Jones fails to mention two other counts on which the court ruled in the Trust’s favour: that culling would not yield a substantial benefit as required by the Animal Heath Act, nor that there was the necessary balance between the disbenefit to wildlife and any benefit of eradication. The Trust explains that figures quoted for assumed benefits of culling in the intensive action area do not put them into context. The statement says: “. . . there would be an annual cull of badgers over a five-year period. Based on the available evidence, at the end of a cull and post cull period (total of 10 years), through culling alone we expect to have reduced bovine TB in cattle in the area by approximately 22%, preventing an estimated 83 confirmed herd breakdowns that would otherwise have occurred in the absence of culling badgers in the area”.

The statement fails to explain that an extrapolation of the last two years’ figures (2008 and 2009) for Dyfed means there would be 6,255 breakdowns over ten years, so 83 over that period would be 13 in a thousand – hardly substantial and a reckless gamble. For the present the much improved stringent cattle measures in Wales now in force should be allowed to produce results, but it will take many years, and badger culling will lengthen rather than shorten the process.


One term wonder

Sometimes I wonder why we bother to turn up to big Conference events when you can read about them in advance in the papers. Of course the answer is that the papers often get it wrong or put their own spin on it. That certainly seems to be the case when looking at this morning's crop of headlines.

Still, this particular insight from the Guardian is an interesting one. They say that Clegg will tell Conference today that there will be no electoral pact with the Conservatives and he will hold out the prospect of a coalition deal with Labour after the next election. Why woud anybody think any different other than to make a partisan political point?

As Vince Cable has said this coalition is a business relationship not a marriage. Perhaps Clegg's problem is that he has not emphasised this enough. If he now takes a change of tack then it at least shows that he has been listening to the party. They suggest that:

In his set piece speech to conference this afternoon he will emphasise the temporary nature of the coalition by telling his party: "The Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are, and always will be, separate parties with distinct histories and different futures. But for this parliament we work together to fix the problems we face and put the country on a better path. That is the right government for now."

He will also restate the case for entering into coalition: "People have got used to us being outsiders against every government that comes along. Maybe we have got used to it ourselves. But the door to change we want was opened, for the first time in most of our lifetimes. Imagine if we had turned away. How could we ever have asked the voters to take us seriously again?"

All the signs are that Clegg has the party behind him and that journalists have largely given up trying to manufacture rows. That was evident in the unrehearsed and unspun question and answer session yesterday in which the party leader took on all comers and answered awkward questions honestly and directly. Clegg told the Conference that the public were yearning for an end to adversarial politics and craved pluralism and diversity in politics:

He said he was confident about the party's identity and denied the party would "suffer some mysterious cross-contamination in Whitehall which means that we will suddenly warp into something different. You can share power with others and still retain your values".

His most telling point though was about the stance of the opposition: He admitted he heard "quite a lot the charge that the party is being beaten up by Labour … and that we are not hitting back hard enough".

He said this criticism came down to the Labour cry of betrayal over the deficit. In some of his toughest criticism of Labour he claimed they had resorted to an "absurd cardboard cut-out argument that there is this la-la land where you do not have to take any difficult decisions, no jobs are lost, no cuts are made, there is no pain, where everything recovers miraculously by osmosis – the Ed Balls view of the future – and that we are like modern day Herods, slaying the first born".

He said the true distinction between Labour and the coalition is that Labour was planning to cut over eight years, while the coalition would do so over five years.

Perhaps things will change when Labour have elected a new leader but at the moment their picket line mentality to opposition is doing them no favours. In the long term, once the dust has settled on the comprehensive spending review and people come to reconsider their options, they will want to know what Labour stand for. At the moment I don't think they know themselves.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Making the right choice

As if attempting to make up for their shameless misrepresentation of Nick Clegg yesterday today's Independent on Sunday carries an interesting article by John Rentoul on the long term prospects for the Liberal Democrats.

I do not agree with everything he says and in fact think that his conclusion is a bit fatuous, but nevertheless there are some interesting passages on why we are where we are:

The historian Kenneth Morgan recently argued that those previous coalitions were also all disastrous. "The first prevented Irish self-government and was responsible for the Boer War. The second saw us plunge into economic depression. The third made the social effects of that depression even worse. Each time, the Liberal coalitionists showed themselves to be mostly shallow opportunists willing to jettison their principles for the sake of office."

The thing about conventional wisdoms, however, is they can be wrong. There was a time when men thought mullet haircuts were a sensible idea or when aliens thought mashed potato should come out of a packet. So it is worth exploring the alternative thesis: that Clegg and his colleagues responded intelligently to the election result and that the Liberal Democrats could be strengthened for the long term by the coalition.

In fact, the days after the election have already been picked over several times by the instant historians - including, most recently, by Steve Richards, my esteemed counterpart on The Independent, in a book published last week. The account in Whatever It Takes makes it clearer than before that Clegg did as well as he could in an awkward situation. The option of a deal with Labour was – if only just – unworkable.

Clegg's real choice, therefore, was between a coalition with the Conservatives or a looser deal that reserved the right to decide how Lib Dem MPs would vote on each division in the Commons. The latter would have reduced the Lib Dems to reacting passively to whatever was proposed by the Tories. Put like that, it was not a difficult choice. Either way, the Lib Dems would have had to allow George Osborne's Budget cuts to go through, or to have forced another election. Yet the spirit of the party, which takes bodily form in the persons of Clegg's four predecessors, Sir Menzies Campbell, Charles Kennedy, Paddy Ashdown and David Steel, hankers after the myth that a Lib-Lab pact was do-able and remains an option to which the Lib Dems could revert at any time. That ghost story will provide much of the narrative thrust to the reporting of this week's conference.

Not only did Clegg make the right choice in May, however, but there is a case for saying that it was in the long-term interests of his party and the values for which its members think it stands. The case against him is essentially that the coalition is bound to be unpopular and that the Lib Dems will share the blame for making unpalatable cuts. It ain't necessarily so.

The key issue is the depth and timing of the cuts. Here, I think Osborne is playing politics as much as economics. Like any negotiator, the Chancellor knows he has to start the bargaining by asking for more than he expects to get. He wants to send a shock through Whitehall, make the deepest possible cuts in the first three years, then ease up as the next election approaches. It may be the economy will bounce back more strongly than expected, in which case he and David Cameron would think it prudent to allow Clegg to claim some of the credit for "saving" popular services from the worst of the cuts.

Personally, I do not buy the argument that future elections will naturally gravitate towards hung Parliaments which will enable the Liberal Democrats to choose between Labour and the Tories. We have to be in good enough health to have a bargaining position in the first place.

However, there is an argument to be made that we have made a real difference in Government and that we can be trusted with power if things do work out and we get the economy right. If that leads to an increase in the number of Liberal Democrat MPs then further hung Parliaments are very possible.

Other people's agendas

I have only really got around to catching up with by now infamous Independent newspaper interview with Nick Clegg in which, according to their headline he suggested that there is no future for the Liberal Democrats as left-wing rivals to Labour. Many commentators have taken this as moving the party to the right, but not only is this not the case but the journalist spin misrepresents what the Liberal Democrat leader actually said.

In fact Clegg's actual words were "There were some people, particularly around the height of the Iraq war, who gave up on the Labour Party and turned to the Liberal Democrats as a sort of left-wing conscience of the Labour Party.

"I totally understand that some of these people are not happy with what the Lib Dems are doing in coalition with the Conservatives. The Lib Dems never were and aren't a receptacle for left-wing dissatisfaction with the Labour Party. There is no future for that; there never was."

That is a fairly explicit assertion that we are a party in our own right with a distinctive philosophy and policies rather than just a receptacle of protest votes. Clegg tells the paper that "this [conference] is an incredibly important opportunity for those Liberal Democrats who are in government to show people in the party that they retain the same values, instincts and ambitions – that walking through the door of power does not mean you lose your soul."

Admitting the looming spending cuts were overshadowing the Government's other work, the Deputy Prime Minister said: "If anything, we are doing the most difficult things now, partly because everything is so obscured by the bad, worrying news about deficit reduction. Rather than it getting worse, maybe over time – after very, very difficult decisions on public spending – the wider purpose and vocation of the Government will become more obvious."

He pledged that one of the most radical programmes of any government for a "long, long time" would achieve more on political reform, civil liberties and protecting pensioners than Labour did in 13 years, combined with "an impeccably Liberal approach" to the NHS, education and welfare reform. "This is not some arbitrary menu of rushed proposals cobbled together. They reflect, right across the piece, big, long-standing Liberal aspirations."

The paper is right in surmising that for the time being we are resigned to the left wing refuseniks deserting us. I suppose that is inevitable. However, I am confident that in the long term the most reasonable amongst these voters will understand that we are doing what needs to be done to stabilise the economy and government and that we have moderated the worst excesses of the Tory right.

The whole Independent article is based on the premise that British politics is polarised between left and right and that the Liberal Democrats have carved out a niché for themselves from the dissatisfied centre of each wing. I do not accept that.

In my view the actual dividing line in British politics is between libertarian and authoritarian. Previous opinion polls have shown that if people believe that the Liberal Democrats can exercise real influence then nearly half of the electorate will vote for us. We have hopefully breached that credibility gap. What we need to do now is to convince voters that we are maintaining our liberal principles in government, that we have the best interests of the country at heart.

All of that is enshrined in the coalition agreement. The job of Liberal Democrat ministers now is to deliver on it and to sell our successes to the country.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Still learning about devolution

The devolution process has been a hard slog in all the political parties as we seek to establish proper lines of responsibility in terms of policy development and try and stop our colleagues from hijacking our agenda. Even Plaid Cymru, who as a small state party does not have this problem, have not always got it right in terms of what is devolved and what is not.

We have made substantial progress not least in our manifestos, which have been consistently the most devolution of all the Federal parties. However, a vote in today's Liberal Democrat Conference makes me doubt what level of understanding there is amongst the ordinary membership.

The motion was on a proper legally enforceable code of conduct on how civil servants avoid conflicts of interest when they cease to work for the government and go into the private sector. The Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors tabled an amendment calling on the same code to apply to Council officers and urged Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to follow suit.

Now it may well be that the devolved countries would want to follow suit, after all it seems like a good motion, but frankly that is a matter for us and not a Federal Conference, who have no jurisdiction in these matters. It is really none of their business to advise us either way. I argued that the offending passage should be excised but was defeated.

Perhaps we should start passing motions in Welsh Conference advising England to adopt unitary authorites across the board like we have, or suggesting they may want to put a nuclear power station on the outskirts of Tunbridge Wells. I am sure the English representatives would not be so keen to pass on their advice then.

Conference goodies

I got to my hotel in Liverpool last night and then took a stroll down to the Conference Centre. There were police everywhere. It was to be expected of course, but still it does not feel like a Liberal Democrat Conference.

The last time I saw this sort of security was when the SDP/Liberal Democrat Alliance were leading in the opinion polls, though there was also the armed patrols during the visit of the American Ambassador, shortly after 9/11.

Being in government also means that the way that Conference is conducted changes as well. There will still be the fringe meetings of course, though I suspect that the quality of the food will improve measurably, and open debate on policy motions that cause discomfort to the leadership will always be a feature of a Liberal Democrat conference.

However, suddenly there are Ministers with orders to mingle and activists to keep happy. Thus we have arrived in this fantastic City still smiling at the news that a decision may be taken to delay replacing Trident until after 2015. It is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but it is a step in the right direction.

In addition, yesterday's Guardian reports that there is more to come. They say that David Cameron has given the Liberal Democrats clearance to announce the introduction of measures against tax avoidance. The news that Liberal Democrat Ministers are to lead a clampdown on tax avoidance amongst the super rich will always play well with activists.

The other task will be bolstering moral and reassuring activists that we did the right thing in putting the stability of the country and the implementation of key Liberal Democrat policies ahead of narrow sectarian interest. That is the party leader's job and the Guardian suggests that Clegg will deliver "a chin up, chest out" speech, emphasising that distinctive Liberal Democrat policies are being put into action for the first time in the party's history.

The next few months are going to be critical so our Ministers will need the full support of the party. I believe that they will get it. However, a few more policy announcements like these will help smooth the way.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Madness and the English badger cull

I have already blogged here on the prospect of the Coalition Government going ahead with a cull of badgers in England. Their proposals though verge on madness.

As I understand it they are suggesting that farmers are licensed to kill badgers either on their own land or collectively within a defined area. This is about the worst option scientifically that they could have chosen. It will lead to massive perturbation due to the piecemeal and uncoordinated approach inherent in the plan, and that will lead to an increase in bTB amongst cattle and other animals.

Dr Rosie Woodroffe, a badger ecologist at the Institute of Zoology in London, who worked for a decade on the largest ever UK study of badger culling, agrees:

The government culling study, which ran from 1998-2007 and was conducted by the Independent Scientific Group (ISG), specifically considered licensing farmers in its final report, she said, and concluded: "We consider it likely that licensing farmers to cull badgers would not only fail to achieve a beneficial effect, but would entail a substantial risk of increasing the incidence of cattle TB and spreading the disease."

This would be because previous scientific studies have found culling is only effective if carried out over large areas and several years in a consistent and co-ordinated way, because small culls drive badgers into neighbouring areas and increase TB infections. "But there doesn't seem to be any way [in the proposals] to stop farmers dropping out and I think this is very likely," she said. The proposal document itself notes that in the scenarios examined by the government, farmers who carry out culling would be worse off financially than if they had done nothing and accepted some losses to TB. It also acknowledges the risk of farmers dropping out.

The proposal also conjures up some unpleasant and rather scary images as summed up in one e-mail I received this morning:

I personally will be terrified as we would quite literally be living with the possiblility of shooting at free ranging badgers just yards from our house. Not to mention what it will do to divide communities - as many of us who are opposed to culling are surrounded by farmland - and the public safety aspect of being able to walk the many footpaths and roam the countryside.

I would urge the UK Government to think again. Vaccination is the only way forward in reducing incidences of bTB. It may be expensive but in the long run it will prove to be effective, humane and reduce the cost of compensation for farmers.

Vince Cable sticks his neck out

On the eve of the Liberal Democrat Federal Conference, Vince Cable has used a speech to criticise the Coalition Government's immigration policy. According to the Financial Times' Westminster Blog, Vince says that the immigration cap is “doing great damage” and cited a British company that needed 300 specialists - half of which needed to come from outside the EU - but had geen given a quota of just 30:

He said he wasn’t willing to defend the existing system (a temporary cap is in place ahead of a more permanent system from next spring) and said he was “at the limit of collective responsibility”.

The FT say that Vince’s intransigence over immigration reflects similar criicism by Boris Johnson and is the most visible instance (and possibly the only one) of a Liberal Democrat minister going out on a limb against the wishes of the coalition over a policy that is hugely important to the right wing. That can only spell trouble.

This is an important point of principle for Liberal Democrats and it is good that our Ministers are continuing to fight the corner within government in an attempt to further moderate the demands of the Tory right.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Threats of racism charges within Welsh Tories

This morning's Western Mail blows the lid off the behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings amongst Welsh Conservatives as their head office sought to secure the nomination of Plaid Cymru-defector Mohammed Ahgar (Oscar) as a Tory Regional Assembly Member.

They report that David Fouweather, a Newport councillor who chairs the Tories’ South East Wales Area Council, was told that he could be suspended from the party unless he backed the selection of Oscar, the only AM from an ethnic minority, who defected to the Tories from Plaid Cymru:

The Western Mail has obtained a copy of a letter sent last week by Mr Fouweather to Catrin Edwards, who chairs the Conservative Party in Wales.

It states: “I am writing to you to express my concerns regarding the adoption of the two area Assembly list Members for South East Wales.

“From the outset this process was interfered with by people who had little or no connection with the area.

“There were numerous telephone calls made to myself by a representative of the party chairman’s office in London. These calls made it quite clear to me that Mohammad Asghar had to be re-adopted at all costs because of the embarrassment that it would create for the party.

“I was told that failure to re-adopt Mr Asghar could lead to my possible suspension from the party whilst an investigation was carried out to see if there were any racial motives for him not being adopted.

“This I found deeply offensive, resulting in a great deal of pressure being put upon me to deliver the desired outcome for the party hierarchy.”

This whole affair will be deeply embarrassing for the Welsh Conservatives, who have tried to keep a lid on the deep disagreements within their party over the future of Oscar and his daughter. On the wider issue though I agree with Naz Malik, who is chief executive of the All Wales Ethnic Minority Association. He is quoted as saying:

“My personal view is that the hierarchy of the Conservative Party is happy to have Mr Asghar as an AM because he doesn’t pose a threat to anybody.

“He has singularly failed to articulate the concerns of ethnic minority communities in Wales, either as a Plaid Cymru representative or a Tory, and the Conservative Party’s insistence that he should be a candidate next year perpetuates the worst kind of tokenism.

“None of the parties in Wales have properly addressed the need to select ethnic minority candidates in winnable seats who are capable of bringing the needs of such communities into the Assembly spotlight in a coherent way.

“Until that is achieved, the Assembly will not be the inclusive body it would like us to think it is.”

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Pinning the blame for the crisis in public finances

Labour politicians and activists are fond of arguing that the economic mess we are in is the fault of the bankers and/or a collapse in the global financial system and yet not every country suffered in the same way.

What is unarguable is that the coalition government now faces a £155 billion deficit and a £800 billion debt and needs to put in place measures to deal with that. And before Labour adopt their outright oppositionist approach we should not forget that they had planned £44 billion of cuts and their Chancellor of the Exchequer wanted to put up VAT as well.

In these circumstances the moral highground appears to be remarkably unoccupied and even more so when one takes into account this interview with former Cabinet Secretary, Andew Turnbull, highlighted by Iain Dale. Mr. Turnbull makes it clear that Labour were conducting economic policy on a wing and a prayer:

He suggested that spending was too high because of “optimism bias” in the growth forecasts: “It was a forecast error, but also by a process of optimism bias, not enough people were saying: ‘Come on, do you really think we are able to expect 2.75 per cent growth indefinitely?’”

Questioned on whether he thinks civil servants should have come forward, Turnbull – who was permanent secretary at the Treasury from 1998 to 2002 – suggested that they were scared to. “Yes, maybe Whitehall should have,” he said. “But it’s quite difficult when your minister is proclaiming that we have transformed the propects of the UK economy.”

When asked directly what prevented civil servants from telling politicians that borrowing was too high, he said: “The politics was that we had put an end to boom and bust.”

Turnbull added: “We had a sense of overconfidence; it happened all around the world, but it was a rather extreme form of it in the UK.”

The former civil servant goes on to identify the main reason why we are in such a mess:

Turnbull said that that excessive borrowing started to be a problem from 2005. “It kind of crept up on us in 2005, 2006, 2007, and we were still expanding public spending at 4.5 percent a year,” he said, arguing that the Treasury should have been putting more money aside. “You might have thought that we should have been giving priority to getting borrowing under better control, putting money aside in the good years – and it didn’t happen,” he commented.

Turnbull said that “there were some other places that had begun to accumulate surpluses for a rainy day; places like Australia.”

While Turnbull argued that the primary reason Britain is “in the mess that we’re in” is because “public spending got too big relative to the productive resources of the economy, by error” he added that a loss of output caused by the financial crisis has also contributed to the budget deficit.

No doubt Labour will remain in denial but in the face of such authorative evidence, even they cannot escape a considerable share of the blame for what now needs to be done to put things right.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Tell me it is not true


A cut too far?

There is an interesting little spat in the Western Mail this morning in which Plaid Cymru’s economic adviser, Eurfyl ap Gwilym, claims that senior Assembly Government figures, including First Minister Carwyn Jones, have outlined spending cuts significantly higher than those necessitated by the UK Government’s Office of Budget Responsibility:

Dr ap Gwilym said that Mr Jones implied the cumulative effect of the cuts over three years amounted to 16.5%, or an average of 5.8% per year. That compares to his estimate, based on the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecast, of 9.3% and 3.2%, respectively

Dr ap Gwilym said: “It is significant that the forecast cuts in the Wales budget estimated here are much lower than those alluded to in the First Minister’s speech and in the later statement by the Finance Minister. By 2013-14 the difference in that year alone is around £1bn.

“It is difficult to reconcile the forecast cuts as set out both in Labour’s 2009 and 2010 UK budgets and in the Con-Dem 2010 Budget with the planning assumptions being employed the Welsh Government.

“Perhaps it is being deliberately used either by the Treasury or the Welsh Government to ‘flush out’ much greater potential savings than those being sought in practice or to provide a larger contingency fund.”

This row underlines my view that speculation is getting out of control and that we would all be better off waiting to see what is actually announced rather than making it up on the hoof from leaked documents and half-formed rumours.

More interestingly though Dr. ap Gwilym's assertions do not just indicate a Labour Plaid Cymru split within the One Wales coalition but a rift between the nationalists' chief economic advisor and his own Ministers. After all it is not just the First Minister and the Finance Minister who have endorsed the level of cuts the government is preparing for, it is the whole cabinet.

If the Welsh Government is being over-cautious or too savage, depending on your point of view, they are doing so in the full knowledge of and with the endorsement of Plaid Cymru Ministers.

Peter Hain redux

There are some who might argue that being in opposition has given Peter Hain a fresh start. He has thrown off the shackles of office and can now be as critical of the government as he likes. He also now has time to do the things he wants to do, such as write a biography of Nelson Mandela for example.

Mr. Hain has certainly rediscovered his constituency if this article in the South Wales Evening Post is any guide. The Neath MP has taken on board the concerns of some of his constituents and convened a meeting of officials from ABM Health Trust, Neath Port Talbot Hospital, the Community Health Council and elected representatives for this Friday. He wants to know if there is any truth in claims that Neath Port Talbot Hospital is being downgraded.

We should welcome Mr. Hain to the party. After all local Assembly Members of all parties have been raising these concerns with the Health Minister for nearly a year now. Indeed I had a tour of the hospital last month specifically to air these matters with management. During that time we have barely had a peep from the Neath MP on this issue. Still, better late than never.

Mr. Hain is also securing headlines with claims in his new book that Nelson Mandela expressed fury to the UK government over Britain's decision to join with the Americans in invading Iraq. We have already learnt from recent publications that the much rumoured rift between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown was as bad as we have always thought it was, despite persistent denials by Mr. Hain, who painted a picture of domestic bliss and harmony whenever he was asked about the matter. We should not be surprised therefore that Peter has left it until now to tell us about this little spat:

Mr Hain recalled: "He said: 'A big mistake, Peter, a very big mistake. It is wrong. Why is Tony doing this after all his support for Africa? This will cause huge damage internationally'."

He said last night that he had never encountered his old friend as angry as he was during that conversation: "He was virtually breathing fire down the phone on this and feeling a sense of betrayal."

He went on: "It wasn't a pre-planned call that I had been expecting. He was just put through by Downing Street. Because we were friends he was probably more frank with me than he would have been if he had been speaking with a prime minister or president."

Mr Hain added that Mr Mandela was particularly distressed and frustrated because he was an admirer of the Blair government's record in Africa, where it intervened in Sierra Leone, increased aid and campaigned for a ban on landmines.

"He just felt that all of this had been completely blown out of the water by the Iraq invasion," Mr Hain said. "It did not surprise me because many people felt the same way. I knew that the sort of constituency in Britain and the world that Nelson Mandela naturally spoke for felt that we had made the wrong decision.

"He is a supremely polite and diplomatic person, but at the same time very independently minded."

Mr Hain said: "I listened very carefully to what he had to say and I explained that I thought Tony was acting out of conviction."

The former minister said he relayed Mr Mandela's comments to Downing Street – and told Mr Blair in person about the tirade. "They knew the government was being assailed with criticism on all sides. It was one that was added to the pile," he said.

A lot more details of the behind scenes jealousies and conflicts of the Blair/Brown Governments are likely to come out as more and more MPs and former Ministers put their thoughts into print. Peter Hain's revelations can be just added to the pile. The question is do we really care?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Recycling the news

Proof that it is not just history that can repeat itself, the news can often be recycled as well.

In this case the Western Mail carried almost identical stories a year apart. It still remains a problem but one that is in the hands of the Deputy Housing Minister and the Finance Minister to address. Thank goodness Jocelyn Davies and Jonathan Edwards are in the same party.

Jumping the gun

As we approach the Liberal Democrat Conference speculation about the outcome of the Government's Comprehensive Spending review, due to be published on 20th October, is starting to get beyond intense. It is said that anticipation is nine tenths of the pleasure. In this case the anticipation is proving to be as equally as agonising as the outcome.

There is still a general understanding amongst the electorate that action needs to be taken to reduce the £155 billion deficit and £800 billion debt that faces the country. How far they or the government are prepared to go we have yet to see, however what is certain is that the high level of premature speculation as to what is going to happen is not helpful and in certain cases is damaging.

The story that the Chancellor of the Exchequer plans to slash the welfare bill by £2.5 billion for people who are disabled or too ill to work is one of those cases. However, as the BBC say, not everything is as it seems. They report the government's response, that the leaked letter on which the report is based and which was written in June, is out of date:

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander told Sky News that as welfare spending made up nearly £200bn - it had to be looked at in the context of the comprehensive spending review.

"The context is one where we have to make significant savings in public spending to deal with the huge deficit that we inherited from the previous Labour government," he said.

"But things have moved on since June, in the sense that Iain Duncan Smith has published an excellent consultation paper looking at much wider and more radical reform of the welfare system."

He added: "Of course we are looking for significant savings in the welfare system. Savings that are fair; savings that encourage people to get out to work."

The point is that Iain Duncan Smith's radical reshaping of benefits is still under consideration. As I pointed out last month that could both reduce complexity in the system and help people back into work.

The lesson is not to believe everything that we read, especially when articles are based on leaked documents that have not been authenticated and are out-of-date and as far as the government is concerned, they must get their response in early, especially when there is inaccurate speculation.

That is the only way to keep things in perspective, at least until we know what really is going to happen.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Labour's "hypocrisy"

Whatever my political differences with Plaid Cymru MP, Elfyn Llwyd he got somethings right with his speech to the nationalists' party conference yesterday:

He said: “I have been astonished, as I’m sure have people across Wales, by the bare-faced hypocrisy we have seen of Welsh Labour since the general election.

“We’ve seen a string of Damascene conversions in the Labour ranks in Westminster.

“Barely a week after the election, the referendum on greater powers for Wales, which many Labour MPs fought hard against, was suddenly a hot topic among previously sceptical MPs.

“’When can we have it?’ they pleaded with David Cameron – forgetting that it was Gordon Brown and Peter Hain who were holding it back in any event.”

Mr Llwyd argued that although Labour had refused to accept that the Barnett formula – the system by which Wales is funded by Westminster – was unfair, the party’s view had quickly changed since losing power at May’s election.

He added: “Now they agree that what we in Plaid said was correct all along.

“Pity that not a single one of them had the backbone and the respect for the people of Wales to speak up during their 13 years in power.

“Plaid Cymru’s been at the forefront of this battle for years, with Labour sitting idly by.

“While I welcome their support, it must be taken with a pinch of salt.

“How can anyone believe them after only 13 years of being in a position of power and when they could have made a difference – only now has Labour found a voice.”

But Mr Llwyd said it would make no difference which candidate won the leadership campaign, which is expected to be a battle between David and Ed Miliband.

But Mr Llwyd said: “Whichever Millibrother wins the leadership contest, they will be cut exactly from the Blair/Brown cloth.

“They were uncritical, uber-loyal disciples of New Labour.

“Ed Balls might well end up one day as Chancellor – he is the biggest supporter of Barnett – Labour seemingly hasn’t learnt any lessons of late.

“The people of Wales are not that gullible. Labour – you may be stealing our policies, you may be stealing our clothes, but you will never steal our integrity.”

“The good people of Wales will remember that you let them down.”

It is worth noting of course that the Welsh Liberal Democrats have consistently suported reform of the Barnett formula and got a commitment to a decisive review put into the coalition document. We have also supported more powers for the Welsh Assembly and were advocating a Welsh Parliament before Plaid Cymru got their first elected representative. Still, it is nice to know that we are not the only one pointing out Labour's many u-turns since they lost power.

Labour's big lies

The acting leader of the Labour Party, Harriet Harman has just told Andrew Marr on his BBC Sunday show that 32,000 people have joined Labour since the General Election, one third of them ex-Liberal Democrat.

This may sound plausible to Labour activists but it is easy to check. Firstly, the Labour membership form does not ask you to provide information about previous political affiliations, so how can Harman know what they were?

Secondly, the Liberal Democrats have not lost anything like 1,000 members in that period, never mind 10,000. In fact we have had a net membership increase of around 4,000. Scotland has had an 18.2% increase, Wales too has seen a rise in affiliations, whilst in my own local party we have had a 25% increase.

There is no doubt that the Liberal Democrats will suffer in the same way as any other governing party over time. Both the Conservatives and Labour saw a dramatic drop in membership during previous periods of government. However, at the moment we are bucking the trend and are set to have one of the best-attended conferences ever later this week, in which, despite media speculation to the contrary, the vast majority of representatives will be united behind our Ministers and the coalition.

Meanwhile, Harriet Harman needs to go back to school. After all if she cannot get simple membership figures right then how can we believe anything that she and the Labour Party say ever again?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

MPs accused of being 'frit'

In an astonishing development in the phone hacking scandal, Channel Four are reporting that members of the committee set up to investigate the affair shied away from forcing News International chief executive and former Sun editor Rebekah Brooks to attend a meeting with them:

After Mrs Brooks had repeatedly avoided being interviewed, four MPs on the Commons culture, media and sport committee wanted to ask the Serjeant at Arms, the Commons official in charge of security, to issue a warrant forcing her to attend.

In an exclusive interview, former Plaid Cymru MP, and a member of the committee, Adam Price says he was warned by a senior Conservative committee member that if the committee pursued this plan, the tabloids might punish him by looking into his personal life.

"We could have used the nuclear option. We decided not to, I think to some extent because of what I was told at the time by a senior Conservative member of the committee, who I know was in direct contact with NI execs, that if we went for her, called her back, subpoenaed her, they would go for us - which meant effectively that they would delve into our personal lives in order to punish them and I think that's part of the reason we didn't do it. In retrospect I think that's regrettable," price said.

"It's important now that the new inquiry stands firm where we didn't. Politicians aren't above the law but neither are journalists including Rupert Murdoch's bovver boys with biros."

Another MP has reportedly backed this recollection of events though the Committee's Chair at the time, John Whittingdale, said: "When it was suggested by Labour members to force Rebekah Brooks to attend, I recall a conversation with Adam Price in which the repercussions for members' personal lives were mentioned.

"But that had no bearing on my own decision to oppose bringing in the Serjeant at Arms. Nor do I have any reason to think there was any suggestion that News International would target our private lives."

It is difficult to know what to believe but clearly there was at least one MP on the Committee who was worried about repercussions and who is not afraid of upstaging his own party's Conference in airing his concerns publicly.

Friday, September 10, 2010

No predicting the future

Personally, I rely on predictive text a lot when I am sending texts on my mobile phone but it can lead to some unintentional clangers. I am not so sure though about the latest innovations from Google.

They have launched two services that aim to suggest what we might be about to think next. Google Scribe tries to complete sentences via a pop-up menu of likely options, while Google Instant transforms the process of searching the web, with pages of results changing automatically as we type:

Scribe is one of many tools that has emerged from the research wing Google Labs (see box), and while it is interesting from a linguistics point of view, it is more of a diverting toy than a usable tool. As you type, you can choose (or not) from a numbered selection of words most likely to come next, based on the massive corpus of sentences that has been harvested from the web by Google.

Scribe's reliance on web text becomes clear when you start with "The" and use the first suggested option for each subsequent word. The experiment produces a phrase common on YouTube: "The following content has been identified by the YouTube community as being potentially offensive."

Using Scribe feels like a logical extension of predictive texting on mobile phones, and that is undoubtedly the platform where it will eventually prove its worth. But on a computer it does nothing to speed up typing; as one early user commented, it's as if someone is constantly interrupting you to try to finish your sentences, and always getting it wrong.

Speedy operation, by contrast, is the whole raison d'etre of Google Instant. The service was unleashed without warning on google.com and google.co.uk on Wednesday, causing surprise among users when results popped up a lot quicker than usual.

It will never catch on.

Busy recess

Recess continues to be as busy as ever with a morning spent in the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff Bay yesterday so as to catch up on correspondence, followed by a visit to Tŷ Waunarlwydd, a residential home for dementia sufferers and one of the best in the United Kingdom.

I was fascinated by the way that staff utilise the long term memories of residents to improve the quality of their life. It is a model that is still developing but has already had the seal of approval of some influential national organisations.

The evening was spent at a very busy local party meeting in Neath, whilst this morning I am about to head off to Pencoed to meet the Fire Brigades Union, where we will be discussing proposed changes at Maesteg Fire Station.

This afternoon I am at the Mansion House in Swansea for a charity event I helped set up in support of the RAF Wings Appeal. This grew out of the popular 'Brew for a Few' events put on by the RAF Association to raise money for the same cause. I plan to host one of these myself later in the year.

Big Brother and the lollipop

It seems that the advent of a new liberally-inclined government has failed to stem the growth of the Big Brother society after all. In Flintshire at least it is alive and well at every school crossing place.

The Daily Post reports that cameras are being hidden in traffic lollipops to catch out dangerous and careless motorists who fail to stop at a crossing, by providing evidence on film:

The scheme is being trialled for the first time in Wales in Flintshire, where the council says the aim is to make children’s journeys to school safer.

But last night the Automobile Association said it was ‘sad and disappointing’ that Flintshire felt the need to introduce the cameras.

AA president Edmund King raised fears the cameras could lead to road rage, saying ‘aggressive drivers’ gripped by anger could threaten lollipop staff who do a ‘valuable’ job.

But he admitted they may help catch rogue drivers.

He said: “It’s pretty sad and disappointing in this day and age that it’s even considered necessary that a lollipop person helping children cross the road should need to offer extra protection.

“It’s a sad reflection on a minority of drivers who disregard the law.”

He said he was unsure how clear any footage would be, and said its validity as court evidence was ‘debatable’.

The Council say that the cameras are activated when the pole touches the ground and are pointed at the offending car to record the number plate. They will be used for a week-long trial in one Flintshire area, then be passed to another site within the county. They have been introduced after a number of incidents in which motorists have assaulted crossing patrol staff or ignored their demands to stop.

There is no indication as to whether this scheme is regulated by a code of practice including details as to what happens to the pictures afterwards, who has access to them and guidance on whether they can be published or not. That should be part of the trial, the results of which need to be made public.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Lembit's Legacy

Lembit Öpik may be in the political wilderness for the time being but his legacy lives on if this report on CNN is any guide.

They say that a small asteroid passed within the moon's distance from the Earth on Wednesday morning, and another will do likewise later in the day. The double encounter is an unusual event that shows the need for closer monitoring of near space for Earth-threatening encounters, according to NASA.

Donald Yeomans, who is the manager of NASA's Near Earth Program, which tracks potentially hazardous asteroids and comets within 28 million miles of Earth, says that the objects don't pose a threat to Earth, and they will not be visible to the naked eye. However, they can be seen from Earth as tiny specks of light with the help of moderately sized amateur telescopes.

CNN report that roughly 50 million objects pass through near-Earth space each day:

Yeomans described the discovery as a warning shot in a field of study of low-probability events with global, high-impact consequences. He said that it was only when scientists began looking for near-Earth objects in the 1990s that they realized there was a "problem."

"We have only recently appreciated how many of these objects are in near Earth's space and [it's] best that we keep track of them and find them," he said. "I think this is Mother Nature's way of firing a shot over the bow and warning Earth-based astronomers that we have a lot of work to do."

I don't know about anybody else but that does not sound particularly reassuring.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

On the road

I had a fascinating time today at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth looking at their digitisation project, which aims to put journals and newspapers from the nineteenth century on-line.

It was a beautiful sunny day and the view of Aberystwyth from the Library front entrance was stunning. The Library itself is a remarkable asset and whilst I was there I deposited a fullish set of Welsh Liberal Democrat Group minutes going back to day one of the Assembly with the political archive.

The Library gets about 100,000 visitors each year but is increasingly using the web to make its archive accessible. The Library also archives an increasing amount of electronic material as well, including this blog and has plans to increase that activity. It is an intriquing mix of modern and old.

Fighting to save local health services

I spent yesterday morning in a very productive meeting of the Swansea Committee of the Community Health Council where a number of local residents had come to make their views known on plans to close the out-of-hours service at Singleton Hospital and transfer it to Morriston, and also on plans to close down Fairwood Hospital.

The proposal to close Fairwood Hospital forms part of a restructuring of services and cutting back the health board's £10 million overspend. The moving of the out-of-hours service will leave the west of Swansea and Gower without a 24 hour walk-in centre for the first time in 25 years.

I attended so as to speak against both proposals. Whereas I was happy for a GP service to be established next to Morriston Accident and Emergency I do not believe that this should be at the expense of the existing service in Singleton Hospital.

Over 4 million visitors and 20,000 students come to Swansea each year, mostly to the west of Swansea. They need access to GP services. It is 8 miles from Singleton to Morriston, further if you are travelling from Mumbles, Killay or Gower. If general district hospitals like Neath Port Talbot and Princess of Wales can have an out-of-hours service then why should Singleton be different?

The purpose of the presentation was to get wider consultation on both proposals by asking the local Committee to seek an objection from the Community Health Council Executive Committee. We succeeded on both counts and now it is up to that umbrella body to consider its position on 21st September.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Tory MPs forget easily

Nobody expects the bill on electoral reform to pass through the House of Commons easily. Certainly, there are ingrained interests in both the Conservative and the Labour Party who are opposed to the Alternative Vote, whilst the Labour leadership seems determined to throw principle to one side in search of short term electoral advantage.

I also recognise the concerns around the equalisation of constituencies and the impact that this will have on Wales, though if the Welsh Assembly gets full law-making powers that should matter less than it would otherwise.

I am surprised though at two Welsh Tory MPs, who have signalled in the Western Mail that they have serious concerns about the boundary changes. Clearly, they are sincere and their views are to be respected. However, this policy was in their manifesto and they fought the last election on it. Why then did they not make their concerns known at that time?

Blair cancels his book signings

It seems that one demonstration in Dublin was the final straw for former Prime Minister, Tony Blair as he cancelled a high-profile signing session of his new memoir in central London amid concerns over planned protests.

The Independent reports that Mr. Blair former prime minister was due to attend the flagship Waterstone's store in Piccadilly on Wednesday - where anti-war campaigners had promised a hostile reception. But he said he did not want to subject the public to the "inevitable hassle" protests would cause or use up police resources keeping order at the event.

How considerate of him.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Police may reopen hacking case

This morning's Independent suggests that all the pressure around the News of the World mobile phone hacking case may have led to a u-turn by the Metropolitan Police.

They say that Assistant Commissioner John Yates has asked the New York Times to provide any new material it had relating to the matter, including an interview with former reporter Sean Hoare, who has claimed that Downing Street communications chief Andy Coulson knew about News of the World staff eavesdropping on private messages when he was editor of the paper.

Meanwhile former Liberal Democrat MP, Lembit Őpik has stepped into the row by questioning Mr. Coulson's competence and calling for him to stand down:

Mr Őpik, who believes that he too was a victim of phone tapping by Mr Coulson's former paper, the News of the World, said the Government communications director's professed ignorance of what his employees were doing is damning in itself. "To take Coulson at his word, it's breathtaking to discover that the man in charge of a newspaper did not know what was going on," he said.

"The News of the World says it has a policy of zero tolerance of wrongdoing, but that means nothing with people like Coulson in charge because they don't know what they're tolerating. If Coulson wasn't able to discover what was going on in his office when he was an editor, why should anyone believe that he is displaying any greater competence in Downing Street?

"If the Government wants to avoid the compromising stories its predecessor got mired in, they have a right to expect Coulson to stand down until his name is cleared."

Lembit believes that much of the information obtained on him and his relationship with a Cheeky Girl could only have been obtained by breaking into his voice mail and has consulted lawyers with a view to getting paperwork off the Metropolitan Police so as to resolve the matter once and for all.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

The electoral cul-de-sac tempting Labour activists

There is an interesting piece by Andrew Rawnsley in this morning's Observer in which he outlines the dilemma facing the five candidates for Labour leadership - embrace the Blair legacy or reject it.

Rawnsley makes the valid point that whatever his faults Tony Blair knew how to win elections, and he did so by grasping that political parties must constantly renew themselves to keep up with events, the world and the voters. His key insight was that centre-left parties win and hold power only by creating a broad appeal which embraces not just their natural and traditional supporters, but also voters without any tribal allegiance to Labour.

None of the candidates he says, really comprehends how anyone cannot be as Labour as they are. That is an essential problem that is already reflected in the attitude of Labour MPs and activists towards the Liberal Democrats and the coalition government - they think they can sit back and reap the dividend of oppositionism:

I've heard little to suggest that any of the candidates has really come to terms with the scale of the mountain that Labour will have to climb. They have too often tried to console their party with the idea that it won't be all that difficult to get back on top. One chimera – Ed Miliband is the most guilty of pursuing this one – is the notion that there is a secret army of millions of voters who are more left wing than they presently know. The delusion is that they will flock to Labour's banner just as soon as the party has a fresh young leader who can raise them from their false consciousness.

Another refuge for those who don't want to confront reality is to think that all their problems can be simply solved by recruiting hacked-off former Lib Dems. One of the worst illusions is to believe they need not do much more than condemn the government for making spending cuts, sit back and wait for the coalition to fall apart. At which point, they assume, the electorate will collapse gratefully back into their arms.

Comrade Balls made a recent speech which was both superb as a stinging analysis of the coalition's economic policies and dangerous for his own party because it implied that Labour need not adopt a credible position on how it would address the deficit. Labour may well prosper for a while by screaming against every cut. The spending squeeze is almost certain to be horribly unpopular. There will be a substantial segment of the electorate, probably a very large one, which will be receptive for a while to the message that all this pain is unnecessary. Michael Foot was well ahead of Margaret Thatcher in opinion polls in the early 1980s when her economic measures were at their most unpopular. Neil Kinnock also enjoyed commanding poll leads over her for long stretches of time. Fat lot of good it ultimately did them. She won the general elections because swing voters felt that she had credibility and Labour did not.

He concludes: Whatever wing of the party they hail from, the serious people have not forgotten the lesson Tony Blair taught to Labour. You achieve nothing without office. And that is secured not by saying things that make your party feel happier, but by persuading the country to entrust you with power.

Blair and Brown draw fire over funding of armed forces

The Sunday Independent reports that the former head of the Army has accused Tony Blair and Gordon Brown of letting down British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan:

They say that in his new book, Leading From the Front, General Sir Richard Dannatt branded Mr Brown "malign" for failing to fund the armed forces adequately and said Mr Blair lacked the "moral courage" to make his then chancellor deliver the money that was needed:

In his book, Gen Dannatt says that evidence for Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction - the official justification for Britain's involvement in the 2003 invasion - was "most uncompelling" and the planning for the aftermath of war an "abject failure".

While the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR) provided a "good framework" for defence policy in the Labour years, it was "fatally flawed" by being underfunded by Mr Brown's Treasury and could not cope with the strains of deploying troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time.

Gen Dannatt reserved his fiercest fire for the two politicians at the head of the Labour administration.

"History will pass judgment on these foreign adventures in due course, but in my view Gordon Brown's malign intervention, when chancellor, on the SDR by refusing to fund what his own government had agreed, fatally flawed the entire process from the outset," he wrote.

"The seeds were sown for some of the impossible operational pressures to come."

Mr Blair "lacked the moral courage to impose his will on his own chancellor", said the general.

These accusations are not new of course, I believe that General Dannatt has made them before. Nevertheless they remain a damning indictment of the Blair and Brown Governments and one that has never been convincingly answered.

Coalition Government poised on edge of abyss

If the Sunday Independent is right and UK Ministers are to issue licences to farmers in England to cull badgers in an attempt to curb the spread of tuberculosis in cattle herds, then this government is about to make a momentous mistake.

The paper says that the Government will launch a public consultation later this month on the precise details of the scheme, which would allow landowners who can prove the measures are necessary to cull and vaccinate badgers over an area of at least 50 square miles.

This move is being taken despite a decade-long study, costing £35m, by the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, which concluded that culling cannot "meaningfully contribute" to control of the disease because it displaces the badgers, spreading the disease over a wider area.

They must surely also take into account the court ruling on the Welsh Government's planned cull that the Rural Affairs Minister had failed to demonstrate the substantial reduction in bTB necessary to justify culling a protected species. She was only able to claim a 9% reduction in the disease, a figure that in itself is disputed.

The assertion by Farming minister Jim Paice that the government must "get absolutely everything sorted before we commence" because campaigners will challenge the plan through judicial review must be read in a different context in the light of that ruling. How can the UK government proceed and hope to win a court case when their plans are not supported by the science?

If the Coalition Government and the Liberal Democrats in particular, line up behind this nonsense then they will get the bloody nose that they deserve. Instead they should follow the science and pursue the vaccination trials currently getting underway in Gloucestershire. If vaccination is accompanied by proper cattle control measures then it could reduce bTB significantly and permanently over a five year period.

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