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Sunday, February 29, 2004

The First Minister speaks

Tom Watson highlights the Downing Street Says blog in which the lobby briefings at No.10 Downing Street are recorded. For the record the Welsh Assembly Government also posts its weekly First Minister briefings for the media on its website. It can be found here.

Hunger strike

A 34 year old Welshman called Neil ap Jones has gone on hunger strike. He is hoping to secure a radical change to the National Curriculum to include more about Welsh history and heroes. The Wales on Sunday reports that so far his protest has fallen on deaf ears - 'he says no-one from the National Assembly, his local Council or social services has been in touch.' They most probably think it is a joke. Either that or they believe he has a death wish and that he is best treated by a mental health worker.

Political principles fall into two categories. There are those that you are prepared to die for, such as freedom from tyranny and there are those where you have to win the argument, or at least a majority of votes, to put into practice. Changes to the National Curriculum fall firmly into the last category. This is, after all, about effective education for our children. Any changes need to be consulted on, debated and discussed. They need to happen for educational reasons not political ones. They take time to work through and cannot be implemented overnight. Above all we need to secure balance. That means not ramming propaganda into the minds of our children but encouraging them to question and think for themselves. It means teaching them key skills so that they can find the information they need and letting them make their own mind up on important political and social issues. Mr. Ap Jones' hunger strike may make good journalistic copy but it does not make any sense.

St. David's Day disaster

The irony in the fact that the National Botanic Garden of Wales may close tomorrow, on St. David's Day, has not been lost on the vast majority of Welsh people. After all that date has been chosen deliberately so as to put the maximum pressure on the Welsh Assembly Government to bail them out. My Party and I have consistently argued that the Gardens are a National treasure that need to be kept open and have urged the Government to actively intervene to prevent their closure. I understand that even the Westminster Secretary of State for Culture has expressed disquiet at the possible closure of the Gardens if only because of the message that it will send for other lottery-funded projects and the impact on the lottery-funded bid to bring the Olympics to London. The Millennium Commission have certainly said that they will seek to reclaim the £21 million grant they paid to the Gardens if they close.

In the Assembly last week there was a bid by the three opposition parties to force a debate on this issue. Unfortunately, the attempt to force the item onto the agenda was defeated by two votes, even though a Labour member was missing. One Plaid Cymru member was ill and unable to attend. Another had been allowed to pursue an alternative engagement despite the seriousness with which her party is allegedly taking this matter. The first was unavoidable but the second absence just underlines the inadequacy of the official opposition in holding the Government to account.

Meanwhile, the Wales on Sunday this morning reports that an eleventh hour meeting is in the offing to try and keep the gardens open beyond St. David's Day. I hope that this succeeds. However, it will not be the first time that closure has been averted at the last minute. The danger is that the Assembly Government will start to think that these deadlines are just tactics and are not for real. If that is the case then the Trustees are playing a dangerous game.

Friday, February 27, 2004

ET ring home

The cliffs at Southerndown are a notorious suicide spot. It seemed eminently sensible therefore to install an emergency hotline to the Samaritans in the hope that those who had driven there to do away with themselves might have second thoughts and seek last minute help. Apparently, it is true that those who are going to kill themselves in this way will often walk to the bottom of the cliff to have a look at where they will land. Nevertheless, I would guess that most of the second thoughts will come as they approach the cliff edge. Also, whereas only some of the potential suicides will make the trip to the beach to look first, all of them will, by definition, end up on the cliff edge. So if you were in charge of installing the phone where would you put it? Well, the Council put it at the bottom of the cliff. You couldn't make it up!

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Equal opportunities

The outspoken Conservative Assembly Member for Monmouthshire, David Davies, jumps in with both feet again with his absurd claim that the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) is a "recruiting sergeant" for the far-right British National Party. Now I have no brief for the CRE but the claim that they are "creating resentment by refusing to recognise the problem of racial attacks against white people" is both unsubstantiated and ridiculous. In my experience the CRE have always tackled racism in whatever form they find it regardless of the ethnicity of the alleged victim. David's problem of course is his strong and passionate hatred of political correctness. This can often cause him to form judgements that are widely at variance to those of other people. I have to say that David's comments also demonstrate a lamentable misunderstanding of how the BNP operates and of why people are attracted to them.

There was an incident in yesterday's Education Committee in which I found myself having to defend him. We were questioning the Children's Commissioner about his annual report when David asked about single parent families in a way that had some Labour and Plaid Cymru AMs jumping up and down in outrage. I had to make a ruling that David was not out of order under the terms of the Standing Order that applies to discriminatory and offensive language. If they had asked my opinion about David's first question on the rights of the unborn child however I might have had a different view. He was seeking to establish whether the Children's Commissioner's brief should include protecting unborn children from the desire of their parents to abort them. The question was so off the wall that I was severely tempted to rule it out of order. The Commissioner however, handled it with an admirable and stoical fortitude.

Going back to David's interview with Dragon's Eye and the article on the BBC website there is an obvious question that arises. David is the Welsh Conservative's Spokesperson on Equal Opportunities (yes I know, it is hard to believe, even for the Conservatives). He spends a large amount of his time in that role making statements that embarrass his colleagues and which leads his group leader to disassociate himself from them. If that is the case why leave him in that position? More importantly, how can Nick Bourne argue that David is speaking in a personal capacity when David is making statements in relation to an official portfolio that Nick has allocated to him? It just doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

Snow show

I was meant to be in a Voluntary Sector Partnership Council meeting in Flint this lunchtime but aborted the trip when I saw the conditions. I reckoned that there must have been at least an inch and a half of snow in Swansea and the weather forecast showed it sweeping through Powys as well. Instead I went to a Council meeting to vote on the Council Tax rise and then spent the rest of the day working from home. I was actually looking forward to going up to North Wales as I was going to stay the night at my mother's but sometimes other factors get in the way.

The worst weather this morning was to the west with Carmarthenshire being particularly badly hit. As usual the authorities seemed to have been caught on the hop, but then who would expect this sort of weather in February. To top it all I have just been asked if I will drive through the snow (and apparently impassable roads) to Aberystwyth as a last minute stand-in on Radio Wales' People's Assembly programme. Er...no!

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Press blunder No. 2 - the inadvertent e-mail

If you are the press officer for a political party you always face an uphill struggle to interest hacks in your policy initiatives and ideas. That is because the media are more interested in tittle tattle, cock-ups, rows and knocking copy than they are in the rather dry policy-making process that most parties go through to arrive at their manifesto. That is not to condemn the media, after all they are merely reflecting the tastes of their readers. The idea of accidentally leaking a draft of one's pre-manifesto to the opposition is therefore as good a way as any of hitting the headlines and getting the policy ideas in it discussed more widely. If only we had thought of that as an actual strategy. The reality is that a Party official mistakenly pressed the wrong button on his e-mail address book and the 20 page document winged its way through the ether to all 30 Labour AMs. I can of course rationalise this by saying, as others have done, that the document contained policies that had already been announced in much-ignored press releases and that it had already been in the public domain as a consultation document sent to various interest groups for comment. That would not make for such a good story of course. So I will not say that at all. Instead I will encourage all our political opponents to get onto the bandwagon and throw as much mud as possible at us. In that way it will be our agenda that people will be talking about and not theirs.

Update: I have removed the reference to Labour Party Chairman Ian McCartney here because my rather bleary-eyed reading of the BBC on-line report at 7.30am this morning mistakenly led to me attributing the quote from Damien Green to him. Apologies.

David Collins e-mails to ask why if the document was in the public domain already it had "Confidential" printed all over it. Possibly, that is because it was not yet meant to be released to the World at large, though it will be debated in public at our Party Conference in advance of the General Election, an academic point really.

David also takes issue with proposals to scrap the New Deal. It is hardly a new proposal as James Graham points out - it was in our 2001 manifesto. It is our view that this policy has achieved very little, that the real drop in unemployment has been due to economic recovery and that the money can be better used elsewhere. In its first year, two-thirds of the successful young people would have got jobs anyway, and about 40% had gone through the programme without getting any work. As for the so-called secret plan to axe the new Child Trust Fund, well this was incorporated in a press release by David Laws MP on 26 November 2003, a point made very well by Mark Ramsden.

As David Laws says "The Government proposals on Baby Bonds are a gimmick which will have little real benefit when looked at alongside plans to massively increase the level of student fees. Children will be given money by the taxpayer which the wiser will use to reduce university costs but some may be tempted to blow it at 18 on a good holiday or a good party. The Baby Bonds policy should be scrapped and the annual £250m savings ploughed into early years education, so that all children, regardless of their economic position, are well prepared to face the future."

Press blunder No. 1 - The Tories

Those who live by the sword die by the sword. The Welsh Conservatives in the Assembly are notorious for jumping on any bandwagon going. It was no surprise therefore to see them gleefully grab the opportunity to criticise the Assembly Minister for Culture, Sport and the Welsh Language for accepting hospitality from MacDonalds. Alun Pugh has made his name recently by calling for lots of exercise and healthy eating so as to combat obesity amongst Welsh children. It was strange therefore to see him rubbing shoulders at a sporting event with executives from a fast food chain whose business contributes significantly to that problem. Now I can criticise him for that as I have not committed the same faux pas, but there were red faces all round in Welsh Tory offices when, having fired off a typically acerbic press release on behalf of their Welsh Leader, they find that Mr. Pugh had been joined by two Tory AMs at the event. I have a rule nowadays not to accept corporate hospitality unless the event is exceptional, perhaps the Conservatives should adopt the same criteria so as to avoid more embarrassment in the future.

Monday, February 23, 2004

New Assembly Chamber

From the top, on the left this is why I never wear hats, whilst on the right Business Minister, Karen Sinclair, proves herself to be a natural foreman. On the left of the bottom row, the view inside the Chamber. To the right, Lorraine Barrett and Elin Jones leave their mark behind in the new chamber watched by Janice Gregory.

I have been meaning to put these photographs on for some time. They record the visit of the House Committee and various other Assembly Members to the building site where the new Assembly Chamber is being erected. We were given a guided tour by representatives of the developers including the opportunity to walk around the site of the new Chamber itself.

We all had to dress the part for the visit including steel toe capped boots, hard hats and fluorescent jackets. As you can see the outfits suited some more than others.

The highlight of the tour was the graffitti wall where all visitors are invited to add their signatures. No doubt these scribblings will be covered up in due course but nevertheless some AMs seemed remarkably reluctant to contribute. It was almost as if they did not want to be seen setting a bad example for others.

There is still some way to go before this chamber building is ready. I believe that we are looking to take possession of it in Autumn 2005 and that the official opening is being pencilled in for St. David's Day 2006. No doubt we will have a chance to visit again before then.

It makes a change to be able to provide a ground view of the development rather than shots taken from the third floor looking down.

Posted by Hello

'nepotistic, tribal, secretive'

Rob Davies hits the nail on the head once more in his description of Welsh Labour in the Assembly. Announcing that he is to join John Marek's party, Forward Wales, he said "Labour at the Assembly has reverted to its worst kind of past behaviour in the Valleys. It is nepotistic, inward-looking, tribal, secretive and self-serving." The decision to join Forward Wales is not a surprise, I sort of predicted it on 25 January. The idea of a Forward Wales/Green Party pact in which Ron will stand on a joint ticket at the European Parliament elections in June stretches credibility a bit. I do not rule it out, after all both parties will thrive better together in organisational and fund-raising terms than if they stayed separate, however there will be a lot of egos that will need to be squared first. Perhaps that curry in Swansea at the end of last year was more significant than we thought. The Greens have already shown themselves ready to throw their hat in with anybody who suits their ambitions and in some cases to compromise their principles to get on. Their alliance with a politician convicted of corruption in the Cockett by-election showed that this was the case. As for Ron, well he has proved that he can still get the headlines but really, it is getting a bit Walter Mittyish.

Nye Bevan by a nose

Well Aneurin Bevan is still ahead in the Welsh Heroes poll, whilst my choice of Tom Jones remains firmly in third place. You still have until midnight today to vote. Do not let spoilsports like Leighton Andrews ruin it for you. Surely it is one thing to accuse the other camp of cheating, but quite another to demand that the poll be halted forthwith and one's favourite candidate declared the winner. What a strange idea of elections and the democratic process these Labour AMs have.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

Who is our Welsh hero?

I confess that I have not really paid that much attention to Culture Net Cymru's online poll of 100 Welsh Heroes. However, one politician has got a bee in his bonnett about the process and has started to throw accusations around of an underhand campaign to deprive Nye Bevan of the title. Given that Nye Bevan was just implementing policy recommendations from the Liberal, Ernest Beveridge, I can't say I am excited about whether he wins it or not. The alternative however, seems to be Owain Glyndwr, a fifteenth century of member of the landed gentry, who having been on the losing side in the Wars of the Roses, took his toys home and declared himself Prince of Wales. Whether his subsequent tactics could be classed as terrorism or guerilla warfare really depends on which freedom movement you want to compare him to. Either way he has become a Nationalist icon and I suspect that is Leighton Andrew's problem with him. This is one spat I do not want to get involved in so I am voting for Tom Jones. I urge you all to follow suit. You have until midnight on Monday 23 February to register your preference.

Rhodri vs Felicity

It seems that if the UK Government falls out with the BBC on one issue then we need to have our own mini-version in Wales. In this case it is a spat between First Minister Rhodri Morgan and the BBC's Good Morning Wales presenter, Felicity Evans. Rhodri was being interviewed about MP Kim Howells's two-and-a-half-month wait for a reply to a letter to Health Minister Jane Hutt. During the interview the First Minister accused Felicity of being rude and ill-mannered and even suggested that it was not for her to determine the subject on which he was being interviewed. As it happens I heard the discussion and I honestly believe that the First Minister did not have a leg to stand on. I thought that he was evasive, aggressive and rude whereas the interviewer was firm and courteous. She was perfectly within her rights to widen out the interview to include a discussion on the condition of the NHS in Wales and Jane Hutt's stewardship of it given the context of the news item on which it was based. I really thought that Rhodri had lost the plot. It is all very well standing up for Wales against the Paxman's of this World but that style does not cut it when he is supposed to be defending Welsh domestic policy on Welsh radio.


Another Tory AM makes a break for it in an attempt to become an MP. It is said that Gerald Rowbottom, the number two on the South West Wales Tory list last May, is walking around with a smile on his face in anticipation of Alun being elected to Westminster and then vacating his Assembly seat in Gerald's favour. My advice to Gerald is don't count your chickens just yet.

R.I.P. Gigante Buono

John Charles, one of Wales' greatest ever footballers, has died. Although John was from Cwmdu in Swansea (part of the ward Ii represent on Swansea Council in fact) he never played for the Town's team. He started off his career at Leeds before moving to Juventus. He also had spells with Roma and Cardiff and played in the last Wales team to qualify for the World Cup, starring in the 1958 Finals. I was part of a campaign to have him knighted for his services to football back in December 2000 and although he was subsequently given a CBE in 2001 and the Freedom of the City of Swansea in 2002, there was always a feeling that his accomplishments had never been properly recognised through the honours system. I am pleased that Swansea Lord Mayor and Council Leader, Lawrence Bailey, has now said that the city council will look at creating a permanent memorial to John Charles' memory, possibly at the White Rock football and rugby stadium which is currently under construction.

Friday, February 20, 2004

Another Liberal Democrat Blog

This time from Welsh Liberal Democrat Cardiff Councillor Nigel Howells. Welcome to the ether Nigel.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Jane says sorry

But not for the state of the Welsh NHS. Jane Hutt has apologised to Labour MP, Kim Howells who savaged her in characteristic terms for her failure to respond to a letter of his about a constituent in good time, for her failure to reply in person and for her refusal to meet him to discuss the matter. The Assembly Health Minister now says that she will meet Mr. Howells after all.

The question is do we have to make this amount of fuss about each one of the tens of thousands of people waiting for treatment in Wales to ensure that they are dealt with? I am beginning to think that there are now many Welsh Labour MPs who think that this is the only way forward. With a General Election looming and their seats up for grabs they fear that they will be judged by voters not on the basis of the much improved performance of the NHS in England but on Jane Hutt's inadequate stewardship in Wales. No wonder they are getting twitchy.

Sex and Religion

The Cardinal says that society is falling apart at the seams because of the way the media portrays sex. The question is does the media reflect the views of society or does it form them? Is blaming the media just a cop-out, an attempt to try and rationalise one's own incomprehension? What do you think? Please e-mail me.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Is your MP revolting?

Thanks to David Cornock for pointing me to this site. Their list of the usual suspects of rebellious Labour MPs is enlightening though from what I can see there are only two Welsh MPs on there - Denzil Davies and Llew Smith. In Welsh terms they really are the usual suspects - principled and free-thinking. The prospect of there ever being a similar list for rebellious Labour AMs is remote. If he is watching at all then Tony Blair must wish he could swop places with Rhodri Morgan as week after week the 30 members of the Labour group press the correct voting button regardless of their own personal views on the issue in question. The only significant rebellion I am aware of was last week when Peter Law departed from the group line and voted wth the opposition against the principle of top-up fees. His revolt forced a casting vote from the Deputy Presiding Officer who, according to precedent, had to vote the anti-fees amendment down.


Johnny Cash

You just couldn't make it up! Poor Johnny Cash must be spinning in his grave.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Hot stuff

Is there anything that the Assembly does not dabble in?

National Assembly Members may wish to be aware that the following instrument was made on the 16th February 2004, using the Executive Procedure in accordance with Standing Order 22.27. Standing Order 22.27 (i)-(iv) has been disapplied.

The Food (Hot Chilli and Hot Chilli Products) (Emergency Control) (Amendment) (Wales) Regulations 2004 The Regulations are required to implement European Commission (EC) Decision, of 21 January, which came into force immediately, which amends the Food (Hot Chilli and Hot Chilli Products) (Emergency Control) (Wales) Order 2003 by widening the definition of chilli and chilli products which importers are required to test, to include curry powder.

In May 2003, the Agency was alerted to reports from France of the discovery of the dye Sudan I in hot chilli products originating from India. Sudan I is considered to be a genotoxic carcinogen and its presence in food at any level is not permitted for any purpose. The finding reported by France therefore pointed to an adulteration constituting a serious health risk and France adopted appropriate protective measures. On 20 June, the European Commission adopted Decision 2003/460 that prohibits all imports of hot chilli and hot chilli products of the genus Capsicum, dried and crushed or ground for human consumption, into EU Member States unless accompanied by an analytical report which demonstrates that each consignment does not contain Sudan I. The decision was implemented into UK law on 30 July 2003.

Since adoption of the decision Sudan I has been found to be present in products outside the scope of the decision, and in a small number of cases contamination with other Sudan dyes has been identified. A new Commission decision was adopted on 21 January 2004. It repeals Decision 2003/460 and extends its scope by widening the definition of the chilli and chilli products which importers are required to test to include curry powder.

The Commission Decision of 21 January came into force immediately. To ensure that the health of the population of Wales is protected to the same degree as the rest of the Member States, it was recommended that legislation is introduced as soon as possible.

More on those Tory spending cuts

Peter Hain estimates that the Conservative's plans to chop £35 million off public spending will mean that the National Assembly for Wales will face the loss of £1 billion from its budget. It is not clear how he calculates this figure however, most probably because, like us, he does not yet know how the Tories have arrived at their total. Effectively this is a guess on the part of the Secretary of State for Wales. It is though as good a guess as any.

Meanwhile the article makes it clear that the Welsh Conservative Leader in the Assembly is floundering a bit in his attempts to square the circle. Could it be that he was left out of the loop by Mr. Letwin on this policy? Surely not!

Monday, February 16, 2004

Tory spending cuts and devolution

David Cornock raises some very good points about how devolution friendly the Tory's plans to cut £35 billion from public expenditure are. Although the Civil Service in the Assembly still falls under Westminster control, for all intents and purposes their destiny is in our hands. It would be very difficult therefore to impose a recruitment freeze on us. Secondly, as David points out, policy on education and health is also ours to determine. It would not therefore be possible to impose the effective privatisation of these services on us.

Another point does give some cause for concern however. What will be the impact of these proposals on the Assembly's budget? A straight £35 billion cut in public expenditure would see the Assembly lose £2 billion of its £11 billion budget. That is equivalent to about 35% of what we spend on the Welsh Health Service. It will not be as straightforward as that however. Letwin is proposing to increase UK expenditure on Health and Education whilst cutting other areas such as Transport, Defence etc. As not all of these areas are devolved then they do not come with a 'Barnett consequential', meaning that there does not necessarily have to be an equivalent cut in what we get to spend in Wales. Ken Clarke's spin that "He is simply proposing the increase in total public spending should be slower than that which Gordon Brown has been permitting and that which would take place under Labour." does not shed any light on the subject either.

The impact on the Assembly is impossible to work out because the Tories have not told us how they are going to achieve their cuts. They have not considered what will happen in the devolved Administrations nor are they proposing to alter the way money is allocated to them so as to better reflect need. So much for the new devolution-friendly Tory Party. As far as they are concerned Wales might not exist.

That left wing US president!

This article has been drawn to our attention by Alex Folkes and quite frankly I am as astonished as he is. The Republican Party are clearly rattled at having to face Kerry in the Presidential election later this year and are already starting to squabble amongst themselves. But to describe George W. Bush as having a "lurch to the left" is perhaps a tad overdoing it. These people clearly do not like compassionate Conservatism.

More religion

I meant to add a vaguely facetious comment to the article on Religioius Studies yesterday but I forgot. It occurred to me that one of the outcomes of the 2001 census was the growth of a new religion, namely Jedi. Will schools have to reflect these beliefs in their curriculum on RE? Will we find teachers lecturing pupils on the 'Force' alongside lessons about Christianity, Islam and Humanism?

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Religious studies

Mark Ramsden comments on the fact that atheism is to be added to the Religious Education curriculum. The Guardian reports that this is in response to the continuing decline in church attendance. Children are also to be taught about humanism. I think that the inclusion of humanism is reasonable, after all it is a coherent set of beliefs with a philosophical basis. However, as an agnostic is 'someone who does not know, or believes that it is impossible to know, whether a god exists' and an atheist is 'someone who believes that God or gods do not exist' then I find it difficult to imagine how such a state of mind can be taught.

What the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority are effectively asking teachers to do is to teach kids how to be sceptical. If scepticism and the ability to question established tenets is not already part of the way children are taught then we should ask why. Effective questioning is an essential part of anybody's education, as is the need to challenge information and statements of belief at every opportunity. It does not make for easy teaching but it does create intelligent kids who are capable of making a mark in the outside World. I would have hoped that Religious Education of all subjects already incorporated this kind of scepticism.

The proposals by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority only apply to England of course, so we will wait to see how this initiative manifests itself in the classroom there. No doubt the Welsh Education Minister will be asked for her views on the way forward for Wales when we return after the half-term break.

Friday, February 13, 2004

Thumbs up!

This in-joke is clearly catching on within the Party. I have just returned from a Regional Party Quiz night where one of the teams called themselves "Thumbs up for Lembit". Oh dear.


In all of the excitement of the launch of the Liberal Democrat Watch website and the privilege of receiving a comment from the Supreme Leader of the Green Party in Wales (see Thursday 5 February) I forgot to record two momentous events this week. The first of these of course was the 30th Birthday of Bagpuss - and he is still going strong. Bagpuss won a BBC poll of the most popular children's TV programme of all time in 1999. He was invented in 1974 by Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate, the creative team behind Pogle's Wood, Ivor the Engine, Noggin the Nog and The Clangers. Only 13 episodes of Bagpuss were made, even though it was on air for 26 weeks a year over 13 years. The BBC report that in the past four years, fans of all ages have bought up Bagpuss merchandise by the bucketload, contributing over £30m to the UK economy. All of these programmes of course were a major part of my childhood though I was a little old for Bagpuss.

The second event was the final abandonment of the plan to spend £750,000 on purchasing land next to the new Assembly Chamber so as to prevent a six storey office block overshadowing it. Putting aside the fears of one AM who told me that she was concerned that snipers would now position themselves in any new building and pick us off one-by-one (honestly it is true), I welcome the fact that we will no longer be wasting public money in this way. The sad thing is that this commonsense decision did not come from Assembly Members. It seems that ABP's sleeping partners in the ownership of the land saw the publicity, were alerted to the fact that it was to be sold, and vetoed it. Presumably, they considered that it might have a greater value in the future if they held onto it now. I suppose that the fact that Cardiff currently has 500,000 square feet of vacant office space did not impinge on their consciousness, but then they could always put luxury flats there and attempt to sell them to those AMs who want to live near to their work.

Thursday, February 12, 2004


I am indebted to Alex Folkes for this link to an article on e-democracy. It highlights very effectively the dangers of the UK Labour Government's headlong rush into easier and faster ways of voting without thinking about the security and the integrity of the ballot. These paragraphs were particularly telling:

The expert panel's report condemns electronic voting systems in general for being vulnerable to attacks from inside and having no audit trail that voters can verify. Systems based on the internet and PCs are also vulnerable to "a variety of well known cyber attacks" including denial of service, spoofing and viruses.

Elections would be a hugely attractive target to anyone wanting to make mischief against the US. "A US general election offers one of the most tempting targets for cyber attack in the history of the internet," says the report.

"Such attacks could occur on a large scale, and could be launched by anyone from a disaffected lone individual to a well financed enemy agency." The result could even reverse the outcome of a presidential election and go undetected. "Even if detected and neutralised, such attacks could have a devastating effect on public confidence in elections," asserts the report.

All these vulnerabilities are fundamental, the report says. "It is quite possible that they will not be eliminated without a wholesale redesign and replacement of much of the hardware and software security systems that are part of, or connected to, today's internet.

It really is time that the Government stopped looking for quick fixes to counter low turnout and tried engaging the electorate instead.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Those watchers again

I confess I have been ignoring the prats who run Liberal Democrat Watch, especially their inept and rather facile attack on me (see I knew I would find a use for that word). However, this has to be read to be believed. Liberator is an independent Liberal Democrat magazine produced by a collective (which reminds me I really must renew my subscription). They run the Liberal Democrat revue at Party Conference and also use satire and irony a lot to make serious points. The magazine also contains a lot of serious and thoughtful articles. Essentially they are part of the internal debate that we value so much as a party. That anybody could believe that Oatenwatch was a real organisation as these people do defies belief. Are they really that desperate for material?


Although I am a relative newcomer to the world of the internet and blogging and although I can barely pronounce html, never mind use it, it seems that my website has been nominated for the New Statesman New Media Awards. Nominations close on 31 May 2004 and the winners will be announced in July. I have looked at some of the other nominees and do not believe that I have much of a chance but it will be an interesting experience. When I started there were but a handful of Liberal Democrat blogs. Now they are growing like crazy. The latest ones are from Tom Paul and Claire Potter. The same seems to be true of weblog competitions. As I said below, all it takes is for Tony Blair to come on board and we will become mainstream.

I am not entirely comfortable of course with the backhanded compliment of the person who nominated me especially as he works for the Welsh Liberal Democrats. Mr. Townsend says "Sometimes a little facile, this is the website of a politician who is immersed in his own profession. Nevertheless, it has a following and has been the source of a number of amusing newspaper stories." Facile? I ask you.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

So what do MPs do anyway?

Peter Hain has decided to jump the gun after all and set up his own enquiry into how AMs are elected. So much for the common criticism levelled by Government Ministers at their detractors that they are more interested in process than substance. It seems that Peter Hain prefers to talk about process as well. We are all tempted of course to remind him that the system of election that is in now was a compromise imposed by a Labour Government to convince the people of Wales that the Assembly would be representative. Peter Hain was not shy about using it to get his then political master, Alun Michael, elected nor was he slow in promoting it in the referendum in 1997. I agree with him that the present electoral system is a poor one, but for different reasons. The argument is not about the insecurity of Labour Constituency members but about the fact that it does not work. It is not proportional and it does not achieve its aim of electing a representative Assembly. That was obvious when Labour won 50% of the seats on less than 38% of the votes last year.

Now we are faced with a proposal that will elect two AMs in each of 40 constituencies using STV. That will guarantee a Labour majority, it will be less proportional than we have now and it will alienate North Wales even more by establishing a permanent South Wales majority. How strange then that Labour might promote such an option! I support the use of STV but for goodness sake use a realistic size of constituency, five members per electoral area should be a minimum and if we are to get smaller parties like the Greens into the Assembly then we need constituencies electing 12 or 16 members. Of course that would require a committment to pluralism and democracy, a characteristic that Welsh Labour has been very short on in the past.

Reaction has been muted largely because we all have far more important things to talk about but I did like this blog entry from David Cornock. He concludes "So you wait ages for a review, and then three come along at once. They have grown like award ceremonies. Even politicians have award ceremonies these days. It's probably only a matter of time before we have an award ceremony for award ceremonies - Oscards for Oscars." The Assembly itself decided that actions speak louder than words. At 1am this morning a sheet of plate glass, the size of a snooker table, situated on the first floor level of the atrium, spontaneously shattered. Take that Peter Hain!

Monday, February 09, 2004


OK, so this is scary. Somebody has stolen my name and even my theme song. This man's debut CD is "When Trouble Comes", something that Labour have been saying about me for years. :-)) I suppose that as long as we both keep taking the tablets we will be OK.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

Watching the watchers

Suddenly I feel that the Liberal Democrats are really beginning to get somewhere at a UK level. A group of anonymous Labour activists have decided that we are such a threat to them that they have set up a website dedicated to exposing our every foible. I have no problem with this. Like any party we are a broad church. We have members with a wide range of views and opinions on every subject under the sun, that is why we are a serious political party, because we have that broad appeal.

Our party does however, have agreed policies, principles and objectives. Those are the official views of the party and they represent what we will do in Government. It does not matter how many quotes of individual activists are taken out of context, nor what position they hold in the party, this will not change without a democratic debate and a vote at Conference. To imply that it will is just playing at politics.

Equally, to argue that a member who is not a public representative should be purged from the party or their position within it when they say something on their own behalf and in a private capacity (in a private forum) that does not chime with the official party line, as this website does about one comment on Palestine, says more about the Stalinists who run Libdemwatch and their sort of political party than it does about that member or the Liberal Democrats. We believe in freedom of expression and we value internal debate and discussion as a means of testing our ideas and thoughts. That may be alien to the Labour Party but it is one reason why, for example, three senior Labour Party Members in Bridgend have joined us in as many weeks.

As a side issue I was interested in the words that the member allegedly wrote. The phrase that "There is no such thing as an innocent bystander" was used in a different context by Abbie Hoffman, one of the Chicago Seven who were tried for their part in the demonstrations against the Democrat National Convention in 1968. He also said that "sacred cows make the best hamburgers" and "Democracy is not something you believe in or a place to hang your hat, but it's something you do. You participate. If you stop doing it, democracy crumbles." I suspect that if he had lived to see the violence that is being waged now by both sides in Palestine, he would argue that the 'innocent bystanders' should put pressure on their governments and on their neighbours to stop and seek a peaceful solution to their differences.

That does not place the blame for terrorism or even state sponsored violence on those people, it is not their fault, they are victims. What it does is to say that they have it in their power to fight back in the same way that a group of women in Northern Ireland fought back against terrorism a few years ago. It is a big leap into the dark, it means overcoming fear and prejudice but, for the Israelis particularly, where it is their democratically elected Government that is engaging in tit-for-tat violence, it is not impossible to demand that their Ministers stop and allow the situation to cool down before actively seeking a peaceful resolution. There are two sides to this violence but it only takes one of them to change its attitudes and its actions to make a significant difference to the nature of the conflict and international opinion on it.

Saturday, February 07, 2004

Odds and ends

'The School of Rock' is a must-see film, very funny, very feelgood and ideal for aging rockers like me. I saw it last night and I loved every second of it. I particularly enjoyed the credit sequence in which Jack Black and the kids jam their way to the very last second of the last frame. Like Nick Barlow I am sceptical whether if Tony Blair has a blog for the next election he will write it himself. From what I have heard he does not dabble much with computers and has only recently taken up e-mail. I do not think that he is incapable of mastering the necessary programmes, after all I have sort of done so, but that he has the time to really establish a proper conversation through that medium. If he does have a blog though, even if it is a blog-by-proxy, it will put us all on the map.

The Doonesbury cartoon that Nick has linked to is a classic. It makes a very serious point in a funny way about how the technology is getting ahead of all but a small minority leaving the rest of us to muddle through as best we can. There are programmes on my computer that I have not the faintest idea what they do. Even the ones I use regularly I use only to a limited extent because I am self-taught and do not have the time to get proper tuition. One day I must find the time. In the meantime I must rush off. I have spent the last few hours in my Assembly office catching up on my correspondence and now need to get to Chapter to see Elephant with my wife. A bit of a contrast with last night's film I think.

Friday, February 06, 2004

A public debate?

The Chief Constable of North Wales, Richard Brunstrom, repeated the presentation on heroin that he gave to the Assembly's Social Justice Committee last year in an interview with a BBC Wales programme last night. I reported the gist of his presentation in this blog on 25 October 2003. Essentially, he believes that heroin should be legalised and sold through pharmacies in its pure form. A report on the BBC website sums up his argument thus: 'He does not advocate drug taking but says changing drug laws would wipe out a multi-million pound illegal trade. "Heroin is very addictive but it's not very, very dangerous," he said. "It's perfectly possible to lead a normal life for a full life span and hold down a job while being addicted to the drug. "What would be wrong with making heroin available on the state for people who wanted to abuse their bodies?"' What was clear from the programme is that he wants to start a public debate on this to establish some sort of consensus. I was a little startled therefore to hear a commentator on Radio Wales this morning discussing Mr. Brunstrom's remarks who, as well as going for the person instead of engaging in the argument, stated that the Chief Constable should initiate a public debate by all means "as long as he does not use the media". Doh!

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Greenhorns, part two

This has to be the most bizarre Welsh political story of the month. There are so many questions that spring to mind over the prospect of a former Secretary of State for Wales and the Deputy Presiding Officer of the Welsh Assembly travelling all the way to Swansea to have a curry with the representative of a minor political party who has never won a significant election in his life that I do not know where to start. Has the new Welsh Left been reduced to scraping around for the crumbs already? Are the leaders of this so-called new mass movement so desperate that they have to beg for favours from minnows? Do they realise that if this is true, then they are doing business with a party that only last month backed a man who has been convicted of corruption in a Council by-election?

When I first read this story I thought that it had something of the urban myth about it. After all who would be so stupid as to have a secret meeting in a Swansea curry house and then to sign the visitor book? Of course it could all be a coincidence. Three men whose paths have crossed at obscure meetings in the back rooms of backstreet pubs all separately enter the doors of Vojon (one of Swansea's best Indian Restaurants by the way and well worth a visit) on the same night. They are startled by seeing each other and decide to sit together. As it happens it is the night that the restaurant is being relaunched and they are asked, with other customers, to sign the visitor book. Later a Swansea Labour Councillor enters, sees their names in the book, puts two and two together and gets five. We may never know. Do we care? No!

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Intelligence Query

To misquote an old adage "political intelligence is a contradiction in terms". This phrase came to mind when I read the details of the Prime Minister's inquiry into the intelligence information that was made available to him when he decided to go to war on Iraq. That this inquiry fails to include an analysis of the political decisions that were made when we committed ourselves to this war is a disgrace and makes it more likely that it will be the whitewash that some newspapers are predicting it will become.

This quote from a BBC news report underlines the need for this political dimension to be included in the inquiry's terms of reference: 'A former senior official at the Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS) has again voiced his concerns over the dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Dr Brian Jones told the Independent the DIS' "unified view" was for there to be careful caveats about assessments of Iraq's chemical and biological weapons. But, he said, they were over-ruled by the heads of the intelligence agencies, leading to a misleading dossier.'

Charles Kennedy and the Liberal Democrats are absolutely right not to take part in this inquiry in my view. I noted too that their reservations are shared by some of the big hitters on the Conservative back benches. Kenneth Clarke made similar points to Menzies Campbell on this. If his leader had followed his advice and opted out too then Blair would have had no choice but to accept a wider remit for the inquiry. It is at times like these that the Country really does need an effective official opposition.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Fast food

I had a stark reminder of why there is so much obesity amongst young people yesterday. Not having children of my own I tend not to take much notice of young people's culture or even to go near toy shops. However, having three nephews under five I am sometimes forced to engage in the process of present buying. Thus it was that I found myself in the Early Learning Centre early Monday morning. I was just paying for my purchases when I noticed the music playing in the background was very loudly extolling the virtues of MacDonalds and Pizza Hut. It turns out to be a hit record called the "Fast Food" song. Why don't they make songs about the virtues of fresh fruit, oily fish, fruit juice and plenty of exercise? Do they think it will not sell? If this is the sum total of cultural influences our children are subject to then they will be getting even fatter in the future.

Come on Wales!

The attempt by Wales to get Russia disqualified from the 2004 European Championship was a jolly good try but unfortunately doomed to failure. I was at the last leg of the play-off in the Millennium Stadium and it cannot be disputed that Russia were the worthy winners of that game. However, the news that they had allegedly cheated because one of their players tested positively for bromantan put it into a different context. It was worth a try seeking to get UEFA to overturn the result but I suspect that the psychological hurdle of disqualifying a major footballing power in favour of an up-and-coming minnow was just too great to overcome. Wales have an opportunity to appeal again. Let us hope that they are more successful.

Monday, February 02, 2004

Television moments

Just when you thought it was safe to switch on the television, news arrives that Lembit Opik MP is to appear on the Jerry Springer Show. He is to join Nigel Evans MP and Stephen Pound MP on Thursday 5 February on a specially recorded show for Cancer Relief. We wait with baited breath for the revelations that will follow, neatly encapsulated in tasteful purple on a caption at the bottom of the screen. His diary, which is e-mailed out to all and sundry each week also reveals that Lembit will be spending Saturday night as the guest speaker at the Powys Grassland Society Dinner in Welshpool. Despite the fact that this event follows so soon after the reclassification of cannabis Lembit's staff assure me that the dinner is not related to that sort of grass.

Those weapons of mass destruction

President Bush is now unsure as to whether those weapons of mass destruction existed after all. Of course it doesn't matter so much to him as he did not base his entire justification for war on their existence. However, the Blair Government are in a different situation. For them the existence of these weapons and the imminence of the threat they posed were critical to the decision to join Bush in attacking Iraq. It is no surprise therefore that the Welsh Secretary and Leader of the House, Peter Hain, is still insisting that he saw evidence that they existed. Well, Peter, if that is the case, where are they? I can't see how Blair can now avoid setting up his own inquiry and if he feels so confident then he should have nothing to fear from it. The question is of course, which tame judge will he get to run it?

Twenty years and still going strong

Is it really twenty years since the game, Trivial Pursuit, first hit the shelves? I know that I used to have a copy, possibly the Baby Boomer edition, but I haven't got a clue where it is now. It may be worthwhile getting the new twentieth anniversary edition to see how much I can actually remember of the last 20 years. I was never that good at it anyway. This is one of the reasons I opted out of the Assembly's University Challenge Team. My colleague, the Brecon and Radnor AM Kirsty Williams used to claim that she was unbeatable on the Trivial Pursuit board. This is something she never actually proved to me but I have no reason to doubt her word.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

Those awkward meetings in the past

What better way to start off a new month than a Doonsbury cartoon based on a delicious Rumsfield quotation: "Do I wish Reagan hadn't sent me to coddle a dictator we knew was using chemical weapons on a near-daily basis? Gracious sakes, no! That was then! Now is now! In a perfect world, do I wish that now was then, when he actually had chemical weapons to find? You bet your britches! Should anyone care that when he had them, I didn't oppose them, but now that he doesn't, I do? It depends on how you define '9-11'."

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