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Monday, January 31, 2005

More league tables

The media's obsessions with league tables continued today with a Western Mail study of the workload of Welsh MPs. In the run-up to the General Election this is of particular interest of course, but how useful is it really?

Having regularly been in the top five of a similar activity list for AMs I know that these tables do not show the full picture. They often concentrate on measurable tasks such as the number of speeches or questions one has asked without being able to assess the efficacy of our representation. They never look at surgeries for example, at correspondence or at casework successes. They very rarely look at committee work and even less rarely at the number of meetings we hold with Council officials, local and national organisations, lobby groups and many other bodies. Nor do they look at the work we undertake behind the scenes in promoting our area to inward investors and others.

If you want a good idea of what an MP does then read Sandra Gidley's blog or one of the other blogs by her colleagues. Whatever you do, take these tables with a pinch of salt. They are interesting, yes, but they do not really tell us much at all.

Railroad to nowhere

The article in today's Western Mail about the Assembly's failure to deliver the promised goods on transport underlines two problems. The first of these is the difficulty that the Welsh Assembly Government has in delivering its promises, the second is the impact that limited powers have on that delivery.

Four years ago the Welsh Assembly Government proudly announced more than a dozen projects over the next five years. But four years on, just two of the schemes and no new stations have been delivered on time. Some are delayed and others may never come to fruition. The new Vale of Glamorgan service, linking Cardiff airport to the main railway line, was due to be open in 2002. It is now expected to open later this year. A new railway station in Llanharan was expected to open in 2003 but may not now see service until next year. There are many more examples including much-needed improvements to Queen Street Station in Cardiff so as to unblock congestion on the Valley's Lines. This development may now never happen.

What appears to be lacking is adequate project management on the behalf of the Government, but there is no doubt that the inability to direct the Strategic Rail Authority has severely hampered the delivery of these key improvements. This will shortly change with the passage of two new bills through Parliament. However, there is no better illustration of the case for the Assembly to be able to control its own destiny, in the same way as Scotland, as these heavily delayed transport projects.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

A call to arms

Simon Titley points us towards these words:

"Now the Blair government proposes the law system of fascism and communism.

The citizen can be arrested and held without charge or trial, not even on the careful consideration of an experienced judge, but the whim of a political activist called a government minister.

To be protected from terror the government says, we must become a tyranny. But a tyranny is based on the citizen's terror. This is not victory; this is defeat before a shot is fired."

But, no, these are not the words of a Liberal Democrat Home Affairs Spokesperson, but of Frederick Forsyth. Whilst the Observer says:

Internment without trial harms the incarcerated, taints the free and delivers victory to agents of turmoil. Home Secretaries are fond of saying that parliament, not judges, makes the law. It will be for parliament to halt a measure that would storm the narrow borderline where democracy stops and tyranny begins.

And the Sunday Times says:

OF THE draconian measures unveiled by the Home Secretary in the name of national security, none casts the shadow of a police state more ominously than the newly brandished weapon of house arrest. The practice of shuttering suspects and enemies in their own homes has a long and dishonourable history: it is usually the last resort of a regime without the evidence or stomach for a trial. House arrest not only breaches the European Convention on Human Rights, but is also impractical, often counter-productive and historically naive. The very term is itself freighted with connotations of overweening state control.

What we get from the Liberal Democrat Home Affairs Spokesperson however is a masterly piece of fence-sitting:

"We still believe that prosecution is the best way forward and are disappointed that the Home Secretary has not put in place measures to make phone tapping admissible as it could help bring cases to court in the future.

"As we examine these proposals in the week ahead the Liberal Democrats will ensure there is a balance to protect civil liberties with a proportionate response to the security problems we face."

And, again courtesy of Simon Titley:

"What I'm indicating is that there may be a way in which we can redress that balance with this new Home Secretary but obviously there's a range of control orders that he's suggesting. Now there may be some of those which do not require a derogation [from the EU human rights convention], which we can live with. There may be other of those control orders, such as house detention, which if they do require a derogation we would have serious concerns about."

If any issue required a clear Liberal steer then this is it. This is an opportunity once more for the Liberal Democrats to stand at the head of those concerned about our drift into totalitarianism and to speak out on behalf of people's liberties. It is also our duty to point out the ineffectiveness of these measures as a weapon against terrorism. It is time for Mark Oaten and Charles Kennedy to assume that position publicly and loudly.

Update: Mark Oaten has now issued a statement to the effect that the Home Secretary's present proposals are wholly unacceptable and we would seek to vote them down. Our preferred approach would be to allow the use of intercept communications and to bring the cases to court. We would allow security-cleared judges to prepare sensitive cases, and consider new processes of jury selection to guarantee that security concerns were met. We would consider limited control orders in certain circumstances, but only issued by judges on the basis of a high standard of proof. Serious thought also needs to be given to making terrorist intent an aggravating factor in sentencing and closing any loopholes in the present terrorist offences. (2 February 2005)

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Tackling voter fraud

The Guardian reports this morning that the Electoral Commission is pressing senior Police Officers to take the issue of electoral fraud more seriously. Given the increased potential for such abuse, due to the widespread availablity of postal votes and the experiments in all-postal ballots, it is about time that this was done. There are already several cases of alleged vote-rigging and fraud under investigation and there are fears that many more are going undetected.

It seems that the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) is writing guidelines, with the help of the commission, to send to every force and returning officer in the country amid concerns that many local forces do not have the expertise to detect organised vote-rigging. In addition he commission is calling for a database of vote-rigging cases to be set up on the police national computer to give a clearer picture of the scale of the problem.

The Guardian has set up its own fraud hotline at electoral.fraud@guardian.co.uk. It may find that traffic on this e-mail address is heavier than it expects.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Labour fail the sensitivity test

The Labour Party has been accused of anti-semitism after publishing a poster that portrays Michael Howard and Oliver Letwin, who are both Jewish, as flying pigs.

I have my doubts about accusations of anti-semitism but clearly the people who designed this poster and those who authorised its distribution are experts at putting their foot in it. They have certainly succeeded in alienating a sizeable community whilst giving the Tory Leader some unexpected good publicity.

The other controversial poster is the one portraying Michael Howard as a Jewish miser. This one has really overstepped the mark and, as Guy Fawkes points out, bears an uncanny resemblance to propaganda posters produced by Goebbels in 1935. This is the sort of problem that you get into when you seek to personalise politics and base your campaign on character assasination.

Police state?

Dominic Tristram is quite right. When even the anti-terrorist police start to raise concerns about Britain becoming a Police State then things really must be getting bad. The Home Secretary does not seem inclined to listen to opposition politicians or the press, perhaps he will take notice of this:

George Churchill-Coleman, who headed Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist squad as they worked to counter the IRA during their mainland attacks in the late 1980s and early 1990s, said Mr Clarke's proposals to extend powers, such as indefinite house arrest, were "not practical" and threatened to further marginalise minority communities.

Mr Churchill-Coleman told the Guardian: "I have a horrible feeling that we are sinking into a police state, and that's not good for anybody. We live in a democracy and we should police on those standards.

He added: "I have serious worries and concerns about these ideas on both ethical and practical terms. You cannot lock people up just because someone says they are terrorists. Internment didn't work in Northern Ireland, it won't work now. You need evidence."

Student debt set to soar

The consequences of the Labour Party's obsession with top-up tuition fees are starting to haunt it with the impending publication of an authorative report, which predicts the trebling of student debt. The research, published in the National Institute Economic Review, also suggests that disabled students, and students who do not receive help from their family, will be hit more severely.

The study, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, looked at the effect of fees on debt, term-time working and students' satisfaction with university. It found that tuition fees have been passed directly into debt: with average debt rising similarly to tuition fees. In addition, the fees did not increase term-time working, generally, except among those who did not receive financial assistance from their parents, further disadvantaging these students.

Nice as it is to have one's views vindicated this is no comfort for the future of the many young people who will be deterred from fulfilling their potential nor for the future economic prosperity of our Country, which depends on home-grown talent going into higher education and then bringing their training and expertise into the job market.

We are, of course, still awaiting the outcome of the Rees Commission review into the funding of Higher Education in Wales, but both they and the Minister must read this study carefully and find alternative ways of funding Welsh universities, other than student fees.


Thursday, January 27, 2005

More beef

I recorded last September how Tory AM, Glyn Davies, had suddenly become converted to the nutritious value of McDonald's food. Entirely by coincidence his conversion coincided with him declaring in the register of interests that he had enjoyed hospitality from the company including:

'overnight accommodation in Marriott Hotel Cardiff for myself and wife. Hospitality and match tickets for Manchester Utd v Arsenal Community Shield Final football match for self and 3 guests provided by McDonald's Restaurants Ltd.' and 'overnight accommodation in the Hilton Hotel Cardiff on 7 August 2004 for myself and wife. Hospitality and match tickets for Manchester Utd v Arsenal Community Shield Final football match for self and wife on 8 August 2004 provided by MacDonalds Restaurants Ltd.'

Yesterday he continued his campaign by urging Assembly Members to follow suit:

Some Members are quick to criticise companies such as MacDonald’s because of the negative consequences of overeating its products, but I rarely see MacDonald’s congratulated in the Chamber for the work that it undertakes to promote salads and reduce the amount of salt in a product that many people eat. We have been taking a one-eyed view of that.

He was pressing the House Committee put a gym into the Assembly buildings at the time and advocating the virtues of a robust fitness regime. I could not quite follow his argument therefore when he prefaced his remarks about McDonalds by stating that "I sometimes see quite hypocritical approaches in the National Assembly."

Sweet smelling Eleanor

It would be remiss of me of course, if I did not record the solution put forward yesterday by my colleague, Eleanor Burnham, to the problem of smells from sewage treatment works:

Eleanor Burnham: To take a different tack, given that aromatherapy oils have a beneficial aroma and that their antibacterial and antifungal qualities have recently been confirmed by an authoritative University of Manchester study, will you advocate the use of aromatherapy or essential oils around sewage treatment works?

I am sure that she is rushing to patent this idea even now.

When the chips are down

The voters have long suspected it of course but it is a badly-kept secret that the closer we get to an election the less committed politicians become to the principles that they have espoused with such fervour over the preceding years. This is particularly so when seats are at stake.

Thus it was that, ringed by jittery Welsh Labour MPs, the Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain, yesterday abandoned devolution and ordered the Assembly Government to adopt English measures to drive down Welsh waiting lists. What fun we are going to have with that one at First Minister's Question Time next week.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Most flattering comment of the month?

Meanwhile, not to be outdone, the Conservative Assembly Member for North Wales, Mark Isherwood, indulged his love of the English language:

It is because we all want to improve skill levels and help more people into quality jobs and sustainable employment, and because we must work with employers, employees and learners to provide the skills needed for employment, that we note the results of the first skills and employment action plan with regret, but not surprise. For this is a Minister who bestrides the stage like a female Flashman or a Roald Dahl headteacher, crushing dissent beneath her. This is a Minister for whom ‘collaboration not competition’, means that she knows best and woe betide anyone who questions her vision or delivery.

William Shakespeare he is not, as was illustrated when he was given the opportunity to conclude his speech with one sentence:

Mark Isherwood: The danger is that this Minister will continue to talk that talk not walk the walk or, in her case, should we say: strut the strut or swagger the swagger.

I left the chamber suffering from severe drama-overload.

Business as usual

Jane Hutt, the new Business Minister in the National Assembly previously spent five and a half years as Health Minister going through fire and brimstone in seeking to defend her record. Dealing with the weekly Business Statement therefore should be easy for her. As usual she was helped yesterday by the Labour Assembly Member for Alyn and Deeside, Carl Sargeant, who is always willing to oblige with a diversion when one is needed:

Carl Sargeant: As always, this side of the Chamber will support the business statement, as it allows excellent opportunity for debate. Provided that you can find time, we would like to discuss immigration policy that impacts upon Wales, following the racist comments made by the Conservative Party at Westminster.

The Presiding Officer: Order. I do not believe that the Business Minister has any responsibility for the Conservative Party.

Carl Sargeant: Thank you for your guidance.

We could perhaps draw a line under the free school breakfast debate that the opposition parties want, as we want free breakfasts, as does the electorate. It was included in our manifesto.

Perhaps we could find time to discuss the aerospace industry in Wales, following a comment by Jeremy Clarkson in The Times last weekend, where he claimed that one is better off going on a Boeing. I hope that Jeremy Clarkson never steps foot in an Airbus or in Wales again after having made such sarcastic comments.

Nick Bourne: Point of order. I hope that the Member could be encouraged, perhaps on your ruling, to withdraw the term ‘racist’. It seems to me that there was an outrageous suggestion that it was a racist policy, and I hope that, on reflection, he will withdraw that.

The Presiding Officer: Order. My view would be that if an individual was referred to as racist, I would certainly ask that that be withdrawn. I understood Carl Sargeant to refer to policies. It is not unusual to talk of institutional racism or of policies that induce racism. I would distinguish between making such a comment about an individual, which would be out of order in my view, and making a description of a policy. I understood Carl Sargeant to refer not to an individual but to policies.

David Davies: Further to this point of order, I have no wish to suggest that you may have misheard, Presiding Officer—

Presiding Officer: Order. I would not go down that route, if I were you.

David Davies: I heard him refer to the leader of the Conservative Party, and I wonder whether we could ask him to clarify his comments. The last people described as racist by the Commission for Racial Equality were those in the Cardiff Labour Party.

Carl Sargeant: Further to this point of order, I will clarify the situation. I said Tory party policies, and did not refer to any individual.

It does seem to me that Nick Bourne and David Davies are in denial on the racist nature of the Conservative Party's policy on immigration. However, the opportunity had been created for Jane Hutt to slink away and avoid any further scrutiny. That, though, is not her style. Instead she responded to each point in her customary detail and gave an exposition on Government health policy that might perhaps have been better left to the new Minister. She just cannot let go, a point made with telling effect by David Melding:

David Melding: Point of order. Now that we have the unique situation in the Government of having a health Minister emeritus, will you rule on when we should put our health questions to the Business Minister, and when we should put them to our acolyte, the current Minister, Dr Pangloss?

Out of step

The Western Mail reports that the Labour MP for the Vale of Glamorgan inadvertently sent a letter soliciting support to the Barry-based Conservative AM, David Melding. The letter asked the Tory Health Committee Chair what "made him proud", talked of "a government with priorities that match yours" and suggested that Mr. Melding reflect on what happened under the last Conservative government.

When confronted with the gaffe a Labour spokeswoman joked that Mr Melding, a keen supporter of more powers for the Assembly, was often out of step with his own party. "He doesn't agree with the rest of the party on many issues. It's always worth asking," she said.

Never a truer word has been spoken in jest. On the other hand less charitable interpretations could be that Labour were seeking to recruit yet more Tory Parliamentarians or even that when they said that the Labour government's priorities matched those of a leading Welsh Conservative, they were being serious!

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Second chance!

I have to admit that I was so taken by the eloquence of the wording of this amendment to a Government motion on NHS waiting times and their second offer scheme that I felt I had to share it.

The original motion asks the Assembly to "Notes the progress made in reducing waiting times since the commencement of the second offer scheme in April 2004". Given the recent controversy about the Welsh Health Service and the problems it faces and given the recent National Audit Office report slating the Welsh Assembly Government's management of waiting times it would have been possible to write reams in just rejecting the sheer complacency of this point. The Welsh Conservatives managed to sum it up in just ten words however, and proved that understatement can be as effective a weapon as the greatest oratory. Their amendment read:

"In point 1 add 'lack of' between 'the' and 'progress'."

Monday, January 24, 2005

Gloom and doom

A Cardiff University academic has declared today to be the most depressing of the year so far - and it has barely started! Apparently, he has used a scientific formula to calculate that January 24 is the worst day of 2005. This is due to the combined effect of bad weather, mounting debt, the length of time since Christmas, failed New Year's resolutions and a lack of motivation.

Well, it is sunny outside, I do not make New Year resolutions, I am about to steal myself to go out and take a very brisk walk delivering leaflets, and my credit card bill has still to arrive, so it is not all bad.

On the negative side listening to Michael Howard and David Davies AM defending the use of the race card by the Conservative Party on the radio this morning has not done much to improve my mood. Political debate is being dragged down into the gutter and that is very depressing indeed.

No smoke without pounds

Congratulations to Wetherspoons, who have announced that they are to ban smoking in all of their 650 pubs by May 2006. This is an important step forward but it is not a moment for complacency. I can see those who are opposed to an all-out ban on smoking in public places using this announcement to show that voluntary action works. That is not the case.

Wetherspoons have made a commercial decision, it is true, but it is noticeable that they have not sought to reach a compromise measure involving improved ventilation as FOREST argue is possible. The fact is that ventilation is not effective in protecting non-smokers from the effect of second-hand tobacco smoke as it does not remove all of the dangerous particles from the air. In addition the smoke has to pass over the non-smoker before it is extracted. The only way to properly protect customers and staff is to have a complete ban within enclosed public spaces.

I have not been in a Wetherspoon pub since they issued anti-euro beer mats, leaflets and postcards to all of their customers in 2001. This was partly a political decision but largely it came about because I do not have the time to go to town and drink socially in large chain pubs as I did before I was elected. If I go to the pub at all I will go to my local.

The decision to ban smoking makes my return more likely but the two Wetherspoon pubs in Swansea will not be the only ones to exercise such a prohibition. The Lounge in Wind Street, led the way and at present it looks a more attractive option than its Wetherspoon rivals.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

These are the people in my neighbourhood

This concept is just fantastic. The idea is that you take photos of the people in your neighborhood holding signs that have the lyrics to the "Sesame Street" song on them and then post the photos to this neighbourhood project website. Very American I know but, hey, if it gets you out into the community talking to your neighbours then it must be a good thing. Found care of Margaret Mason.

A two horse race?

Liberal Democrat literature often identifies us as the main challengers in an election and then, using the 'two-horse race' argument, seeks to build the credibility of our candidate(s). I have done it myself, though I have never adopted this tactic when we have not been the main challengers. This has been borne out by the results.

The forthcoming General Election therefore will be unique. This is because, whatever is said in individual constituencies, the Liberal Democrats nationally will be arguing strongly and with good reason, that the contest for number 10 Downing Street is a three-horse race. That this is becoming an accepted wisdom is underlined by Andrew Rawnsley's article in today's Observer. His argument is that we have arrived at this state of affairs due to the strength of Labour and the weakness of the Tories: "....the fear gripping a striking number of Labour MPs and ministers whom I regard as not easily panicked. Complacent Labour supporters won't show up at the polling stations while anti-government protest votes will stack up."

".....it does seem to me to be a real menace to Labour. In the absence of a credible threat from the Tories, disaffected Labour supporters could treat this contest not so much as a general election, but as a huge byelection. Instead of regarding the election as the occasion to make a choice between the parties, large numbers of voters may take it as an opportunity to give a kicking to the government.

This greatly suits those maestros of byelection politics, the Liberal Democrats. They are already well advanced on where they were placed at this stage in 2001. In fact, they are scoring more strongly than the third party has done for nearly two decades. Their opposition to the invasion of Iraq is part of the explanation for that, but not all of it. They have also been clever about targeting particular voter grievances, especially among the elderly.

And the best could be yet to come for them. The extra exposure enjoyed by the Lib Dems during elections has, in the past, given them a campaign boost of as much as six points. So their campaign strategists can sound entirely sane when they talk about winning more than a quarter share of the vote at the election.

In private talks with broadcasters about how they will report the election campaign, Mr Kennedy has been demanding equality of treatment with Labour and the Conservatives. The irony is that he has been the beneficiary of the reluctance of the other two to treat the Lib Dems as an equal."

In the Guardian yesterday, Billy Bragg reviews John Harris' book "So Now Who Do We Vote For?" in which the author struggles with the dilemmas identified by Andrew Rawnsley as key issues for disaffected Labour voters. For Harris this is not just about the Iraq war but in whose hands the public sector is safe:

"Rather than focus on the Iraq war, Harris rightly highlights these two public sector issues as the true source of the dilemma facing traditional Labour voters. Until the Tories came to power in 1979, the welfare state had been reasonably successful in narrowing the gap between rich and poor. The battle lines that Thatcher drew up in the 1980s - between efficiency and effectiveness in the public services - remain in place 20 years later. No one today seems willing to make the case that, if the public want a more effective health service then they will have to pay for it through higher taxes. Instead PFI is wheeled out to convince voters that they can have their cake and eat it."

The government seems to be gambling that Labour voters have nowhere else to go. Even Roy Hattersley, no fan of PFI, offers up the same logic when Harris asks him what he would say to a lifelong Labour voter who was thinking of sending the leadership a message by voting Lib Dem. "'They are wasting their time and their vote', he said. 'Because the next election, like every election in my lifetime, is between the Labour party and the Conservative party and you and a number of other people are going to have to decide who you want: Tony Blair or Michael Howard.'"

Billy Bragg is not convinced and I suspect a great many voters feel the same way:

That is an argument that we are going to hear a lot of in the next few months. It is one that I am not totally unsympathetic to, but it has a troubling flaw. Despite Hattersley's assertion, the last election was different to every other held during his lifetime in one very important way: it saw the lowest voter turnout since 1918. Those who argue that this is a result of people expressing their approval of the government's policies are ignoring other signs. Would voters in Labour's northeast heartlands have overwhelmingly rejected a regional assembly if they were happy with the way things are going? Elsewhere, council ward by-elections have seen disillusioned Labour voters migrating directly to the BNP.

The interesting part of these two articles lies in the impact of turnout. I argued in a previous post that the key issue that will decide the General Election is how many of these disenchanted people will vote and in which constituencies they seek to register their views through the ballot box in any numbers. If as Andrew Rawnsley suggests, people believe that a Labour victory is a done-deal, then they may well vote as if they were in a by-election to give the Government a bloody nose safe in the knowledge that they will not end up with Michael Howard.

Despite the protestations of the astute Peter Hain, I believe that they do have that luxury. That is because it will not just be disenchanted Labour supporters voting in this way, but disenchanted Tories as well. A colleague of mine pointed out in response to the Rawnsley article that turnout has bottomed out and started to go up again. We do not know whether that will continue but one of the reasons for it has been protest voters finding political homes and being determined to register their objections at the ballot box rather than abstain altogether.

What this all adds up to is a realignment of the political landscape in which the weakening of party loyalties and disillusionment with the two main parties of Government offers an opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to come through the middle and establish themselves as the substantial opposition to a third term Labour Government. If, as I believe, the Liberal Democrats are ready to assume that mantle, then the 2005 General Election may turn out to be very interesting indeed.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Tsunami aid gig starts

There is nowhere that I would rather be right now than in the Millennium Stadium watching the start of the Tsunami aid gig that hopes to raise a million pounds for the victims of this natural disaster. Alas, I have a diary clash and will be fulfilling a long-standing engagement instead at the annual dinner of Bridgend Liberal Democrats. I wish the organisers of this concert every success in exceeding their fund-raising target.

Housing crisis

The scale of the housing crisis in Wales was outlined today in a survey by the Halifax Building Society. They found that around 86% of properties are beyond the reach of first time buyers. This is an increase from the 62% of two years ago. The report also found the average house price paid by first-time buyers in Wales rose by 25% last year. The rise was the UK's second largest in 2004.

Aberdare was highlighted as one of the ten most affordable places to buy a home in the UK. This survey underlines the scale of the crisis facing the Welsh Assembly Government and local Councils. The price of homes is, of course, outside their control, but there are a number of other measures that they can introduce if only the UK Government gave them the powers. One of these is the suspension of the right to buy in high demand areas so as to preserve the affordable housing stock.

I have no easy solutions other than the Welsh Assembly and local government take the situation more seriously and act as if there is a crisis instead of allowing the whole situation to wash over them.

Friday, January 21, 2005

"The King has no clothes"

Regional Committees fulfil a useful function. They provide a vehicle for the Assembly to interact with the public in their own communities, whilst taking evidence from local bodies on key policy matters.

One of the innovations that I initiated when I was the first Chair of the South West Wales Regional Committee in 1999 was an open mike session or public question time. This has since evolved into a variety of different formats including Cabinet road shows and, in the last Assembly, question time with the First Minister at the North Wales Regional Committee. The value of these sessions is that they allow the public to ask questions directly of Assembly Members and Ministers and, if necessary, get a written answer as well.

It was during the public question time session at today's South Wales East Committee that one of the problems with this format emerged - you cannot always get politicians to give you a straight answer. A schoolboy submitted a written note to the effect that he had asked a question at the previous meeting in Barry, had been promised a written answer, but had not yet received it. The Chair duly read this out and promised that he would chase it up. At this point the boy stood up and interrupted.

"The Minister was at the meeting and did answer my question," he said. "But I did not understand the answer as there was so much waffle. That is why I asked for a written answer." This boy will go far.

Big Breakfast con hits home

The Western Mail on Wednesday accused the Welsh Labour Government of perpetuating a huge con on the public with their promise to provide a free breakfast to every primary school pupil in Wales. Internal Assembly Government documents , they say, prove that when the First Minister promised free breakfasts "on a universal basis", his "£16m scheme" was based on an assumed take-up rate of just 11% - one child in 10.

These revelations seem to have hit a chord as today the Education Minister replied with an article in which she accused the paper of getting "it wrong again". She says that "The pledge was and continues to be that, 'We have committed to providing for all our primary school children to have free breakfasts'. We are actively promoting the scheme and encouraging school to take part - bring benefits to children in Wales.......We have always said we will revisit the funding levels once we have considered the evidence from the pilots and the independent evaluation. The money is there in the budget reserve to support the expansion of the programme as promised."

The Western Mail's Chief Reporter, Martin Shipton hits back with some effective points: "Of course the people of Wales were misled. They were misled into believing that this was a fully costed and thought-through policy so that free breakfasts would be provided for every primary child in Wales.

She knows full well that at the time the promise of "free breakfasts for all primary school kids" was made before the last Assembly election, Labour's "fully costed" £16m scheme was based on the assumption that only 11% of pupils would get the free meal. Free school breakfasts for all was merely a good soundbite.

Jane Davidson also knows that as it will not be compulsory for schools to participate in the free breakfast scheme, not all children will have the opportunity to choose whether they want one or not."

The fact is that nobody actually knows the truth as, just as with a lot of Labour's manifesto commitments, the pledge was not properly worked up or costed when it was made. That is why we spent the first 12 months of the second Assembly treading water and that is why we have had to wait for the first budget after the Comprehensive Spending Review to get any idea of the true costs of their top ten promises. Even then we are faced with vague statements about pilot schemes and a reliance on reserves to pay for some future, unspecified costs.

This applies to free prescriptions, top up tuition fees, free school breakfasts, the crime fund, school building investment and many other budget headings. What is worse is that more than half of the headings in that budget showed no increase at all, not even for inflation, because of the need to divert money from mainstream programmes for Labour's gimmicks.

Of course we have tried over and over again to raise these matters and to get answers from Government Ministers. Occasionally, we have been successful, but what this episode shows as well is the value of an independent and inquisitive press in effective scrutiny.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Crime Fund, what crime fund?

Having pushed the Welsh Assembly Government into honouring their manifesto pledge of putting £100 million into a crime fund I have now decided to try to pin down the precise objectives of this fund and how they are measuring their performance. The problem is that the Government themselves, still seem unsure what it is they have committed themselves too and what they hope to achieve from it:

Peter Black: How is the Minister co-ordinating expenditure of the Assembly Government's crime fund? OAQ0030(SJR)

Edwina Hart: Officials in the community safety unit liaise closely with officials in the education and training department on the co-ordination of expenditure in the crime-fighting fund.

Peter Black: We all know that the crime-fighting fund-or the 'crime fund' as it was termed in the Labour Party manifesto-was essentially a number of budgets cobbled together. Are there any overall objectives for that fund, and how do you measure the success of the fund against those objectives?

Edwina Hart: It has not been cobbled together; it has just been put into different portfolios. The fund is £119 million between 2004-05 and 2007-08, and it is linked because it deals with crime and disorder, substance misuse, and social exclusion, which are linked. There is a definite joined-up approach, which you can now see coming through successfully in this area.

Not very convincing at all!

Labour blunder through Quango fiasco

Over the last few months the Labour Assembly Government has made a number of important announcements on the future of Welsh Quangos. Yesterday we finally had a chance to have a proper two hour debate on those proposals or so we thought. However, Labour's obsession with spin destroyed all of that.

The Government issued a consultation document relating to the debate at 1.11pm precisely, having first used it to brief the press eleven minutes earlier. When the opposition objected that there had been no time to properly consider the document and requested that the debate be adjourned the Government refused. As a result the three opposition parties pulled all their speakers and left Labour to talk amongst themselves. Nick Bourne's first point of order sums up the issue and the anger of Plaid, Tories and Liberal Democrats:

Nick Bourne: Point of order. I raise this under Standing Order No. 6 on Plenary business, in relation to the debate that is about to take place. Looking around, I can see a few copies of a document that is, rather unfortunately, called, 'Making the Connections: Delivering Better Services for Wales-a consultation by the Welsh Assembly Government on the mergers with ELWa, the WDA and the WTB'. The debate that we are about to have is entitled 'The Merger of Assembly Sponsored Public Bodies'. The consultation document was issued at 1 p.m. today, and few Members have seen it yet. There are 26 pages of the document in English and 26 pages in Welsh, and Members must have an opportunity to digest it before we can meaningfully contribute to the debate. I ask the Government to withdraw this debate under Standing Order No. 6.11, because it is meaningless to go ahead with the debate when nobody has had the opportunity to read the central document. Furthermore, I have been told that the Library was instructed not to issue copies until 1 p.m., although I am reliably informed that it had copies earlier than that. If that is the case, this raises serious questions about the Government's so-called openness and, on quickly flicking through the document, I see references to the Government's commitment to openness, which ring hollow given the fact that this document, for a key debate lasting two hours, has just been issued. How can the opposition parties, and, indeed, Labour backbenchers, properly scrutinise this policy when such a key document is issued at the eleventh hour? The document also talks about democratic accountability. Will this debate be withdrawn? It is totally meaningless in the light of the fact that we have not had the opportunity to look at the document. Many Members will not have seen the document at all.

In the normal course of events this might just be another spat between Government and opposition but Labour backbenchers were equally unhappy:

Peter Law: The drip feed of this red document is the best example that I have come across of worst practice and I must say so, because it impacts on the motion that is before us today, as I have seen from reading it. I mention it because there are some important points in this document. If we are wrong, someone needs to stand up and say that we are wrong, and then we can get on with business. That is why we are here, as Assembly Members, and we have not done that today as it should have been done.


Leighton Andrews: I prepared a speech for this debate and received this document as I was at my computer. I can speed read, but it is difficult to make a meaningful contribution on a debate when a document is presented in this way. I want to make a full contribution to the discussion on the reform of the quango state, and I know that many of my backbench colleagues want to have a full input into the discussion. I want to make it plain to my colleagues on the frontbench that they should not take us for granted in this debate. We want to be fully and properly involved.

After all this the Labour frontbench allowed the debate to be brought to a premature conclusion, however it was clear that they knew that they had screwed up.

When size matters

Simon Titley is absolutely right, I do not know how I did without this valuable internet tool. The art of the analogy is long neglected and misunderstood. At last politicians and journalists can relate objects to an easily understood concept - the size of the area of Wales. If you get bored with that then there is always the alternative calculator which will find the next best fit for a comparator country. How did we manage without it?

Wednesday, January 19, 2005


Rhodri Morgan was on form yesterday with a barrage of puns (well OK, two) but for somebody who stayed behind whilst others whooped it up in France at the launch of the Airbus superjumbo, he was in a remarkably good mood to start off with. First up was binge drinking:

The First Minister: That is part of the binge-drinking culture: it used to be fish and chips, now, more often, it will be kebabs and curries after chucking-out time. Chucking-out time can be succeeded by chucking-up time an hour and a half later, unfortunately, and that leads to further problems for local authorities the following morning. It can be quite disgusting, and it is not unknown in areas of high student occupation.

Chucking-up time may well be a new concept in licensing law but not, alas, in licensing lore. Rhodri then moved onto the subject of Wales Tourist Board and its marketing campaign to attract tourists here:

Likewise, the Wales Tourist Board ran a successful advertising campaign. The important point in bringing the Wales Tourist Board in-house—and this is the point with which I agree—is that it should maintain its ability to produce advertisements which are funny, occasionally self-mocking and cutting edge. Therefore, it must be a little daring and risky, not risqué, and willing to take risks in terms of marketing. If risks were not taken, the advertisements would be ignored.

There was some discussion as to which Minister will take responsibility for the risqué when the Wales Tourist Board is merged into the Assembly Government but in the end we decided not to go there.

Reality vs Fiction

Ever since TV and film-makers started making drama-documentaries there has been a debate about the genre and its habit of blurring fact with fiction. Now the TV programme Little Britain may take this further. Having adopted the village of Llanddewi Brefi and transplanted it in a misspelt form to southern England, they are now talking to the local football team about sponsoring them.

Lots of speculation in the Western Mail about what exactly the team will have emblazoned on their shirts and a good example of what sponsorship can do for sport. Not sure if the Costcutter Ceredigion League can ever compete with the Dafydd First XI though.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Breaking free

Yet another article in the Western Mail on the grand coalition idea for the National Assembly. This time they are reporting the views of the Director of the Institute of Welsh Affairs. He believes that Labour will do significantly worse at the Assembly elections in 2007 than they did in 2003. He gives six reasons for this:

Welsh Labour will have been in power in Wales for two terms and many voters will be looking for a change;

At the UK level, Labour will likely be mid-way through its third term with frustration and disillusion mounting;

The economic climate is unlikely to be as it was in 2003, when Labour benefited from a full term of stable growth, rising public expenditure and low interest rates;

Boundary changes in North Wales are likely to work to Labour's disadvantage, making Conwy more marginal in Plaid's favour;

In the coming general election the Tories can expect to pick up a number of seats in Wales - Monmouth, Clwyd West and perhaps Cardiff North. As a result they will be well placed to sustain the significant advance they made in the 2003 Assembly elections;

The Liberal Democrats can be expected to at least sustain their overall share of the vote while Plaid has an opportunity to recover some of the losses it suffered in 2003.

There are a lot of variables there of course but there are even more in the assumptions that Mr. Osmond makes as to why a grand coalition is possible. The biggest question mark, as I have said before, is whether a common policy platform can be agreed. Mr. Osmond believes that this should not be too difficult and suggests a number of areas where we might agree.

I am sure that if you narrow the parameters of any policy enough then it is possible to get cross-party agreement on it. However, having served in one coalition it seems to me that the biggest obstacle to any co-operation lies in the areas where you do not agree. It is not possible to continually ignore those nor to prevent one party holding the whole partnership to ransom over a matter of principle at some stage or another. Where there is a common approach to politics, say from the left or the right, then it is possible to work around these difficulties, but when there is a wide ideological range of views within a Partnership Government then inevitably those differences will be its undoing.

Monday, January 17, 2005

To ban or not to ban

I argued on Thursday that Prince Harry's gaffe in wearing Nazi regalia to a fancy dress party was part of a wider malaise in which the vast majority of young people know little or nothing about the Nazis and the evil they perpetrated. Even fewer understand the significance of the swastika, whilst most have never heard of the concentration camps and what occurred there.

Leighton Andrews took up this theme arguing that "The only explanation for this can be the decline of history teaching in schools - or rather the absence of compulsory history teaching after 14. History is central to a sense of citizenship." It seems that this applies to Government Ministers as well.

Welsh Culture Minister, Alun Pugh, has now written to the Home Office requesting a review of the law concerning the display and wearing of Nazi regalia. He argues that the only "legitimate place" for displaying Nazi memorabilia and symbols is in museums and history textbooks "in order to document the atrocities of the Third Reich and their attempts to enslave us."

"The people who sell this stuff and the dimwits who wear it would face criminal sanctions in other parts of Europe and I think we should examine the case for doing the same." That is a legitimate point of view, however, as a Liberal I always hesitate before rushing into banning anything and restricting people's right to express themselves, no matter how obnoxious and insulting their views are. That is because there are other issues involved.

One aspect is that the swastika is a Hindu religious symbol which was misappropriated by the Nazis. It is a very old symbol in many other cultures and, in related forms, appears frequently as a symbol of good fortune or, reversed, death. Any attempt to outlaw it comes up against the right to religious freedom as well.

Another relates to the problem we face, that of balancing freedom of expression and democratic rights against the wider issues of the rise of the far right and racism. We should not forget that Hitler rose to power on the back of a campaign of intimidation and suppression. He burnt books, he banned certain works of art and music, he oppressed and murdered Jews, gays and gypsies amongst others and he limited freedom of speech. Nobody is arguing that a call to ban Nazi symbols is akin to any of those things but you cannot oppose authoritarianism and tyranny by adopting its tactics on any level.

Equally, you cannot effectively teach the lessons of history without perspective - relating the symbols that some have adopted as commonplace to the horrors and attrocities of the past. Upsetting as it is to see youngsters adorn themselves with Swastikas, to see Nazi flags sold in a Cardiff street, to see the third in line to the throne debase himself and his family on the front page of the Sun or to see the British National Party win votes and some elections, the only way to effectively combat these trends is to win the argument.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Meanwhile in the red corner

Labour of course, have their own problems. These are illustrated perfectly today, with the news that General Election supremo, Alan Milburn, is seeking to wrap his party in Tory clothes once more by a massive extension of the right to buy so as to boost home ownership. The UK already has one of the highest levels of home ownership in Europe but it also has a number of other social problems as well, including growing homelessness and a massive shortage of affordable housing.

This policy will not only set Alan Milburn on a collision course with Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, but with the Welsh Assembly Government as well. Wales Labour, supported by the Welsh Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru, have been seeking restrictions on the right to buy in high demand areas. We have also asked for viable alternatives to stock transfer, so as to give tenants the choice of keeping the local Council as their landlord. Both of these require the consent of the UK Government. If Labour are now saying that they will set an agenda on housing at odds to these requests, whilst at the same time refusing Wales the powers to go their own way, then they will be making things very difficult for themselves indeed.

Of course, housing tends to be very low on the political radar in General Elections (and most of the rest of the time for that matter), but the issue of powers will be a key one in Wales and will attract a lot of media time. Equally, a great many people will vote according to their perception of how well the Government is doing on education and health. I have already dealt with health at great length in the last week, but things are not so rosy on the education front either.

This report makes it clear that student loans, tuition fees and growing levels of debt are driving the poorest students away from Higher Education and making it the preserve of the more affluent once more. The article states that 'between the early 1980s and late 1990s, the proportion of children from the richest quarter of families who had completed a degree by the age of 23 shot up, from 20 per cent to almost half. Over the same period, the number of graduates among the poorest quarter of families crept up from 6 per cent to just 9 per cent.'

This issue is going to have particular resonance in University Towns and marginal constituencies such as Cardiff Central, but it is also going to influence the voting patterns of a large number of people of all ages and class.

The backtracking on international environment targets is not going to play well with many voters either, nor will the lingering issues of trust around the Iraq war, and yet the depressing thing is that the sum impact of these matters will most probably lead to more abstentions than votes for an opposition party. We will do our best obviously to make our arguments count and to work against that trend but at the end of the day, the key issue that will decide the General Election is how many of these disenchanted people will vote and in which constituencies they seek to register their views through the ballot box in any numbers.

Faltering Tories hit the rocks

If Black Wednesday was a defining moment that marked the inevitable collapse of John Major's Government, then yesterday may well go down as Michael Howard's equivalent. Somehow though, I think that things will not be so clear cut and that although the Conservatives will lose badly in the General Election, the appalling opinion poll results for them yesterday and the defection of retiring Wantage MP, Robert Jackson, are not so much turning points but markers on a long slippery slope that started on that day on 16 September 1992.

Like Nick Barlow I will enjoy seeing the Conservatives secure their worse result since 1906, however I am not so enamoured of the predicted 160 majority for Tony Blair, nor do I believe that the Country is prepared to trust the Prime Minister to this extent. As with my prediction that Germaine Greer will win Celebrity Big Brother last week, I may be proved wrong, but there is still a lot to play for and opinion polls such as these can be misleading.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

"A" Bomb in Wardour Street

My first reaction when I read this news item about the Pentagon thinking of developing a 'homosexual sex bomb' designed to make enemy troops gay, was to check the date to see if I had somehow slept through January, February and March and had woken up on 1 April. It seems that I hadn't.

I found it courtesy of Gavin Whenman and could not resist referring to it, if only to show off my knowledge of The Jam in the heading. It appears that, in addition to the many other reasons, there may have been a military rationale behind George Bush's opposition to gay marriage.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Poison chalice?

The reasons behind Rhodri Morgan's reshuffle grow more and more opaque. At first glance it would seem that the publication of a damning National Audit Office report into the Welsh NHS today and an attempt to blunt its criticisms were the main driving force behind his decision to move Jane Hutt. However, this is denied by all and sundry.

The investigation into waiting times reveals failings in almost every aspect of the health service, which have left some patients waiting more than four years for treatment. It found disturbing inadequacies in Welsh Assembly Government health policy to manage and eradicate scandalously long waits.

As the Western Mail says the report concludes that:

More than 100 people in Wales have been waiting more than four years for an outpatient appointment. The same number have been waiting the same length of time for inpatient treatment;

Wales spends more on health per head of population than England but people in Wales have to wait significantly longer for elective health treatment;

The rate of improvement in Wales has been slow and targets have generally remained static - only Northern Ireland has longer waiting time targets;

Differences in waiting times have been exacerbated by work in England and Scotland to reduce waiting times further;

Expensive waiting list initiatives have failed to tackle the root causes of long waiting times;
Instead of imposing tough sanctions on NHS trusts that fail to meet waiting list targets, the Welsh Assembly Government has rewarded failure.

And yet the First Minister has now claimed that he was only given a briefing on the contents of the report yesterday even though Assembly Government officials were given a draft of the report "three to four months ago" and NHS Wales director Ann Lloyd referred to it at the Welsh NHS Confederation conference at Llandudno last November.

In an interview on Radio Wales this morning, the new Health Minister, Brian Gibbons, tells us that not only did he see the report for the first time yesterday but that he did not know of its existence prior to his appointment to the Cabinet. He then embarked on a rambling discourse in which he stated firstly, that he would not be implementing the recommendations of the report or changing policy and then secondly, that he will be keeping it at his elbow as a working manual for the first part of his tenure.

Frankly, I have problems believing any of this spin, even if it is confused and incoherent. By sacking Jane Hutt when he did, the First Minister has bought some time for his government and has given it a chance to ride out the storm over an independent report that has ripped his flagship policies to shreds. I find it incredible that he did not know what to expect from this publication or that he did not take it into account in his reshuffle.

What he must do now is to implement the report's recommendations. It is no good pretending that a change of Minister does not presage a change in direction. If it does not then he and his government will have let the people of Wales down and Labour will pay the price at the General Election.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

The only publicity seeker in the village

I almost forgot, what exactly was Elin Jones going on about yesterday? She stood up in the middle of questions to the Local Government Minister and launched into a long rambling question about the village of Llanddewi Brefi in her constituency. This is one of the few occasions that I have known her speak in English and it soon became apparent that the reason for this was that it would maximise the publicity she would get for knowing a few popular catch phrases. Her strategy worked perfectly:

Elin Jones: I do not know whether you have ever been to Llanddewibrefi, in my constituency, but it has received a degree of notoriety in recent years because of the character of Dafydd, the only gay in the village. The three Llanddewibrefi village signs were stolen before Christmas, and Dafydd’s phrase, that he is the only gay in the village, has been voted the best-ever catchphrase, which will only serve to increase the village’s notoriety. What support can you give to the community council in Llanddewibrefi in dealing with such international publicity, and in possibly having to face continually replacing its village signs?

Sue Essex: I am sure that you will agree that notoriety has its downsides and this appears to be one of them. I hope that Llanddewibrefi can gain from that notoriety without worrying too much about the downside. I would be happy to accompany you at any time to search for the signs or to do anything else that you might want to do in that delightful community.

Oh Harry!

The sad thing about Prince Harry appearing at a party wearing a Nazi swastika is that he is not untypical of his class and his generation. Surveys have consistently shown that the vast majority of young people know little or nothing about the Nazis and the evil they perpetrated. Even fewer understand the significance of the swastika, whilst most have never heard of the concentration camps and what occurred there.

The symbols of the German National Socialist party have been hijacked by a minority to support a certain view of Britishness that excludes ethnic minorities, wraps itself in the Union Jack and promotes a very narrow view of what it is to be English. The fact that an expensively educated Prince of the realm has allowed himself to be sucked into this culture is very disturbing. Not only are his actions insensitive and ignorant but they bring the whole monarchy into disrepute.

As Leighton Andrews points out this is a time when extremist parties are becoming more active. It is also just weeks away from Holocaust Memorial Day. In that sense Prince Harry has made a disturbing political statement that must sound a warning to us all about the many threats that face our democratic process. If the third in line to the throne does not understand what he has done then how are we to get the message across to others?

Personally, I agree with Michael Howard that a personal apology is called for, not one issued by spokespeople. I also agree with the California-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre, one of the largest international Jewish human rights organisations, that the prince should attend a ceremony being held at Auschwitz later this month, to mark the 60th anniversary of its liberation.

I know that there are some who are eager to accept the apology that has been issued and put this incident behind us, but I do not believe that this is sufficient. To leave it at that would be to tacitly accept the insidious racism and little-Englander nationalism that is slowly growing in some sectors of our society. It would avoid confronting an evil that at some stage needs to be faced down. In some ways Prince Harry has given us an opportunity to deal with these issues now rather than later. We should not miss that chance for fear of causing further embarrassment to the royal family.

Blogging for Wales

The media in Wales is at last starting to wake up to the new generation of political bloggers and the potential this medium offers for informing and interacting with voters. This piece on the BBC Wales website discusses the new Welsh phenomenon in some detail. I don't think that we have reached the same level as the Americans though.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Plaid say no!

From the BBC Wales website:

"Plaid Cymru has reacted to newspaper reports suggesting there could be a "grand coalition" of opposition parties in the Welsh assembly by dismissing the idea.

The party said Plaid assembly leader Ieuan Wyn had ruled out a coalition "absolutely" in November, and there had been no change.

Plaid said this view was also shared by both its AMs and national executive committee."

Well that is alright then!

Third choice Brian

The Western Mail reports this morning that Brian Gibbons was, in fact, Rhodri Morgan's third choice to replace Jane Hutt as Health Minister. They speculate that the job was offered to Environment Minister, Carwyn Jones, and Culture Minister, Alun Pugh, first but that they both turned it down on the grounds that the post was a 'poison chalice'.

If this is true then Rhodri Morgan's position as First Minister is significantly weaker that hitherto considered and it has been weakened further by this episode. It is already considered that he exercised poor judgement in standing by Jane Hutt for so long, now it seems that he cannot interest two of his party's biggest hitters in one of the top jobs in the Welsh Assembly Government. This puts Mike German's comment in the Assembly yesterday into a new context:

"Finally, you said that five years and eight months is a long time for a Minister to be in one job. I have done the mathematics and I wonder whether we should pencil in May 2005 as the time for a Labour leadership election?"

Meanwhile, the Conservative AM, David Melding, was interesting yesterday on the timing of the announcement with some very valid questions:

David Melding: As far as I can work out, the main reason for your change is that Jane Hutt needed a rest. I am not sure that she agrees with that, but it seems an odd reason to make a partial change to the structure of your Cabinet. It is the only change in terms of a subject portfolio.

On your telling us that Dr Gibbons needs time to read into his portfolio and that we ought to be responsible, you could, perhaps, have made these changes just before Christmas instead of making them on the last day before we reconvene, the Monday before the spring session. That would have allowed Dr Gibbons a month to read into his role and Jane Hutt a month to prepare for her new role. The timing raises questions about why this had to be done in this manner.

Baby Bonds

The introduction of baby bonds by the New Labour Government is a bizarre initiative that will do very little to tackle child poverty. Essentially, the fund is a long-term savings account for all children born on or after September 1, 2002. The Government will send parents a £250 voucher to open an account in one of 75 building societies or banks taking part - there will be an additional £250 for babies of parents earning less than £13,480. An extra Government payment will be made when the child turns seven; the amount is not yet determined. The cost of this measure is £1.33 billion over the next five years.

The problem is that this money will not have any immediate impact on the major issues facing children, including early years learning, poverty, the state of school buildings etc. Even as a long term measure it is flawed. When, in 18 years time the trust is cashed in at least half of the beneficiaries will need to use it to pay to go into Higher Education. It really is a case of the Government giving with one hand and taking away with the other.

It would be far better if this money was invested in children now. If the resource was made available for services then Wales' share would be £120m over 5 years. An extra annual amount of £25 million for school buildings could make some difference to the huge backlog faced by LEAs.

Ironically, on the day that the details of the scheme were announced it was revealed that funding for out-of-school childcare clubs is to be cut by almost two thirds. Thousands of working families across Wales rely on the clubs, which provide early morning and afternoon childcare. It may well be that the Welsh Assembly Government may be able to bridge the funding gap caused by the loss of New Opportunity Fund money, but I cannot help feeling that it is ironic that when there are clear present day needs for investment such as this, the Chancellor is failing to spend the money he has earmarked for children in the most effective way.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

A mystery of timing

You have to hand it to Rhodri Morgan, he knows how to create an impact. Finally sacking Jane Hutt as Health Minister on the first day of the new term was a masterstroke or was it? He had been under such intense pressure from the opposition and his own MPs for so long that the main question on everybody's lips was 'if he was going to give into these demands and not stick loyally with Jane Hutt, then why not do it earlier and save himself and his party a lot of hassle?'

Maybe Rhodri thought that doing it now it would divert attention from Labour's record in the run-up to the General Election and wrong-foot the opposition's preparations for the crucial spring term. Perhaps, he was ordered to do it by the Prime Minister after all. We may never know. However, the one part of the timing that puzzles me is why do it two days before an open cabinet question-time session?

There is certainly no better way to derail a public question time than to sack one of the Ministers involved just before, expecially when that meeting is taking place in her constituency. Rather ironically the Welsh Assembly Government has already forked out thousands of pounds of public money advertising this session in full colour in several newspapers. Included in that advert was a photograph of the whole Cabinet, poised to deal with the questions that the public were preparing to throw their way. The problem is that one of those pictured Cabinet Members, former Business Manager, Karen Sinclair, is no longer a member of the cast. So much for forward planning!

Computer abuse

It is possible that some of you reading this blog may not want others to find out that you are doing so. I understand that. Looking at it at work therefore can be a risky occupation. Fear not, a new toy is being marketed that will spare your blushes - a rear view mirror for computers. This device, found courtesy of the Western Mail, enables you to see who is approaching from behind and safely switch to a more acceptable blog such as those of Leighton Andrews or David Davies, before you are discovered. Retailing at less than a fiver, it is a bargain at the price.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Is Big sister a feminist?

It seems that the question on most people's lips is 'what is Germaine Greer doing in the Big Brother house?' OK, that may be an exaggeration but it is certainly a talking point amongst the chattering classes, many of whom had idolised her for her intellect and her achievements as a feminist.

Apparently, her lecture on 16th Century poetry at the Hay Festival a few years ago is legendary as are, of course, her many written works, particularly 'The Female Eunuch'. I cannot say that I have read any of her books but I did go to one of her question and answer sessions at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea a couple of years ago.

I was impressed by her passion and her grasp of issues. Here was a campaigner who is prepared to put herself on the frontline to change the World for the better, not least in the way she used her fame to get access to the top executives of Nestlé. The other thing that struck me however, was her sense of mischief and her apparent willingness to confound expectations of her either to make a point or just for the sake of it. She is not a person who is comfortable on pedestals and anybody who puts her on one is, in my view, seriously misjudging her.

In that sense I am not surprised at all that she is in the Big Brother house. She is providing a much-needed counterpoint to people like John McCririck and contributing positively to some very watchable television. I hope that she wins it.

Little Wales?

Congratulations to Dai Lloyd Evans, the Leader of Ceredigion County Council. He has turned a negative into a positive for his area by inviting Matt Lucas and David Williams of 'Little Britain' fame to Llanddewi Brefi to unveil replacement road signs. The original signs were stolen last month by souvenir hunters seeking to cash in on the new-found fame of the village, which features in the cult show. What better way to underline Ceredigion's new cult status?

Tsunami relief

Congratulations to the organisers of the tsunami relief concert at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium. It now looks as if this will be a sell-out. There is however, a fly in the ointment and in posting this there is a danger that I may start to sound like David Davies. If that is the case then I apologise in advance and state in mitigation that I do sit next to him in the chamber and have to be on constant alert not to let his approach to politics rub off on me. Nevertheless the news that tickets to this relief concert may have fallen into the hands of touts, who would then seek to make personal profit from them, does make my blood boil. Frankly, I hope that the Police lock them up and throw away the key.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

St. David's Day

The Sunday Times reports that New Labour drawing up plans for an extra bank holiday as part of a manifesto strategy to help improve the work-life balance. They believe that the best time for the new holiday would be in the autumn to break the “slog” between the end of summer and Christmas when there are 117 days between the last August bank holiday and the festive break. Dates that would imbue it with a historical significance would be Trafalgar Day on October 21 and Armistice Day on November 11.

If this is the case then Labour actually have an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to devolution. If, instead of imposing one uniform bank holiday on the whole of the United Kingdom, they allow the devolved nations to choose which day it applies to in their own area, they will have solved two issues with one measure. It would mean that Wales could choose to declare St. David's Day a bank holiday, whilst England opt for other dates of significance to them.

There has been all-party support for St. David's Day to become a public holiday in the Welsh Assembly but every attempt to implement this measure has been vetoed by the UK Government. Now is the time for change of heart on their part.

Fear of Flying

I have to admit that I did not watch Jerry Springer - The Opera last night. That is not because I disapproved (I didn't - I was indifferent!) but rather because I exercised my right to choose and went to the cinema to see The Aviator instead.

It does seem to me that this was the right response of anybody who might have objected to the content of the show. I have said before on this blog "The other side of religious freedom..... is freedom of speech. If people have the right to worship without persecution or restriction, as they should do, then they must accept that other people have an equal right to comment on their beliefs and even cause offence if that is their wish."

I do not accept the argument that the BBC should play it safe and always keep on 'the right side of decency' with an endless parade of 'family shows'. Its duty is to entertain, to inform and to accommodate minority interests. That is why they have a watershed. That is why there are remote controls, off-buttons and alternative venues for entertainment such as cinema. Those who were protesting against this show had no wish to watch it. That is fine. But it does not give them the right to stop others seeing it.

Of course I accept that they have a right to protest and it seems that many thousands did so. The exact numbers of protests however seem as elusive as the number of swearwords in the show. In his blog, Nick Barlow draws attention to the fact that all e-mails to the BBC, whether for or against, seem to have been classified as protests. So even in the midst of the storm created by the screening of this show, the truth appears to have been a major casualty.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Party of Wales legislate for England

Plaid Cymru, the self-styled 'Party of Wales' published their housing policies yesterday. Most of them seemed possible, though they were uncosted and many were in need of refinement. However, the suggestion that caused me to stop in my tracks was the one on home-ownership. Plaid is proposing to abolish the 50% discount on Council tax enjoyed by owners of second homes.

Now this seems all fair and reasonable until one realises that in Wales Councils already have the discretion to charge the full Council Tax on second homes. It is only in England that this discretion does not exist. So effectively Plaid Cymru, the Party of Wales are legislating for England. It is a new definition of Welsh nationalism I know, but if it makes them happy then who I am I to argue?

Friday, January 07, 2005

Swansea - a City to be proud of

It occurred to me the other day that most of the photographs I put on this blog are of Cardiff Bay. Cardiff is a splendid City but it is not a patch on Swansea, which after all has a real bay not an enclosed river inlet masquerading as one. This view is looking out from the Members' Room in County Hall towards Mumbles. The large tower is the clock tower of the Guildhall, whilst the University can just be made out in the distance behind the tallest tree.

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Rolling Stone gathers moss

The views of Nick Bourne on a grand coalition reported here yesterday appear to be assuming a life of their own. Plaid Cymru's Deputy Leader, Rhodri Glyn Thomas, this morning was in one of those 'rule nothing in, rule nothing out' moods: "Until now my views about the idea of a grand coalition have been quite negative, although I think Nick's views deserve very serious consideration."

His former boss, Dafydd Wigley, used the luxury of speaking from the sidelines to be even more forthright: "There comes a point when those of us who believe Labour is running Wales badly have to decide whether to let them carry on or whether we should talk about cooperating with each other to offer something better."

Well yes, but what does all this talk add up to? At the moment it is a space filler until the real politics starts next week. I remain a sceptic.

Where has Ieuan Wyn Jones gone?

No, it is not me who is asking but his Assembly group. It seems that the Plaid Cymru Leader has shot off to Pakistan on a working trip but has forgotten to tell his own AMs. I am not quite sure why they should know but clearly it is important to them to keep track of their leader in case he is up to anything behind their backs. The Western Mail this morning reports an 'unhappy' Rhodri Glyn Thomas, their Deputy Leader, as saying "I gather he is in Pakistan, but I haven't spoken to him since before Christmas."

Thursday, January 06, 2005

New Year surprises

The thing that really attracts me to politics is that every now and again events take a turn for the unexpected and the whole landscape starts to change. Thus the announcement by Welsh Conservative Leader, Nick Bourne, that he is after all in favour of full law-making powers for the Assembly was a welcome surprise. More interestingly it leaves the Wales Labour Party out on a limb. It now appears that three of the four major Welsh Parties want the Assembly to have these powers whilst the so-called party of the left, who we are told over and over again, delivered devolution for Wales, are back-tracking violently and are now advocating an unworkable compromise.

The other surprise buried in Mr. Bourne's announcement is his apparent conversion to coalition politics. Up until now the Tories have been adamant that they would not work as part of a coalition government with any other party. Today however, Nick Bourne is saying: "What concerns me very much is the need for there to be genuine competition in future Assembly elections, with the real possibility of an alternative government. One party rule at whatever level leads to stagnation and it is very important that the people of Wales have an opportunity of electing an administration that is alternative to Labour.

I am very hopeful that in 2007 we will be able to increase our representation in the Assembly, but it is unrealistic to expect us to win an overall majority. In these circumstances, we and other non-Labour parties should be prepared to be pragmatic and work with others to achieve an agreed programme. All the opposition parties already have common concerns, including the dire state of the health service.

The pure nationalism of Gwynfor Evans or the pure Conservatism of a Conservative thinker are not strictly relevant when considering what needs to be done. If we agree the current Labour administration is doing a lot of harm, surely it is our responsibility to put our differences aside and work together for the good of Wales."

This is earth-shattering stuff and must surely open up the possibility of a grand coalition of the opposition parties to oust Labour during this Assembly term. I still believe that there are a huge number of obstacles in its way, not least the difficulties of agreeing a common platform, and I am not one of its advocates, but one of the main barriers has been lifted with this statement from Nick Bourne.

This raises other questions, such as what is really going on behind the scenes? I have not been party to any discussions and when I have asked I have been told that there are none on-going with this aim in mind. Opposition parties are talking to each other about how to oppose the Government effectively but I am told that this is as far as it goes. Taking those assurances on face value I have concluded that this talk of a grand coalition has been sourced in a mixture of gossip, speculation and spin on the part of a number of interested individuals. The chances are that this is still the case but the stakes have now been raised considerably. How the situation develops from here is anybody's guess.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

And then there were three

Honestly, one AM starts a blog and suddenly they are all at it. Leighton Andrews has now officially launched his blog making it three of us in all. All we need now is a Plaid Cymru AM to join in and we will have a complete set.

The cost of your home

As the property boom is comes to an end home owners everywhere are nervously watching the property pages to see how their investment is faring. Neighbours are talking about the cost of property in their street and how much Mrs. Bloggs got for her home when she sold it a few weeks ago. Estate Agents' windows are being scrutinised for a clue as to whether to sell up or sit out the inevitable slump.

In a way it is a pity that all this gossip and inaccurate speculation can be dispensed with. For some streets it provided a sort of glue that kept community spirit together. Now, however, some kiljoy has gone and started a website that will give you all the information you need, when you need it, to see how your home is faring in the value-stakes.

myhouseprice.com uses information bought from the Land Registry to enable you to monitor sales in your neighbourhood and, if you wish, you can pay a £1 to find out the selling price for any and each property you choose. I wish I had thought of it.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

A sad tail!

By far the saddest tale to emerge from the documents released today under the Freedom of Information Act is that of the Home Office cat, Peter. On 3 June 1929 a Treasury Official authorised the office keeper at the Home Office "to spend 1d a day from his petty cash towards the maintenance of an efficient office cat." In April 1932 the allowance was upped to 1s 6d a week.

By 1946, the official Home Office cat, now named Peter, had reached the age of 17 and memos were flying around questioning whether he could still catch mice and rats. One asked, "Our Treasury approval is for 'an efficient cat'. Are you able to certify that he is still efficient?" Despite assurances it was decided that he had outlived his usefulness and the heartless bastards put him to sleep at Home Office expense.

It is clear that the age of mass communication had not yet arrived. One has only to look at the fuss that was caused when Cherie Blair retired the Downing Street cat to see that putting down a perfectly healthy cat would be political suicide in today's climate. This is evidenced further by a later Home Office cat, a manx known as Peta.

Because her predecessor had featured on the Tonight programme in 1958 these cats had become public property. When staff complained she was not toilet trained and lazy and suggested she might be "put out to grass", a memo was issued ordering she must remain. The memo said that her appointment had been so public that she had gained "diplomatic status" and letting her go could result in adverse publicity. Peta later retired to the country home of a member of staff.

A reader gets in touch

At least one person is reading this blog. After my piece on Owen John Thomas and the Welsh Language Board yesterday the BBC got in touch. Their Welsh language current affairs programme Maniffesto is doing a piece on Sunday on the issue and wanted an interview. The theme was something along the line of "should Owen John be trusted to do any more interview panels?" Fortunately, for me they were prepared to take my contribution in English.

Another AM hits the blogosphere

The race to become the second AM blogger has been won by David Davies, the Tory Assembly Member for Monmouthshire and possible future MP for that area. In his first post on Wednesday 22 December he says that "I was inspired by Peter Black the affable Liberal Democrat Assembly Member who I have the pleasure of sitting next to in the Assembly debating chamber. Peter regularly uses his column to denounce my speeches and suggested that this might be a useful way of getting my own back!" This can only be good for the democratic process.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Those First Minister blues

What is Rhodri Morgan rambling on about? In an interview with the Western Mail this morning he has mooted the possibility that he could be removed from office by opposition AMs during 2005.

In suggesting that Labour could lose its majority at Cardiff Bay and that the opposition parties could combine to oust him, Rhodri is playing to a groundless rumour so as to keep his own AMs in line. These whisperings have largely been fuelled by the media because it is in their interests to create a bit of controversy, a talking-point, to maintain their audience figures. I am not aware of any substance to this speculation nor of any possibility that it could be deliverable either.

The flaw to Rhodri's argument of course is in his mathematics. Yes, there is the possibility that he could lose his majority if Peter Law stands as an Independent in Blaenau Gwent, but there is at least one opposition AM on maternity leave, substantial evidence that the three opposition parties do not have the discipline to drive home their advantage on a regular basis, and the possibility that one opposition Tory AM could become an MP and add irregular attendance to the arithmetic. There is also the fact that to oust the First Minister the Presiding Officer and his Deputy would need to resign and join in the voting. The likelihood of this happening is remote in my view. There has been no indication that they would both act in concert in this way.

Finally, the evidence of the First Assembly is that, undesirable as it is to be running a minority government, it is possible if you are prepared to be inclusive and work across parties to achieve a consensus. I suspect that it is the desire to avoid this scenario that is driving the First Minister to rally his troops by using these scare tactics. Since they have secured a majority Labour have reverted to type and abandoned any attempt at inclusivity and consensus. It would really hurt them to have step back into democratic mode now.

Storm in a teacup overflows again

So, after four months of muted controversy and a great deal of manufactured outrage on both sides, the controversy over the appointment of the new Chair of the Welsh Language Board reaches a conclusion of sorts. Dame Rennie Fritchie, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, has adjudicated on the row, concluding that there were "administrative difficulties and shortfalls" in the appointment process.

To recap, Meri Huws - a Labour Party member and former lover of Economic Development Minister Andrew Davies (as the Western Mail so coyly puts it) - was appointed Chair after going through the appointment process. "Plaid Cymru's Shadow Culture Minister Owen John Thomas, who sat on a panel that interviewed five shortlisted candidates, accused Culture Minister Alun Pugh, who also sat on the panel, of insisting on the appointment of Ms Huws, even though she received 71.5 points from the panel against 79 for another candidate. Mr Thomas also alleged that Mr Pugh had made written observations only about his favoured candidate, who was interviewed first, writing down nothing about the rest."

In her adjudication Dame Rennie cleared the Culture Minister of misconduct but concluded that he had not followed the proper procedure. She was also critical of Alun Pugh for bringing forward the announcement of Ms Huws's appointment to the week of the National Eisteddfod. However, she reserved her harshest criticism for those who had put the matter into the public domain - "I am very disappointed that highly confidential information, such as candidate names and other personal information, panel marking details, and the names of individual panel members including the Independent Assessor were released to the public via newspapers. This is a clear breach of the Code of Practice."

Despite the assertions of Owen John Thomas this report is far from a "whitewash". He is trying to save face but in doing so he is making himself look ridiculous. He is arguing about process when the issue for him is more substantive than that. He has compromised his own position of trust in pursuing the matter in the way that he has.

Although the whole row was a storm in a teacup, the bitterness surrounding it has its roots in a more fundamental disgreement. As I commented on 24 August 2004, the battle that is being fought here is over who has the moral right to oversee the Welsh Language. Many members of Plaid Cymru, "the Party of Wales", believe that it is their god-given right to determine the future of "the language", they cannot allow any other party to appropriate that role or their whole raison d'etre will disappear. To put a Labour Party member as the head of the Quango responsible is sacrilege as far as they are concerned. Is it any wonder that they are unhappy?

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