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Friday, April 30, 2004

Labour Watch

Just to complete the set somebody has started a Labour Watch blog.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

Labour get the jitters

It is possible to tell when Labour are really worried in Swansea by the nature of the rumours sweeping through County Hall. Some Labour Councillors clearly believe that they will lose control of the Council on 10th June and are trying to plant some carefully thought-through scare stories to undermine any new administration. As the Welsh Liberal Democrats are the official opposition they believe that it is most likely that we will seek to try to put together a coalition of some sort to run the Council if Labour do lose their majority. Accordingly, they have sought to persuade potential partners that we cannot be trusted. Thus, we have learnt that a deal has supposedly been struck with the current leader to establish a Lib-Lab Administration in the event of No-Overall Control. It is also being put about that the first act of the Welsh Liberal Democrats will be to sack the current Chief Executive. Neither rumour is true but it is nice to know that they have bothered, reassuring that Labour think that they are looking into the abyss and quite flattering that they might think we have even thought that far ahead.

Strange website

Reading Stephen Pollard's blog I clicked onto a link there to see the official website of the actress, Melanie Griffith. He says that it is beyond parody and he is right. Have a look for yourself. It is truly bizarre.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Afan FM

I finally got to raise OFCOM's treatment of Community Radio Stations in the Assembly yesterday and received a reasonably positive response from the First Minister:

Peter Black: Will you join me in congratulating Afan FM and its young team, whose one-month temporary licence as a community radio station is coming to an end? Will you take up on its behalf, and on behalf of other community radio stations in Wales, the problems that it has had with the Office of Communications, which is consulting on its policies towards such stations? Ofcom insists that they have a maximum output of 50 watts and one transmitter. These rules may well be adequate in the home counties, but the fact that there are mountains in South Wales means that the coverage expected of these stations requires greater output and more transmitters. Will the Assembly Government take up with Ofcom the difficulties that its policy is posing for community radio stations in Wales, and ask it to form a Wales-only policy on the issue?

The First Minister: I am not sure whether I have been interviewed by Afan FM, but I congratulate it on its success-perhaps that is the reason for its success. The information that I have suggests that the problem with Ofcom is that if a strength of frequency of more than 25 watts is required, international clearance must be obtained. International clearance is difficult to obtain. You are right about geographical coverage and the fact that you need a stronger signal to reach populations in mountainous regions of the south Wales Valleys and of mid and north Wales than you would need to reach a similar-size area in the rolling plains of south-central England, for example. On the other hand, Ofcom has told us that the 25-watt rule is not set in stone, and it intends to consider the possibility of allowing community radio stations to cover wider areas.

With a bit of luck Afan FM, who are due to finish their month long trial in a few days may well be back in the autumn on a long term basis.

History lesson

Radio Wales was reporting this morning that history lessons at school are considered boring. Clearly, one Assembly Member was not paying too much attention in her history lessons even though she tells me that she has a degree in the subject. In the Assembly yesterday, the North Wales Plaid Cymru AM, Janet Ryder, drew an historical analogy between the Assembly's Education Minister and Lord Nelson:

It has struck me for some time that there are many similarities between the Minister and Lord Nelson, who just before the Battle of Trafalgar held a telescope up to his blind eye only to declare, 'I see no ships'.

er...no! It was the Battle of Copenhagen and he actually said "I see no signals".

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

More rest needed!

After today's hectic, non-stop day I take back what I said about returning to the Assembly for a rest. I am exhausted but I would not swap this job for anything. In the meantime as a little light relief try this website, brought to my attention by James Graham. It has some very scary images but somehow it also generates a warm feeling in my bones.

On the doorstep

I had an interesting proposition put to me tonight, which I had not considered before but which seems to be true. An elector told me that he thought that people had stopped being interested in voting when Parliament was televised and they could see for themselves what an awful bunch us politicians are. He may be right but I do not have the time to check turnout figures.

Monday, April 26, 2004


The Western Mail publishes a few myths about speed cameras. Apart from the belief amongst some motorists that they can 'outrun a speed camera,' my favourites are: 'you cannot be booked by police officers if they are not wearing their hats' and 'speed cameras can only catch cars in the left-hand lane.'

Read all about it

A new website seeks to replicate the success of Downing Street Says by republishing Welsh Assembly media briefings in a more readable form. Bookmark it now. It will be compelling reading.

A day out

A glorious day for a trip to London. The Assembly's Panel of Chairs went to Westminister to meet with the Welsh Affairs Select Committee. Tea on the terrace, lunch, a useful meeting and then a soft drink in the Speakers' Rooms. I am in awe at the grandeur of the Speakers' residence. It has really underlined for me the difference between our Assembly in a converted office block and a real Parliament. Still, if we tried to reproduce such splendour for the Presiding Officer in Wales there would be a public outcry and quite right too. It would cost a fortune.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Game on!

I note that Wales have been given the go-ahead to go before the Court of Arbitration for Sport and ask that they be allowed to replace Russia in the European Cup in Portugal this summer. Their appeal is based on the fact that Russia played Yegor Titov in the second leg of their qualifier despite the fact that he had tested positive for a banned substance. I hope that they are successful though I believe that there is only a slim chance that they will be. Nevertheless, the comments of Russian Football Federation Chief, Vyacheslav Koloskov today have stirred some emotions. He is quoted as saying, "Wales have completely lost their grip on reality." Such arrogance needs to get its comeupance.

Back for a rest

The unusually long Assembly recess comes to an end today and we are back in Cardiff tomorrow. Although I am burnt to a crisp after spending yesterday delivering 1500 leaflets in the sun, I am looking forward to the return. I have been so busy over the last few weeks that I need the rest!

Friday, April 23, 2004

Odds and ends

No sooner do I enter a plea for Neil Morrissey to stop buying up Laugharne and rumours start that he is planning to buy the castle next. If it was my blog entry that prompted this latest rumour then I apologise. But seriously Neil, enough is enough!

Meanwhile, the antiquated way that I do this blog is beginning to frustrate the more computer literate of my readers. I have already had a very kind offer to set me up with a proper blog in moveable type, now I have had this e-mail from a Labour Party member in Clwyd West:

I am an avid reader of your weblog - but I find it a nuisance having to go through your main web site to access it (and it pops up in a new window).

I took the liberty to register this domain name on your behalf: http://www.peter-blog.tk - I have directed it to point to your weblog - mainly for my own convenience. I hope you don't mind.

You may wish to publicise it...

I don't mind at all. In fact I am flattered. It is nice to know that I have a broad fan base.

Thursday, April 22, 2004

West Wales empire

I go to Laugharne a lot. It has some fantastic unspoilt scenery, good pubs, high class restaurants and guest houses and its own silversmith. The boathouse is of course a draw as well, as is the castle. It is Carmarthenshire at its best. What is more it is within striking distance of other activities - the fantastic shops in Narberth for example, St. Clear's, Tenby and all points west. I am not surprised that Neil Morrissey has fallen in love with the place but could he please now stop buying it up? Thank you.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Referendums are now all the rage

It is now getting to the stage when politicians, faced with a difficult situation in their own party or severe resistance in the Country, abandon the principles of representative democracy and their duty to offer leadership and opt for a referendum instead. In a few years there will be no need for Parliament at all, we will press a button on our interactive TV remote controls and the Prime Minister will have had the steer and the authority that he needs to take a decision.

The latest politician to jump on this bandwagon is Peter Hain. He now believes that 'the picture has "changed" in the wake of the Prime Minister's decision to stage a referendum on the European Constitution.' He apparently wants a referendum before any primary law making powers are given to the National Assembly. Previously, his view was that such a referendum should be held on a Scottish-style Parliament for Wales but stopped short of backing a public poll on primary law-making powers for the Assembly without tax-varying powers. Severe resistance amongst Welsh Labour MPs seems to have left him with little choice but to row back on that position.

The problem is at what stage does he hold this referendum? The Assembly gains more powers every time an Act of Parliament becomes law. The Richard Commission recommended a piecemeal transfer. Do we hold a referendum on each occasion? Referendums have their place but so do General Elections and the policy platform that Political Parties fight these elections on. The transfer of Primary Legislative powers to the Welsh Assembly is a natural evolution and does not amount to the fundamental constitutional shift portrayed by those seeking to protect their own position and powers. Tax varying powers are different. However, it seems that the political fix will hold sway.


A crass quote from the pop artist Morrissey on the front page of today's NME - "Pop Idol is worse than terrorism" - leaves me speechless. Clearly there is nothing like success and stardom to enable you to lose perspective. The man needs to be brought back into the real world and get some self-awareness.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Would you buy a holiday home from this party?

Yes, I know that this blog can be too smug sometimes but then there are occasions when there is no other response. This is one such moment. After all they have said about second homes and affordable housing in sustainable communities a Plaid Cymru website is advertising the availablity of holiday homes in Wales. I love it!

School Transport

I have posted elsewhere on this site my reaction to the Labour Government's draft bill, which proposes to charge for school transport. I was gratified therefore to receive this unsolicited e-mail from a Mr. Roland Cleaver in Swansea. He writes:

I was irritated to read of the proposal to withdraw/charge for school buses. Thus my twopenny's worth heads your way.

We're supposed to have green policies to reduce car use, but this encourages one of the worst kinds of short trip: Choke out; "cat" not yet up to temperature; congestion and idling. This is aside from the hassle to local residents who can't get out of their drives and whose verges are churned up like a battlefield.

"Tackling congestion caused by the school run and encouraging safe and sustainable transport alternatives are vital if we are to get the roads moving more freely at peak times." Alistair Darling

We've just had the school holidays and it is amazing how much quicker it is to get through Treboeth; Llangefelach and Johnstown. Why do we have all these Park-and-Ride schemes, yet potentially no school buses? Some councils are actually buying American-style yellow schoolbuses and say it makes sense. see: http://www.dft.gov.uk/local-transport/schooltravel

Now I'm sure New Labour will trot out the same kind of funding arguments as on HE fees, but if we'd wanted a Tory-style market solution we'd have voted for the b***ards.

There are plenty of people who have to get by at just above the threshold for free school meals; glasses; prescriptions etc. and for whom a daily charge is going to be a most unwelcome extra burden, so this is introducing another passport benefit trap, contrary to New Labour's social inclusion policy, (half of it nicked from the Liberals if I recall right). I don't mind a graduated means-related subsidy, but not all or nothing, especially when a lot of the benefit is to the common good, (environment; school-adjacent residents; other road users).

Rant over. People used to laugh when I said the YLs were to the left of Labour, now almost anyone is.

Hapless in London!

The hapless Electoral Commission have rejected the idea of lowering the UK voting age to 16. As Will Howells points out, "one of the more ridiculous reasons for this was that 16- and 17-year-olds might (or even would) use their votes less than the average and this would lower turnout. What they would actually be doing would be lowering percentage turnout - the number of people turning out to vote would go up!" It is just as well that the Electoral Commission were not called upon to adjudicate in the Boston Tea Party. They most probably would have argued that taxation without representation was not the issue, instead they may have said that we should concentrate on the strength of the tea.

The question grows more insistent every day - what are the Electoral Commission for? They say that they want to increase turnout but actually they do not have a clue how to do it. Instead they waste money on flaccid advertising campaigns that do not even rate sufficiently high in our consciousness to form a talking point in the pub never mind motivate us to do our democratic duty. They make recommendations to the Government on postal voting, which are ignored and they bombard experienced returning officers with regulations and advice that act more as a hindrance than a help. They cannot even organise a consultation meeting in Wales without contravening the normal rules of party balance. Now they play safe on voting reform for reasons that do not stand up to scrutiny and which are contrary to the conclusions of their own consultation exercise.

It seems that they are very good at talking to people and listening but absolutely useless at producing bold, off-the-wall thinking or at offering radical leadership. You may say that this is not their role and you may be right. They are after all the embodiment of a blairite think-tank. If however, they are not meant to be fulfilling this role then I repeat my question, what are they for? If we want safe, woolly thinking, confusing guidance and political ineptness we can always turn to the Whitehall Mandarins. Why create an expensive and impotent quango to do the same job?

Update: I received a detailed e-mail from Andrew Russell today about this entry. Andrew tells me that he is the academic on the Electoral Commission's project board. He goes on:

"I'm distressed by your blog comments yesterday. The universally accepted definition of turnout is the proportion of the registered electorate (or those of the voting age population) who cast a vote! Therefore turnout is a proportionate figure not an overall statistic. If asked what the turnout in the 2001 General Election was most people would reply 59% rather than 26.4 million votes. I don't know of a single academic who use your definition of the turnout as the total number of votes cast. I had thought that this idea had filtered through to society as a whole but maybe I'm wrong, For a discussion of the rudiments of all things to do with turnout see International IDEA's website."

Well, yes! In percentage terms it will reduce turnout. That has never been in doubt as James Graham points out on his blog. The problem, as James identifies is that this was obvious from the start, that it should not have needed a 12 month review to establish this fact and that if this is the basis on which votes at 16 is to be judged then we might as well pack up now and raise the voting age to 60. At least there is a decent turnout amongst pensioners. The point that I was trying to get across, though I admit I did not do it very well, was that reducing the voting age will increase the numbers participating in elections overall and that must be an important factor. The issue is not turnout it is enfranchisement and empowerment. That the Electoral Commission do not seem to understand that distresses me.

"I too am concerned about the role of the commission in the light of the government's decision to overrule the Commission's recommendations on postal voting in the forthcoming local and European elections. Moreover my concern arises from the suspicion that the government ignored the Commission for reasons of partisan advantage. I will be equally appalled if - through the perception of partisan advantage - political parties decide to ignore the recommendations about the age of electoral majority."

Perhaps I have gone a bit overboard on this postal voting trial. The Electoral Commission, like the Civil Service and other bodies are there to advise. It is up to elected politicians to take decisions, after having weighed up that advice and applied considered judgement. The fact that the Electoral Commission is 'independent' and employs 'experts' does not make it right nor does it mean that its judgement should override all others. Equally, politicians do not make the vast majority of their decisions for "partisan advantage" as is alleged here. Thus if I believe that the Electoral Commission is wrong on votes at 16, as I do, then I will ignore them and I will campaign against them. That is my democratic right and it does not make either of us any more right or wrong. We have a difference of opinion and that is it. There is no partisan advantage in securing votes at 16 for anybody and I am astonished that somebody should think that there would be.

The reason why I am distressed at the Electoral Commission's impotence on postal voting is because I believe that in this instance they were right, their arguments were sound and that Government should have listened. I believe that events will prove that proceeding with additional postal vote trials against the Commission's advice will not secure any partisan advantage for Labour. On the contrary I think it will work against them in the North West. In any case I do not believe that Labour Ministers felt that this decision would secure them such an advantage. It seems to me that they were set on a course of action and they were not going to let inconvenient independent bodies get in their way.

"As an academic with a proven track record of publications on youth issues and electoral participation I was asked to sit on the Commission's project board 15 months ago. The report that emerged yesterday is the considered outcome of the most serious attempt to engage with the issues of the age of electoral majority in the history of Britain.

Your assertion that the Commission's recommendations are made for "reasons that do not stand up to scrutiny and which are contrary to the conclusions of their own consultation exercise" is simply wrong in every regard. The report deals at length with all of the arguments presented to us in favour of votes at 16 but after full consideration it was decided that the case could not be made at present."

As James Graham states the four main reasons for opposing votes at 16 do not compute. They are narrowly based arguments which fail to address the key points put across by those arguing for this change. International comparisons are meaningless, whilst the idea of a maturity test is just ludicrous. I know some very articulate, intelligent and mature 16 year olds who would put others, twice their age, to shame on such a test. Are we now to say that you have to justify the quality of your participation in the electoral process before you are allowed a vote?

I have already dealt with voter turnout so this leaves the research. Having questioned my assertion that the Electoral Commision's conclusions contradict their own consultation exercise, Andrew Russell says:

"I'm glad you recognise that the Commission's consultation process was a success and that we remain good at "talking to people and listening". According to the most representative (and independent) poll of those aged 15 and over ever conducted 78% were against lowering the voting age to 16 (including 54% of those aged between 15 and 19). Perhaps some of those in favour of changing the eligibility for voting should do some more listening of their own."

It seems that the decision not to recommend votes at 16 was taken on the basis of an opinion poll. In other words, as I said in my original post, the Electoral Commission prefer to be led rather than to lead. An opinion poll is a snapshot at a point in time. It proves very little other than a group of people had a common view when they were asked for it. It does not test the arguments, it does not address the issues of enfranchisement or empowerment and it does not take into account the views of other stakeholders in the process, those who already have a vote.

Andrew is right when he says that politicians who are advocating this change need to listen too. We do, but we also seek to persuade because that is what democracy is about. I have talked to a number of 16 and 17 year olds about this campaign and when the issues are discussed and rationalised I find that many of them are persuaded. The biggest concern is the responsibility that comes with the vote. The most common question is "What if I get it wrong?" My answer is that as life is full of such decisions then they will inevitably get some of them wrong. The only thing to do is to put it right next time. Perhaps the Electoral Commission could take that advice on board as well.

Finally, I should justify my own comment. The opinion poll was not the only consultation carried out by the Electoral Commission. They also sought written submissions and had 7,500. The majority of these were in favour of lowering the voting age to 16. As I said, their conclusions were contrary to their own consultation exercise.

Update 2: James Graham points out that the opinion poll on which the Electoral Commission based its decision not to recommend voting at 16 questioned just 234 15-18 year olds. Hardly a representative sample and certainly not authorative. If this is "the most representative (and independent) poll of those aged 15 and over ever conducted" then the Electoral Commission need to go back to the drawing board.

Monday, April 19, 2004


From an e-mail sent around to all Assembly Members and staff today:

Thanks to Alun Pugh AM for Clwyd West and Jeff Cuthbert AM for Caerphilly, on the 27th April, at Midday, in the milling area, ex Fame Academy Star, James Fox will be singing 'Hold on to our Love' , the UK entry in the Eurovision Song contest.

Who says that the Assembly is starstruck?

Update: This event has now been relegated to a Committee Room. Do I detect support for our Eurovision entry filtering away?

Watching the Tories

Now this is interesting. I have already noted the presence of the rather puerile Liberal Democrat Watch website here, now there is a site watching the Tories, Would it not be better if we concentrated on each other's policies instead?

Sunday, April 18, 2004


"Amanda Protheroe Thomas, Wales' sexiest woman and TV presenter will be swapping her Hot House for the Dog House.

It is all in aid of the RSPCA Llys Nini Animal Centre in Penllergaer. On Sunday 2nd May, as a finale to RSPCA week, the Animal Centre will be holding its first "Lock IN" and playing host to a number willing and not so willing in-mates. Amanda is a great supporter of the Animal Centre and has willingly volunteered to be locked in for a good cause. The Centre, which is just off the M4 at Junction 47, is hoping that as many people as possible will visit between 2.00 and 4.00 in order to meet Amanda and see the other in-mates.

Other willing supporters are Peter Black AM, who has kindly agreed to keep Amanda company."

The sacrifices we are required to make as politicians know no bounds! :-)

Lord Geraint

Very sad news indeed! Lord Geraint of Ponterwyd has died. He was a great Liberal and a great Welshman. He will be missed. I remember when I first got involved in the Welsh Liberal Party, as it then was, Geraint was the only Liberal MP in Wales and the Welsh Party's Leader. I was a young, impatient party member with very fixed ideas about the direction I wanted the Party to move in. I started to attend Welsh Executives and often disagreed with Geraint's wiser counsel. During one such discussion I made it clear that I disapproved of him taking such a firm lead, asserting that whatever his position, he was "not the Welsh Party". It is difficult to describe the look he gave me but whatever he was thinking he did not say it. Although I may or may not have been right on that issue, I was wrong in the generality.

Geraint had Welsh Liberalism coarsing through his veins. He embodied a particular brand. For many years what he stood for and what he did was synonymous with the Welsh Liberal Party. He led us through crises and triumphs and was always available for help and advice. Possibly we should have asked him more often. There is one story from the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election that I will always remember when I think about Geraint but which is most probably apocryphal. The Party had brought in Andy Ellis to help run the campaign. Andy was an outstanding campaigner who transformed our fortunes in many such by-elections and later ended up as Chief Executive of the Federal Party. He was not however, renowned for his dress sense. Geraint took him in hand. He told him that if he was to campaign in rural Wales then he needed a suit and in particular a pair of braces. He reportedly took Andy to Cardiff and ensured that he was fully equipped for the task at hand. The braces it turns out were to hold onto when talking to farmers across farm gates and considered an essential campaigning tool.

Geraint was responsible for a number of the more interesting Welsh Nights at Federal Party Conference in recent years when he arranged the export to Bournmouth et al of Welsh Male Voice Choirs and Tenors etc. He also offered me a huge amount of encouragement in my first term as an Assembly Member, which was always appreciated. The Welsh Liberal Democrats will not be the same without him.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Lilliput writ large

I sometimes think that these rather esoteric arguments between Plaid Cymru and Labour over Independence are the Welsh equivalent of the Lilliputian dilemma as to how to crack open a boiled egg. They are starting to get boring even for somebody as immersed in politics as myself. The practicalities of an Independent Welsh State of course, are very important. It is clear to me and others that the economics do not stack up. We will be bankrupt within a year. And that should be the nub of the argument against the Nationalists.

At the end of the day whether such a State could be a full member of the European Union or not is just irrelevant. Both Labour and Plaid are engaging in fantasy politics in which they are playing out a scenario way beyond its natural limits on terms that most people do not relate to nor have strong opinions about. If we want to engage people in these discussions then can we please talk about things that matter to our everyday lives? How, for example will such an Independent Wales pay for the old age pension or for benefits? Is a Welsh Post Office feasible when its loss of economies of scale will see the introduction of a £2 Second Class stamp? Will we be able to get Sky Sports or Coronation Street? Will it mean that we will qualify for a major International Football Championship or win the Grand Slam? How is it relevant to any of these things?

In a spin

That jeans advert where the model strips down to his boxer shorts has a lot to answer for. It seems that every manufacturer now wants to get in on the act. I have never understood why the subjects of these advertisments cannot go to the launderette in clean clothes like everybody else.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

U.S. Presidential Elections

A small diversion today with two interesting insights into the U.S. Presidential election. Firstly, the serious view from American blog B-May. This map shows all the swing states and how much change in support is needed to throw out Bush - fascinating! Secondly, a bit of satire care of Iain Coleman. Perhaps New Labour should learn some lessons from this piece on The Onion.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Inevitable happens - newspaper puts it on front page

The Conservative AM for Monmouth, David Davies, has said he will resign from the Assembly's Equality of Opportunity Committee because of "insufferable political correctness". Naturally, this rather inevitable outcome of David's ongoing dispute with members of the Committee made the lead article in the Western Mail. As I have said previously David is often his own worst enemy. He is unfailingly courteous in putting forward his views as he is entitled to do but then gets upset when people take offence at them. It is almost as if he has no awareness of the effect he can have on such a group.

I have no brief whatsoever for David's views, in fact I disagree with him on every equal opportunity issue, however his departure from the Committee will make the Assembly a duller place. When he says that there is a "suffocating atmosphere of political correctness" surrounding the equality of opportunities committee, he actually has a valid point. He has made it worse by playing up to this atmosphere but there is no doubt that it does exist.

David goes on to say, "I'm concerned about the message the committee gives out. As I have gone round Wales I have come across a huge number of people who are losing their patience with political correctness. My fear is that the committee is counter-productive, and that instead of bringing people together, it is going to help create a more divided society." Putting aside the element of self-justification in this remark it is an opinion that should be taken seriously.

End of the affair

Bored with the Beckhams? Where do I join?

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Deep impact

For some reason best known to themselves the Western Mail devote nearly a full broadsheet page to speculating what would happen if a 500- metre-wide porous rock asteroid hit Pontypridd. Is this an attempt to do away with Kim Howells MP or Assembly Education Minister, Jane Davidson, both of whom represent this very pleasant town?

As is usual with pieces such as this the MP for Montgomeryshire is not far away from the scene. "Although the chances of a large asteroid hitting earth are remote, the figures are not as small as some people think," said Mr Opik."A serious asteroid collision could happen at any time. It could be 100,000 years in the future or before readers finish this article. It's science fact you are 750 times more likely to die because of an asteroid collision than winning the national lottery on any given weekend. As the people from the National Lottery would say, it could happen to you."

I suppose stranger things have happened. Only a few years ago for example Bargoed was the epicentre of a fairly substantial earthquake. If however this or any other newspaper is so short of copy that they feel moved to repeat this feat of space-filling then I feel that I should offer them some advice. Use one of my press releases instead. I write enough of them for goodness sake!

Monday, April 12, 2004

Wet City

Swansea makes the top of the league at one thing even if it is not something that we are going to shout from the rooftops about. Yet this survey goes one step further and puts a price on our acolade as Britain's wettest City. It is allegedly costing us £582.4 million a year in cancelled events, ruined clothes, extra washing bills and increased heating costs. Those of us rushing to the bank to check our balance should note that the research has been commissioned by the manufacturers of Comfort Fast Dry fabric conditioners. They have come up with a cost of £9.5 billion a year for rain across the whole of Britain. Given that rain has a cost benefit as well in agricultural terms and in replenishing our reservoirs to name but a few examples then perhaps the sponsors of this research have been a bit over-negative in their approach. Nevertheless, there does need to be a study to establish why it is that all of Swansea's average annual rainfall of 53 inches only ever materialises when I am out campaigning.

Wrong side of the Atlantic

Yes, Wales is Britain's best kept secret if you live in America and only one in twenty of you hold a passport. The lesson is clear, apply for a passport now, forget about terrorism (you have more chance of being killed by gunfire in America than of being blown up by a terrorist in Europe), buy a plane ticket and come over to see it for yourself. Oh, and actually we drive on the correct side of the road, it is the rest of the World who are wrong!

Sunday, April 11, 2004

The new Poll Tax?

The Observer reports this morning that I.D. Cards are to be compulsory within six years. There are a lot of arguments against compulsory I.D. cards, not least the cost. It can be argued that the billions of pounds that will be needed to develop databases, biometric technology etc and to introduce these cards could be better spent on reinforcing the Police and the Security Forces in their fight against organised crime and terrorism. I would also agree with the Conservative, Oliver Letwin. He says that there is no evidence that ID cards will help tackle terrorism. He also says that the technology needed to implement a scheme could be prohibitively expensive and raises serious civil liberty issues. The linking of the data on these cards and the access that they will give to hundreds of databases around the Country will actually make it easier for the Government to pursue the surveillance of political activists, for example. That is no fantasy for such surveillance happens already. Letwin is advancing a classic Liberal argument and one that does not seem to bother this increasingly right wing Government.

The crunch in selling this policy however, lies in the charge that the Government is proposing to levy on people to hold an I.D. card that they will need to access the NHS and state benefits. The Labour Government are envisaging a price of £80, twice what it currently costs to buy a passport. There will be a lot of people who will not be able to afford this. Such a charge will amount to a flat rate tax for just living in this country - a new Poll Tax in fact. Do the Labour Party really want to go down this route?

Update: via The Guardian's Backbencher for 7 April 2004 the website Stand.org.uk has a list of 24 unanswered questions about the I.D. card scheme. They want to know:

the actual reason for the introduction of ID cards;
what ID cards can and cannot do;
who will be able to demand an ID card and under what circumstances;
if ownership of ID cards will be compulsory;
if the carrying of ID cards will be compulsory;
whether all parties asking for ID cards will be able to see all of the information held on the card;
the security of the ID cards and the centralised database;
the form of any biometric data to be held on ID cards;
how any biometric data might be collected and how much time and effort would be required of that process;
the ability of the cardholding citizen to view personal data held on ID cards;
the accessibility of such information to people using minority computer systems, to those without computers and those requiring assistive technologies;
the ability of the citizen to demand the correction of misleading data held on the ID card;
the supervision of the centralised database necessary to operate the ID card system;
whether there will be data on the ID card to which the citizen does not have access;
the ability of a citizen to track the usage of their ID card and by whom;
the ability of the government to track ID card usage;
if centralised data will be shared between government departments, researchers or commercial organisations;
if personal data will be exported from the country and hence out of the remit of the Data Protection Acts;
what protections will be put in place to prevent "function creep";
what protections will be put in place to prevent abuse of the ID card system by future administrations;
what protections will be put in place to prevent official abuse of the ID card system;
how the ID card system will not discriminate against ethnic minorities;
if the ID card scheme violates the Data Protection Acts;
if the ID card scheme violates the European Convention on Human Rights (as incorporated into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998), especially as legal opinions suggest it will


High tax image?

Yesterday's Guardian reports:

"The Liberal Democrats plan to dilute their plans for a 50p top rate of income tax for anyone earning more than £100,000 by including national insurance and a local income tax in the 50p rate.

The party has spent the last few months developing its fiscal policy in response to attempts by Labour and the Conservatives to paint it as a high tax, high spending party which will penalise the middle class. Party leaders say that combining national and local income tax rates for those earning more than £100,000 will not add up to more than 50p in the pound.

Since the party's local income tax rate is planned to be set at an average of 3.75%, the Liberal Democrats' nationally-imposed income tax rate will in reality be set below 50p."

This is actually very important. We are now the only mainstream Party who are committed to investing in free care for the elderly and free tuition for higher education students with a costed means of paying for these policies. However, we also have to be seen to be fiscally responsible and we have to assuage people's fears about the impact on their pockets. There is a lot of misinformation being put about regarding Local Income Tax that needs to be combatted and I am pleased to see that we are doing so at the highest level. The fact is that up to 70% of taxpayers will be better off under a Local Income Tax, whilst huge savings can be made in dismantling costly Council Tax Benefit bureaucracies.

Local election blues

Typical! The local election campaign has not even started yet and I twist my ankle. Meanwhile the hottest debate in the local party is about the use of the word "assiduous" on our election leaflets. It is nice to enter this period so united and with common purpose.

Friday, April 09, 2004

Ron takes a different kind of walk

As I predicted in my blog entry on Sunday 25 January Ron Davies has been chosen as number one on the Forward Wales list for the European Elections. I look forward to his campaigning visits to Swansea and the reaction he gets after so famously snubbing this City in the choice of venue for the Welsh Assembly. It was not so much that he rejected our bid as the fact that he made it perfectly clear that we had never been a serious prospect in the first place despite the fact that he, himself, encouraged us to bid.

Making a difference

Proof that the Assembly can make a difference and that making decisions locally can enable an effective and timely response to problems. Note in particular the following: 'Adele Gilmore, director of West Glamorgan Forum, said, "We're eternally grateful the Assembly has stepped in. "If we had been based in England, or Scotland and Northern Ireland, we may have been facing closure because their assemblies haven't provided this funding."

European sceptics?

I know that there is a bit of controversy within the party about this pronouncement by the Liberal Democrat Shadow Chancellor, Vince Cable, but I welcome the line he is taking. Patrick Wintour in the Guardian reports that "Liberal Democrats are to adopt a far more sceptical stance on Europe in next month's European election campaign, calling for an end to the euro stability pact, repatriation of social policy to nation states and a commitment to subsidiarity in the draft European Union constitution." I prefer to think of it as being a critical friend.

The Liberal Democrats have always been pro-European but the fact that we have also called for European institutions to be reformed and have not supported every policy that emanates from Brussels has tended to get lost in the general friendly fuzziness that we project on this issue. That is one reason why we have tended to under-perform at European Elections. At least if we have a more hard-edged manifesto this time, along the lines trailed by Vince Cable, people might better appreciate our realistic approach, if they think about Europe at all when they vote of course.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

The cost of motoring

I can understand motorists feeling under siege by the ever increasing cost of using their car, the rising numbers of speed cameras, congestion charging and the return of toll roads, but I do not think it is unreasonable to charge £2 to drive on the M4 between Reading and London. Anybody who has driven on that stretch of road will know what a nightmare it is. There is appalling congestion as well as the presence of speed cameras at half-mile intervals (well it seemed like that anyway). Those who are protesting are arguing that this will be yet another tax on Welsh motorists who already have to pay the Severn Bridge Toll. However, for most of us getting to London is more convenient and greener by train. Having driven to and in London only half a dozen times in my life I always get the train if I can. It is far less stressful.

Gay or straight?

For some reason the Office of National Statistics has decided to publish a league table of areas in accordance with the number of co-habiting same sex couples living there. Rather unsurprisingly Brighton, London and Manchester come out on top. Cardiff is at number 37 and Swansea is the area with the second most populous Welsh contingent, coming in at number 212. None of this is unsurprising, after all Cardiff and Swansea are the two biggest connurbations in Wales and both are fairly cosmopolitan Cities. The only outstanding questions then are why publish the table in the first place and what does it add to the sum of human knowledge? I suppose it did give the media an opportunity to indulge in stereotyping again.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

History is bunk?

This is not actually very amusing at all. If people really believe that Hitler was a fictional character and are not able to distinguish what is real from what is on TV then there is not much hope for the future. The whole point of history is that we can learn from it and move on. If we do not learn then we are destined to repeat our mistakes. God forbid!

Things that go together

An item on Radio Wales this morning discussed a sale of Dylan Thomas memorabilia in America. A commentator was asked why Americans love Dylan Thomas so much. He replied that Dylan "died young, he drank hard and he loved New York." I had not realised that the three were mutually inclusive before.

Labour irony

After my post on Sunday about the failure of English Labour MPs to understand devolution we now have an example of Welsh Labour AMs who do not not understand democracy. There was a report in yesterday's Western Mail that Rhodri Morgan is to use the same Union block vote that twice denied him the Welsh Labour leadership in 1998/99 to force through extra powers for the Assembly. Do they never learn?

It is also reported that although Rhodri wants the extra powers he is not prepared to accept STV nor an increase in the number of AMs to 80. Fair enough. But if we are to proceed on that basis then his group of Labour AMs are going to have to drop their aversion to formal committee meetings.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

The English are coming!

James Graham drew this entry on Tom Watson's blog to my attention together with the extract from Hansard.

Does my right hon. Friend think that the House should celebrate St. George? We have an annual St. David's day debate; could we have an annual St. George's day debate? When my right hon. Friend is answering my question, will he take time to condemn proposals to introduce the single transferable vote for the Welsh Assembly?

Clearly, the English MPs are seeking to get in on the act with regards to the Richard Commission report. Putting aside all the obvious points already made by James and those who have commented to his posting, the one remaining point is that even after five years comments like these demonstrate that Labour still do not understand devolution. The inadequacies of Ron Davies' original Parliament of Wales Act may mean that technically it is up to the UK Parliament to decide whether or not the recommendations of Lord Richard's report are implemented or not but surely it should be a matter for Wales itself as to how to proceed. If we are to face a veto from English MPs before we have even started to seek a consensus on the proposals then all is lost.

Saturday, April 03, 2004

Erased from history

If you have read George Orwell's '1984' then you will be familiar with the important job of work that Winston Smith did. He spent his day erasing people from history by removing all references to them in newspapers, books etc. The former Tory North Wales Assembly Member, Peter Rogers, must think that his party has taken a leaf out of Orwell's book. Not only has Peter been blocked from standing for Parliament in Anglesey by Conservative Central Office but he has been declared persona non grata by the Welsh Conservative Party and barred from even attending their Conference. Clearly, the modern Conservative Party does not like democracy and free speech very much. If this is how they treat their friends then I would not like to get on the wrong side of them. Is this how they will run the Country if they ever win a General Election again?

Vote early

I went along to this event yesterday. It was staged in Swansea College, on their Tycoch Campus. Two students were confined to a glass walled trailer complete with carpet, table, sofa etc and set a series of tasks. This stunt was thought up by the Electoral Commission to encourage young people to vote. The confinees were giving up their right to vote and to independent action for a day to illustrate the disempowerment that comes about when we do not exercise our democratic rights. An MC steered the audience through a series of votes on what task the two should be given next. Presumably, the think tank who had come up with this stunt had reasoned that if people vote for Big Brother then why not give them a Reality TV-type event to encourage them to vote.

Impressive as this was I am not convinced that it will be effective. In fact I am not convinced that the Electoral Commission have any idea at all how to get more young people to vote (I haven't!) but are floundering around in the dark in an effort to come up with a winning formula. Most students I spoke to thought it was good fun but they were not sure of its purpose. I had reports later that others were just confused by the posters that were scattered around the campus advertising the event. Many thought that they were there to remind them that it was polling day when it was not.

Perhaps the best way to encourage people of all ages to vote is to give them a real choice and convince them that their vote really will make a difference. In other words the solution lies in the hands of those standing for election not those appointed to monitor and regulate the electoral process. Still, 6 out of 10 for effort.

If all this seems a little ungenerous towards the Electoral Commission then I should point out that they have form. Putting aside the chaos and confusion they sought to create amongst Returning Officers during the Assembly Elections with conflicting guidance and the pointless and expensive advertising campaign they ran to try and increase turnout (turnout went down), they continue to blunder their way through. Even the UK Government is ignoring their advice on Postal Voting Pilots (though I thought it wa sfairly sound advice).

One small example was the consultation they held last week on the funding of political parties. They held a meeting in which a number of political parties were asked to speak, but no Welsh Liberal Democrat. I e-mailed the organiser to complain and have not even had an acknowledgement, never mind a reply, a week later. The event went ahead as planned as far as I know. So much for balance and impartiality. I also thought that the organiser of Friday's event was rather rude. I do not go to these events to get publicity but if representatives of more than one political party are present and the media turn-up I do not expect the supposedly impartial Electoral Commission to steer them exclusively towards just one of the parties without any explanation to the others. Sour grapes I know but I speak as I find.

New hotel

The new hotel by Swansea railway station is making good progress. However, my confidence in its future success is not boosted by the advertising banner adorning its upper levels. The banner proclaims in six foot high letters 'Open's May'.


Somebody clearly has a lot of time on their hands. I am indebted to Martyn Hencher for bringing this to my attention but really, I find the London Underground difficult enough as it is without confusing the route map for a zoo!

Friday, April 02, 2004

GLC Cymru

If you are old enough to remember Ken Livingstone's Greater London Council in the 1980s, with its 'wimmin's committee' and the hundreds of exotic grants to strange left wing causes then you might be forgiven for suffering a touch of deja vu this week. Not only do we have our own version of political correctness in the Welsh Assembly but now it seems that the Labour Assembly Government are giving out grants to strange cults. It is one thing to support "The Search For Truth" in which you learn "to sense the extent of your aura by chanting 'nerve, nerve, nerve' with" your hands extended" and to be taught of "natural laws that govern the planet, a mystical system of numbers and colours, the Law of Two or opposites, and something called Electrobics," but to give them £180,000 of public money is just barmy.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

The member for Monmouth

Good old David Davies, he has done it again. There really is no stopping him from expressing his bigoted views and in his attempt to move from Assembly Member to MP for Monmouth.

Actually David is a very pleasant person to talk to. He is intelligent, cultured, multi-lingual, married to a Hungarian and an expectant father. Despite all that he does not seem to be able to get past the stock prejudices of the Tory faithful. All the tabloid cliches about the promotion of homosexuality in schools, the decline of the family unit and the crusade against political correctness come tumbling from his mouth. He can wind up most of the Assembly Labour Group just by walking into a meeting. And yet he spouts these views because he genuinely believes them and he tries his best to put across his opinions logically and reasonably. All he succeeds in doing however is in making things worse.

The decision of the Welsh Tory Leadership to put David on the Equal Opportunities Committee therefore was either an act of foolishness or a cruel joke. If it was a joke I am not sure who the intended victim was - David or the members of the Committee? Because wrong as David often is, there is no better way to bring out the worst in him than to put him in with the zealots of political correctness who tend to visit and inhabit that Committee. And who is to say that he has not got a right to hold these opinions and express them in this forum or any other? David is the genuine face of the modern Conservative Party, accept no substitutes.

April Fool

My favourite April Fool stunt today comes from Bridge FM. Apparently they announced this morning that a statue of Jonny Wilkinson doing the drop kick that won the World Cup for England is to be erected in Bridgend. I understand that the local Council have received a large number of irate calls from Council Taxpayers demanding to know what they think they are doing by allowing such an insult to Welsh Rugby.

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