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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Labour self-destruct on health

Health is, of course fully devolved to the Welsh Government but that does not stop the First Minister and other Labour AMs distracting attention from their own failures by throwing all kinds of inaccurate accusations around about the Coalition Government's intentions towards the NHS.

It is interesting therefore, as revealed by this post on Liberal Democrat Voice, that Labour appear to have taken the decision to leave in place the reforms they have so vehemently derided and which they have characterised as privatisation and breaking up the health service.

As Mark Pack reports, at a Q&;A session, Labour leader Ed Miliband told delegates and reporters that:

I think what would be not sensible is for us to come along and say, ‘well, Andrew Lansley, now Jeremy Hunt, they’re changing all the arrangements, have these new clinical commissioning groups and so on, and we’re just going to reverse it all back and spend another £3bn on another top-down bureaucratic organisation.

Though his Shadow Health Secretary, Andy Burnham, was not exactly on message. He said:

I’ll repeal the Bill. Full stop.

Is that the same as reverse? Labour are all over the place on this issue, even more so when you consider their record. After all, it is not as if they do not have form when it comes to privatising the English NHS:
Many of these loopholes were plugged by the Coalition Government in the Health and Social Care Act. In particular, as a result of Liberal Democrat influence, the coalition ruled out any special favours to the private sector. From now on, no future Government will be able to deliberately favour the private sector over the NHS in the same manner as the last Labour Government.

Liberal Democrats also ensured that more services will now be covered by tariffs, so in the future private providers will only be allowed to offer their services for new treatments where they agree to meet NHS standards and be paid NHS prices.

Mental health services will now be covered by a tariff, so in the future private providers won’t be able to undercut the NHS through a race to the bottom on price and competition will now be based on quality, not price whilst commissioners will be required to follow “best value” principles when tendering for services not included in the tariff.

Finally, Liberal Democrats in Government established local Overview and Scrutiny Committees to scrutinise all health service providers receiving public funds including private providers. Foundation Trusts will now have to publish separate accounts for their public and private income, so that public income can never be used to subsidise private care.

Liberal Democrats secured changes to the Act so that Foundation Trusts cannot focus on private income at the expense of NHS patients and they made sure that every Trust has to spell out clearly how any additional private income will be spent to deliver better care for NHS patients.

No wonder Ed Miliband wants to keep the Act in place.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

After the Liberal Democrats Federal Conference

Although this post is a few days after the fact, I nevertheless thought that this insightful and intriguing article by the Guardian's senior political correspondent, Andrew Sparrow was worth referring to.

Mr. Sparrow sets out ten lessons from the recent Liberal Democrats Federal Conference that underlines the risky but necessary course that Nick Clegg has embarked on. In particular he identifies that the Liberal Democrats leader is seeking to recast us into a mainstream party that can win by first-past-the-post:

As Matthew d'Ancona put it in a column recently, he wants "nothing less than to create a third party of government; not an electoral dumping ground for the Undecideds, the Outraged and People Who Still Hate Blair, but a party ready to participate in future coalitions and bring its own distinctive approach to bear on government". But with the polls as they are, this new entity could face a virtual electoral wipeout in 2015.

He also says that Liberal Democratss seem more committed than ever to the coalition, and that the party seems to have realised it is past the point of no return:

It may not know where its journey will end, but the bridge back to April 2010 is in cinders. The clearest sign of this came when the party endorsed the coalition's key economic strategy, decisively rejecting a call for a Plan B. Clegg made the point convincingly in his speech to the conference rally on Saturday. "This is the first time anyone in modern Britain has experienced a national coalition government," he said. "We must show them it is a form of government that works well for them. If we don't we will have lost not only the argument for having Liberal Democrats in power but for having a third party at all." In other words, the Lib Dems face an existential threat, and if the coalition fails, the party is doomed too.

He adds that the Liberal Democrats have not resolved the right/left argument, but the conference showed members can unite around three themes: taxing the wealthy (the mansion tax has been championed ad nauseam); defending civil liberties (the leadership was trounced on secret courts, in the best debate of the conference); and green growth (which has become a key dividing line with the Tories).

His last three points are particularly telling:

8. Coalition is making government more open In the past ministers used to argue in private and defend their collective decisions in public. When the coalition launched, the two parties tried to play down differences in public, but now Clegg and the Lib Dems are so open about their disagreements with Tory colleagues that, as this week has demonstrated, it has almost stopped being a story. Danny Alexander proposed a motion implicitly attacking his boss, George Osborne, and the media barely batted an eyelid. Conversations that once took place behind closed doors are being conducted in public. It's a notable shift in Whitehall culture.

9. The Lib Dems are still overwhelmingly white and male The party has no ethnic minority MPs and there seemed to be very few ethnic minority delegates at the conference. The most senior woman to get a high profile speech slot was Jo Swinson, a junior minister. In diversity terms, this party has a very long way to go.

10. But it's a great party to join if you want to speak at a party conference This week has confirmed that the Lib Dems are still the only main party in British politics genuinely comfortable about letting the members debate policy. Labour and the Tories use their conferences to showcase their leaders and rising stars. If you want to go to party conference, get involved in debates and speak on more than one occasion, I'm afraid you haven't got much option. You'll have to join the Lib Dems.

Personally, I am comfortable with this analysis. This is a long game, but it is also a risky one. If we do not embark on it then we will be doomed to remain at the margins of British politics.

Friday, September 28, 2012

No smoke without fire

With the Welsh Health Minister about to announce a relaxation of the smoking ban in Wales so as to allow actors to smoke on stage or on film sets as part of a production, this article in today's Telegraph seems to be particularly pertinent.

They report that research has shown that Hollywood films last year showed more on screen smoking than the previous year, reversing five years of steady progress in reducing tobacco imagery in movies.

They say that many of the top-grossing films of 2011 with significant amounts of smoking targeted a young audience, among them the PG-rated cartoon Rango and X-Men: First Class. This has alarmed public health experts:

Campaigners fear the glamorous portrayal of smoking by teenagers' favourite actors could encourage young people to adopt the habit.

Study lead author Dr Stanton Glantz, from the University of California in San Francisco, said: "Hollywood has still not fixed this problem.

"The result of the increase in onscreen smoking in youth-rated films will be more kids starting to smoke and developing tobacco-induced disease."

Altogether, the 134 top-grossing films of 2011 depicted nearly 1,900 tobacco "incidents," the analysis found. An incident is defined as one use or implied use - such as a lit cigarette - of a tobacco product by an actor.

Total tobacco incidents per movie rose seven percent from 2010 to 2011.

However among movies rated U, PG or PG-13, smoking incidents per movie soared by 36 percent.

In the past smoking was an everyday part of the social scene, but smoking bans in many countries has changed that. Should films not better reflect the trends of the time they are made in and also reduce the incidence of on-screen smoking?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Sins of the fathers

The Independent has an interesting comment piece in which they suggest that the New Labour legacy is about to be passed to the next generation.

Apparently, rumours that Euan Blair is lining up to inherit the safe Labour seat of Coventry North West from Geoffrey Robinson, who will be almost 77 at the next general election may be less than accurate on the grounds that Mr Robinson adamantly denies any intention of quitting Parliament. However. the sons of other Blairite Cabinet Ministers do appear to be positioning themselves for a stab at the top.

The paper says that Will Straw is vying for the Labour nomination in Rossendale and Darwen, next door to his father's Blackburn constituency, which the Conservatives took in 2010 with a 4,493 majority. Whilst Joe Dromey, younger son of Harriet Harman and Jack Dromey, is devoting a lot of time to work in the safe Labour seat of Lewisham Deptford, where the sitting MP, Joan Ruddock, will be 71 come the election.

Can this become a trend?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Welsh Labour isolated within the UK

Welsh Labour politicians must be feeling slightly bruised this morning after reading this blog by the BBC's political editor in Scotland, which effectively challenges the give-away agenda they have been pursuing for some time.

He reports that Scottish Labour Leader, Johann Lamont has questioned whether Scotland can continue to afford policies such as free personal care, free prescriptions, free university tuition and a continuing freeze on council tax.

This is an agenda that New Labour did not feel able to adopt in England and which led to a number of notable clashes between UK Labour Ministers and their counterparts in Cardiff Bay. Although the consensus across three of the Welsh parties at least, is that free prescriptions and bus passes remain affordable and desirable, it is clear that we too will be facing difficult spending decisions in years to come.

More significantly though is the way that Carwyn Jones is out on a limb within his own party, on issues that frankly chime with the social democrat consensus that Ed Miliband is looking to embrace. The Spectator is damning on this issue:

"Lamont's speech was, in effect, a repudiation of fifteen years of Labour thinking. The devolution years have been an exercise in fantasy politics in which everything has a value but nothing comes at a price. There will be cake for everyone. Labour built this political culture. Now it falls to Labour to try to change it".

This is picked up by the BBC's Welsh Political Editor, Betsan Powys in her own blog, who acknowledges that these sort of differences exist under devoloution, but:

You may however argue in return that you'd expect basic points of political principle to remain pretty much the same - in the same hymn book at least, if not on the exact same hymn sheet.

Are the two leaders sharing a stage at Labour's conference in Manchester later this month? Now wouldn't that be a whole lot of fun - and free for all.

Indeed it would.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Continuing Professional Development

The BBC have gone big today on a so-called story, highlighting the amount of money being spent by the Assembly on training AMs.

This provision was made following the report by Sir Roger Jones into Assembly Member remuneration and expenses, which proposed continuing professional development for AMs and their staff.

Every other profession has this provision, why shouldn't AMs? After all the journalists who are reporting this matter were trained, largely at public expense, in how to ask questions.

Good scrutiny is a skill that can be learned and nobody is above improving their performance. In the circumstances, the sum expended is modest when compared to the benefits that may accrue, not least in having a more effective democracy in Wales.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Vince Cable: team player

Vince Cable's speech to Conference was vintage Vince. We would expect nothing less. It was authoritative, measured and just a little mischievious. But at heart Vince is a team player and, with just one small lapse involving an ad lib and the word pleb, he stayed on message.

The most significant part of the speech however was the much-trailed announcement that he has secured £1 billion of funding for a new business bank that will be set up using public money so as to support small and medium sized businesses.

The Telegraph reports that it is hoped the new bank, which will use the funds to lend up to £10 billion to companies, will “break the stranglehold” of the high street banks, which are often blamed for thwarting the economic recovery by refusing to lend.

Mr Cable wants to encourage entrepreneurs to “make things” rather than basing the economy on the mirage of “property speculation and financial gambling”.

He claims the business bank will be a “lasting monument” underlining the need for fundamental reform of the banking system in the wake of the credit crisis.

There have been widespread complaints from small and medium-sized firms that banks are blocking access to finance and hindering their ability to expand.

The new business bank – which will effectively fund new “challenger” banks and other financial institutions who will then lend to small firms – will form the centrepiece of the Government’s new economic regeneration plans to be set out in the autumn. Senior Coalition figures describe the emerging package as “plan A plus, plus”.

This really could be a game changer with regards to the economy.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

More apologies needed

Here in the Brighton the party has really embraced the Nivk Clegg apology. The Liberal Democrat Image stand, which sells branded party goods even as mugs and badges for sale emblazoned with the leader's photograph and the textbook his apology.

Most representatives think Clegg did the right thing and naturally there is a clamour for other party leaders to follow suit, a mood that has been picked up by the Sunday Telegraph today.

Some of their examples are a bit esoteric but I definitely agree with this one, that Ed Miliband's should say:

SORRY: for being a key player in a government that let spending and the deficit spiral out of control. Labour spent billions on hare-brained schemes such as a new IT system for the NHS that never worked, hiring managers at a faster rate than it appointed nurses, and cutting GPs’ hours while paying them more. Billions went on education, while Britain plummeted in international league tables in maths, reading and science.

While he is at it the Labour leader should also apologise for his party's illegal war in Iraq, failing to regulate the banks and for breaking Labour's own manifesto promise on tuition fees - twice!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Liberal leaders and dodgy songs (David Steel revisited)

As I noted on Twitter today that the Nick Clegg musical version of his sorry video is starting to edge towards the top fifty in the charts, I recalled that he is not the first leader of the third party to have been unwisely associated with musical publishing

Deep in the recesses of time David Steel released a single as well. I cannot recall the name of it except that the word 'Liberal' was in the title. I do recall, with the assistance of Mark Pack, that the sleeve contained an illustrated guide on how to do the Liberal dance and also that it bombed in charts. It was even worse than attempts by the likes of William Shatner to carve out a musical career.

Google is no help but Mark Pack tells me he has a copy so I am relying on him to fill in the details if he is ever inclined to dig it out. Unless that is others can do so first.

Update: I have now tracked down a version of this song on YouTube as played to David Steel when he was on 'Have I got news for you'. It is here.

Revitalised Clegg puts his foot down

According to today's Independent Nick Clegg has returned from conference contrite about tuition fees but also with a renewed determination to fight for Liberal Democrat values within the coalition government.

The paper says that the Liberal Democrats leader will veto George Osborne's demands for a two-year freeze in most state benefits from next April and a further £10bn of welfare cuts.

The Deputy Prime Minister revealed he will block the Treasury's demand for more cuts before the 2015 election to compensate for lower-than-expected growth. "Not a penny more, not a penny less," he declared.

He disclosed that he will limit the scope of the government-wide spending review due next year to a single financial year, 2015-16, a shorter period than the Treasury wants. He will approve "no cuts" for the post-election period unless Mr Osborne brings in a wealth tax or mansion tax on homes worth more than £2m.

Interviewed on the eve of the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton starting today, Mr Clegg:

l backed a move at the conference to censure the Chancellor for obstructing the drive towards green energy, saying the industry needs more certainty from the Government to attract investors;

l demanded the Chancellor announce in his Budget next spring that the threshold at which people start paying income tax will rise from £9,205 to £10,000;

l vowed to block the Conservatives' plan to bring in regional pay for public sector workers if, as he expects, it would "widen the north-south divide".

Mr Osborne wants to announce a blanket two-year freeze on state benefits from next April in his autumn statement in December.

Mr Clegg's intervention means this cannot happen, although the Liberal Democrat leader did not rule out an extended freeze on child benefit, aleady held flat for three years.

He said: "You cannot fill the remainder of the black hole from the wealthy alone. But that is where you start, and you work down. You don't start with the bottom and then work up. That is just wrong."

The Liberal Democrat leader said: "It is not realistic to assume you cannot have any further cuts and savings. Where they fall is an entirely different matter. "The Conservatives appear to be saying they want it all to fall on welfare. That's totally unacceptable to me. They are not going to take all of that £10bn out of welfare.

"I am not saying you can leave welfare untouched, because it is a third of total public spending.

"But the idea that you ask welfare to take all of the strain is something I will not allow to happen," he added.

Such an approach will have a lot of support within the party.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Nick Clegg the remix

This is cool too and what is more if you download it from iTunes any proceeds will go to Nick Clegg's charity, the Sheffield Children's NHS Foundation Trust.

Walking and talking

Speaking as a huge fan of the West Wing this video endorsing a candidate for the Michigan State Supreme Court is really cool.

It is full of in-jokes of course, including a self-endorsement by one of the actresses. The video came about because Bridget McCormack’s sister, Mary McCormack, was on The West Wing from 2004-2006. Thus when the characters ask, “Who is Mary McCormack?” McCormack walks in the door and says, “No clue but something tells me she’s delightful! And whip smart! And possibly hot!”

I wonder if the cast are available for other party political broadcasts.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Losing my appetite

A query from a constituent about school meals has led me to the Welsh Government;s draft guidelines on healthy eating in schools. They are available here if you are interested.

The guidelines run to 79 pages and are designed to deal with all food and drink served to pupils at break times, lunchtimes, afternoon break and after school clubs across the whole school day in all local authority run schools. This includes all food and drinks served at any outlet on school premises at these times, for example a school tuck shop, vending machine, outside serving area or canteen.

There is a very detailed table on pages eight, nine and ten setting out precisely how food can be served. Bread for example, should only be available without spread. Try getting a five year old to eat that. My eye though was drawn to some of the definitions:

What is fruit?

Fruit is an individual piece of fruit, canned mixed fruit cocktail, single canned fruit, fruit salad, fruit pieces/wedges and fruit juice served unaccompanied. and:

What is a fruit based dessert?

A fruit based dessert is a dessert that either has a portion of fruit within the dessert e.g. crumble, pie, tart etc or a portion of fruit served with an accompaniment

I am glad we cleared that up.

I am told that these guidelines have been implemented in Neath Port Talbot alongside the removal of choice on school menus. Children therefore have to take the food on offer or leave it.  The outcome in one school has been a 20% reduction in school meal take-up.

These kids now largely rely on unhealthy sandwiches, sweets and savouries which the guidelines say should not be provided by the school. A good example of the inflexible application of guidelines having an unintended consequence.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Welsh Liberal Democrats leading the charge against Regional Pay

With Conference season about to get underway, the Welsh Liberal Democrats are taking advantage of teh opportunity to move Liberal Democrats policy decisively against the introduction of regional pay.

As I will be back in the Assembly for meetings by the time this debate takes place, my colleague Eluned Parrott will be moving the motion which will hopefully set the tone for the second part of coalition government. This is once more about Liberal Democrats blocking the worst excesses of the UK Tories.

Eluned has written on the motion over at Freedom Central. She makes it clear that moves towards regional or local pay will only further iengrain regional inequalities. She says that freezing people’s salaries for an extended period until they equalise with local private sector pay rates is completely unfair and would lead to declining living standards. Public sector workers need to see and believe that we value them highly, wherever they choose to work.

She concludes: This motion will give Liberal Democrats the chance to show that we are the party that the public sector can trust. We mustn’t forget that despite Labour’s current opposition to regional pay, they first introduced regional pay into our courts system. We must be able to say that, in Government, we stopped the further extension of regional pay.

We are calling on Liberal Democrat members to vote in favour of this motion not just because we want to protect those parts of the UK that could be affected by declining income (in real terms) over the next decade, but because we believe that regional pay will harm the economic prospects of the whole of the UK.

This is a matter of principle and one we are confident that the party as a whole will endorse.

Court rules against Government on Prince Charles

Whilst one set of royals pursue their own court case in France, a far more interesting case has just come to a conclusion in which an appeal court has just ruled that correspondence between Prince Charles and government ministers, which is believed to detail attempts by the heir to the throne to influence government policy, must be published.

Yesterday's Independent reports that judges have decided that releasing the Prince’s letters, the first time such an order has been made, was in the public interest. They have said that there should be openness over any sway the Prince seeks to hold over government.

The court ruled that correspondence from 2004 and 2005 between Prince Charles and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills; the Department of Health; the Department for Children, Schools and Families (now named the Department for Education) must all be released.

The ruling also relates to letters from the same time period from the Prince to: the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; the Department for Culture, Media and Sport; the Northern Ireland Office and the Cabinet Office.

The paper says that the information commissioner previously refused to release the details but the Administrative Appeals Chamber said the commissioner gave “insufficient weight to the public interest”.

The Whitehall departments argued that a decision to release the Prince’s letters would breach unwritten constitutional rules on the relationship between the monarchy and the government, and that it would discourage the prince from speaking frankly. However the Appeal Court clearly and quite rightly thought that the public interest overruled such considerations.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Science and the English badger cull

The UK Government was left a bit isolated yesterday when the man whose report they have misinterpreted to justify the English badger cull, made it clear that their policy was complete nonsense.

Today's Independent quotes Lord Krebs as saying that the plan to cull badgers is "crazy". The Government is proposing to shoot 70 per cent of badgers in large cull area because they believe that the Krebs report has identified this figure as the optimum number to produce a 16 per cent drop in TB in cattle. The study says that killing any fewer could actually increase infection rates.

However, the report's conclusions were based on a nine year study in a carefully defined area and properly controlled conditions. Subsequent reports found that the long term impact of the cull was neutral, whilst the impact on surrounding areas was huge, with large increases in the incidence of bTB as badgers fled from their fate, a phenomenon known as perturbation.

Not only is the science of the English cull dodgy but it is based on a deliberate misinterpretation of the Kreb report and subsequent studies by the scientists who conducted it.

Surely, even the current government must be embarrassed enough by Lord Krebs' latest intervention to pause and rethink their policy. He has said that the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' plan was misguided because they could have no way of knowing the badger population in the trial areas:

"I would go down the vaccination and biosecurity route rather than this crazy scheme that may deliver very small advantage," he said.

That is the route being taken by the Welsh Government. For once Defra should cross the border and learn from the more enlightened and science-based policy being followed here.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Brains, beauty or personality?

Today's Telegraph contains details of a fascinating study that may influence candidate selection panels up and down the country. They say that work by the University of Exeter and the University Iowa has found that in hotly contested constituencies the most attractive candidate wins nearly three quarters of the time:

Dr Caitlin Milazzo, a lecturer in politics at Exeter, said choosing attractive candidates could give a party the "edge".

"While our findings certainly do not indicate that unattractive candidates are unelectable, they do suggest that an attractiveness “advantage” may come into play.

"As a result, parties should be mindful of the appearance of their candidates, particularly when contesting a marginal seat."

The paper adds that the paper Pretty Faces, Marginal Races, presented at the Elections, Public Opinion and Parties Conference at Oxford University, suggests that in areas where political allegiances are less strong and candidates less well known, attractiveness plays a significant role:

While a candidates competence overall remained the most significant vote winner, when it is unknown or considered equal, attractiveness came into play.

"If you imagine all other things equal then this will give you the edge," said Dr Milazzo.

"This could get you a few extra votes especially if you want to get undecided voters."

Clearly, I am going to have to reconsider my position now that my Assembly seat is ultra marginal.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Good news on the horizon

This morning's Independent on Sunday highlights a new report that indicates that better times may be on the horizon.

They refer to a Centre for Economics and Business Research study (CEBR) that says that households will enjoy the first increase in real income next year for the first time since the credit crunch struck, and it will be middle-income earners and poorer families that will benefit the most:

It predicts that families will enjoy a much-needed increase in income - after the impact of inflation - next year as stubbornly high inflation recedes and as it forecasts a welcome return to economic growth.

Real incomes for middle income and poorer households have fallen every year since the start of 2008 and are set to drop again this year by 0.2% due to slow wage growth and high inflation.

But this is set to change as the economy recovers, with the CEBR forecasting growth of 0.5% next year.

Its research suggests that real incomes will rise by 1% for middle-income households and by 1.5% for poorer households - with the richest households seeing a less impressive 0.7% rise.

Similar rises are expected for 2014 and 2015, the CEBR said.

It believes the rich will see their incomes grow the slowest despite the 5p reduction in the top income tax rate, due for April 2013, because top-end pay and bonuses are expected to be squeezed in 2013 and some tax allowances are also being scaled back.

This does not mean that things will be easier. Conditions will still be tough, however the further income tax cuts led by the Liberal Democrats and due to come in next year will also help.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Conference Season

The Bevan Foundation have published a blogpost by me previewing the Liberal Democrats Federal Conference. It can be read here.

It is though a bit disconcerting to find my piece illustrated by a picture of Kirsty Williams. After all she neither wrote the piece nor is she our Federal leader.

Friday, September 14, 2012

A man with a plan

The New Statesman is not normally complmentary about Liberal Democrats but obviously they make an exception for Vince Cable. This article shows once again how we are making a difference in Government:

The difference between failure and success is the finance and structures that have allowed them to make the best of their individual talents so they could reach their maximum potential and become world-beaters.

This in a nutshell is what Vince Cable wants to do with business. He is bored with Britain having the talent, the inventors and the innovators, but then thinking it is virtuous to leave them to fend for themselves with no support so that too few of them become business gold medallists.

The lesson he draws from the Olympics is that success comes not simply from having talented people, nor from having what in essence was a publicly funded support system. Success  came from the skilled combination of the two, and he wants to foster a  similar ethos of long-term planning  and support for individual talent  to develop future generations of business winners. So yesterday, for the first time probably since Mrs Thatcher decided that Britain did not really need industry, we had a Business Secretary willing to lay out an industrial policy, and not being afraid to say that it was about picking winners.

He identified the essentials for success — the need for the right kind of finance, support for emerging technologies, a focus on and partnership with key sectors, a pipeline of skilled workers, and the use of government procurement as far as is possible to support these aims.

None of this is new — they have been doing it in the United States, Germany and much of the rest of the world for years. But it is new to us, indeed it is more than new. It is an astonishing sea change, given that a year ago it  was impossible for a minister even to utter the words industrial policy, let alone devote an entire speech to outlining one.

Goodness knows what they make of it on the Tory back benches, where the dominant strand of thinking is still that the role of the government is to get out of the way; that to get more houses built we should abolish planning regulations; that cutting red tape will cause a small-business revival and that all public spending other than for the defence of the realm is unnecessary and wasteful.

But it is probably close to the mood in the country. People make plans in their daily lives and think where they would like to be in a few years’ time. Businesses do likewise and in a lot more painstaking detail, often looking a decade or more ahead. Only in government is it seen to be a virtue to make it up as you go along, to have no plan that survives more than five minutes’ contact with reality, and no idea really where we are meant to be going.

The article concludes that Vince's initiative underlines the lack of long-term thinking elsewhere. Like the Welsh Government for example.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Another slippery slope

What are we to make of this article in the Daily Telegraph that suggests that the Home Secretary is To give customs officials and immigration officers the power to take mouth swabs or hair samples without a passengers consent?

They say that under the planned changes, the requirement to transfer a detainee to a police station to take fingerprints and DNA samples would be dropped. Instead, authorisation would be given for the sample to be taken at the port or airport.

Isabella Sankey, Director of Policy for Liberty, believes it is a slippery slope. She told the paper: “Schedule 7 allows for people to be detained for nine hours and for their DNA to be taken without any suspicion of wrongdoing.

. "Despite claims from the Home Office that it plans to reduce powers of DNA sampling, on closer inspection what’s proposed would create new powers to take DNA at ports. "Making a blunt and discriminatory power even easier to use will do little to alleviate the resentment in communities most affected.”

The paper adds that Ministers are also considering scrapping the power for officers to collect “intimate” DNA samples, of blood or urine, arguing that there is no evidence that such material is more useful in preventing terrorism than mouth swabs.

Strip searches could also be limited so that only genuine suspects would be ordered to comply. The time that an individual can be detained for could be reduced from the current nine hours to six hours or lower, under the reforms.

The problem is of course that these measures disproportionately affect minority communities. The Telegraph records that figures show almost 70,000 people were questioned by officers at British ports and airports between April 2011 and March 2012, with nearly 600 providing DNA samples or fingerprints.

Some 45 per cent of the 681 passengers who were detained during the period were of Asian or Asian British origin, while 8 per cent were White. This is a problem that is not easily solvable. The implications for civil liberties are immense.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A matter of culpability

Over at Freedom Central, Welsh Liberal Democrats Education Spokesperson, Aled Roberts says that all parties in the GCSE exams row should step back from the war of words and sit down to work together for the best interests of Welsh students. He says that Welsh students are not best served by this sort of twitter-based policy making and it is no way to reach a calm and moderate conclusion.

The Welsh Education Minister is undoubtedly right to intervene to protect the interests of Welsh students but as his Conservative shadow points out in today's Western Mail, he is not exactly in the clear when it came to creating this mess in the first place.

She says that the Welsh Government had been a party to the 'compromise' between regulators that had been made prior to last month's grade boundary revelations. The report commissioned by the Minister says that 'Regulatory officials in Wales continued to express strong reservations about the methodology, but at this late stage, recognising the need to reach agreement, as this option produced the least damaging impact on outcomes for Wales, Welsh Government Officials reluctantly agreed to accept this amendment.'

Now the Welsh Labour Government are saying that the outcomes are damaging, so much so that the Minister has felt the need to issue a direction to the WJEC to re-mark all the English GCSE papers. We should not forget this when Welsh Labour seek to point the finger at the UK Government. The Welsh Government were culpable in the creation of this problem as well.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Labour versus the unions

There are signs of a new realism permeating the ranks of Labour today as the Independent reports that Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, was booed and heckled by public sector union delegates when he refused to promise that a Labour government would give them the pay rises they have been demanding.

This will clearly go down well in middle England, but where does it leave Ed Miliband, who was elected on the back of a union block vote? And if there is a renewed campaign of industrial action over job cuts pay and pension in the coming months, in direct defiance of the wishes of the Labour leadership, will the public consider them responsible anyway?

All the signs are that no matter how much Ed Balls and Ed Miliband pull to the right in the hope of winning election in 2015, the unions will swallow their disappointment and back them anyway on the basis that they cannot be any worse than the current government. Somebody must have wiped their memories of the Blair/Brown years.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Boris flies off in opposite direction to Cameron

If there ever had been any doubt as to whether Boris Johnson was on a collision course with the Prime Minister the it has been dispelled by this article in today's Telegraph.

They report that the London Mayor is to defy David Cameron by holding a rival inquiry into the future of aviation capacity which will specifically exclude a third runway at Heathrow.

They say that the “call for evidence” will hear from airlines, airport operators, local authorities and aviation experts, gleanings their views on his proposal for a new airport in the Thames estuary or expansion on alternative sites around the capital.

Quite how such a loaded study will provide the persepective needed to make an objective decision is difficult to see. But then Boris doesn't run the country, just London. At the moment anyway.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Labour split on economy

Having established yesterday Labour's culpability in creating the economic mess we are facing it is interesting to read in today's Observer how badly split they remain in how to put things right and indeed, on their general approach to policy.

The paper reports that David Miliband and shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander, have written from the Democrat convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, that Labour needs to show it is on the side of prosperous middle-class voters as well its working-class base if it is to win the next election.

They also say that Labour must show it is committed to reform of the state, as well as reform of the markets and to economic prudence in the medium term following a burst of Keynesian stimulus advocated by the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls.

The paper says that their intervention reflects unease on the Blairite wing of the party that the Labour leader is shifting too far left, out of a belief that the financial crisis has created a fundamental change in public attitudes towards rampant wealth creation and unregulated markets.

 The Observer adds that further trouble looms for Ed Miliband as the political conference season gets under way with the TUC congress in Brighton. They say that several unions, including Labour's biggest financial backer Unite, are calling for more co-ordinated industrial action in the public sector over pay cuts.

However, in their article David Miliband and Alexander hint that they would like to see Labour relying less on union money as they call for fundamental reform of party funding:

"In Britain there is a structural imperative for Labour to take down the influence of money in politics – not just as a high-minded recognition of voter concern, but out of sheer self interest," they write.

"At the moment, party funding reform is going nowhere. So this autumn Labour should again reach out to the Liberal Democrats with the aim of working together to get big money out of politics. Some parts of the current system help us, but overall the Tories are the party that stands to benefit most from stalemate."

I understand that Ed Balls has been on Marr this morning and is reaching out to the Liberal Democrats, well to Vince Cable anyway, who looks like he doesnt want to touch him with a barge pole. Little wonder given the role that Ed Balls played in negotiations with the Liberal Democrats after the 2010 General Election.

Just consider this passage on page 143 of David Laws' very comprehensive account of coalition negotiations in the 22 days after the General Election:

Ed Balls was already rumoured to be committed to taking to Labour into opposition. He had never been a supporter of Lib-Lab links and, like Gordon Brown, he found it difficult enough to compromise within his own party, let alone with another. Ed stared off into the distance while Peter Mandelson talked, and occasionally winced or frowned at comments from either side that displeased him.

Whilst Labour remain divided and inward looking it is difficult to see how they could possibly offer any realistic possibility of cross-party working if the next General Election is also indecisive.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Spending cuts and Government priorities

Today's South Wales Evening Post contains a rather bizarre response from the Welsh Government to the revelation by Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader, Kirsty Williams that the use of agency staff by the health service is an expensive and inefficient use of scarce resources.

Instead of seeking to answer the charge their unnamed spokesperson instead launches into a tirade about the unrelated cuts being faced by the Welsh Government's budget.

There was a rather similar accusation in a letter in the same edition from Labour Assembly Member, Mike Hedges. He claims that 'all cuts to public expenditure in Wales are a direct result of the cuts imposed on Wales by the Conservative and Lib Dem coalition at Westminster.'

What all this misdirection fails to acknowledge of course is that cuts have only been necessary at all because of Labour's mismanagement of the economy including a failure to properly regulate the banks. In addition they allowed a huge structural deficit to develop in public spending.

Of course they have acknowledged this themselves. After all the last Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling planned cuts in public expenditure roughly comparable with those of the current Government.

The big difference between Labour's plans and those being implemented by George Osborne however, is that Labour would have made deeper cuts in the Welsh Assembly's budget, whilst their cuts to the Welsh Government's capital expenditure would have been deeper and faster than those currently in place.

It is funny how neither Mike Hedges nor the Welsh Government spokesperson mention any of this.

Friday, September 07, 2012

An extra Minister

Like many other Welsh Liberal Democrats I am delighted and relieved that Jenny Randerson has been made a Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Wales Office (PUSS). This position is significant because unlike many other domestic departments, the Wales Office's role can be reduced to a representational one, rather than legislative and administrative, though they do some of that as well.

Most of the responsibilities of Wales Office Ministers have been devolved to the Welsh Government, so they are focussed on representing Wales in cabinet and vice versa. It has to be said though that this role is crucial when it comes to legislation on non-devolved matters. Consideration has to be given to ensuring that Wales' interests are properly represented, that new powers are properly allocated and that existing powers held by the Welsh Assembly are not compromised.

The nature of a Wales Office Minister's work is eessentially that of communication. When that is working well in both directions then both the Welsh Government and the UK Government benefit. When it is not working then we have conflict and Wales' interests suffer. Wales Office Ministers also need to have a good understanding of devolution largely because they end up explaining it to other UK Government departments.

But it is not just the Welsh Government that needs to be kept in the loop and listened to. The Welsh Conservatives and the Welsh Liberal Democrats are in government in Westminster and in opposition in Cardiff Bay. We need to have an input too, not least because Welsh Government Ministers occasionally use us as a conduit to send a message to their opposite number on the other side of the Severn Bridge.

I have been able to facilitate meetings between Ministers for example, whilst my ability to pick up the phone and talk to the right people was crucial in getting the Housing Legislative Competence Order approved back in the early days of the coalition Government.

In a coalition government situation, and given the nature of Wales Office Ministers' jobs, it was absurd that the Conservatives had this additional line of communication, but the Welsh Liberal Democrats did not. That is why Jenny Randerson's appointment is so important, it gives us a formal input into Government discussions.

Many commentators have suggested that Jenny Randerson's appointment means that the Welsh Liberal Democrats Assembly Group's strategy of distancing themselves from the more unpopular proposals of the UK government, such as regional pay and cuts to welfare, will now be a whole lot harder. I do not accept that.

For a start, the group's strategy is not to distance ourselves from the UK Government, it is to represent Wales' best interests. Thus, if we disagree with a policy and feel that it will damage Wales then we will say so and we will lobby hard both privately and publicly for that change. Ultimately, we know that if we don't succeed then we will be associated with the policy irrespective of what we have done. Jenny Randerson's appointment gives us an additional route to put across our views.

This is not a unique strategy. It is one that was practised by the Wales Labour Party prior to 2010. We should not forget Rhodri Morgan's clear red water nor the many instances when Labour AMs stood up in the chamber and disagreed with what their colleagues were doing in Westminster. Indeed, given that many of the welfare reforms were inherited from Labour, they are still doing it.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats' strategy has been a bit of slow burner but it has achieved results, not least in the recent announcement on electrification of the main line to Swansea and of the valley lines. We are still working hard behind the scenes on a number of other issues. Once we have set up a set up a formal line of commication with Jenny Randerson, we will be lobbying her as well.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Missing Welsh legislaton

The Welsh Government has announced the Welsh Government’s Counsel General, Theodore Huckle QC is to undertake a "whistle-stop" visit to Australia and New Zealand this week to 'investigate in a packed programme how Wales might learn from their recent experience in clarifying and simplifying complex legislation.'

I am sure this will be a very useful trip. Maybe he will be able to advise the Welsh Government on his return how to get legislation on the statute book in the first place.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

How to win friends and influence people

I am not fond of Ryanair and avoid using it whenever I can. Nothing will surprise me about the many ways they seek to make money. Well, that was the case until I saw this article.

They say that after a flight last month from Alicante to Bristol, Suzy McLeod of Newbury took to Facebook to vent her anger at paying €60 each for boarding passes for herself, her parents and her two children, a total cost of  €300. The reaction of Ryanair's owner, Michael O'Leary is hardly designed to win friends for his airline:

But Michael O'Leary yesterday ridiculed her failure to print out her own boarding cards. "As you know, there are no internet cafés in Alicante, there are no hotels in Alicante that would provide print-outs and no fax machines so that some friend or colleague at home could print them out and fax them down to you. Within a day, she generates 500,000 'friends' and fans on Twitter, all of whom hate Ryanair."

Mr O'Leary said that 99.98 per cent of Ryanair passengers print their boarding passes in advance: "To those who don't, we say quite politely: 'Bugger off' ". He added that Ms McLeod had written to him requesting compensation and "a gesture of goodwill", and he had responded by saying: "It was your fuck-up".

Still, at least Mr. O'Leary has got it right on Boris Johnson's madcap idea of building a new airport in the Thames estuary, even if the language is overly colourful. He dismissed the Mayor of London's proposals for a Thames Estuary airport as "Boris's bullshit that he dreamed up in a pub some Friday night".

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Unintended consequences

For some reason the Welsh Assembly is still in recess even though Parliament has resumed meeting for two and a half weeks before breaking up again for Party Conference season.

The Welsh Assembly, like Parliament bases its recesses around school holidays, though we are meant to be a bit more family friendly. However, as there is no uniformity around Wales as to when schools take their holidays this often means that the Assembly recesses stretch out a bit more than they should, just so we can accommodate all 60 AMs.

That is why Leighton Andrew's proposals to standardise school term dates across the country are so interesting. It means that recesses can be shorter as they no longer have to accommodate the different arrangements of all 22 local councils.

Is an unintended consequence of this reform that the Assembly will sit for longer each year in formal session?

Monday, September 03, 2012

An occasional round-up of Welsh blogposts Part Four

This is the fourth in a series of reviews of Welsh blog posts that have caught my eye over the last month.

The Institute for Welsh Affairs blog 'Click on Wales' is always thought provoking and original. This post by Meic Stephens about Dafydd Jenkin, the major authority on the laws of the tenth Century Hywel Dda, is no exception.

Mr. Stephens looks at Dafydd Jenkins' work in putting together a composite text of the Law of Hywel Dda as well as his involvement with Plaid Cymru during the time of Saunders Lewis and his role in seeking official status for the Welsh language:

During World War II Dafydd Jenkins, a committed pacifist, registered as a conscientious objector on Christian grounds and was ordered to work on the land, his first experience of farming and his introduction to the tradition of agricultural co-operation which had long been practised in Cardiganshire. He was one of the contributors to a series of pamphlets published by Cymdeithas Heddychwyr Cymru, a Welsh equivalent of the Peace Pledge Union.

In the Parliament for Wales Campaign launched in 1951 on an all-party basis under the chairmanship of Megan Lloyd George, the Liberal MP for Anglesey, Dafydd Jenkins played a prominent part. A quarter of a million people declared themselves in favour of an elected, legislative Parliament. However, the initiative failed, largely because, of the 36 MPs representing constituencies in Wales, only six supported it, of whom five were Labour members in defiance of their Party’s policy, but partly because the British political system cannot be changed by petition alone.

Swansea Liberal Democrat, Dr Maria Pretzler has an authorative and interesting post on her blog, also cross-posted on Freedom Central, in which she examines the state of Welsh Higher Education:

But let us look at the rest of this statement, claiming that state funding in Wales will be higher than in England. This is correct, but it doesn’t mean that Welsh universities will get more money than those in England. Whatever one thinks of the new fees regime in England, one ought to stick to the facts, and fact is that most of the teaching grant has been withdrawn and replaced by income from higher fees. In Wales, the fees haven’t been raised, and so the grant remains, which is why it is, and has to be, higher than in England. However, what Leighton Andrews isn’t saying is that Wales can’t afford a teaching grant high enough to make up for the significant shortfall. Only a significant influx of full-fee paying students from England could do that, and at last count, English teenagers haven’t been willing to help out Leighton Andrews in sufficient numbers. Not many people (apart from Leighton Andrews, perhaps) will be surprised.

Over at the 'A Change of Personnel' blog, the question is posed: 'Why the silence over AWEMA?' The blog asks are two highly critical verdicts of the conduct and management of the former Chief Executive Nas Malik and Chair Dr Rita Austin involving unfair dismissal and sexual harassment while running a tax payer funded organisation with links to the governing party not worth commenting on? The answer appears to be no but, as a comment points out, for very good reason:

The employment tribunals were serious affairs, but the meatier stuff will likely be in that WAO report you mention. It looks as though Naz Malik will have to pay the compensation himself.

I also want to know which Welsh Government minister(s) signed off cheques to AWEMA after the initial warnings all those years ago.

Obviously you can't make accusations without hard evidence even if it's fairly easy to work out who was where at the time, but it could be someone who's on the current Welsh Government front bench. This has some way to go yet.

Meanwhile, Ceredigion County Council Chair, Councillor Mark Cole, has turned 30 and celebrated with friends on the beach in Tenby. Apart from my surprise that the weather held up for them, his blog post is notable for his acceptance of the aging process:

It doesn't bother me one jot. I've always taken life with a slight pinch of salt and a great dose of irony. We don't know what's around the corner and so we must embrace life with a zestful love and thanks for being so fortunate when others in the world are markedly less so.

So if anyone did mistake my self-depracating ironic humour for that of someone lamenting the passing of time, you couldn't have been further from the truth. My 20s were indeed a wonderful time but that is now in the past and I wouldn't wish to re-live it. Life is for the here and now.

So, 30s? Bring it on!

The debate about a Severn barrage has quietened down over the summer months but is guaranteed to reappear, once the cabinet reshuffle has taken place and Cameron has had his meeting with Peter Hain. Plaid Cymru's Ian Titherington though, is anxious to remind us that there are alternatives:

I note with interest that talk of building the huge Severn barrage has re-commenced and with respect, I can understand why. Many who are dubious about many elements of its construction and cost are slowly being won over, due to the promise of thousands of jobs at a time when Wales is desperate for work and investment. Many are also frustrated that after much fuss about choosing tidal lagoons as an alternative, no progress appears to have been made in this direction.

I have sympathy for such views, but see a fundamental flaw in this position. From an engineering perspective, there are two options for huge energy production and choosing one will effectively rule out the other. There is already a working tidal barrage in France that has proved its worth, but no such example of a tidal lagoon. Only when a comparison is made of the two options, should we press ahead with the vast investment required.

Finally, the Plaid Wrecsam blog has some thoughts on the cost of democracy, prompted by the potential refurbishment of the House of Commons:

Where are these cynical letter writers now that it has been decided that the Houses of Parliament need a refurbishment at a cost of £3 billion! This is a phenomenal figure compared to the £70 million it cost to build the National Assembly and the £414 million to build the Scottish Parliament; in fact a refurbishment will cost 6 times the building costs of the Senedd and the Scottish Parliament put together and the silence is deafening!

It is all a matter of perspective I suppose.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

My twopennyworth on the Clegg leadership

Well thank goodness for the interweb, otherewise I would not know who Lord Smith of Clifton is. Of course, the fact that I have not heard of him does not make his views on Nick Clegg's leadership any less valid, but it does help that when commenting on the electability of a party leader, that one has at least been elected to something oneself at some stage in one's career.

This is precisely the point made by Adrian Sanders MP, who rightly believes that Nick Clegg needs to re-engage with the party. Admittedly, 'bumbling along' is not helpful language, but who am I to lecture anybody on these matters.

Adrian questions the advice that the Liberal Democrat leader is getting and suggests that he needs to convince people in the party and the wider electorate that we are doing the right thing. Perhaps we all need to stand back a bit and see where we are at and why.

It is certainly true that Nick Clegg has a perception problem. Most of that goes back to the tuition fees decision and the problems that a small party has being in a coalition, when it has to make difficult but necessary decisions in the best interests of the country. No doubt if we had had a majority we could have avoided a number of these bear traps, but incumbency comes with a price and we can no longer rely on the politics of protest that has served us so well up to now.

Nick Clegg took the couragous step of bringing the party into government, giving us a chance to implement Liberal Democrats policies for the first time since 1906-1916. He did so because the country needed stable government to sort out the economic mess that we had inherited. In that sense he has been our most successful leader. And let us not forget that his decision was unanimously endorsed by the party membership.

Changing leader now will not make things better. We should all remember how disastrous it was the last time there was a Parliamentarian-led coup at the top, when Charles Kennedy, a successful and popular leader, was forced out by MPs, without any reference to the party at large. In many ways this latest controversy is part of the legacy of that action. The scars have not yet healed. There is nothing to gain by re-opening them.

Putting Vince Cable in charge of the party does not take us out of government. It does not reverse the direction we have committed ourselves too, nor does it undo the many decisions that have been taken in government, all of which he has collective responsibility for.

If we are to go to the country in 2015 arguing that we are more economically competent than Labour, more compassionate than the Tories, that we have delivered good Liberal Democrat policies and blunted the worst of Toryism then we need to do so with our heads held high. We cannot say that we have the balls to be in government if we have panicked and dumped our leader at the first sign of trouble.

More importantly, Nick Clegg is the right man in the right job at the right time. Whatever the personal qualities of Vince Cable, it is Nick who has the wider experience of coalition, who crafted the strategy that put us in government , who has undergone an extraordinary baptism of fire as Deputy Prime Minister and who is holding the coalition together from our side of the fence. The future of the party depends on the success of this partnership, we cannot walk away from it prematurely.

Yes, Nick needs to listen and engage better with the party. He also needs to get out more around the country to sell the coalition and perhaps hone the message a bit better, so that it is more easily understood. But having now survived two nail-biting elections in the real world whilst he and the party have been struggling in the polls, I am not going to give up on him yet.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

A royal prerogative

Yesterday's Guardian says that the way in which the Royal family, and Prince Charles in particular, are able to influence legislation so as to protect their own interests is about to be exposed in graphic detail.

The information commissioner has ruled that the Cabinet Office must publish an internal Whitehall guide to the way the senior royals are consulted before legislation is introduced:

The application of the controversial veto was revealed by the Guardian last year and has been described by constitutional lawyers as "a royal nuclear deterrent". Some believe its existence may underpin the influence Charles appears to wield in Whitehall over pet issues ranging from architecture to healthcare.

A judgment issued last week by the deputy information commissioner, Graham Smith, means the Cabinet Office has until 25 September to release the confidential internal manual. It details how the consent of "The Crown and The Duchy of Cornwall" is obtained before bills are passed into law and what criteria ministers apply before asking the royals to amend draft laws. If it fails to do so it could face high court action.

In the past two parliamentary sessions Charles has been asked to consent to at least 12 draft bills on everything from wreck removals to co-operative societies. Between 2007-09 he was consulted on bills relating to coroners, economic development and construction, marine and coastal access, housing and regeneration, energy and planning. In Charles's case, the little-known power stems from his role as the head of the £700m Duchy of Cornwall estate that provides his £17m-a-year private income.

The government battled to keep the manual secret, claiming publication would breach legal professional privilege and a spokeswoman for the Cabinet Office said it was still deciding whether to challenge the ruling at the information tribunal.

These rules apply to the Welsh Assembly as well of course, but it is difficult to see how we can pass any law that might impact on the Duchy of Cornwall. Still it is worth a try I suppose.

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