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Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Top up fees

Charles Kennedy makes some very valid points on the Higher Education Bill. So much for the doubters about his effectiveness. As the Guardian reports, 'At prime ministers' questions today, the Lib Dem leader, Charles Kennedy, told Mr Blair that the legislation "will deter poorer students from becoming university graduates because of the debt involved, breaches trust with the public [and] does not tackle adequately the fundamental financing difficulties of the universities". Instead, extra funding should be raised through a higher top rate of income tax, he said.' Stressing that the Prime Minister had in fact made no significant concessions he said, "How can you justify legislation which will undoubtedly deter poorer students from becoming university graduates because of the debt involved, which breaches trust with the public given your earlier manifesto commitment and which in fact does not tackle adequately the fundamental financing difficulties of the universities themselves. University fees could be eliminated entirely if the top 1% of taxpayers paid more tax, surely that is a more fair approach." To be fair to the Prime Minister he at least acknowledged that the Liberal Democrats have an alternative policy even if he has not been paying attention to the mathematics involved.


Devolution unlimited

So in the end the Richard Commission recommended more powers and a proper system of election for an increased number of Assembly Members. It has attracted huge publicity and that will continue. Thousands of words, tens of thousands of pounds and hours of airtime all to state the bleedin' obvious. Still, it had to be said!

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

The dangers of being a politician

So today's starter for ten is which Assembly Member was complaining about a bad leg this morning because they had hurt it chasing sheep at the weekend? The same Assembly Member is also displaying two bruises on his lower lip. Apparently he had attended a Heartstart course yesterday and had engaged too enthusiastically with the mannequin whilst practising mouth to mouth resuscitation. Well it amused me.

Monday, March 29, 2004

Community radio

I spent a fascinating hour this evening in the studios of Wales' newest radio station. Afan FM is a community radio station serving the Neath and Port Talbot area. It is due to go live on Thursday 1 April on a month's temporary licence. It will be bidding for a full licence in the autumn. The station's website says that "AfanFM is a proposed Community Radio Station for young people in the Neath-Port Talbot area setup BY young people FOR young people!" The Station Manager, Craig Williams, is just 18 and demonstrated tremendous drive and determination in raising the funds for this project and getting it off the ground. I wish him and his team luck and good wishes in their launch and in getting a more permanent licence. Tune in on 87.7fm during the month of April if you are in the Swansea or Neath Port Talbot area.

While I was there I discussed the many problems the station has faced in getting on air. One of these is the regulations imposed by OFCOM that do not seem to take account of the Welsh topography at all. Afan FM will be the only radio station exclusively covering the Neath Port Talbot area. Because of the mountains they need about 200 watts of output on two transmitters to cover their potential audience of 209,000 people but OFCOM are only allowing them 50 watts on one transmitter. That might be OK in the Home Counties but in the Welsh valleys it is insufficient.

OFCOM are also sending Community Radio stations into the big wide world with one hand tied behind their back. They say that they can only raise 50% of their income from advertising. They are launching a consultation on community radio that I will be responding to. I will also be asking the Assembly Minister for Culture to take up these issues on behalf of Afan FM and the community radio stations in Torfaen and Cardiff. Log on to the OFCOM site and let them have your views.

Local bands

Just so that you don't think I spend my entire life doing politics I can report a very successful night out last Saturday. I went to the Uplands Tavern to see a local band play. Dim Cyril as they are called were outstanding and well worth checking out. My sort of rock music! I even bought their album. Being English by birth my first reaction was which one is Cyril, however my friends soon put me right. The title is in fact Welsh, literally 'No Cyril'. So explain that to me again. Who is Cyril?!

Richard Commission

The Richard Commission was set up by the Partnership Government at the instigation of the Welsh Liberal Democrats to look at the powers of the Welsh Assembly. It is due to report at long last on Wednesday morning and already there is feverish political activity being generated in anticipation of the event. One paper this morning suggested that it was going to recommend a gradual transfer of primary law making powers to Wales starting with Health and Education. It is apparently also going to suggest an 80 member Assembly elected by STV. Both ideas are welcome though I would prefer the transfer of powers to be all encompassing immediately.

It does not look like the Wales Labour Party share my cautious welcome for these proposals. It has been suggested that they do not want elections by STV but would prefer instead to dispense with all list AMs and adopt a straightforward first past the post method of election. So much for pluralism. Such a system would entrench an unrepresentative Labour majority in the Assembly whilst also leaving the North and West Wales out on a limb. A return to Labour tribalism in this form will finish off the Welsh Assembly and the fledgling devolution project.

There is also talk that any changes in the powers or the method of electing the Assembly will require a new referendum. Why? It was always made clear that devolution is a process. The process of acquiring new responsibilities or becoming more representative is a natural evolution for the Assembly That should not require a fresh mandate, especially if enacted after a General Election. I am prepared to concede a second referendum on tax varying powers but that is a different matter. The urgency on funding, as I have said before in this forum is a reform of the Barnett formula that determines how much money the Assembly gets from Westminster to spend. Without that reform then the scope to do radically different things with the extra powers is much limited.

Another Blogger

Yet another Liberal Democrat blogger in the shape of Barry Stamp, a Councillor from Stafford.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Chatshow Charlie

The papers continue to speculate wildly on the Leadership of the Liberal Democrats. It is almost as if they think that having manipulated the Tories into dumping an awful leader they can now browbeat the Liberal Democrats into changing our leadership.

I do have a problem with the obsession that the media and others have about Leaders and the way that the Country is moving towards a presidential style of politics. Like many other Liberal Democrats I instinctively distrust the concept of leadership as an afront to my individuality. I have always advocated a more collegiate style of working and actually believe that it is a good thing that we get coverage for other Liberal Democrat MPs so that we do not come across as the sort of one man band that we became under Paddy Ashdown. Like Nick Barlow I think that it is healthy that all this speculation has given coverage to some of the very talented younger MPs in the Party who may challenge for the leadership when Charles Kennedy finally steps down.

It is though time that the newspapers got some perspective. According to the Mail on Sunday, the men in suits have visited Charles Kennedy with a threat to replace him with Menzies Campbell. Do we really determine leadership issues like that in the Liberal Democrats? I do not think so. Perhaps the Mail on Sunday is thinking of another political party, the Tories maybe.

As if to underline the journalistic fantasy that these newspapers are embarking on Sarah Teather MP is quoted in the Sunday Times Diary as saying that sometimes you just have to give your liver a rest. The implication is that she thinks that Charles Kennedy has a drink problem and that she is happy to endorse the lurid but untrue speculation in the press on this issue. In actual fact the quote is taken from a BBC online article published on 19 March 2004. It did not relate to Charles Kennedy at all as the following extract demonstrates:

But doesn't she sometimes feel like sneaking off and letting her hair down?
"I wouldn't go out and get drunk now in public - it's been a long time since I went out and did that anyway," she says.
"It's the kind of thing I did when I was a student, but now I'm pushing 30 and there comes a time when everybody's liver says: 'Okay, time to behave like a grown up'."

It is on days like these that it is driven home to us how badly served we are by the media in this Country and what a poor quality of reporting and factual accuracy they offer us. This is not news, it is the promotion of a political agenda in the hope of manufacturing news.

Public Services

The one thing that has always puzzled me about New Labour is why they embraced so completely the concept of a market-economy for public services driven by the need to offer choice to customers. Certainly, my priorities in using public services have been that they should be accessible, free at the point of delivery or at the very least priced reasonably and in a way that does not exclude people, and of a good quality. These objectives can be achieved without competition and without the need for a choice through the properly targetted investment of sufficient resources, long-term planning and effective management. It was no surprise to me therefore to read reports that Government polls are showing that voters are shunning Labour plans to offer them choice in how they use public services. The Guardian reports that it seems voters do not regard choice as relevant to their lives, and simply want local schools and hospitals to be efficient and available. Will the Government listen? Well if the evidence from The Big Conversation is anything to go by then no, they will not.

Saturday, March 27, 2004

Mistaken links

I meant to put this up yesterday but I just did not have time. I had gotten home about 10am on Thursday after a day in London visiting the GLA only to find that all the downstairs lights were out. Some water from the bathroom above had seeped into a light fitting and had caused the fuse to blow. As a result I spent too much time sorting it out and not enough time doing the other things I needed to do.

So, an HTV reporter pointed this out to me earlier in the week. I refuse to take any blame for this. Those who follow the ins and outs of Assembly politics will know that the Welsh Government packaged all their aspirations under the heading "Better Wales". A website was set up but it seems that they failed to buy up all the domain names. As a result somebody looking for the Better Wales site had a bit of a shock. Yes, you have guessed it. They typed in www.betterwales.com and got a site selling various downloads. So they tried its Welsh equivalent. Before you click on this link you should be warned that www.gwellcymru.com acts as a gateway to a number of porn sites. I hope they do a better job of running the Government.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

The doctrine of non-critical devolution

The debate on GM crops in the National Assembly was predictable in that the Welsh Liberal Democrats tabled a motion seeking the most restrictive possible regime in Wales, including some mild criticism of the UK Government, and the Labour Party voted it down. In fact they got very indignant about us criticising the UK Government and accused us of abandoning the consensus on GM crops that has been built up in Wales. It was telling therefore that their amendment got no support from any of the opposition parties as it contained a presumption that the listing of Chardon LL is inevitable. It is over that presumption that the consensus has broken down, not our motion.

I found one remark by the Welsh Environment Minister intriguing. He said that "On principle, it is wrong to criticise another UK administration when it is speaking on behalf of its geographical part of the UK. We can imagine the response if Westminster had passed a resolution criticising our standpoint on GM crops." I bet he would not take that view if the UK Government was a Tory administration. The problem with his statement of course is that on GM crops as on many other issues the UK Government does not just speak for England, it represents the whole of the British State in European law. Although, it is true that they need to get consent from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to list GM crops it is also true that their position puts inordinate pressure on the devolved administrations and there is strong suspicion of behind-the-secnes arm twisting. Devolution is not about the separation of the constituent parts of the UK but about the exercise of power at the appropriate level. Sometimes decisions cannot be taken in isolation and in those circumstances it is perfectly proper to point that out and to criticise if necessary. That is why I am also critical of the decision of the Scottish Parliament in relation to listing Chardon LL in Scotland as their decision also adds to the pressure on Wales.

We will fight on of course but it is looking increasingly likely that Welsh Labour are trying to find a way out so as to satisfy their political masters in Westminster.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Bionic Man

Good information and keeping ones ear to the ground is the key to an effective opposition, however, there were a lot of blank looks this afternoon when Tory Monmouth AM, David Davies, stood up in Plenary to ask a supplementary question. He was following up a question to the Health Minister about access to health services for deaf and hard of hearing people in Wales. Somehow he managed to invent a new aid for the deaf and hard of hearing called 'bionic ears'. Perhaps he is looking to get an edge on the rest of us in the cut and thrust of political debate.

Ugly Buildings

Dyfatty flats in Swansea have been voted the ugliest building in South Wales. Why? These buildings are nothing special. They are like every other high rise social housing built in the sixties and the seventies. I suspect that they won out because the experience of living in them is not ideal largely due to a lack of investment by the local Council. Listening to the radio item on this as I drove into the Assembly it occurred to me that there are in fact a uglier buildings in Cardiff Bay., So I drew up a long list. This includes the ntl headquarters by Asda and all the new blocks of flats that have grown up alongside the A4232 between the ntl building and St. David's Hotel, especially the one with the £300,000 plus cylindrical penthouse. In addition there is the St. David's Hotel itself, Techniquest and the Wales Millennium Centre. The favourite has to be the UCI cinema complex, which is even uglier than the Parc Tawe buildings where its Swansea twin is situated. As for the most attractive building in Cardiff Bay, my vote is the Pierhead Building. Though if Mount Stuart Square was not so hidden away it would provide a stark demonstration to today's architects of how classy buildings can look.

Locals only housing

There are calls once more for the Assembly to promote the building of locals-only housing in rural areas. I am not adverse to this idea though there are associated problems with it. There are always dangers in interfering in the housing market particularly in the way that it can limit the free flow of labour and it can actually affect the ability of local people to sell their houses. I know that in the field of social housing to rent people have advocated giving priority to locals and in fact one Welsh Housing Association operates such a policy to my knowledge. Again, it is what is suitable and acceptable to the local area. However, I would pose one question to those who advocate such a policy. If a Housing Association has a locals-first policy and has two applicants for a property, both equal in every other way, one is local the other is from an ethnic minority, who gets the house and why? It is a difficult conundrum and one reason why people sometimes shy away from these policies.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004


I just caught reports on the radio of six fire engines, including a turntable arriving at the House of Commons this evening to tackle a fire. I cannot see anything on the BBC website about it but apparently there was a fire in the MP's kitchen in Portcullis House. It seems that in these very difficult times an MP cannot even burn his toast without causing a crisis.

I was in Westminster yesterday and the security presence was very evident. Policemen in flak jackets carrying automatic rifles were all over the place. I suppose we should be thankful that the Greenpeace protestors were not shot down from Big Ben.

Monday, March 22, 2004

ID cards

It seems that even Cabinet Members cannot trust each other not to breach agreements and promises. The concerns of foreign secretary, Jack Straw, the transport secretary, Alistair Darling, the chief secretary to the treasury, Paul Boateng, and the trade and industry secretary, Patricia Hewitt that David Blunkett is trying to introduce compulsory identity cards by the back door must ring alarm bells for the whole country. The arguments against compulsory ID cards have been much rehearsed and I do not intend to go into them here. Suffice to say that they are in fact not very effective and are unlikely to achieve the outcome expected of them. The cost of £3 billion to achieve very little other than to undermine our civil liberties and strengthen the power of the state is a huge waste of public money. Imagine for a moment what the Police could do with that money in terms of tackling drug dealers and terrorism. Today's issue though is one of trust. If Cabinet members cannot trust each other then why should the public trust them?


Sunday, March 21, 2004

Stage fright?

So I am leaving the Conference Hall after Charles Kennedy's speech, in the hope of getting home by about 6pm, when I am stopped by a photographer. He takes my phone number, photographs me and says that the newsdesk of the Independent will ring me later. They do. The reporter wants to know whether I retain my confidence in Charles' leadership following his failure to attend two major events because of illness. I tell them that I do, that even Charles is only human and can get sick sometimes and that although he was clearly not recovered fully his speech today was excellent. Then the reporter asks me if I think Charles suffers from stage fright! I am speechless. What will they think of next?

Saturday, March 20, 2004


I was sitting in the Conference Hall near the end of the debate on top up fees when Lembit Opik entered closely followed by an entourage of three young and attractive ladies. The person sitting next to me looked across as they made their way to their seats and remarked that perhaps, under different circumstances, they would scatter petals in his path. Later on as we left the Conference Hall we found some of Lembit's business cards lying on the floor. Obviously, petals are hard to come by in Southport.

Meanwhile the Young Liberal Democrats demonstrated their own media-savvy by staging a stunt to illustrate student debt that involved inflatable sharks (loan sharks obviously) and a ball and chain around their neck. This homage to bondage cast a whole new light on the debate that followed on pornography.

Moral cowardice?

It is true that the decision by the Spanish Government to pull out of Iraq has effectively come too late to halt the thousands of unnecessary deaths that the war there has brought. It is true too, that given the situation from where we now start, we cannot justify leaving Iraq to its own devices. The West has done enough damage and it now has a moral duty not to leave the Country until there is some sustainable stability and a chance of economic recovery. Popular at home as it was therefore, the action of the new Spanish Prime Minister in withdrawing his troops, was most probably the wrong one, though if he can use that decision as a bargaining tool to lever in a UN presence to replace the British and US troops then he may well be proved right in the end.

Too describe the Spanish plan as "moral cowardice" as Michael Howard has done, however, is just total nonsense. The Tory leader repeated the mantra of the moral blackmailers of the right that the result of the Spanish election had appeased terrorism and then went on to make the extraordinary (but not new) claim that the invasion of Iraq was somehow something to do with fighting terrorism. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

It is now clear from opinion polls that the eventual victors of the Spanish election were already two points ahead of the Government in opinion polls the day before the Madrid bombings. Faced with a Government that seemed prepared to use this atrocity for electoral reasons by spinning that it was the work of ETA (or E.T.A. as George W. Bush would have it) and which had defied them in taking Spain into the war in the first place they reacted with the disgust and anger of any other decent people and threw the right wing governing party out on their ear. The Spanish people reacted to terror by voting in greater numbers, in other words they reaffirmed the democratic process in the face of those who would subvert it with violence. Nothing could be further from appeasement. The implications of comments like those from Michael Howard and others on the American right is that actually terrorism should be allowed to interfere with the democratic process. They argue that in the face of atrocity the voters should stick with the status quo. That is the real appeasement of a terrorist act.

As for the implication that the invasion of Iraq was about combatting terrorism, I am afraid that Michael Howard, George W. Bush, Tony Blair et al are becoming victims of their own rhetoric. In truth the goalposts seem to shift from week to week. We were firstly told that we were going into Iraq to remove weapons of mass destruction. Then, when WMDs failed to appear, the war became one that was about regime change. Now we are told that we went in to fight terrorism, despite the fact that Saddam Hussein was a sworn enemy of Al Quaeda, that there was no evidence that he was sponsoring terrorism and there was nothing to link him to the atrocity that was 9/11. In addition there is strong evidence to show that Bush was planning the invasion well before the attack on New York and the Pentagon. Like many other wars before it the one waged by the USA on Iraq is about economic and political influence with some element of personal animosity thrown in. In such circumstances it was morally unacceptable for Blair to throw his hat in the ring alongside Bush and completely baffling as to why Michael Howard now wishes to jump on this particular bandwagon. We have to be strong in the fight against terrorism it is true, but surely it is our duty to be effective as well. Rhetoric and moral blackmail does not shield us from bombs and bullets. Perhaps somebody should tell the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition this obvious truth.

More smears

The media is full of stories casting aspersions on Charles Kennedy's health. According to one newspaper this morning some journalists have come to the Conference with the sole brief of watching how much whisky he drinks. These sort of smears are unpleasant and unnecessary. They are character assasination of the lowest order. What they show more than anything else is how worried the establishment is by the success of the Liberal Democrats and the personal popularity of the party's leader. It seems that together with the other two mainstream parties they will stop at nothing to bring us down to earth. No dirty trick is out of bounds. So when the Leader of the Liberal Democrats proves that he is human and capable of getting a stomach bug like the rest of us they immediately work overtime to try and demonstrate that there are other forces at work. No wonder people are turned off by the political process.

Vote early, vote often

And now the Government's plan to introduce postal voting on June 10th is in trouble. Their insistence on ignoring the very sound advice of the Electoral Commission that a postal voting pilot in the North West and other regions would be unsafe has led to them almost losing the legislation that is necessary to allow these pilots to happen. Labour must learn that the electoral process cannot be played with in this way. If they do not put adequate safeguards in place to deal wth fraud and to protect the integrity of the ballot then they cannot expect the support of the other parties. As I have argued before, postal ballots may increase turnout but they do not address the fundamental alienation of the electorate from the political process. As on so many other matters the Government is taking the course of least resistance in order to be seen to be doing something.

Friday, March 19, 2004


So I am in Southport for the Liberal Democrat Federal Conference. One of the joys of devolution is that a huge part of the agenda for our weekend spring conference tends to relate to English-only issues. As a result the demands on my time are not so great and I can have a bit of a rest and relax. This is good as the last week has been really frenetic.

I took advantage of the trip up north to spend most of today in Liverpool looking at regeneration projects. The Liberal Democrats have made a huge difference to the way that this City is run. They have brought a new way of thinking and confidence to the area, so much so that one Government Minister is reputed to have concluded a visit with the comment that Liverpool is the best "Labour-run Council in the Country." In other words the Liberal Democrat Council is doing everything right and he wished that there were Labour-run Councils prepared to think outside the box and grasp opportunities with both hands in the same way. The basis of the Council's regeneration philosophy is clean, safe, manage and then regenerate. It is true that the City is cleaner than I have ever seen it, whilst crime statistics show that it is also safer. The use of social businesses to employ and train local long term unemployed people is also a feature of the work being done by the Council. Where stock transfer is being pursued it is done within the context of the long term regeneration of the area and the opportunity is taken to empower local people. Perhaps Wrexham should learn something from this.

It is worth noting that when the Liberal Democrats came to power in Liverpool the Council Tax was the highest in the Country by a margin of 20%. They are now outside of the top 100 and in cash terms local people are paying the same Council Tax for City Council services now as they were then. This year the Council increased Council Tax by just 2.8% as their contribution to an overall Council Tax increase of 3.6%. Not only are we running the City better but we are giving better value for money too.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

A decision at last

After what seems to be a year of agonising indecision the House Committee finally bit the bullet today and agreed that they will publish details of Assembly Members' claims and allowances. Most AMs have been publishing these voluntarily anyway but at least this decision will reaffirm the Assembly's committment to transparency, even if it was taken very late in the day. What horrified most members was the implications of the Freedom of Information Act. Apparently, after January 2005 the Assembly will be required to comply with any reasonable request to give the details of these claims. Matters such as how much members pay in rent for their office, travel claims and possibly even bonuses paid to staff will be open to public scrutiny. No problem with that of course but it does give one the impression that the big issues like Education and Health may well take second place to prurience in the less serious media. Another distraction from the real work of the Assembly and yet another big stick to beat us with. Let us hope that the MPs are subject to the same level of scrutiny.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Sticky Ends

Martin Shipton in the Western Mail this morning exposes the Welsh Labour Government's lack of delivery of its 10 key manifesto pledges from the Welsh Assembly elections in 2003. He describes a press event yesterday in which the Government sought to promote the supplementary budget as a "week of delivery" as "jam tomorrow - while virtually delivering nothing today." This dismal performance is actually in direct contrast to the delivery-centred Partnership Agreement driven forward by the Welsh Liberal Democrats in the previous Assembly. In that agreement we pushed through a freeze in prescription charges, free eye and dental tests and medicines for certain groups, investment in rural schools, smaller class sizes and school buildings, grants for students in further and higher education, changes in homelessness legislation and an eight fold increase in spending on this item, above-inflation funding for local Government and record investment in the countryside and in the Welsh Language. What is more we did this in just over two years. Now that they have a majority and they are governing alone, Labour do not seem to have got off the starting block. It is worth reproducing Martin Shipton's analysis of their top ten promises to illustrate this:

Promise: Prescription charges scrapped
Reality: Charge remains at £6. Reduction to £5 in October and £4 during 2005-06
Promise: Free breakfasts in primary schools
Reality: No free breakfasts yet. £1.5m pilot starts in the autumn, with a further £3.5m available for 2005-06
Promise: Free swimming for older people
Reality: No free swimming yet. Pilot due in 2004-05, with £3m allocated for £2005-06
Promise: £100m to fight crime
Reality: £4m extra allocated for 2005-06
Promise: Knowledge Bank for entrepreneurs
Reality: No bank yet. £3m to start fund in 2005-06
Promise: Extend 20mph and safe routes to school schemes
Reality: Nothing as yet. Guidance to councils "is being revised".
Promise: Free home care for disabled people
Reality: £7.5m allocated to abolish charges from September 2005 - but no definition of who qualifies as disabled
Promise: Better school and hospital buildings
Reality: £32m extra allocated for 2005-06
Promise: No top-up fees
Reality: Powers to ensure this are on their way, but no extra money from Whitehall
Promise: Develop half-price travel for young people
Reality: No scheme as yet, though it's hoped to have one by 2007

In actual fact the situation is worse than this. On top-up fees for example, the powers may be on the way but the pledge is only that they will not be introduced before 2007. The Labour Assembly Government have no idea what they will do after that. On School buildings the pledge is to invest £560 million by 2007 and yet the indicative plans we have seen so far indicate that only £524 million has been put aside for this purpose, a shortfall of £36 million or three new Comprehensive Schools.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Sudden impact

We all strive to have an impact in Plenary but few of us achieve it quite so dramatically as Monmouth AM, David Davies did today. David was fully engaged in one of his customary rants against the evils of the Welsh Assembly Government and their alleged policy of raising the Council Tax in Monmouth to unacceptable levels. He was explaining to us why some of his constituents had considered withholding payment and emphasising that this was not a course of action that he would personally follow. He does want to be an MP after all. He was just reaching a crescendo in reply to some substantial barracking with the assertion that "I have never condoned breaking the law" when the lights went out. I have never seen the chamber stunned to silence in quite that way before.

David went on to explain how the Tories will achieve savings in Local Government. He listed a whole string of jobs that he believes are not necessary for the delivery of services. "Just open the job pages of the Guardian," he urged, "and you will see the jobs we want to axe." For a moment I thought he was abandoning his famed committment to freedom of speech and was advocating the abolition of the Guardian itself.

Bad hair day?

Although Francesca beat me to it in posting this link she only did so because I was ensconced in the chamber in Plenary, after all I drew her attention to it. Needless to say it is unnecessarily cruel and completely irrelevant to the business of politics to which both Nick Bourne and I devote our lives. For those of you who think I post this to make a cheap point I should inform you that my attention was drawn to the site by a member of the Welsh Conservative Assembly Group. The poll is interesting as it touches on the rather shallow perceptions that people sometimes apply to politicians as well as the vanity that some of us suffer from. Just one more point for the benefit of my rather wayward Research Assistant, my makeover did not include highlights!

New blog

I find that I am having to regularly update the links to other blogs as people drop out or new blogs appear on the horizon. A big welcome therefore, to Jonathan Calder's new blog. Jonathan also runs Serendib and Lord Bonker's Diary. How he finds the time I do not know.

Monday, March 15, 2004

Drink anybody?

Continuing the theme of dangerous liquids Iain Coleman draws attention to a very funny but totally un-PC site about stupid people. My favourite story so far is about the Californian City of Aliso Viejo whose officials were so concerned about the potentially dangerous properties of dihydrogen monoxide that they considered banning foam cups after they learned the chemical was used in their production. They apparently fell victim to one of the many official looking Web sites that have been put up by pranksters to describe dihydrogen monoxide as "an odorless, tasteless chemical" that can be deadly if accidentally inhaled. As a result, the City Council of this Orange County suburb had been scheduled to vote next week on a proposed law that would have banned the use of foam containers at city-sponsored events. Among the reasons given for the ban were that they were made with a substance that could "threaten human health and safety." Then they learned that dihydrogen monoxide - H2O for short - is the scientific term for water.

Binge drinking

Maybe I am missing something but when I picked up the Western Mail this morning and read the headline ''Shameless' young Welsh women shun drink advice' I was expecting there to be a story of some kind. Instead we have a report of a TV documentary that alleges that programmes like 'Sex and the City' and 'Bridget Jones' are encouraging young women to drink heavily two or more nights a week. There are unparliamentary terms that describe a programme like this but we will not go there. So what is my problem?

Well, firstly binge drinking is not a new phenomena. In my experience it is ingrained into our culture. It is a huge problem and I agree that it is not helped by happy hours, 'drink as much as you can' offers and other promotional gimmicks put up by bars and night clubs. It is a problem that we need to worry about and that we need to counter, especially when you think that there are six times as many people dependent on alcohol as on drugs and that alcohol use is estimated to cost the NHS £3 billion a year and plays a role in 40,000 deaths annually. Approximately 80% of violent crime is alcohol related.

Secondly, the supposition is that television programmes form a major influence in our lifestyles and our life choices as if we do not have free will. This is just an excuse for censorship. The fact is that peer pressure and culture is far more influential in these decisions as it is with smoking and drugs. All alcohol advertising and glamorous programmes do is to reinforce existing attitudes.

Finally, my biggest problem with the programme, but more so with the newspaper article, is that it is just blatantly sexist. Why are they singling out women? Is it because those who are spinning this yarn find this to be a good hook to hang the piece on? Are they are playing on some stereotypical view of women as demure housewives, whose lives revolve around their husband, casting off the shackles of oppression and going out and having a good time after falling under the influence of evil TV programmes and marketing men? In the 1950s maybe but this is the twenty-first century and women are able to think for themselves.

The key passage in the story that undermines its whole rationale is this:-

'Pressure at work and more disposable income, combined with increased independence, all contribute to a society where women are out on the town just as much as men.'

'Just as much as men' - this is misogynistic after all. Why should women not be out on the town as much as men? They have the right to a life as well. They earn money, they support their family, they work hard like any man. They deserve to play hard too. Yes, there is an increase in the amount of alcohol drunk by women and especially young women and children in the past decade or so, and yes that is worrying. But that is an equalising process. Women should not be singled out for that.

By all means highlight growing alcoholism, binge drinking and other issues around alcohol and argue for action to combat it. I will back you all the way. But please, don't make this an issue about women. It is not. Rant over!

Sunday, March 14, 2004

E-voting boosts turnout

My thanks to Frank who drew my attention to this on a different forum. The website silicon.com reports that an e-voting trial in California achieved an unusual participation rate:

'Getting voters to the polls on a normal day isn't easy so it was encouraging to hear that the latest e-voting trial in California reported a breathtakingly large (virtual) turnout.

How breathtakingly large, you ask? Well, way over 100 per cent, thanks for asking.

After a quick check determined that Governor Jeb Bush was nowhere near a computer while the election was in progress, officials determined the bureaucratic boob was down to human error and not technology. Apparently the e-voting system uses codes to assign a voter to a particular precinct and some election workers had been mistakenly assigning voters to the wrong precinct - resulting in the higher than expected number of ballots in 21 voting precincts.

Meanwhile, other precincts experienced an unnaturally low turnout - possibly because their votes had been counted in other districts. However, it's unlikely the votes will be recast or recounted following the polling foul-up as the winners' margins are wide enough to factor in the erroneous voting and still come up with the same results. Which is a slightly worrying assumption to make considering the chaos which transpired at the last presidential election.'

Those who are looking to new technology as a solution to low turnouts need look no further. However, they would do well to reflect on the lessons from this particular experiment. It is insecure, open to abuse and difficult to administer. There is no paper trail to establish that votes cast reflect the preferences of their owners and the possibilty of impersonation is high. It may well be the future but for now we need to reflect on what we value the most - the sanctity and security of our democratic system or convenient media-friendly quick-fixes. I think politicians too need to think long and hard about why people do not vote. In my experience it is not the trip to the polling station that is off-putting but the choice facing people when they get there.

Saturday, March 13, 2004


My fellow blogger, Labour MP Tom Watson, should be aware that the Western Mail are casting doubts on whether his famous yoof site is a spoof or not. In today's paper, they are also crediting him with an hitherto unknown role in Welsh political history. Kirsty Buchanan writes, 'The West Bromwich MP is famous for his "blogging" website where he indulges in some hip "yoof" speak either with ironic genius or an embarrassing lack of awareness. He is also the Labour MP who was thought to be instrumental in delivering the Young Labour vote in the Alun Michael v Rhodri Morgan leadership battle.' Is this a bit of spin on Mr. Watson's part or have I just not been paying attention?

The Simpsons come to Cardiff Bay

Honestly, the things some Assembly Members will do to get in the Western Mail. My heart is breaking. Somebody give him the statuette back please.

It's Jenny Willott or Labour

The Western Mail hits the nail on the head! 'Although it was held by the Tories until 1992, Cardiff Central's current MP is former Welsh Office Minister Jon Owen Jones, who is facing a strong challenge from Jenny Willott of the Liberal Democrats. In 2001 Ms Willott was only 659 votes behind Mr Jones, and most observers expect her to win next time.'

Racist or Patriot

Former AM and MP Cynog Dafis speaks out on the big issue of the day. According to Cynog identity is the key to solving the problems of the Welsh nation. Actually, the problem lies in his analysis. You do not have to be a nationalist or a racist to recognise the dangers posed by a brain drain of the brightest and finest from our communities. That is because it is an economic problem. Equally, the vitality and sustainability of communities is a social and cultural issue, particularly where this poses a threat to the Welsh Language in that area. There are practical measures that can be taken to address all of these problems if there is political will and resources. What the problem does not need is voodoo culturalism thrown in for good measure.

If Plaid are going to couch the debate on the future of Wales and its communities in the language of identity and propose measures to ring-fence communities so as to preserve their purity then it is unsurprising that words like racist are bandied about. What we need are solutions that recognise the inter-dependence of communities in Wales with those in England and Europe, that acknowledges that we are a mobile, multi-cultural, multi-lingual society and that offers an equality of opportunity to all citizens. In other words we need to enable people to make their own decisions not impose an agenda of identity and nationhood upon them.

R.I.P. People's Assembly

After my comments on Thursday the Producer of Radio Wales' People's Assembly e-mails me to say that the programme is to be killed off for good. "While I would love to give into your request to do The People's Assembly by phone," she says, "sadly the programme is being killed off for good next week." She continues, "So you won't have to worry about having to go out West again on our behalf and as there are no plans to replace it, not ever again!" I am heartbroken. Despite my half-hearted protestations I really did enjoy those trips out west and let's face it, it was the only regular radio I got!

Thursday, March 11, 2004


What is it about media programmes that makes politicians do mad things to get on them? More to the point why is it that when I get asked to do Radio Wales' 'People's Assembly' I end up out West? Could I please do Swansea or Cardiff next time? Even better, if it is snowing again, can I do it over the phone?

So, yes, I drove all the way to Pembroke to take part in an half hour live panel discussion in front of a small but lively audience. I then drove back in conditions that at best, can only be described as atrocious. Snow was swirling in front of me and at times I could only see a few yards ahead. I got to my next meeting in Port Talbot at 8.30pm only to discover that everybody else had stayed at home because of the weather. C'est la vie!

Oh, and what is it about some people that they do not understand irony? One of the questions was about Rhodri Morgan vetoing the appointment of the new Counsel General. The questioner asked, "Is Rhodri Morgan a leader or a dictator?" I started off my reply by pointing out that if Rhodri were a dictator at least he might get the trains to run on time. The rather humourless Labour MP on the panel took me literally. Somebody give her a history lesson, please!!


An unsolicited e-mail arrives seeking my support for an on-line campaign to kick Clare Short out of the Labour Party. I ignore it as the internal troubles of another party are none of my business. However, further reflection makes me wonder why politics is peopled by so many authoritarians and why they have to transform uncomfortable discussions about issues to such personal animosity. I do not exclude Clare Short from that judgement.

I have no doubt that Clare Short was wrong to breach confidentiality as she did. I also happen to think that she has lost a lot of credibility by the way she clung to power in defiance of her own principles over the Iraq war. Her personal targeting of the Prime Minister is not particularly pleasant either. However, campaigns like this do have all the hallmarks of a witch hunt and, in my view, put people off politics.

Clare Short actually brought into the public domain an area of Government that we all know is there but nobody ever admits too officially. In that sense she has started a valuable debate about how Government should behave towards us and towards the diplomats and citizens of other Countries. It is a shame that she did so after having been so utterly discredited and for such impure motives, because otherwise the machinery of Government would have been under greater pressure to respond in some detail instead of just shrugging it off. Something might even have changed as a result!

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Put up or shut up

The Counsel-General controversy continued today on all media. In the Chamber the Labour AM for Rhondda, Leighton Andrews, stood up on a point of order and demanded to know if the Deputy Presiding Officer proposed to make a personal statement on his role in publicising the affair. John Marek was suitably dismissive. He told Leighton that if he had an allegation to make then he should put up the evidence or he should shut-up! A far cry from the first broadcasts from the House of Commons when, if the Speaker wanted to put down a pompous member, he just called for order.


I know I shouldn't pass on the gossip that richochets around the corridors here but this is just too good. So today's starter for ten is this. Which former Assembly Member, known for his love of ladies and the odd drink, was allegedly spotted queuing in Cardiff recently, waiting to audition for the next series of Big Brother?

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Scenes of chaos

Amazing scenes in the Assembly Chamber today as the sitting was suspended not once, but twice. The controversy centred on the continuing row over the non-appointment of a new Counsel General to the National Assembly. A recommendation was made by an appointments panel last year but it was blocked by the First Minister as he objected to the successful applicant being a Freemason and a fox-hunter. Instead Rhodri Morgan sought to put forward another candidate who had stood for Labour 30 years ago and who, it emerged today, may well have had as one of his referees, the former Lord Chancellor, Derry Irvine. The conspiracy theorists have had a field day since the revelations were first broadcast by the BBC last Thursday. One of those who went onto the TV to comment was the Deputy Presiding Officer, John Marek. He accused the First Minister of cronyism.

As it happened the Presiding Officer was ill today so the DPO ended up chairing the Plenary. When the First Minister got up to make a statement on the issue a Labour backbencher, Jeff "Victor Meldrew" Cuthbert, got up on a point of order to challenge the impartiality of the Chair. John Marek made it clear that if they wanted him out they would have to force him to resign and then suspended the sitting. After the second suspension it finally got through to the Labour Party that if they forced Marek's resignation then they would have to replace him with a Labour AM and they would lose their majority. They withdrew their objections and the session continued. Who says that Plenary is dull? Who for that matter claims that it has any credibility left? Debating strategy and policy all the time may not make the most exciting television but at least it maintains gravitas. Perhaps we should try it sometime.

Frankenstein seeds

Well it seems that we remain GM free for the time being and that we continue to be the obstacle to the other constituent parts of the UK licensing Chardon LL. Good! The question is though, how long will the Welsh Environment Minister hold out against the pressure from his party colleague in Westminster? We are determined that he will hold firm but indications are that a deal is being struck around amendments to European regulations on separation distances. We need to remain alert. Watch this space.

Monday, March 08, 2004


I have now updated my website to incorporate my latest surgery dates. Rather than update the page I have put the poster I send out to venues on as a pdf. If you are having problems opening ths please e-mail me.


Today sees the start of National Spam Appreciation Week. Cue for lots of bad jokes. Any search for information in the traditional search engines on this rather disgusting meat product just produces links to the other type of spam. How clever of Yahoo to link the two therefore. Just to make it clear I do not want spam of either kind. If, however, you want to send me jelly beans, please feel free!

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Nanny State

Although there is no debate in the Conference on this subject there was some discussion of a ban on smoking in public places on the fringe. Some people call this the Nanny State. That is a phrase I intend to use in the debate on the fluoridation of domestic water later today. It is also a phrase being used on the news this morning about proposals to ban the smacking of children.

It is my view that a public smoking ban is essential if we are to deal with passive smoking and the growth of respiratory disease. There are those who say that this will have an adverse on the leisure industry, but my experience of such a ban in San Francisco is that when there is a level playing field, people adjust and businesses carry on as usual. With regards to a ban on the smacking of children there is, in fact, a lot of misunderstanding around this measure. The object is not to stop reasonable chastisement but to prevent the defence of reasonable chastisement being used to fight a charge of excessive violence against a child as it has in the past. There is nothing "Nanny State" about such a measure. This proposal is an essential child-protection issue.

The adding of fluoride to domestic water supplies is a different matter. This is mass-medication, an infringement of civil liberties and a cop-out from proper public health measures and an investment in NHS dentistry. It is a sobering thought that the average adult today consumes 130lbs of sugar each year. Is it any wonder that there is tooth decay and ill-health? If the Government were to tackle the addition of sugar in such quantities to processed food for example, educate children and adults into eating more fresh fruit and vegetables and basic dental hygiene and if they were to guarantee NHS dental treatment for all then we would not need to add a poison like fluoride to our water supply. As with many other issues however, they take the easy way out and create even more problems.

Saturday, March 06, 2004


An exhausting day at Welsh Party Conference where I spoke in three debates and two fringes. We really must get some more Assembly Members! The only controversial item was the discussion on gender balance. This was more a consultation about whether we should adopt positive discrimination measures to increase the number of women who are elected to positions of influence. It was my judgement that the consensus of the Conference was opposed but we need to see how these matters work out now over the next few months and years. The day was rounded off by the usual Conference dinner in which singing and speeches were the order of the day. This is the thing about the Welsh Liberal Democrats, even as we grow and get more successful, we are still one big family.


I know that I am unfashionable in this regard but it is my view that breakfast is not a suitable meal over which to do business. Whenever my Assistant produces yet another invitation to a breakfast from some organisation or another, I always offer the same response - "I do not do breakfasts!" It is unreasonable in my opinion therefore, that at this Conference Saturday morning should start off with two such breakfast meetings. One at 7.30am and the other at 8am. Do these people expect coherence at this time of the morning? Breakfast is a time for waking up, for eating and for catching up with the news. It should not be about lobbying and schmooz. I may be writing this article at 7am but that does not mean that I am rushing to attend either of the two breakfasts that have been put on for the benefit of the delegates and me.

Friday, March 05, 2004

From Bristol to Mold

Spent last night in Bristol at the Colston Hall, watching an outstanding performance from the The Libertines. As soon as I was back in Swansea I was off again, this time heading to North Wales for the Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference. Got here just in time for an HTV reception and the Conference rally. After the fish and chip supper I returned to my hotel to find all the journalists in the bar. They have decided that the story of the night is "what was the point of the Conference rally?" They have a point. It was all rather worthy stuff but Charles Kennedy was addressing the nation and not Wales, whilst the others were really repeating lines that we have been putting out for months. Spin Doctors like this sort of thing. They believe that we should be on message as often as possible. In some cases they prefer this to debate. I do not believe that this was the intention of the rally, after all we are having some very serious debates this weekend, of which the one on fluoridation has the potential to be both passionate and contentious. Furthermore nobody can possibly argue that referring to the life of MPs in terms of the House of Commons bars and the showers, as Lord Carlile did, should be the talking point of the night. However, the real question that the journalists wanted a answer to was "what was he getting at when he talked about the showers?"

Thursday, March 04, 2004

UK Government fail the devolution test again

Proposals from the UK Government to introduce a Children's Commissioner for England have failed the devolution test. Whereas I welcome the move, I do not do so if it means diminishing the powers and influence of the Welsh Children's Commissioner. For the last three years, the Children's Commissioner has done a superb job, working with children right across Wales to promote their concerns and interests. He has developed relationships with the police and probation service to help Welsh children, even though he has no direct responsibility over those services. However, the Bill says that the Commissioner appointed by Westminster will be responsible for everything except where the matter has been devolved to the National Assembly. As my colleague, Kirsty Williams, has said, "There are very few adults in Wales who understand exactly which services are delivered in Wales. This Bill expects children to understand the niceties about what the assembly does and what parliament is responsible for. Does anyone seriously expect that to work? This Bill was a chance to make the Children's Commissioner in Wales an even more powerful advocate of children's rights. The Bill is cutting the ground from underneath the commissioner's feet. Why does a Bill in London need to set out in such detail what happens in Wales? Doesn't the UK government trust their own colleagues in Wales to develop a tailor made solution for Wales? The Bill may be a step forward for children in England but it is undoubtedly a step backwards for children in Wales."

Wednesday, March 03, 2004


I am gutted that I cannot find an electronic version of this article in the Western Mail or that the Stuff Magazine website does not seem to have the original article on it either. The Western Mail reports that a list of the hottest 50 'must have' gadgets for men would also demand a healthy bank balance. They range in price from a £26,000 sports car to a £16 device for finding the hot spots for wireless internet connection. Ah, boys toys I hear you mutter. If so you are right. These gadgets are getting so complicated that even if I owned them I don't think I could find the time or the energy to work out how to use them. Speaking as someone who only got a CD player a few years ago and a DVD player last month, I do not know if I want to own an iPod digital music player (I only ever have time to listen to music in the car) nor a £650 home cinema system.

Kerry vs Bush

Like a lot of Americans I flirted with Howard Dean at the beginning of the campaign but in the end I am just pleased to see somebody emerge early on who is a viable and radical alternative to the dreadful George W. Bush. Kerry is spot on when he describes Bush's foreign policy as "the most inept, reckless, arrogant and ideological" in modern US history.


Francesca links to a quiz to assess how European we really are. Although some of the answer options are a bit skewed and in many instances I wanted to tick another option I still did it. My result shows that not all Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians are Euro-fanatics. I prefer to think of myself as a Euro-realist:

Your heart is in Europe but your head is sceptical. You want it to work but you can't ignore the political realities that seem to militate against. You love the values and lifestyle that you think of as European - you like the long lunches, the generous welfare state, siestas, good coffee. But then there's the Common Agricultural Policy, the corruption, the budget deficits, the way all the shops are closed on Sundays.

Monday, March 01, 2004

University for sale?

No really, this is just not funny! Some of the students have put Swansea University up for sale on e-bay as a protest against the creation of a market in higher education and the proposed closure of four University Departments. A good point very well made.

Just another hero

So, in the end Aneurin Bevan held off a stiff challenge from Owain Glyndwr and was crowned the greatest ever Welsh person. There was just 117 votes in it. My choice of Tom Jones came in third. Interesting exercise, not sure what it is meant to prove.

More leisure disasters

Just when we thought that the closure of Swansea's Leisure Centre was as bad as any Council can get this instructive tale from Hackney offers a cautionary lesson for them if they ever get the finances together to rebuild it.

Tories join the opposition - at last!

Where Charles Kennedy and the Liberal Democrats lead the Official Opposition eventually follow. If only the Tories had taken this view at the beginning then we would be in a different situation altogether. The truth is of course that after Claire Short dropped her bombshell the Tories started to look more and more irrelevant on this issue. They had supported the war and thus were unable to capitalise on the opportunities that presented themselves when the weapons of mass destruction failed to appear and the Prime Minister's case for invasion began to fall apart. They jumped in with both feet in an attempt to pre-empt the Hutton report and were left with egg on their face and they supported the Butler Inquiry, even though the terms of reference were too narrow and inadequate, only to change their mind later. They have abandoned all pretence of being an effective opposition along with any attempt at providing a principled and coherent alternative.

Update: Matthew Turner draws our attention to the rather neat juxtaposition of Michael Howard's words in early February when the Tory Party Leader was reported as saying:

"I am confident that the terms of reference cover the use made by the Government of the intelligence," Mr Howard told conservatives.com. He added: "If we have a thorough report on the nature of the intelligence and the way in which it was used by the Government, which is fairly and squarely within the remit, then it will be open to everyone to make their own judgements about why we went to war and whether the reasons were justified."

to those he used only a few weeks later:

"It makes clear that it will consider such acts or omissions only in the context of its examinations of structures, systems and processes," said Mr Howard. "There is no basis in the terms of reference for that view and I consider it a quite unjustifiable restriction on the committee's approach. After careful reflection of these matters, I have therefore, decided with regret to withdraw my cooperation from the Butler Review."

Still, I suppose he got it right the second time.

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