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Saturday, January 31, 2004

Honorary Degrees and all that

Earlier this week I accused the University College of Swansea of "dumbing down" after it announced the imminent closure of Wales' only stand-alone Philosophy Department and four other subjects including chemistry. The press release can be found elsewhere on this site.

It seems to me that this must be a matter of great concern for the Assembly Government as, despite the growth in other departments, the range of educational provision in Swansea is being severely limited, whilst a department that has helped to put the College on the map during a tumultuous thirty years is going. I suppose that the Philosophy Department has brought the authorities in Swansea University a lot of grief and many of them will be glad to see the back of it.

What has surprised me is that the Students' Union has been very muted in its criticism of the decision to close these five departments down whilst the Assembly Government has so far been silent. Although clearly there is no connection between the two events it was with astonishment that I read in this morning's Western Mail that the Swansea West AM and Government Minister for Economic Development and Transport, Andrew Davies, is to be awarded an honorary fellowship by the University.

I have never been comfortable with honorary degrees and fellowships however, I do recognise that they can be used to recognise significant achievement, particularly in an academic field. I do not dispute that Andrew Davies has achieved a lot, however he is a serving Government Minister whose portfolio impinges significantly on the work of the University, not least in the development of the digital technium on campus that has attracted substantial public funding. As a Minister, he will also clearly have a view on the University's decision to close down five academic departments.

In the circumstances I believe that he would be advised to think very carefully about proceeding to accept this award. Whilst Mr. Davies' integrity is not in doubt, it does seem to me to be inappropriate that a serving Government Minister with responsibilities that affect the future of the University should receive such an honorary fellowship whilst he remains in post. Equally it seems to me to be inappropriate that the University has offered it to him at this stage.

Friday, January 30, 2004

Things we don't normally think of

Sometimes something happens that is relatively trivial and commonplace but which still causes us to do a doubletake. Yesterday I paid a visit to Bridgend Recreation Centre to see the Way Forward Project for young single mothers. After talking to the young mums, visiting the creche and discussing the project with the staff I was taken out onto the playing fields to see a second project. This one is being put together by the Bridgend Youth Service and involves engaging young people in the County Borough through sport. When I got there the Army were taking the youngsters through a team building exercise. I stayed for half an hour or so talking to the Youth Service organisers and a local journalist. Near the end we were joined by one of the Army Officers who discussed with my guide the possibility of organising a five-a-side football game. She expressed an interest and asked for contact details. At this point one of the other Army people dug into the pocket of his military fatigues and pulled out some business cards. The idea of army personnel carrying business cards is a logical and natural one, especially in a civilian setting, however it still surprised me a bit. I suppose I am more used to exchanging cards with people wearing expensive suits. Would it be fatuous to wonder if they take them on peace-keeping missions with them? Yes, of course it would. Forget I asked.

Thursday, January 29, 2004


At least some Tory politicians are thinking sensibly about drugs. I am not sure though whether Mark Isherwood has quite registered that to use cannabis for medicinal purposes then it would have to be reclassified. There was a lot of fuss in the Assembly this week from the Tories about the reclassification of cannabis from "B" to" C". Their argument was that it sends out mixed messages and that it fails to take account of the fact that cannabis is a "gateway" drug. What they did not say is that alcohol and tobacco are also gateway drugs. Following their logic there is a case to ban these substances as well. Such a proposition is of course nonsense.

Badger therapy

Now this is good! Presumably they don't have badgers in the Australian Bush.

Those scary right-wing Tories

Wonderful speech yesterday from David Davies, the Conservative AM for Monmouth. David knows how to hit all the right buttons for the Conservative faithful, condemning the usual targets of "one-legged pregnant lesbians etc" so beloved of the right wing press in the eighties. David is particularly scornful of "political correctness", presumably unaware that the concept was invented by the left to parody their more earnest colleagues. Here is an example:

"In my experience, some projects involving young people offer tremendously good value for money. I was privileged a few weeks ago to meet young people in Abergavenny to discuss the political process, as part of an excellent project, which anyone would commend. However, there are also some bad projects out there, which are costly and provide a useful stipend for certain people, but do not deliver much in the way of value for money.

By way of example, I mention the Agora project, which I believe received over £100,000 for staging politically correct plays, which I doubt anyone would watch. One of those plays was about Non-a Welsh-speaking single parent who wanted to become a plumber, but could not find bilingual childcare facilities. That was just one example of the type of plays that they were staging. That sort of politically correct nonsense has to be stopped, particularly if it is paid for out of taxpayers' money. We will vote in favour of this motion, but we want the Minister to realise that we will ensure that there is value for money. If there is any suggestion that this money is being wasted on politically correct nonsense, then we will be the first people to stand up and call for the money to be properly spent."

The question that all this rhetoric poses is this: "Has David ever tried to get a plumber in an emergency?"

Richard Burton

August 5th marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Richard Burton. Accordingly, I received an e-mail from a constituent suggesting that the Assembly marks this occasion by displaying a picture of the great man in our Milling Area. I passed this request onto the Deputy Presiding Officer for the consideration of the House Committee or its Arts Sub-Committee. I turned up to the House Committee this morning thinking that the matter was to be dealt with by the sub-committee as it was not on the agenda. In fact that is what is now to happen. The first words the Deputy Presiding Officer said to me as I sat down were "Peter, will you raise Richard Burton sometime?" I know what he meant but for a moment he seemed to be attributing Godlike powers to me.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

The infiltrators

Having secured a five vote majority in favour of variable top-up fees it seems that the retribution now begins in the Labour Party. Why is it that these party apparchitiks cannot accept that occasionally members should be allowed to vote according to their conscience? That is a lesson that Labour AMs still need to learn. Despite many of them being opposed to variable fees they all voted en bloc in favour. I bet Tony Blair wishes he had those 30 politicians in Parliament instead of the 72 members of his own Parliamentary Party who stood up to the charm offensive and the bullying yesterday to vote against the Second Reading of the Higher Education Bill.

Calm down!

Peter Hain, the Secretary of State for Wales, is at it again, commenting on the outcome of the Richard Commission, currying favour with Labour MPs and seeking to stake out a position in advance of any recommendations the Commission may have with regards to more powers for the Welsh Assembly. It was with some frustration therefore that I raised the matter with the First Minister yesterday:

Peter Black: Will the Minister make a statement on any discussions that he has had with the Secretary of State for Wales on the Richard commission? (OAQ31284)
The First Minister: With the Secretary of State, we have noted the progress of the commission's work in that it will be completed and published shortly. As you know, Peter, the commission is independent and it will reach its conclusions based on the evidence that it has received, and neither the Secretary of State nor I know what those conclusions will be.
Peter Black: Given the recent, increasingly hysterical pronouncements by the Secretary of State for Wales on the Assembly's powers and how we conduct our affairs, the next time that you meet should you not advise him to calm down, to stop spinning and to see what the commission recommends before making further comments?

I have to say that I enjoyed saying it if nothing else.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Jam tomorrow

The Assembly's Business Committee decides that certain items of secondary legislation do not need to be referred immediately to the relevant subject committee. One of them is "The Jam and Similar Products (Wales) Regulations 2004. Is this a case of jam tomorrow?

Loyalty test

I see that I am not the only one with rebellious staff. An e-mail arrives from the PA to Tory AM Jonathan Morgan. It has been circulated to the staff of all four parties. She is keen that we should all be aware that Jonathan is taking a starring role in a pantomime as an ugly sister should any of us "fancy a laugh". The things us AMs have to put up with from our staff!

What film certificate are you?

Interesting link from Iain Coleman, who apparently rates an 18 certificate. Jade Farrington manages to get a rating of 15. When I tried the questionaire however I can only score 12A, the lifestyle equivalent of "Batman" and "Naked Gun Thirty Three and a third". Clearly, my age and my life as a full-time politician has made me very boring. I will have to remedy this and let my hair down on Friday when I am 44 years old. Perhaps two pints instead of one! :-)

Monday, January 26, 2004

Labour man sparks off debate

Well, at least one senior Labour Assembly Member is prepared to debate openly the need for more powers for the Assembly and the reform of the Barnett formula. Environment Minister Carwyn Jones has broken ranks today with a clear call to arms for the pro-devolutionists within Welsh Labour. It signals some interesting times both before and after the publication of the Richard Commission report into this issue. This event is to be followed by a Special Welsh Labour Conference to decide the party's response. The danger is that once this Conference has voted for a resolution then all further debate will be stymied. That must not be allowed to happen. The future of devolution is of much wider significance than the battle for the soul of the Labour Party. Those like Carwyn must fight on whatever the decision.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

So long Ron! I can't say I am surprised.

So Ron Davies has resigned from the Labour Party and launched yet another stinging attack on Welsh Labour - "The big issue is the failure of the Labour Party in Wales to respond to the opportunity of devolution. There is the issue of competence with the administration in Cardiff Bay. There seems to be a determination to avoid any discussions to empower the Assembly. For me they are just no longer capable," he said. Of course if Ron had not gone for a walk on Clapham Common and he had been First Minister it would have all been so very different, or would it? The attempt to rationalise sour grapes in this way is not convincing.

The big question now is where will Ron go next. Will he appear on the European list of John Marek's alternative socialist party? With his ego only the number one spot on that list would do.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

More on proportional representation

I am loath to turn this blog into part of a cross-internet discussion forum but Edward Cummings has drawn my attention to a piece on his blog called "Trust People" criticising my views on PR so I thought it right to respond. I am however not going to turn this into a blog for PR anoraks either.

In his article Edward states:

Firstly, how is the system unrepresentative? It may not be perfectly proportionately representative of votes cast across the whole area up for election but the current system ensures that every voter is represented by one person who is directly accountable to that individual.

There is a submission elsewhere on my site (under Flashpoints) that answers many of the questions posed in Edward's piece so rather than reinvent the wheel I will quote from it. "In Blaenau Gwent....the ruling Labour Group has 81% of the seats with 45.7% of the vote. In Bridgend, Labour rule with 75.9% of the seats but only 40% of the vote. In Rhondda Cynon Taff, Plaid Cymru have 56% of the seats on 43.3% of the vote whilst in Newport Labour have 85.1% of the seats with only 44.6% of the vote. In Cardiff, Flintshire, Neath Port Talbot, Swansea and Torfaen it is the same story - political inertia based on unequal outcomes." That not only demonstrates how the system is unrepresentative but also that one person's vote has a different value depending on where that person exercises it under the present system.

As for every voter being "represented by one person who is directly accountable to that individual", the inertia that is inherent in First Past the Post means that in many instances the ruling party pays less attention to the views of the electorate and thus is less accountable. Also I do not think that Edward has grasped that there are other PR systems than party lists. Under STV there are ward or constituency representatives directly accountable to those who voted them in and because that system is less party-based they are less beholden to the party machine.

Secondly, Mr Black says he doesn't know what is a convincing case for change if the case he lays out isn't. That probably explains why I always find the LibDems so unconvincing. I fail to see how councils will be more receptive to public opinion under PR - the only viewpoint which council leaderships will be more receptive to would be local Party opinion. It will, after all, be the Party's view of their actions which would guarantee them a berth high up the list at the next election!

Again, I emphasise that I do not promote party lists. These systems are undemocratic and are beholden to the party machine which is presumably why New Labour opted for them in Scotland, Wales and European elections. Again I quote from my own submission to the Welsh Commission on Electoral Arrangements for Local Government: "What is more the poor turnout in local elections, in my view demonstrates how people are resigned to the fact that their vote cannot change things. The vast majority of people in these Councils live in wards considered safe for one party or another and no matter how disillusioned they are prefer to express their disillusionment through absenteeism rather than by casting a positive vote for change. That is because they know that under the present system the odds are stacked against them."

"The case for change is overwhelming. Whilst Councils remain entrenched in political and managerial inertia then they will not respond to pressures to reform either from Government or the electorate. They are largely able to pay lip-service to public opinion and it is only through opening them up to the possibility of change by ensuring that electoral outcomes reflect the votes cast, that we will ensure that Local Government becomes the sort of modern and responsive local democracy which Wales needs and which can be trusted with full responsibility for its own destiny."

If anything, I would prefer to see some de-politicisation of local elections so that our elected representatives actually do fight for the interests of the small groups of people who elect them. That way we can be sure that councillors positively try to represent the interests of their voters. Under the current system elected representatives' positions are more greatly affected by their reputation for getting things done amongst a relatively small population than under a PR system where one person's view matters much less.

Wrong again I am afraid. In an STV system the views of individual politicians matter more, the system helps independents and people have a much wider choice. They can choose whether to opt for party politics or not though the idea of de-politicising local Councils is, I am afraid, a rather quaint anachronism.

I know there are (some) advantages with PR, but the greatest disadvantage must undoubtedly be this fundamental change in the accountability of our politicians.

That is of course the greatest advantage of STV, that it increases the fundamental accountability of our politicians.

And the ERS (originally name Campaign for PR...or something very similar) may have a 'good point' about the BNP being more likely to win seats under first-past-the-post systems, but it is a 'point' which should have no 'point' at all. We cannot and should never decide what system we use to manifest our democratic will in elected individuals with reference to the relative success of any party, least of all one which most of us want to destroy. Let us destroy it at the ballot box by reason and argument, not by fixing the system.

I agree with the thrust of that point.

Jenny Tonge

I haven't had much time for long posts recently so my comments on the sacking of Jenny Tonge are much delayed. This issue has been the hot topic amongst Liberal Democrat bloggers of recent days along with penguin cricket. In a way the chance to reflect before commenting has been quite useful. All of us full time politicians live in a sort of goldfish bowl. We are constantly scrutinised, challenged and questioned on our views, on what we say, how we say it and on what we do. We learn to live with that. In this atmosphere we work as a team, supporting each other and trying not to step too far over the mark in a way that will compromise the work of other members of that team. In a way we assume a self-denying limitation on our freedom of speech. That is not to say that we do not step out of line on occasion. I have done so and I am sure I will do so again. The issue is that as with all freedoms, when you exercise them then you accept that there are consequences.

In Jenny's case the consequences came because despite her claim to be choosing her words "advisedly" she actually used very loose language, open to wide interpretation and failed to express herself in a clear and logical way. Francesca on her blog makes some good points about this use of language. She says "on one hand, understanding refers to comprehending the dynamics behind a problem; on the other hand, it implies sympathising with what you are talking about and therefore feel pity or find some justification for it. While at University, I've researched sexual violence and later on terrorism. I therefore have some knowledge of the dynamics behind these problems, but I would never dream to say that I understand why somebody who has been using pornography for years can go on and rape somebody else. The point of research is to find out what the problem is about, how it happens, why and what you can do about it. In Tonge's sentence, understanding means sympathising, because, she says, terrorism comes from desperation."

Like Francesca I cannot agree with the words and sentiments that Jenny Tonge used. What Jenny demonstrated is that she does not in fact understand terrorism or the motives for it. As Francesca says "terrorism does not stem from "bitterness, desperation and poverty". Terrorism throughout the world has always been very well organised and funded. It is a rather complex phenomenon". James Graham puts it more starkly: "Suicide bombing is not borne out of desperation - that is a gross oversimplification. It is as much borne out of ideology. Desperate people throw stones and have riots. Desperate people set themselves on fire and go on hunger strike. Zealots by contrast strap explosives to themselves and walk into Bar Mitzvas. They do it with malice aforethought. They do it out of hatred of another people. And they do it with the help of an organisation. This isn't some mindless lashing out - it is calm and collected murder. I don't understand the psychology that can lead to people making the mental leap from anger and desperation to an ideological commitment to terror, and I genuinely doubt Jenny Tonge does either."

In another forum another Liberal Democrat asks, "How the hell can anybody justify the mass bulldozing of houses, an illegal military invasion lasting over 35 years, an army which gleefully shoots children and murders foreign citizens present to try and ensure that basic human rights law is followed?" You cannot, but the role of a democratically elected politician is to find non-violent solutions to that not to assert that "I might just consider becoming one (a terrorist/suicide bomber) myself."

In the end Charles Kennedy had no choice but to sack Jenny Tonge, not just because of the views she expressed but also because she broke the rules and compromised the team she was a member of with loose language that was open to misinterpretation and which can and will be used to attack the party. That is not to say that Jenny should not have raised these issues, nor to say that she should not have expressed some understanding of the conditions that Palestinians are living in. She has the right to do that and in doing so take the consequences in full knowledge of the rules she accepted when she entered the "goldfish bowl".

There have been lots of messages to the party condemning the actions of Charles Kennedy in sacking her, stating in some cases that it is a pro-Israeli act, in others that it is intolerant and illiberal and in one case that he lacks the courage that Jenny Tonge showed in speaking out. A situation like Palestine does need courage but that courage needs to be tempered with wisdom. Jenny did not demonstrate that wisdom and so her point was lost in the reaction to it. She has not been gagged as she is free to continue to express her views. Charles Kennedy did not make a pro-Israeli act, rather his actions preserved the previously well-balanced and long-thought out policy of the party on Palestine.

Friday, January 23, 2004


I always knew that the Welsh Culture Minister, Alun Pugh AM, was a romantic but does he really need to use Civil Service resources to demonstrate this with a non-story.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Too much on the fringe

OK, enough already! And that means you as well Francesca :-) Try this instead - click once to make the penguin dive and click again to make the club swing.

More Welsh roots

It is reported that the Osmonds are heading to Wales to find their Welsh roots. First Tom Cruise, now the Crazy Horses themselves. Rumours that Jimmy Osmond is to commemorate the visit by releasing "I'll be your long-haired lover from Pontypool" are apparently unfounded.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Rebuilding trust

A lecture in the Assembly by Professor Richard Tait of the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University was apparently packed out and for once the attraction was not the free lunch. Professor Tait was lecturing on Politicians, the Media and the Public. He highlighted the falling turnout at National elections and the meltdown of public trust. A survey of attitudes to various professions revealed that 91% of people trust doctors to tell the truth and 85% trust teachers. The figures for TV newsreaders is 71%, for Civil Servants, 45%, Business leaders and Government Ministers rate 20% each whilst politicians generally score 19%. Journalists are only trusted by 13% of those asked. A similar survey of institutions found 71% trusting the Post Office, 53% schools, 22% the Civil Service and only 13% trusting the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. In 1974 39% of those asked believed that the Government of the day would put the national good above party gain. In 2002 that figure had dropped to 16%.

The conclusion is clear - non-participation in our democratic structures is founded on cynicism not apathy. That cynicism is underlined by a mistrust of the messages that are being fed to people and of the media that is used for communication. One of the solutions suggested was using more direct methods to get the message across. The use of the internet is one medium through which that can be achieved. In this context it is worth noting that, although the Welsh Assembly Government has promoted the sort of openness that people want to see from their government, their website remains as impenetratable as ever.

Lembit and those thumbs

Now the BBC have picked up on the title of Alex Folke's blog and are wondering what it all means.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

University Challenge

Congratulations to the University Challenge Team of Assembly Members who survived a weeding process by examination that reduced the number of entries into the programme from 66 to 22. The team of Nick Bourne, Eleanor Burnham, Rhodri Glyn Thomas and Huw Lewis will now attempt to out-perform the MPs who scored an all-time record low when they took part. The Team Captain is Eleanor Burnham who carries the hopes of the Assembly on her shoulders.

Stopping the BNP

Interesting press release from the Electoral Reform Society today demonstrating how the BNP have benefitted from the First Past the Post system of elections. I have to say that the psephology of their argument was a bit dodgy to say the least. Their premise was that the BNP won six seats last year in 12 wards on the basis of a third of the votes. If this pattern is repeated in the next two years then that will give them a majority. However, if my memory serves me correctly the BNP have subsequently lost one of those seats in a by-election and the complacency that allowed them to make these gains in the first place is being addressed. In particular the Liberal Democrats have shown themselves very adept at defeating the BNP simply by campaigning on the issues and showing people that the premise that the main political parties don't care and have let them down is not true. The Electoral Reform Society do have a very good point however in illustrating how under First Past the Post it is possible for a small minority party to pick up seats and gain influence in local Councils on a small proportion of the vote. It is a fact that a large number of Councils are balanced in no overall control on First Past the Post, undermining the argument that PR will lead to such results. It can happen under any system. The issue is that STV will give an outcome that reflects the way people voted, First Past the Post will not. As a result Councils will be more accountable and receptive to public opinion and needs. If that is not a convincing argument for change then I don't know what is.

Monday, January 19, 2004

The Welsh connection

Tom Cruise is Welsh! Yes, our unfortunate obsession with finding mega stars we can claim as our own has landed a really big 'un this time. It seems that the impossible mission accepted by Tom's great great grandfather in 1850 was to get from Flint to the New World, where he was charged with starting a dynasty of Mapothers that was to eventually spawn the great film star himself. Some of the comments in this piece would be funny if the people concerned were not so deadly serious. The Council Leader, speaking as if World peace had just been brought about in Hawarden, said "We are thrilled to be linked to such a huge celebrity icon." The funniest quote however was from journalist and broadcaster, Carolyn Hitt, on Radio Wales this morning. She suggested that Tom might want to rename his latest film and call it instead "The Last Shwmai"!

Tories do a u-turn on tuition fees

The Conservatives demonstrate their commitment to students and to higher education by er.. turning their back on them. As this link to the Independent shows their opposition to tuition fees turns out to be opportunism after all.

I was at Freshers' Fairs in which literature was being distributed by Tories on this subject and in which students joined Conservative Societies on the basis of their stance against fees. Of course now that these recruitment exercises are behind them they have ditched this particular policy and are starting to line up behind Charles Clarke and Tony Blair.

I always thought it was strange that top-up fees had been rejected by previous Tory Governments and that it had taken a Labour administration to bring them in. I still don't entirely understand it but it looks like it has been a political game of chicken all along. In this instance it was Howard who swerved off the road first. The sad thing is that whilst these games are being played with people's futures it is students and their parents, particularly those from a poorer background, who will suffer.


Where is Thomas the tank engine

The rather anonymous Transport Minister, Alastair Darling (wasn't he in Blackadder?) announces a major overhaul of the railway system in which the role of the SRA will be reduced. There are alos reports of regional controllers being appointed. This is an opportunity for Wales. The Assembly has powers over roads, buses and freight but none over the railways. This is in direct contrast to Scotland, where their Parliament can direct the SRA. A single Welsh franchise has been created but it is underfunded and will lead to few improvements in the short-term. If Wales were to have its own "fat controller", appointed by the Assembly, and if we were to have the power and the resources to direct the development of the Country's rail network, then we would be in a very good position to deliver an integrated transport system in which buses meet trains meet planes.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Popularity contest

It is widely acknowledged that us politicians do not often win popularity contests for what we do. I could expound at length as to why that should not be but I would be wasting precious time so I won't. I did have this discussion yesterday with a lady I encountered whilst delivering election leaflets. She contended that we are all the same and that therefore nothing that we say or write is worth taking note of. I pointed out that the alternative to the democratic system we currently operate would be unpalatable to her and many others. She, like others who take a similar view, have every right to stand for election themselves if they believe that their current representatives are not doing a good job. Most don't and that is the tragedy that is threatening our democracy.

I noticed that the lady in question had a young child. Surely, she is interested in how well her children are schooled, in the resources that go to that school and in the sort of society her daughter is going to grow up in. Whether she is or not, it seems that she is not prepared to engage in debate on the matter but would prefer to leave it to others. That is unfortunately a growing viewpoint and goes beyond what people think of politicians. This abdication of responsibility is not a new phenomena but it is a disturbing one.

In the face of all this it was a bit of a relief to see that we are not yet at the bottom of the popularity heap with the public at large. A survey compiled for Horlicks (no I don't know why it was Horlicks either) has branded Traffic Wardens as the most hated profession. Somehow, they have placed Bouncers, Estate agents, Motorcycle couriers, Bus drivers, Footballers, Tele-sales reps, and PR people as all more unpopular as politicians. Now some of these I can understand, after all nobody likes to be thrown out of a club or a pub and a lot of people have experience of mis-selling when it comes to buying a house, but bus drivers?

There seems to be two themes to this list. Firstly, there are those such as Estate Agents, Tele-sales reps, PR people and Politicians who have a product to sell and can go over the top in selling it to such an extent as to generate mistrust in what they say. Secondly, there are professions who cause inconvenience to others just by doing their job. Presumably, many motorists resent motor cyclist messengers weaving through traffic jams, or the fact that a bus is larger than their car and has special lanes. People may also be envious of rich footballers who flaunt their wealth.

By contrast the most popular all pursue a difficult profession with selflessness and dedication. They are members of the Armed Forces, rescue volunteers, nurses, vets, teachers, ambulance drivers, firefighters, care assistants, rugby players and police officers. I am not quite sure what the rugby players are doing in there but good luck to them anyway. We all have a job to do, maybe what is needed is that we try and put ourselves into the shoes of others so as to promote a bit more tolerance and understanding in our society.

Friday, January 16, 2004

Tories wiped out in Powys

A Council by-election yesterday saw the Conservatives lose their last seat on Powys County Council. In a three-cornered contest in the Dolforwyn ward in Montgomeryshire, they came third with 39 votes. The by-election was won by an Independent with 480 and 81.6% of those votes cast. There was a 45% turnout. I have updated my by-election chart on this website.

Note: Oliver Kamm makes the very fair point that I should have mentioned the second placed candidate in this by-election. It was of course the Welsh Liberal Democrat, who with 69 votes managed a paltry 11.7%, just over twice what is now needed to retain a deposit in a Parliamentary election. Of course it was not our seat to defend.

Finding out about both ends of a process

I spent a very productive morning visiting venues in my region. I started off in the new West Glamorgan Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse (WGCADA) Offices in Bridgend. Once I had navigated the notorious one-way system and found somewhere to park I had an enjoyable hour looking around their premises and discussing expansion plans and Drug and Alcohol policy in Wales. We concluded that there are three priorities that the Assembly needs to address in this area. Firstly, to sort out where all the money is going as it is not reaching the front line workers; Secondly, to get a capital programme in place to fund centres like the ones run by WGCADA with needle exchanges, counselling, treatment etc; and thirdly, to get more detox beds - there are only five for the whole of Swansea, Neath Port Talbot and Bridgend. I had visited Brynhawel House in Llanharry on Friday as well. This is a residential rehabilitation facility concentrating mostly on alcohol. A fourth priority came out of that visit - to get more residential rehabilitation places in Wales.

Following this visit I went to see the other end of Alcohol consumption - the Sewage Works at Ogmore by Sea. This plant has generated some complaints about odour so I went to find out for myself what measures are being put in place to try and limit and control this side effect. I have never been this close up to a sewage works before and, apart from having to hold my nose occasionally, found the whole experience fascinating. This plant serves 160,000 people and copes with 32,000 cubic metres of sewage each day in dry weather, 96,000 cubic metres when it is wet. On average they told me that they deal with 200 litres of sewage per head per day. If we really generated that much each then we would all spend 24 hours, 7 days a week on the toilet!

Arizona Welsh

It seems that the Welsh get everywhere!

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Mars anybody?

Having searched for weapons of mass destruction in Afghanistan and Iraq it seems that George W. Bush is now turning his attention to the Moon and to Mars. This is a relief as many had thought he might attack Iran next.

It seems the plan is to establish a bridgehead on the Moon and then to take the offensive straight to the Martians. "Bush said the moon, with a gravity pull one-sixth that of Earth, could be the launching pad for "human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond". He said his goal was to "extend a human presence across our solar system".

Rumours that the Martians are sitting on valuable oil reserves and are refusing to allow America access to them have not been substantiated. It is said by some senior administration officials that they have circumstantial evidence that the Martians are sponsoring terrorism and that they believe that the planet may even be harbouring Osama Bin Laden. Already opposition Democrats are calling for the United Federation of Planets to intervene in the dispute so as to avoid war. Former aides to the President have said that Bush is determined to press on with the plan. It seems that he decided to attack Iraq within days of his inauguration and that the subsequent assault on Mars is an integral part of the grand scheme to conquer the Universe and impose American values upon it.

A second new building?

So how exactly did this happen? The House Committee agree to bid a reported £750,000 for land so as to prevent a development that will overshadow their new Chamber Building. I vote against. Somehow this gets into the press and a massive outcry ensues. The original decision to landscape the land gets lost in the attempt to justify the indefensible. First of all we are told that the intention was to sell the land on at a profit and in this way control the nature of the development on it. This is despite the fact that such a proposition was never even mentioned in House Committee. Then, we are told that perhaps we are going to use the land to provide extra accomodation for members and staff.

This was mentioned in passing in the Committee as an attempt to answer the criticism I was making of the proposal to buy the land. It never formed part of the report nor was it ever used as a central argument in the discussion. There is no budget for such a development, there has been no meaningful discussion of such a proposition and no decision has ever been taken to even consider it. Furthemore, the rationale for such offices, that the Assembly may increase in size to 80 members, is so far away with the fairies at the moment that only a fanatic devolutionist would take its possibility seriously enough to commit a large sum of public money to a project that will accommodate it.

The Richard Commission has not yet reported. We do not know what it will say. If it recommends primary law-making powers and extra members, then this will be violently resisted by Welsh MPs and it seems, by the Secretary of State for Wales, who has already launched a pre-emptive strike against it. If despite all these obstacles these recommendations are made and are implemented then they will only come into effect after a General Election and possibly another Assembly Election. That is, at best, we will first elect 80 AMs in 2011. It could be argued that John Marek is being far-sighted therefore. I would say he is being defensive and desperate.

And yet it is now becoming accepted wisdom in the media that we are going to erect a second new building. It is not true! This second project exists only the minds and ambitions of those few individuals with an agenda for this Assembly, that agenda is not shared by the majority of its members. I don't suppose that will stop us being slagged off for it though, will it?

History for the politically correct

The Welsh Assembly has a statutory duty to promote equality of opportunity and quite a lot of members take that task very seriously, some would say too seriously. There are a number of members who think that we go too far. Whatever you think, the Assembly is the most politically correct body I have ever served on. So much so that when one particular Conservative Member became the Chair of a Committee, the female members, fed up of his constant use of Madam Chairman, insisted on referring to him as "Comrade Chair" for months on end. He got the message but still slips back into his bad old ways occasionally. The exchange in the chamber yesterday however, has to be the strangest case of political correctness I have yet come across. Naturally, the attempt to re-write history was made so as to do-down Plaid Cymru but still...

Leighton Andrews: Does the Minister agree that, while Owain Glyndwr's establishment of a Welsh parliament was a major achievement in its time and in its context, the nationalist project to try to remodel Glyndwr's parliament as a precursor to the Assembly is a historical absurdity? Does he agree, given that Glyndwr's parliament was not democratically elected, was not gender balanced, and that it comprised largely of Welsh toffs, that the institution-
Rhodri Glyn Thomas: Owain Glyndwr was a regional member.
The Presiding Officer: Order. This again is an interesting supplementary question.
Leighton Andrews: Does he agree that the institution in our capital city that Glyndwr's parliament most closely resembles is not the National Assembly, but the Cardiff and County Club?
Alun Pugh: It is important that we commemorate the anniversary appropriately, but on the other hand we should not get too misty eyed about what exactly the parliament was. You are right, it consisted entirely of men; it was dominated by the nobility, business interests and one religion; and its early agenda included setting up a Welsh army, a Welsh monarchy and Welsh diplomats. I can see why that agenda appeals to some Members of the Assembly, but it does not appeal to me.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004


Having watched successive Star Trek series for at least 30 years I have never understood what it was that the various Captains disliked about Will. It is true that in the "Next Generation" series there was actually a character called Will Riker but other than that we never got to see him. Whenever they got into a tight spot the order always went out - "Fire at Will!".

Presumably, they always missed. After yesterday's Plenary session of the Welsh Assembly I would not be surprised if in future fire is directed at Leighton. Rhondda AM Leighton Andrews demonstrated that he rarely, if ever, watches the series but still managed to turn it into a futuristic version of "The Office" by making a point so obscure that I still do not understand it.
Leighton Andrews: Do you agree that this extra money is welcome, particularly by the hard-pressed council tax payers of Rhondda Cynon Taf, who will at least have the certainty that this money will be spent on front-line services rather than being squandered on spaced-out Star Trek-style seminars for senior managers?

As I have never yet seen a seminar as such on a Star Trek programme I really do not know what Leighton is talking about. Unless of course he believes that Rhondda Cynon Taf are using management bonding exercises in which staff are asked to dress up as Klingons, Ferrengi, Cardassians and Romulans so as to fight the Plaid Cymru Federation led by Captain Pauline Jarman. The fantasy life of Labour AMs never ceases to amaze me.

Update: It seems that fact is stranger than fiction after all. My thanks to Welsh Tory Press Officer Richard Hazlewood for drawing my attention to the story behind the comment. How did I manage to miss Rhondda Cynon Taf's 'Star Trek Day' reported in the South Wales Echo on 10 September 2003? They reported that "The Starship Endeavour event at Rhondda Fach Leisure Centre today - being attended by 200 staff - includes sessions such as Beam Me Up to the Holo-Deck and It's Time to Break The Prime Directive, Jean Luc." It seems that Labour members of that Council were so angry that they left no metaphor unspoken. 'Labour councillor Robert Bevan said: "This is council mismanagement on a galactic scale. The Nationalists are desperate to Klingon to power, but they are likely to be kicked out at warp speed. This is further proof of the Nationalists' warped priorities."' Our friend Leighton Andrews added "Plaid Cymru councillors must be spaced out to allow this. We always knew they were on a different planet." Oh Dear.

Back to School

Sometimes the Assembly resembles a Comprehensive School. I can well remember attending classes after a particularly severe or radical haircut. Naturally, you were the subject of some good-natured ribbing. It seems that nothing changes in adulthood if this exchange in the chamber yesterday is representative:

Peter Law: ........ Like many others, I would prefer not to see variable, or top-up fees introduced in Wales, because I feel that the imposition of those fees-
The Presiding Officer: Order. We are well out of time for this statement, as I said. I wanted a brief question and a brief answer.
Peter Law: I have made my point, Llywydd. Sorry, I was temporarily distracted by the makeover of my friend, Peter Black. I thought that we had a new Member.
The Presiding Officer: I have already raised this matter with Peter Black privately. [Laughter.]

Thumbs up for Lembit (again)

I have used this headline before of course on 20 September, possibly for the same reasons as Alex Folkes. The story behind this legend is now becoming much used in the circles I mix in but alas it is not publishable. James Graham has referred to it in an oblique way on his blog. I like Lembit a lot but he really should be careful what he says in House of Commons' bars. A warm welcome should be extended to Alex as another Liberal Democrat blog to hit the net.

Update: My long-suffering Research Assistant Francesca proves that she has been thinking about other angles of this story with her own comment.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Devolution or not?

Peter Hain launches a pre-emptive strike on the outcome of the Richard Commission, set up by the previous Partnership Government to look at the powers of the Welsh Assembly. He says that the Scottish model is not the "be all and end all" of the devolution process, nor is it a "panacea for all problems." He has said that he "will not back change for change's sake" and that he is not willing to countenance anything that alters the number of MPs." It has to remain at 40, he says, and "I am not touching with a barge pole the Scottish nightmare of reductions in numbers of MPs." Well that is fairly clear, a DeGaullean "Non", if ever I heard one. So much for open debate. It goes to show that when the going gets tough and the MPs are really pissed off with the Assembly then the Secretary of State will side with them everytime. The machine politician has reared up again. It has been said that Mr. Hain is in favour of devolution. If that is the case he would embrace Richard with open arms and accept that in any transfer of Primary Law making powers along the lines of the Scottish Parliament then there will inevitably be a reduction in the number of MPs. He is not adverse to suggesting changes in the electoral system for the Assembly, which will benefit Labour however. His ideal seems to be to a settlement that keeps the backward looking Welsh Labour Party on board regardless of the interests of Wales.

He is right on two points. Firstly, he is right to point out that any changes will take years to implement and may not come about in full until a third, or possibly a fourth, Assembly Term gets underway. Secondly, he is right to say that extra powers alone will not solve all of Wales' problems. We can do a lot more with Primary Law-making powers but we will need the resources to implement the reforms we want. The Welsh budget is already groaning loudly under the strain of the pressures it is being put under. The Welsh Labour Government are struggling to find the money they need to get the Health Service under control and are hitting Local Government and Education to pay for their policies in this regard. Studies have indicated that the population-based Barnett formula could be leaving us with as much as £300-£800 million less than we need each year to deal with the problems we have. A reform of this formula to take account of needs is essential if we are to take full advantage of Full Parliament-status, and is necessary whether we get the powers or not. There is no point asking Mr. Hain where he stands on this issue. He is opposed to reform there as well.

Bye bye Jeff

It is a bolt out of the blue. Jeff Jones, the leader of Bridgend Council and Chair of the Welsh Joint Education Committtee, has announced that he is standing down. Always controversial, he will be a big loss to the opposition. He was our biggest asset in that Council area. He was also the leading figure in the persecution of Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Leader, Mike German, when we were in Partnership with Labour in the Assembly. The big question is "what is the real reason why he has stood down?" Rumour has it that he was pushed. We may never know.

Monday, January 12, 2004

Is Howard Dean unelectable? - Part Two

I am indebted to Tom Watson MP for drawing my attention to a fascinating American blog run by somebody who is organising events for Howard Dean. Bryan draws attention to a feisty article by Arianna Huffington on Tompaine.com in which she defends the electability of the Democrat frontrunner. "Dean", she says, "is electable precisely because he's making a decisive break with the spinelessness and pussyfooting that have become the hallmark of the Democratic Party." She goes on "There is a historical parallel to Dean's candidacy. But it's not McGovern in 1972, as the DLC-paranoiacs would like us to believe—it's Bobby Kennedy in 1968."

"Like Kennedy, Dean's campaign was initially fueled by his anti-war outrage. Like Kennedy, Dean has found himself fighting not just to represent the Democratic Party but to remake it. Like Kennedy, Dean is offering an alternative moral vision for America, not just an alternative political platform. And like Kennedy, Dean has come under withering attack from his critics for the very attributes that his supporters find most attractive."

It is not an entirely convincing argument but it is spirited and passionate. Isn't that what is missing from politics? Her most important point draws attention to Dean's main electoral asset. "young people have been the spark that has lit the fuse of the Dean campaign. As he pointed out this weekend in Iowa: "One-quarter of all the people who gave us money between June and September were under 30 years old." So while the Democratic establishment is once again dusting off its tried-and-untrue swing voter strategy, Dean is running, as he put it, "a campaign based on addition, not subtraction. We want to add new people to the Democratic Party so that we can beat George Bush. It's the only way we can beat him."

What do Tories read?

An interesting insight into the fantasy world of the average Tory comes in the latest edition of Private Eye. They report that browsers in the "shop" section of the Conservative Party website are able to purchase the autobiography of convicted murderer, Tony Martin. They say that "A Right to Kill" already features in the party's "bestsellers" list despite the fact that it is not even published until the end of February. You have been warned. Just in case you are considering burglaring the home of a known Conservative, be aware that they may well be harbouring secret desires to emulate Mr. Martin in defending their property.

Tuition fees

Jade Farrington says on her blog "Edis seems to think that English and Welsh students are going to "flood" over the Scottish border to take advantage of their universities as Scottish students don't pay tuition fees. Unless I'm mistaken this is ever so slightly flawed, in that English and Welsh students at Scottish unis still have to pay fees, as do Scottish students at English and Welsh universities. I don't think the Scots need to worry about another English invasion anytime soon.".

Jade is of course right, English students attending Scottish Universities may well still have to pay variable tuition fees if the present Higher Education Bill becomes law. I think it is worth pointing out though that the Bill proposes giving Wales the same powers as Scotland with regards to student finance and there is still a good chance that the Assembly will stop Welsh Universities charging variable tuition fees to Welsh students. In this instance devolution means that England and Wales should not be lumped together when it comes to legislation and policy. This is a common error on the part of the English media and English politicians and I should say that their Welsh equivalents are not immune from this either.

Jade also asserts that Scottish MPs should not be allowed to vote on English and Welsh matters. This is an interesting argument and arises only because the devolution process has been implemented by New Labour in such an haphazard way. Once English devolution is underway then we will have a large number of bodies all with different powers and different levels of responsibility. In that instance it will become impossible to enforce any such ban on voting on matters devolved to one's own regional or national assembly or Parliament. A proper Federal constitution is the only tidy and logical solution. Until that comes in I would suggest that members of a body should be able to vote on all matters before it (apart from when they have an declarable interest of course) regardless of geographical applicability.

Update: Eldis asks "comments such as those from Napier seem to assume that English fees would work as advertised in improving English Universities, so Scottish ones would face a staff brain drain chasing higher wages and better facilities. Any counters to this argument? Top-up fees supporters would say this would apply to all UK universities in competition with the rest of the world if we don't get the 'extra money'"

He is right of course. That is why there is a cost to any devolved administration which might wish to avoid imposing variable tuition fees. That cost amounts to the sum of money they will have to give to their Universities to compensate them for not having the income that these fees will bring. In this way the colleges within the devolved state will be able to continue to compete with English Universities, who would otherwise be better resourced and able to poach the best staff..


In-flight entertainment?

There is nothing more unsettling than to be waiting for a flight only to hear over the airport's PA system that another plane has been struck by lightning whilst landing. Pilot and airplane veteran, Lembit Opik, assured us that this should not cause a problem as planes are designed to dissipate such impacts. Nevertheless, visions of all those disaster movies, where a plane is downed after a lightning strike severs a wing or destroys an engine, flashed through my mind. As though us passengers were not nervous enough after this news the Captain announced before departure that due to low pressure the journey from Edinburgh to Cardiff would be very bumpy. However, "there would be some sustained periods of smooth flying". I didn't believe him when he then went on to tell us that there had been a tornado in the Bristol Channel but it seems that it was true. For once we all paid particular attention to the safety demonstration.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

New Hampshire

With the first Primary contests in the US elections imminent it is crunch time for the Democrats. I do not have the time now to write all the things I want to say but for my money it is between Dean and Clark for the Democrat nomination. In citing Clark as Dean's main rival I am of course falling into a trap set by many political commentators. They argue that Dean is unelectable because he is not running for centre ground on patriotism. Clark is able to get away with this because he has credibility by virtue of being a four star General, Dean has no such safety net. Yet Dean occupies the centre ground on many of the key domestic issues including balancing the budget and even the Environment, where his inconsistency as an SUV owning environmentalist chimes with the self-interest of many Americans. More importantly, isn't it about time that we had a real contest? The 2000 Presidential election was frustrating if only because it was difficult to find any real differences between the two candidates. Technically, Bush should have been unelectable but Gore gave him credibility by the ineptness of his campaign. Was it not also the case that Clinton was once branded as unelectable too? Maybe we need to get away from spin doctors and actually concentrate on the issues. Let the voters have a real mainstream choice and take a gamble on somebody who has something to say, is attracting new people into politics and who knows how to campaign. Somebody who has a message that is in stark contrast to the establishment and who is not afraid to speak out.

Saturday, January 10, 2004

Fear of flying

I only flew for the first time at the grand old age of 37 but have gradually got used to it. It now doesn't faze me at all. What I can never get used to is the fact that all the flights I need to catch go at unearthly hours of the night or morning. Hence I left home this morning at 5am to catch the 7am flight from Cardiff International Airport to Edinburgh. The whole of the Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Group is on a two day fact-finding trip to see how devolution is progressing in Scotland and what we can learn to take back to Wales. We are also being joined by the two Welsh Liberal Democrat MPs. I suppose I shouldn't complain about the journey, after all Lembit Opik is reportedly flying here straight from Australia, where he has been supporting Sian Lloyd in something or other. Clearly he has read Nostradamus' prediction of a comet brushing Northern France and raining debris onto Europe in August and is seeking a refuge from which he can emerge later on to tell us that he "told us so"!

Update: I have spent a very fruitful day in meetings discovering more about devolution in Scotland, which I will hopefully be able to put to good use back in the Assembly. Lembit showed up at about mid-day after travelling for 36 hours. The problem is his luggage was still in Frankfurt, having allegedly been lost. Actually, this is quite disturbing. If memory serves me right the Locherbie bomb was meant to have been planted in Frankfurt. One would have thought that procedures would have been tightened up since then, especially after 9/11. The fact that an airline can 'misplace' somebody's luggage and possibly put it onto the wrong plane does not fill me with confidence that another tragedy like Locherbie can be averted in the future.

Update 2: OK I have now seen most of Lembit's 500 holiday snaps. Apparently, the airlines did not think it was necessary to misplace these in transit. There are a disturbing number of Sian Lloyd's cuddly toy tiger in action poses. I know that Mr. Bassey, as he is called, became a cult figure during the filming of "I Am A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here", but enough is enough. Apparently, this toy is named after Shirley Bassey who, of course, comes from Tiger Bay in Cardiff. Sigh!

Friday, January 09, 2004

That £22 million

I see that the Welsh Social Service Chiefs have now waded into the debate on how the £22 million, given to us by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to keep down Council Tax, should be spent. Their intervention is an indirect one but is widely seen as pertinent to the debate. They have published a survey that shows that Welsh Social Service Departments have overspent by £13 million already this year.

There are some who are arguing that this justifies the decision by the Labour Assembly Government to ring-fence £19.5 million of the Chancellor's money for bed blocking in respect of elderly patients. However, if you look more closely at the figures it becomes apparent that nearly £12 million of the £13 million overspend related to Children's Services. Oops! Wrong target Rhodri!

This illustrates more than anything else why the Assembly cannot dictate to local Councils. They have to let the councils make their own decisions based on their own circumstances. The chances are that if all of the £22 million had been given to Councils unhypothocated then a large chunk of it would have gone to Social Services. The difference though is that in some areas it would have been spent on bed-blocking, in other areas on out-of-County placements for children in care. In most Councils it would have been spent on both.

It is also worth noting in this context that although there is no comparable survey there is also an overspend on education in most Council areas, largely due to Special Needs pressures. Some of the £22 million might have been spent on that if Councils had had a free hand but it is not to be so. There is still time for the Labour Assembly Government to change its mind of course. Will they? I doubt it.

Eats Shoots and Leaves

I have not got a copy of this book nor have I read it. However, it came to mind this morning whilst I was delivering a few leaflets. I noticed a sign that said 'Beware of the "Dog"'. This immediately raised the question that if the "Dog" needed to be framed by speech marks was it real? I certainly did not hear any barking. Maybe it was a stuffed dog or an electronic one like K9 from Doctor Who. It certainly entertained me for the rest of the leafletting round. I recall in this context that I once lived near to a shop that proclaimed in three foot high letters that it housed a "New's Agent". Clearly, I have too much time on my hands and need to go and do some work.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

Bye bye Snoopy!

It seems that the pesky beagle has dug itself into a hole and may never be seen again. What will Charlie Brown say? Another fine effort from Europe bites the dust because, it seems, we tried to do it on the cheap.

Welsh lamb

Apparently I am not the only one who likes a nice leg of lamb. However, I prefer mine well-cooked unlike this interloper who is rather partial to eating it rare. The legend grows and will not be resolved until the beast is caught, if it is caught at all.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

New Year, new look

I had my eyes tested just before Christmas and as a consequence picked up a new pair of glasses this morning. I also took the opportunity to prepare for the new Assembly session next week by having my hair cut. I decided to change my look completely and have now dispensed with the combed-forward fringe. First person I bump into after this change takes one look and immediately assumes that I am reinventing myself so as to launch a bid for leadership of the Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly group. Er..no!

Council Tax

The different responses to the way that the Labour Assembly Government is proposing to spend the £22 million given to them by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to keep down Council Tax have been instructive.

Sue Essex, the Local Government and Finance Minister, has decided to ring-fence £19.5 million of this money to deal with bed-blocking, despite the expectation amongst councils that they would get an unhypothocated share that they could then use to meet local priorities and which would help them keep Council Tax down in an election year. Sue Essex said that legally she was unable to add this money to the local Government settlement as it came too late and that therefore she has to give it as a special grant. However, it was perfectly possible to add this to the Deprivation Grant, enabling an unhypothocated distribution of the money according to the greatest need. The prescriptive nature of this decision marks a sea-change in the way that the Labour Assembly Government is dealing with local Councils. Before it was an equal partnership, now the Government seems to want to run Councils from Cardiff, taking all the key spending decisions for them behind a smokescreen of rhetoric about empowerment and listening government. The first consequence of this decision was seen the same day. Powys County Council has cut £1 million off its schools budget. The extra money they are to be given for social care could have made a big difference to this decision if they had had a choice how to spend it.

Inevitably, the First Minister could not help wading in with his two-pennyworth. "Local authorities themselves had identified social care as being a major pressure on their budgets. To try to pretend getting £20 million is not good news for tax payers in Wales, I find it absolutely bizarre," he said. The problem of course, is that if his government has really listened to local Councils and followed their bidding, then why is virtually every Council Leader around Wales up in arms about the decision? The fact is that this so-called consultation did not happen, the decision was based on a six-month old document that was written before the extra money was known about and the Labour Assembly Government leapt in with both feet without looking, without asking and oblivious to the splash that they were going to make. To pretend afterwards that the decision was the result of active listening is disingenuous to say the least. What I do not understand is why a First Minister so committed to devolution cannot grasp the idea of local determination and the concept of Councils making their own decisions on priorities rather than having decisions made for them.

Finally, we have the MP, Huw Edwards from Monmouth, running to daddy to complain about the Assembly. Or to be precise Huw Edwards has asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer to condemn the Assembly Government's decision. I know that MPs have felt disempowered by devolution but is that any reason to disentangle it so soon? If Huw is so concerned he should use the mechanisms within his own party to put pressure on the Assembly Government to change their mind rather than making fruitless gestures for public consumption. If he were able to do that then we would all be indebted to him.

Update: Things are really heating up now. It seems that the Welsh Labour MPs want Rhodri Morgan's head on a platter. They will have to get in the queue behind the Welsh Labour Council Leaders. The television news this evening was reporting a general feeling in the Welsh Labour Parliamentary Party that the Assembly will only get extra powers over their dead collective body.

Those bombers

I am indebted to Nemo for his insight on a press release by the UKIP. He writes "If the BNP reacted to violence against non-whites by saying it was the natural consequence, or "the price", of forcing "a political idea" (such as multiculturalism) on people, most people would be appalled. Yet this is what UKIP have said about the spate of letter bombings around the European Union." In a press release dated 6 January we are told that "The U.K. Independence Party said today that the spate of letter bombs sent to leading European Union politicians were the price of forcing a political ideal on people without giving them a choice." How can any so-called democratic party condone violence in this way? Nemo sums it up far better than I can. He says, "the EU is not a dictatorship and the people targeted were directly elected MEPs of various nations. If someone does not agree with their politics they should dispute it via the ballot box, not by letter bomb. Which is why I think UKIP's attempt to condone or empathise with would-be murderers is beyond the pale."

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Twelfth Night

It is twelfth night and I suppose I will have to get around to taking down my Christmas decorations. I was stunned this morning to hear that there were two and a quarter million Christmas Cards sent in Wales this year amounting to 35 tonnes of paper for recycling. Given the number that I sent and received I suspect that politicians significantly boosted that number.

Those spacemen keep on coming

Thanks to Tom Watson MP for drawing our attention to this new site, which is obviously dedicated to Lembit Opik.

New Liberal Democrat blogger

The Lib Dems really are taking over the net. I have added "Nemo" to my links even though he/she has not added me to his/hers.

Monday, January 05, 2004

Mr President?

Is this the start of Presidential Government? I suppose it is one way to get home from holiday without those irritating delays in immigration and passport control.


This article alleges that Peter Hain is boring, even more boring than Iain Duncan Smith. How outrageous. How could anybody consider that Peter is boring in any....yawn...way..oops..sorry..I nodded off briefly just then.

Another Plaid Cymru curry

This article in the Western Mail describes Plaid Cymru Assembly Group Deputy leader Rhodri Glyn Thomas as 'Plaid Cymru's leader in the National Assembly'. Was Ieuan Wyn Jones deposed over the New Year? Has there been yet another coup in Plaid Cymru? I think we should be told.

Oops now she has done it!

Ever since I heard this news this morning that bloody pop song by Britney Spears has been stuck in my head and I have been unable to shake it off. This entry and the link to The Sun article is an attempt at exorcism.

Net Gain

I got into the Assembly today and sought out back copies of the Christmas and New Year holiday newspapers in the library. This was how I found the full page filler by Richard Hazlewood in the South Wales Echo about political websites. Ironically there is no electronic link to this article. Over a massive picture of me Richard reviewed ten political websites including those of Plaid Cymru President Dafydd Iwan ('Slick, eye-catching and recently updated' - 7 out of 10), the Welsh Assembly ('Awful. Impenetrable. Unfathomable...as user-unfriendly as they come' - .2 out of 10), the Welsh Conservatives ('thoroughly professional look' - 7 out of 10), the Welsh Liberal Democrats ('Basic layout but packed with information' - 5 out of 10) and Shadow Welsh Secretary Bill Wiggin ('an irritating pop-up questionaire' - 6 out of 10). Rather bizarrely, Richard seems to believe that I am setting the pace. He awards this site 9 out of 10 and says of it 'The Liberal Democrat AM's site is fast achieving cult status as surfers check out the latest musings on his personal web log. It is also home to his many many press releases.' What a shame Richard has now moved on to his new job as Welsh Tory Press Officer. He was obviously well-suited to writing for the South Wales Echo.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

That land deal

The headline in the Western Mail was "Outrage at £750,000 secret deal" but I am still not sure whether the outrage was at the fact that it was decided in secret or at the deal itself. The proposal was to buy a piece of land next to the new Assembly Chamber that has been earmarked for a six-storey office block. The rationale was that the office block will dwarf the new building and diminish its status as the home of the Welsh "Parliament". According to the Western Mail this purchase is going to cost the Assembly about three quarters of a million pounds. The decision was taken by the House Committee, which is the executive arm of the Presiding Office, or the Parliamentary side (as opposed to the Government side) of the National Assembly. It is to be paid for out of the accumulated underspends of that Committee's budget, currently standing at between £6 million and £7 million. Once bought, the land is to be landscaped although in recent days the water has been muddied a bit on this with some people claiming that we might resell it at a profit, presumably so that somebody can build a six storey office block on it.

As avid readers of this blog will know, I am a member of the House Committee and have long argued that it should meet in public. It would do this with a two part agenda, the open part containing most of the business and the second part containing other items that need to be held behind closed doors because they are commercially confidential or deal with staff matters. Even I have to admit that the purchase of this land would normally fall into the closed part of the agenda, which is why I did not comment on it publicly until the matter was already in the public domain. I was one of two members to vote against this proposal and my vote is recorded as such in the minutes. It is my view that the Assembly should not be using public money to either engage in land speculation or to buy land for which it has no use. The reasons for buying this land did not amount to value for money in my opinion and I find it incredible that anybody, even a public body such as the Assembly, would even contemplate spending £750,000 on land just to cover it in grass. It is likely to become the most expensive grassy knoll in Welsh history.

I supported the new Chamber building because it is the sort of prestigious development that will add status to the Assembly and to Wales. In doing this it can actually help with attracting investment into the Country. However, I still believe that it looks like an enlarged petrol station (though some youngsters I showed around the Assembly before Christmas did remark on its similarity to the Tesco's store in Swansea Marina), and a six storey office block may actually improve its outlook. It certainly is not of such outstanding architectural merit that we can justify spending that much public money on protecting it in this way. Could it be that in our quest to have this building erected we are no longer leading public opinion but running too far ahead of it and losing touch with reason?

Anyway it is now being hinted that we will get a debate on whether to buy this land in an open Assembly Plenary session. It is amazing how views on openness and public accountability change in the face of a bit of bad publicity.

Friday, January 02, 2004

Happy New Year

It is amazing what the press ask of us full-time politicians. I have just been rung up by a journalist with the South Wales Evening Post to ask my opinion on Christmas television programmes. For the record I thought that all the channels offered boring, predictable and bland choices, but I am no TV critic, so why ask me? Of course this didn't stop me giving an opinion. Like all politicians I do not mind seeing my name in print and the more varied the experience the better in terms of name recognition.

Sometimes of course we can go too far and make ourselves look like total prats. No more so at Christmas when journalists are all under orders to provide three or more articles on anything they can think of to fill up the pages over the holiday break. Under this category I contributed to two such pieces. I provided comment to a parting shot by Richard Hazlewood of the South Wales Echo on the use of the web by politicians. I also responded to an e-mail from a Western Mail journalist on New Year resolutions. Now this was one of those e-mails that I answered more as a knee jerk reaction than anything else. Try as I might I could not avoid sounding like an anorak and when I saw it in black and white my fears in this regard were fully realised. Fortunately, I was not the worse. My response was "My New Year resolution is the same every year. 'Don't make New Year resolutions because as the Government demonstrates day after day, the setting of unrealistic targets achieves nothing.'"

Some of the best of the others with suitable awards are as follows:-

New Year Anorak was North Wales Tory AM, Mark Isherwood with his pledge to "defeat spin and dogma, to champion honest debate and delivery on the real issues of concern to the people...".

Motorist of New Year was Mid Wales Tory AM, Lisa Francis, with her plea for people, when joining the motorway, to let three people in from the filter lane" first. Glad to see that we are discussing the big issues here.

The award for the politician most-out-of-step with their party has been shared between, South Wales Central Tory AM, Jonathan Morgan, for his otherwise witty quest as a "pro-European" to "assist the French in drinking their wine lake" and his colleague from Mid Wales, Glyn Davies, who expressed a desire to spend more time in his garden so as to achieve "less and better government!"

My own colleague and Cardiff Central AM, Jenny Randerson, gets a special wishful-thinking award for her plea "that all politicians should answer the questions they are asked, not the one they wanted to answer." I shall be watching her interviews more carefully in future.

Finally, a too-much information award to Pembrokeshire Labour AM, Tamsin Dunwoody-Kneafsy.. She told the Western Mail that she wants to "convince the make-up industry to invent self-removing mascara" and to "stop going to bed with bars of chocolate - very bad for the bed linen". Scary!

More Resolutions

The Guardian ran a mildly funny filler piece yesterday that I thought was worth quoting in part. Under the heading "Kill a rat And 100 other things to do this year" they listed a host of cliches and other thoughts to consider for the year ahead.

Number six is dedicated to Lembit Opik MP - "Keep your head down. In August a large comet will brush northern France, raining debris on the Earth before exploding over the Aegean. At least that's what Nostradamus is predicting for 2004. Of course his lunatic quatrains have always been open to a certain amount of interpretation, but this is the central thesis of Comet of Nostradamus: August 2004: Impact!, a book which, it is widely predicted, will disappear off the face of the earth on September 1." I haven't asked Lembit his view of Nostradamus yet but as I am going to Scotland with him next week I will take the opportunity to broach the subject.
Number 22 I have been doing for some time anyway - "Wake up every morning and say to yourself, "Arnold Schwarzenegger is the governor of California." This will serve to remind you that you are living in a surreal dream world where your actions have no consequences." I also did it between 1980 and 1988 with Ronald Reagan. The problem is that in retrospect and in the context of Arnie and Dubya, Reagan assumes a gravitas I could never attribute to him at the time.

My favourites were number 66 - "Instead of complaining, listen to what spammers are trying to tell you: you need cheaper insurance, prescription drugs, lower heating bills and a bigger penis." - number 67 - "Accept that giving 16-year-olds the vote will probably not stop them setting fire to the swings." (yes I know it is insulting to 16 year olds and against party policy, I am being flippant, honest) and number 68 - "Do the one thing that separates us from the animals: write thank-you notes."

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