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Thursday, March 31, 2005

Candid Gavin

The Western Mail this morning finally caught up with the rest of us with the revelation that the camera phone is revolutionising the art of stalking celebrities. In a piece that talked about Welsh Rugby hero Gavin Henson, which does not appear to be on-line, they waxed lyrically about "phone-carrying members of the public moonlighting as paparazzi photographers."

What, with the growth of internet, blogs, and now camera phones, newspapers will soon be obsolete!

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

How to win friends and influence people

When the Vice Chancellor of Swansea University announced the closure of five departments in January 2004 there were massive protests. Many people objected to the loss of Sociology, Anthropology, the Centre for Development Studies, Philosophy and Chemistry. I joined in by making my objections known.

As a result the University Visitor was asked to carry out an independent review of the proposals. That investigation is still on-going and has understandably produced some frustration amongst the senior management team. The petition to the Visitor drew heavily upon the expertise and work of two Philosophy lecturers, Colwyn Williamson and Mike Cohen.

Now the Western Mail reports that Colwyn Williamson has been suspended. He has been denied access to his university email account and banned from campus. The ban follows a police investigation into allegations about 'hacking' into computers at the campus, made over a year ago. Police raided Mr. Williamson’s home at 7.30am on St David's Day. They took away equipment including CDs belonging to his 12-year-old daughter. Later the police agreed to take no further action after he agreed to a caution. This is a long-standing matter and is unrelated to the dispute, however I understand that other matters are being brought into the disciplinary investigation that may extend the period of suspension.

Earlier this month, Cefin Hayward, a member of Swansea's Student Action Committee Against Closures, was summoned to a police station. He was interviewed regarding a complaint under the Harassment Act of 1997 relating to posters he had allegedly placed on the campus depicting the vice-chancellor with a pointed or elongated head. He was released without any charge with a warning about future behaviour in relation to posters.

A number of students protested against the suspension of Colwyn Williamson outside a recent Senate meeting. Their presence was considered to be intimidatory and the meeting was abandoned. In the confusion that followed the announcement by the Vice Chancellor that the Senate meeting was to be terminated prematurely, a student member allegedly expressed his dissatisfaction with the decision in robust terms. He has now been charged with an internal university disciplinary offence.

There is a pattern here that brings into question the commitment of a major educational institution, supposedly the home of academic freedom, to the fundamental right to protest and to express dissent. A series of disciplinary measures and complaints to the Police against protestors does not create a good image for the College, no matter what the justification. This is not the way to win friends and influence people.

Update: According to this site the Vice Chancellor has now threatened 'discipline/dismissal' against the Treasurer of the AUT. Astonishing!

Back of an envelope bonfire

Critics have often alleged that the First Minister devises his policies on the back of an envelope and in terms of the costing and implementation of the Labour Party's Assembly manifesto that is how it often appears. It came as no surprise therefore, to learn this morning that when Rhodri Morgan announced his own bonfire of the quangos last summer, he had no idea of the cost.

Describing the changes as 'major reforms', Mr Morgan said, 'The landscape of the public sector will be fundamentally changed ... The people of Wales will be able to see that quango-land is starting to come to an end.' He added, 'It will enable us to merge back office functions, IT systems and procurement and get improved value for money.'

The problem is that although his instincts may have told Rhodri that this was the case the work had not yet been done to say with any certainty that he was right. It is doubtful that even today, the full cost of the merger of the WDA, ELWa and the Wales Tourist Board into the Assembly Government is known. So much for evidence-based government.

A curious award

The Western Mail reports this morning that the Wales Millennium Centre has won a prestigious design award at the property industry's premier international conference in Cannes.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am no great fan of the design of this giant mollusc that has been planted outside my office window. However, nobody can take away from the building the fact that it is an iconic structure or that it has made a substantial impact on the Cardiff Bay. Equally, the interior is both spectacular and beautiful in its design and its appearance.

The architect is quoted as saying that:

"What I like about the design is that there's always something that attracts your interest and curiosity and there are also some deliberate kind of illusions such as the slate stone work at the front of the building which I tried to pass off as a natural cliff face.

"A lot of modern buildings start to look tired after a couple of weeks but this is designed to last a long time, and as it gets older it will look better."

Whereas I can agree that the building is 'interesting' and can heartily congratulate him for winning the award, and whereas I am pleased that Wales is receiving recognition internationally, I cannot so far envisage the building growing on me in quite the way he suggests.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Tory party becomes a lawyer's paradise

Whilst Howard Flight resorts to his lawyers so as to try and block Michael Howard's attempt to ditch him, news comes through that Conservative Central Office is now also on a collision course with the local party in Slough as it seeks to ditch the town's second Tory PPC in less than three months. The BBC reports tonight that:

Mr Howard has suspended Slough's constituency Conservative association for refusing to deselect its candidate.

Adrian Hilton had suggested the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, under John Major's government, was an act of treason.

Slough Conservative Association has now been placed on "support status" and is being run from Conservative campaign headquarters, says a senior party spokesman.

Mr Hilton on Tuesday said he was considering taking legal action.

It is worth recalling of course that Mr. Hilton's predecessor as PPC was also removed after intervention from Central Office. Robert Oulds was dismissed earlier this year after he was pictured on the internet with a range of guns, rifles and a hunting knife. I do not know whether Mr Oulds is still a Councillor in Chiswick but I note that he too reacted to his sacking by consuting lawyers.

Mr. Howard may not agree with Sir John Betjeman's views on Slough but he is certainly doing a good job of bringing friendly bombs down upon his own electoral prospects.

Music to campaign by

John Harris' piece in today's Guardian is a wonderfully wry look at how political parties utilise popular music to set the tone of their campaign.

I have been racking my brain to remember the music used by the SDP in the 1980s to herald the arrival of their cavalcades during by-elections. I suspect that it was "Fanfare for the common man" but no doubt I will be corrected. Either way it created an atmosphere of excitement at open air events that has rarely been matched in my experience. Those were the days when the mould of British politics was going to broken by a brash new party that did not play by the old rules - except that they did and the mould proved much tougher than they could have imagined.

I did enjoy the passage about William Hague and his failure to check the lyrics of "Man next door":

September 2000, for example, saw the reliably accident-prone William Hague taking the stage at a Conservative event to the strains of Massive Attack's Man Next Door. It was an odd choice: an unsettling evocation of domestic discord which hardly did Hague any favours. "Here is a man that live next door. in my neighbourhood," went its lyric, "And he gets me down... He gets in so late at night/ Always a fuss and fight."

Equally, I am suitably embarrassed by my party's choice of a song by Boyzone's Stephen Gately in 2001. New Labour's embracing of 'Beautiful Day', formerly the theme song for the John Kerry Presidential campaign is interesting. It's declaration that "You're out of luck... The traffic is stuck/ And you're not moving anywhere." proved prophetic for Kerry. Will it also apply to Labour in 2005?

Monday, March 28, 2005

"Vote early, vote often"

It seems that the old maxim of "vote early, vote often" may be making a comeback if fears aroused by today's Guardian's report are realised.

The paper records that a 'survey of 55 councils covering 135 constituencies reveals applications to vote by post have risen in all cases, tripling in some places, particularly in inner cities. The increase comes as demand grows for urgent changes in the postal-voting system, last week labelled by a judge as "an open invitation to fraud". There is an ongoing court case, and police are investigating fraud in six areas of the country.'

The article continues by stating that 'areas where allegations of postal-voting fraud have been made in the past - the "hot spots", according to one local government official - increases in applications to vote by post are among the highest.

In Birmingham's 11 constituencies, more than 53,000 people have asked to vote by post, compared with 16,000 at the last election.

In Woking, where police have begun an investigation into allegations of postal-voting fraud at June's local elections, 15,000 electors are asking to vote by post, compared with 2,356 in the last election.'

I have written on a number of occasions about my concern regarding the Government's postal voting experiments and the fact that they have disregarded warnings on the security of the ballot in pursuing their agenda. I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that there is a real danger that the General Election could degenerate into a farce of Florida 2000 proportions unless measures are put into place quickly. I am fully in agreement with Lord Greaves of Pendle that international observers may be required to ensure fair play.

This second article sets out examples of what could happen over the next six weeks:

'One of the most remarkable allegations has been the claim that Labour candidates were running a "vote-forging factory" in a warehouse in Witton. Mr Mawrey heard that police raided the disused building at midnight on the eve of last summer's elections and found Labour officials sorting through 275 unsealed postal ballot papers. Mr Afzal denies being there. Mr Islam and Mr Kazi admit they were present, but say they were checking the documents to make sure they had been filled in correctly before submitting them. Police confiscated the papers but handed them in to the council, and they were included in the final count which gave Labour the election. The returning officer, Lin Homer, said she accepted the votes because she saw no evidence that they had been tampered with, leading Mr Mawrey to tell the hearing that her powers were "nil".

He said: "If something seems wrong with the postal ballot papers you have no powers or resources to ferret around to see if the votes are legitimate. You also have no way of verifying the signatures of the witnesses who sign the ballot papers."

He also noted that police had little experience in investigating electoral fraud.'

Birmingham Councillor, John Hemming, has a lot more about his City's problems on his blog, but the idea that the returning officer has effectively "nil" powers to intervene and that the police have little experience in investigating electoral fraud is very disturbing.

I would argue that there is a case for the Electoral Commission to be given an investigatory role, except that all the evidence is that they know very little about elections as well. Clearly, if the Police hire accountants to help them investigate fraud and money-laundering then they should also recruit experts to assist them in dealing with allegations of electoral fraud as well. To do otherwise will undermine our confidence in an already-flawed electoral process.

It is the cat's whiskers

For those of us who are cat lovers the news that scientists are a 'whisker away from a cat allergy cure' is welcome. Even cat enthusiasts can suffer from this malady. Worse, if you own a cat, you can be limited in who you welcome back to your home.

My one doubt is over the methods used to achieve this breakthrough. The Guardian reports that:

'Andrew Saxon, of the University of California in Los Angeles, injected mice - genetically engineered to be allergic to cats - with a newly developed part-cat, part-human protein. Within a month, the mice were cured of the allergy.'

Surely it is healthy for mice to be allergic to cats! Having engineered them that way, wouldn't it have been better to leave them in that state?

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Another major problem for the Tories

The Wales on Sunday reports today that 'another maverick ex-Tory is to stand against the party in Wales, this time in a seat the Conservatives desperately need to win. Former Major Jimmy James, who unsuccessfully fought the Clwyd West seat for the Conservatives in 2001, is standing as an independent after failing to get the nomination this time.'

Commenting on his decision Major James said "Many political parties have lost the plot. They've stopped doing what people want and started doing what they think is a good idea. What I want to do is what the people in Clwyd West want to do."

Well that is clear!

Major Major and Catch 22

In his wonderful novel, Catch 22, Joseph Heller created a character called Major Major -

'absurdly named by his joking father, is promoted to the rank of major by an IBM computer glitch. All Major Major desires is acceptance and companionship, yet he is continually ostracized in cadet school. He is excluded from squadron basketball games, and disliked by fellow officers due to his speedy promotion and his resemblance to actor Henry Fonda. Promoted prematurely to squadron commander, Major Major Major has no idea what he is expected to do. Bored and depressed, he begins signing "Washington Irving" on official documents after two strange C.I.D. men question him regarding the forging incidents at the hospital. Major Major Major becomes reclusive and instructs his assistant, Sergeant Towser, to admit visitors only when Major Major is out of his office. Major Major no longer takes meals in the mess hall and he jumps out the window of his tent to avoid his office workers and visitors.'

Is this what it is like to be Welsh Conservative candidate?

Rules of war

The Wales on Sunday this morning reports that the father of a Red Cap soldier who died in Iraq has blasted "hypocritical" Tories for fielding the face of war against him in the General Election. It appears that the Tory candidate for Sedgefield, where Reginal Keys plans to stand as an anti-war independent, is a Group Captain who previously made his mark as the official military spokesperson during the Iraq war.

The paper argues that the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats had originally planned to pull out of the contest in the Prime Minister's constituency to give Mr. Keys a clear run. I am not sure if this was ever the case. Certainly, there would be nothing to gain for the Liberal Democrats in doing this when one of our top ten campaigning points involves opposition to Bush and Blair on Iraq and we are promoting ourselves across the UK. Quite why Mr. Keys expected the Tories to pull out defeats me. Their position on the war faced several ways at once and left them with no credibility on the issue whatsoever. Why should this change now?

People need to understand that the 'clear-run' election of Martin Bell in Tatton in 1997 was an exceptional event. It is unlikely to be repeated too often in my political lifetime, if at all. By all means, if you have a point of view and want to promote it, seek election in a high profile seat. But in doing so you must expect that other people will want to contest that election as well and you cannot expect to be the only alternative. Voters need to have proper choices not gerrymandered ones.

Tories put their foot in it

It has not been a good weekend for the Tories. The resignation and ostracisation of Howard Flight has both split the Conservative Party asunder and exposed the fragility of their sums and their disingenuity with regards to public spending.

Things were not going well for the Tories anyway on their pledge to axe £35 billion from Labour's plans to increase public spending. The Secretary of State for Wales joined with the soon to be ex-Labour MP for Cardiff Central on Friday to highlight the fact that these cuts would mean £2 billion less for the Welsh Assembly.

It is worth pointing out of course that contrary to Mr. Hain's assertion that Tory plans could lead to "£2 billion of cuts for Wales", what they would actually amount to is £2 billion less growth in the Welsh budget and then only if they impact on the UK expenditure groups that produce a 'Barnett dividend' for Wales, that is spending on services in England which the Welsh Assembly has responsibility for. Thus £10 million extra on education in England gives the Assembly an extra £590,000, whereas £100 million on defence has no effect on the Welsh budget whatsoever. Still, why let the facts get in the way of a good and very valid rant.

The Tories in Wales are putting their foot in it in other ways as well. Their inane poster campaign has already been commented on elsewhere in the blogosphere, now it seems that they have been less than tactful in their choice of sites. A poster demanding "how hard is it to keep a hospital clean?" has been placed outside the Royal Gwent Hospital in Newport, angering workers and the local NHS Trust. The Royal Gwent Hospital has one of the better records on MRSA infections in the UK. Their average for infection rates is 76 cases per millon bed days compared to the Welsh average of 113 cases and the English average of 170.

Obviously, the Conservatives are going through one of those accident-prone phases where nothing goes right. Long may it continue.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Easter break

I do not think that I have failed to post at least once each day since switching to blogger. That record was bound to fall sometime and this is the time.

I am about to leave on a short Easter break to the very beautiful town of Laugharne, home of Dylan Thomas and Neil Morrissey. For some reason I have been banned from taking my laptop with me so postings will be light for the next few days.

I would suggest that they set up an internet cafe in the boathouse but this would be rightly condemned as spoiling a valuable part of our heritage. Besides Laugharne's main priority for the time being must be to get its internet presence sorted out so as to encourage others to sample its charms.

Food for thought

Nobody can pretend that school meals are the most nutritious event of our lives but there are worse culinary experiences and many of them occur at home or in restaurants where we pay good money to eat food with an indifferent nutritional value. Most of us are able to relate horror stories from when we were at school, whether it is the tabioca pudding or the meat pie dripping with grease and goodness knows what else. Not that many of us however, can claim to have gone into a school in the last year and eaten such a meal. Jamie Oliver's programme, therefore, was both a public service and an easy hit.

What has surprised me a little is the reaction of Welsh parents to Jamie Oliver's narrative of culinary disaster in a London Borough. Welsh Councils have done more than most to improve the nutritional quality of their meals and although there is some way to go, the experience in schools here is far better than that in Jamie Oliver's London. The operational manager for catering services in Cardiff sums it up when she says "Here in Cardiff we already provide healthy, high-quality meals and we are very proud of it. Free fruit is on offer and chips are only served once a week - beef burgers are still offered but they are made with organic meat and processed foods, and "shapes" are being phased out."

In many cases, withdrawing your child from school dinners and giving them sandwiches instead, actually worsens their diet. In fact part of the problem of youthful obesity lies in the poor diet provided to children at home as well as a general lack of exercise. As Professor Kevin Morgan, director of Cardiff University's Regeneration Institute, who has done extensive research into school meals, says, this is "a perverse and disastrous" reaction. He goes on "It would appear that parents have become shocked at the appalling levels of processed foods in school meals but, perversely, by preventing their children from having school dinners and giving them a lunch box instead, they are giving them meals that are just as bad and, in some cases, worse."

Professor Morgan concludes, "If the Jamie Oliver effect is to outlast the television series and be more positive and benign then we will have to see real resources going into school meals and see some real training opportunities in healthy eating on the part of the cooks and infrastructure changes to help school cooks engage in cooking from scratch." He is right of course. In the meantime, before withdrawing your child from school meals ask to try one and then, if you are still not satisfied, ensure that the alternative that you provide is more nutritious.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Anti-social MPs

The usually sedate Welsh Affairs Committee appears to have given the Secretary of State for Wales a bloody nose. As this article in the Western Mail makes clear Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain, has in the past urged Wales' four forces to use more Asbos (Anti Social Behaviour Orders) in the fight against petty crime and yobbish behaviour. However, the Labour dominated Committee has now branded the Government's flagship measure to tackle anti-social behaviour a "crude" tool and urged Ministers not to "discriminate" against Welsh forces, who rarely use it.

Martyn Jones, who chairs the Committee, even ventured some criticism of Mr. Hain: 'Asked if Mr Hain had been wrong in his call for greater use of orders, Mr Jones said, "With hindsight you could say he was wrong"' This whole episode could well undermine Wales Labour's efforts to fight the General Election by branding everybody else as soft on crime.

It is not unusual!

Well, this is getting interesting. Suddenly my blog has become the venue for a comments war between Leighton Andrews AM and the former IT Manager of the National Library of Wales. To add to this the number of hits on this site has doubled as people come and see for themselves following it being shortlisted for the Guardian Backbencher's Political Awards.

Talking of the National Library of Wales, I note that Tom Jones will be celebrating his 65th Birthday with a concert in his home town in front of 25,000 people. The link between Tom and the National Library is the 100 Welsh Heroes Poll. Mr. Jones was my choice in that poll and I understand that before the database was allegedly changed to enable Aneurin Bevan to win, it was Tom who was in the lead.

Tom Jones will be singing at the end of May in Ynysangharad Park, Pontypridd and already it is sold out. A true case of the "green, green grass of home"!

Wednesday, March 23, 2005


Rather scarily this blog has been shortlisted in the Guardian Backbencher's Political Awards. Competition is stiff and includes fellow Liberal Democrats, Sandra Gidley and Lynne Featherstone. Voting ends midnight on Monday 4th April.

Moral imperatives

Nick Barlow strikes gold twice in one week with a link to a site from the Christian Institute recording their views on how each MP voted on a series of difficult "moral" issues. If I pointed out that the Rev Ian Paisley gets top marks and will clearly be going to heaven whereas the Opus Dei-linked Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly did not, then you may have a good idea of how bizarre this whole exercise is.

Saving the little apple

Was I the only one to find this feature in the Guardian disturbing? There has been a huge amount of debate and discussion about the impact of big corporate companies on food markets, often centring on the buying power of McDonalds. Now it seems that the company is to branch out into apples with a corresponding effect on the small apple grower.

Gary Younge writes 'McDonald's, the company that built its success on fries and burgers, now buys more apples than any restaurant chain in the US. This also gives it enormous power over growers - which could lead to fewer varieties and fewer small producers.

.....The chain's influence could alter for ever the method and scale of production, the varieties of apple produced, and the rights of the thousands of workers who pick them, and not necessarily for the better.

"McDonald's makes a huge impact, not because they are deliberately out to screw the food system, but because they are so massive, and because they demand a uniform product," says Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, a damning critique of the industry.

With 13,700 restaurants in the US, McDonald's is one of the country's biggest employers: roughly one in eight Americans is estimated to have worked for the company at some stage in their lives. It is already the largest buyer of beef, pork and potatoes, and the second-largest buyer of chicken. With volume comes clout: last year, at an apple-marketing conference organised by the US Apple Association, McDonald's director of quality systems announced that if growers wanted to work with the company, they would have to cultivate more of two varieties of apple in particular: cameo and pink lady. Already, the cameo crop in Washington state is 58% larger than it was last year, according to growers in Yakima Valley.'

The market place has always dictated what is grown and of course, agriculture needs to adapt to current trends. However, this sort of buying power will kill variety and choice and hand another key sector to the suits.

Fraud and the potential for fraud

Courtesy of Nick Barlow, a judge has condemned the postal voting system as "an open invitation to fraud". Richard Mawrey QC, who is sitting as election commissioner hearing allegations of fraud during last year's local elections in Birmingham, stated that "If I come to the conclusion that all the respondents in both cases were entirely innocent, I would not neglect to point out the law as it stands is an open invitation to fraud. I could not come to any other conclusion."

I hate to say that we told you so but...

Tuesday, March 22, 2005


The Grand Slam winning Welsh team are already becoming legends. A £300 figure, being made by Pontypridd's World of Groggs, will show both of Wales' captains this season - Gareth Thomas and Michael Owen - proudly holding the Six Nations trophy aloft. This is a traditional way of commemorating a victory of this nature. The rest of the media of course, is more interested in Gavin Henson and Charlotte Church. Maybe, they should become a Grogg couple as well.

Still smiling!

The lessons of the weekend are that if we want to boost the Welsh economy the best way to do so is to win the Grand Slam every year. The Western Mail reports today that 'Rugby fans keen to party spent a whopping £15m on food and booze during a weekend of celebrations. About two million pints were downed in a day as the party stretched into the early hours with 200,000 fans inundating the city centre. And over a million takeaways or sit-down meals were sold to starving supporters over the weekend.'

The feelgood factor from Wales' victory has spread far and wide. If we can spread this sort of investment in the hospitality industry in the same way then we will all be better off.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Rhodri Who?

It comes to something when the Guardian runs a story on its front page about the First Minister being mistaken for a tree. I suppose it underlines the fact that Wales is back in the news.

The Western Mail, of course, used to run a series of political cartoons in which Rhodri Morgan's then untamed mane was portrayed as a tree growing out of his head. Once the spin doctors got to him and he had his hair cut in preparation for his bid for greater things the cartoonist snipped off the foliage and the future First Minister was henceforth drawn with just a tree stump protruding from his head.

Maybe the make-up artist was thinking of those cartoons when she suggested that Mr. Morgan wear green make-up.

Posted by Hello

Sunday, March 20, 2005

The comeback kid?

Meanwhile, rumours abound about the hasty rehabilitation of former Home Secretary, David Blunkett. Having resigned to spend more time pursuing his family it seems that Mr. Blunkett is keen to make a contribution to any post-General Election Labour Cabinet. Whether the colleagues, whom he so comprehensively rubbished in his biography, will be so keen to have him back remains to be seen. Still, they will have plenty to talk about on those all-important cabinet away-days.


It does not do to crow about these things of course because it is so easy to get caught up in confrontational situations oneself. It has been a hard week, you are tired and a neighbour pushes you that little bit too far so you retaliate, not violently, but in a short-tempered frustrated sort of way and before you know it you are before the beak charged with criminal damage. Or, as in this case, you get let off with a caution.

The point is of course that these sorts of reactions are precisely what the Government have termed to be anti-social behaviour. So that when you write articles for your local paper outlining your desire to tackle 'loutish or antisocial behaviour' and the 'responsibility to behave as decent citizens' as Chris Pond did, then you really do reap what you sow.

The question is that when Ministers like Chris Pond supported all those measures to deal with anti-social behaviour did they envisage them applying to people living in refurbished Grade 2 listed 18th-century houses, thought to be worth £750,000?

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Wales 32 Ireland 20

Magnificent! Grand Slam winners after 27 years. A wonderful display from Wales and a truly historic occasion. I am going to stop now and celebrate before I get bogged down in cliches.

Lonely hearts

I have commented before about the way that people use the Freedom of Information Act but this must be unique.

When the Freedom of Information Act came into effect on January 1 it led to a stream of serious requests, from demands for the attorney general's advice on the war to the official papers on Black Wednesday. But what no one had counted on was Angela Wright.

She saw the act as a potential way of advancing her private passion: eligible bachelors in uniform. She knew the act well and preserved her anonymity by applying (as allowed by law) under a pseudonym.

First stop: her local constabulary. She emailed Hampshire police headquarters in Winchester, making her request for information under the name "ilikemeninuniform".

Appropriately sourced at hotmail.co.uk, she asked to be told of "eligible bachelors within Hampshire constabulary between the ages of 35 and 49 and details of their email addresses, salary details and pension values".

You have to give her credit for trying.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Devolution for beginners

Reports in tonights South Wales Evening Post indicate that the Prime Minister does not understand the devolution settlement he imposed on Wales. Could it be too complex for him?

Mr. Blair agreed to go head to head with a selected panel of Evening Post readers, however it was not the comfortable experience that he expected. The paper reports that 'Tony Blair lost his assertiveness and appeared rather uncomfortable last night when he was quizzed over wind farms. On several occasions during the Evening Post Question Time session at a Swansea hotel he sought to wash his hands of responsibility, insisting that the issue of wind farms was a matter for "local decision-makers.""These decisions are being taken by the Assembly now," he said.'

Well, actually, that is not strictly true. If a wind farm generates electricity in excess of 50mw (i.e. most of them) then the planning decision will be taken by the dti. Only if the wind farm is off-shore can the Assembly determine it, and only then if the developer opts for that particular route. The default position is that off-shore wind farms are determined by the dti, as was the one off Rhyl in North Wales. Oh, and yes the Assembly Government is in the process of setting its own renewable energy targets but the responsibility rests with the UK Government and it is they who are dictating the agenda.

Honestly, the things politicians will say to get out of a sticky situation! :-))

No Respect

Those people looking to George Galloway's Party "Respect" to bring some left wing respectability back into politics may be a little disappointed. It seems that when it comes to those pivotal moments of Parliamentary history, when politicians are called upon to stand up and be counted, Respect's sole MP was late.

Not only did George Galloway fail to turn up to the close committee stage vote on the Anti Terrorism Act but he also missed the all-night sitting on Thursday night too, deigning only to turn up for the 4.30pm Friday votes. Does not do to miss one's beauty sleep does it George?

By contrast 52 of the 55 Liberal Democrat MPs were present throughout night, and the other three were paired with Labour loyalists. We also had what our Lords' Whips Office think was our highest ever turnout of Peers for votes on the Bill.

Oh, and where were the four Plaid Cymru MPs whilst this drama was unfolding?

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Liberator revisited

Following my reference on Monday to a piece written by Labour AM, Leighton Andrews, in 1976, there was the first mention of the magazine Liberator in the chamber yesterday:

Michael German: I am grateful. Will the Leighton Andrews who wrote an article in the magazine that I have here tell us about the Government of Wales Act 1998? In the article, you say that Parliament is, at best, the eunuch of capitalism. Is that what you believe? Please tell us, because we would like to know.

Leighton Andrews: I take responsibility for what I have said, even if it was 29 years ago.

I am seeking more such quotes, so if you have any back copies of Liberator or Liberal News please let me know.

Open Warfare

Open Warfare broke out in Plenary yesterday. However, it was not the Government and opposition who were at each other’s throats but members of the Labour group.

The problem centred on a Plaid Cymru amendment calling for a 500 metre exclusion zone around open cast sites. Labour knew that they were likely to lose the vote because the Labour AM for Blaenau Gwent and former Environment Minister, Peter Law, was going to vote for it. As a result the current Environment Minister, Carwyn Jones, was on his feet early on, using his best lawyerly manner to argue that it was out of order. The trouble came when Peter Law intervened:

Peter Law: Further to that point of order, is it not equally daft that we have Ministers, who most people perceive as being paid to think, who—we are told this afternoon—have powers to operate, but who have not used those powers to safeguard and help the communities involved? Therefore, with that in mind, some of us may feel that it may be necessary to use a radical alternative to safeguard those communities for the future.

Carwyn Jones rose—

The Presiding Officer: Order. I will call those who have indicated that they wish to speak on this point of order, but these are debating matters. I certainly have Peter Law’s name down to speak in the debate; he is currently quite high on my list.

Carwyn Jones: Further to that point of order, I take note of your use of the word ‘foolish’ in terms of the description of the amendment. On what Peter said, I am fully aware of my responsibilities as a Minister. My position as Minister will be scrutinised, quite rightly, as will the position of those who held the post before me.

The Presiding Officer: I believe that honour is now satisfied.

Peter Law got his own back later on:

I have heard that a technical advice note on coal is being introduced tomorrow. If we were to measure that TAN on coal on a Richter scale of the confidence that we usually have in the Minister for Environment, Planning and Countryside’s technical advice notes, the result would probably be in minus figures, because we are still waiting to debate TAN 8. That gives a perverse incentive for people to establish wind turbines on mountains in Valleys communities, affecting poor people. I do not have much confidence in TANs. What is the point of a TAN that gives you an opportunity to talk about a buffer zone, if it cannot be retrospective for those people who have been through the system and have been forgotten? That is the point.

This brought a sharp riposte from the Labour AM for Merthyr Tydfil, Huw Lewis:

Huw Lewis: I welcome Plaid Cymru’s support for a 500m opencast buffer zone, albeit that it is rather late in the day—six years late, to be precise, as that is how long I have been consistently calling for a 500m zone around opencast sites in this institution. I say to Peter Law that I still have the correspondence between us that dates back to 1999-2000, when I called upon him as the then-Minister to institute a 500m buffer zone around opencast sites, which he did not do. The people of Merthyr do not need you to ride to the rescue today, Peter; they needed you six years ago.

It cannot be long now before Peter Law declares as an independent Parliamentary candidate in Blaenau Gwent.

New kid on the block

We had a visitor yesterday when Plaid Cymru AM, Leanne Wood returned briefly from maternity leave to help vote through a measure calling for a 500 metre exclusion zone around opencast sites. Her vote swung opinion sufficiently to defeat Labour by 29 to 28 on the issue. The visitor, however, was not Leanne but her six week old daughter, Cerys Amelia, who she brought into the chamber.

It is worth recording that it is unlikely that Leanne would have been able to do this in Westminster. The Western Mail records that "Ms Wood's daughter made very little noise." Clearly, she has not got into the swing of things as Plenary tends to generate quite a lot of noise.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Demob happy

There are two trends that signal that a recess is coming up. Firstly, the diaries fill up and we are all incredibly busy as organisations and individuals seek to talk to us about their issues before we disappear off for a few weeks. Secondly, members get a bit demob happy.

It was a bit like that in the Assembly yesterday. First off was the First Minister with a nod to the pressure that he personally has been under regarding the performance of the Welsh NHS compared with its counterpart in England:

Glyn Davies: Will the First Minister make a statement about increases in non-domestic rates following revaluation? OAQ0293(FM)

The First Minister: I am glad that you are asking this question because it is one of those areas where things are worse in England than in Wales.

The Labour AM for Caerphilly, Jeff Cuthbert, contributed to the atmosphere with a thoughtful speech on CAFCASS:

Jeff Cuthbert: I originally thought that I would have only a short time to speak, so I can either speak slowly or speak briefly; I will speak briefly.

and I could not resist the opportunity to join in:

Peter Black: Unlike Jeff Cuthbert, I am not capable of speaking slowly, so I will just be brief.

The one dampener on the whole proceedings however was the failure of the Chamber computers (again). The Presiding Officer explained:

The Presiding Officer: Before I call the urgent question, I have received messages from a number of Members, including frontbench Members, regarding a defect in the information technology system. This follows the difficulty that we experienced last week when we lost the link to the agenda. I understand that Members are unable to receive messages from their support staff, which means that the Chamber’s work cannot proceed effectively.

I consider this to be a matter of great concern, and I can assure Members that Alun Cairns, as Chair of the House Committee’s information technology sub-group, and I, will pursue this matter with vigour. An appropriate service for what is an electronic Assembly is not being provided at present, and it is important that this is established for the future. I am grateful for the support that I received in the House Committee during recent dicussions on this matter, and I will not let this matter drop until it has been resolved.

Maybe they will have fixed it by the time we come back from the Easter break. More likely we will most probably have to wait for the new chamber in September.

Sheep rustling

Fascinating item on the Minister's report to Social Justice Committee this morning on sheep rustling in rural Wales. Apparently, this is a problem but is not showing up in the crime statistics. The Minister reports that crimes against rural communities are closely interlinked with a 'way of life', particularly in the agricultural sector. I was not entirely clear what she meant by that but she has promised to raise it with the Chief Constables so we will see what transpires.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

A climate of fear

The Guardian reports that one of the casualties of a General Election being called for 5 May is that legislation to introduce I.D. cards will fail for lack of time. This is good. These proposals are part of a general erosion of civil liberties being introduced on a semi-manufactured climate of fear. When the Assembly debated the Queen's speech back in December I set out my views on this state of affairs:

Anybody who has seen Derek Jarman’s film Jubilee will be familiar with its portrayal of a derelict, morally bankrupt, lawless Britain. If you throw in the paranoid State of George Orwell’s 1984, then I believe that you have got a good picture of New Labour’s vision of what Britain is like in 2004.

Although there are clearly problems in many communities around the UK, the caricature created by the measures in this Queen’s speech is not a Britain that I recognise nor is it one that exists in real life. Many of the measures to tackle crime and anti-social behaviour are of course welcome, and, in their own right, will help to marginally improve the quality of people’s lives particularly in urban areas. But we must view them in context – and that is of a society where crime is in fact falling, where prosperity is growing and where people feel more and more comfortable in their communities.

The only conclusion that can be drawn about Labour’s programme therefore is that the nightmare vision it seeks to paint is a deliberate fabrication designed to tap into people’s fears. That in doing so it is seeking to distract people from other issues such as the ill-advised war in Iraq and the growing fog of sleaze gathering around this government, and that it is doing so in an attempt to frighten people into giving Labour a third term.

This campaign of fear and the propaganda of blame and smear associated with it would be a worthy product of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. The deliberate confusion of terrorism and low level nuisance crime is a disgrace, whilst the absence of real reform to empower people rather than to terrify is a sign of a bankrupt and socially irresponsible Government.

Specifically on identity cards I called on the Welsh Assembly Government to follow Scotland and declare that they would not be required to access services:

The Queen’s Speech includes a commitment to introduce ID cards. We oppose this. Compulsory ID cards are unnecessary and intrusive and could infringe peoples’ civil liberties. Most countries with ID card schemes have a written constitution, which guarantees the rights of the citizen against an abusive government. We do not.

The Government has claimed that entitlement cards will help to combat terrorism, fraud and crime. The 9/11 terrorists carried valid ID cards; most benefit fraud involves people who misrepresent their circumstances rather than their identity; and the difficulty in clearing up crime is almost always that the criminals are not caught, rather than not identified.

It is also likely that members of ethnic minority groups will be stopped and asked for their ID cards much more often than white people are. This could lead to a serious deterioration in relations between ethnic minorities and the police and other sections of the community.

To add to this injustice by requiring the ID card to be used to access public services will rapidly lead to a situation whereby the card is voluntary for most of the articulate middle classes and compulsory for those who use public services and/or can’t argue and resist the need for the card. This is one injustice the Welsh Assembly Government can resist and I urge it to do so.

This issue may well return after the General Election. We need to be vigilant and fight hard to defeat any new proposals.


Monday, March 14, 2005

Pop Quiz

The latest issue of Liberator arrived this morning full of interesting little anecdotes. Liberator is an independent liberal magazine, which 'acts as a forum for debate among radical liberals in all parties and none.'

One of the articles has given me ammunition for a quick pop quiz. Which pillar of the Welsh establishment and member of the National Assembly for Wales, wrote in Liberator in 1976 that parliament was "at best the eunuch of capitalism"? Clearly, his more radical days are behind him.

In the meantime if you want a laugh, read the magazine's "Lord Bonkers' Diary" on-line here. I quite enjoyed this passage:

Great excitement in the village this morning when Charles Kennedy visits us on his pre-election tour. When we learn that he is to arrive by aeroplane and be piloted by none other than Lembit Öpik we take a number of precautions: a cross is laid out on the green with white sheets, braziers filled with straw are lighted and the fire brigade stand beside the duck pond with their buckets, ready to form a human chain. All prove unnecessary when Öpik executes a perfect landing in his Sopwith Camel. Removing the battered colander he has taken to wearing on his head, the doughty pilot attributes their slight lateness to “a near miss with an asteroid over Cropwell Bishop” – or “Cröpwell Bishöp” as he insists upon calling it. While Kennedy is taken off for a tour of the Home for Well-Behaved Orphans and a slap up lunch at the Bonkers’ Arms, I have Öpik fly me over the Estate trailing a banner with the legend: “Remember your rents fall due on Lady Day.”

The technician

I had forgotten this story from our weekend Conference but was reminded of it by the Western Mail's coverage this morning. At the rally on Friday night, Jenny Randerson AM, told the assembled members that Mike German's main value to the group was as a technician. At the fortnightly telephone conference meeting with the Westminster Parliamentarians, it is always Mike who ends up fixing the conferencing equipment.

This is largely a self-nominated role and of course, it is not Mike's only value to us. In any case the Assembly's telephone conferencing equipment is knackered and we now hold these meetings using a mobile phone on loudspeaker. Even I can operate this system!

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Speaking to the core vote

Michael Howard's foray into the politics of morality is another phase in the Tory's mirroring of the Bush campaign. First it was asylum seekers, now abortion. With nothing to say on the key issues of education, health and the economy, the Conservatives have settled into a campaign based on motivating their core vote and seeking to win seats through differential turn-out.

Stage managed?

Let nobody accuse the Welsh Liberal Democrats of stage-managing their conferences. Even in this time of spin and focus groups a relaxed, faintly-shambolic air always pervades the occasion, and nobody would have it any other way.

As David Cornock explains, no matter how professional the organisation (and it was very good), there is no way that anybody can plan for the individualism of the average Liberal Democrat conference representative.

As if to underline this independence there was even an attempt to refer back the section of the manifesto on the environment this morning - eight weeks before the likely General Election date!

Saturday, March 12, 2005

"Do not touch with a barge pole"

The Welsh Liberal Democrats Conference spent the day discussing proposals for our General Election manifesto. The media however seemed more interested in talks of a coalition between the three opposition parties. I did four TV interviews in which I put across my view that the philosophical differences between the Welsh Liberal Democrats and the Tories were just too great to make any partnership involving the two parties sustainable at a national level.

The Tories are the party who over a period of 18 years wrecked the Welsh economy, health service and education system. They had no compunction in 2003 of playing the race card a week out from the Assembly elections. Even now, they do not understand devolution and want to dismantle the National Assembly.

If such a proposal came forward I would argue against it within my group and within my party. It seems that I am not alone. The Welsh Party President made clear his opposition in his speech. Such an arrangement should not be touched with a barge pole, he said.

Labour back down on terror bill

The consensus seems to be that Labour blinked first by backing down on the anti-terror bill last night, offering a sunset clause in all but name. For Wales, this means that today's Conference will be very much business as usual, with MPs being available to attend. I can now concentrate on speaking against top-up and tuition fees instead of substituting for Simon Hughes on a photocall. More later.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Love's young dream?

The following is an extract from this week's Guardian Backbencher:


Little did the Backbencher realise when she started celebrating the best in political hotties that she would be bringing love into the hearts of lonely Liberal Democrats. But it seems she is not alone in finding
Jeremy Purvis rather dreamy. Francesca Montemaggi, for one, agrees, having had her employer, Welsh assembly member Peter Black, point out that he is the "man of her dreams". She even refutes the Backbencher's suggestion that Mr Purvis's passion for fiscal federalism is a bit of a turnoff. "That's what makes him attractive," she writes on her weblog, Paswonky.

"Jeremy is young, good-looking and into numbers. A trip to Scotland is badly needed :)" Get on that plane, Francesca - but let the Backbencher know how it goes.

All I did was point out their mutual interest in fiscal federalism. What have I started?

Welsh Conference

The Anti-Terrorism Bill controversy has now hit the Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference. Charles Kennedy has cancelled his appearance at the rally tonight, whilst organisers are anticipating that all of our MPs will be tied up in Westminster on the legislation right up until Sunday night. I have been drafted in as a stand-in for Simon Hughes MP tomorrow, if needed, in a photo-op with the Cardiff graffitti bus. In the meantime everybody is running around like headless chickens re-organising things.

Busy, busy, busy

A busy weekend ahead as the Welsh Liberal Democrats stage their spring conference in Cardiff. To add to the strain I have decided to commute rather than stay over for two nights. Blogging will therefore be light, though I am not expecting it to dry up.

The talking point already, ten and a half hours before proceedings commence, is whether Charles Kennedy will make it in time for the rally and his earlier visit to Aberystwyth. It is possible that he will still be tied up in the ping-pong voting saga around the Anti-Terrorism Bill. I am also told that there may well be an unscheduled fringe meeting to discuss how the Welsh Liberal Democrats should react to Nick Bourne's call for a grand coalition of the opposition parties. We will see whether that meeting materialises or not.

Another topic of conversation may well be Welsh Party Leader, Lembit Opik, and his early day motion in the House of Commons applauding "the winner of the award for weather presenter of the year". Now who could that have been?

Thursday, March 10, 2005

A sedentary lifestyle

I had a pedometer not so long ago. It is recommended that you should do at least 10,000 steps a day. However, even when I did not use the lift I could not get past 5,000 on an Assembly day. Other AMs have commented that they have had the same experience. It is fair to say therefore that Assembly Members have a fairly sedentary lifestyle when in Cardiff Bay. One member who seems to be feeling it more than most is the Conservative, David Melding. Yesterday, he actually stood up to ask the Minister for Health about sitting down:

David Melding: Minister, you are quite right to say that people have lost the skills that they used to have in terms of preparing food. It is the same with exercise. We now sit down for around seven times longer than our ancestors did four or five generations ago. Do you agree that we need community effort to get people back into a regular, effective and lifelong exercise routine?

Where is Jane Fonda when you need her?

When we talk about war, we're really talking about peace

The Guy Fawkes blog highlights this piece about the Nobel Peace Prize. It seems that nominees for the 2004 prize include President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair. Adolf Hitler and former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic have also made it to the list.

Jan Simonsen, a right-wing independent member of Norway's parliament who nominated Bush and Blair shortly after the U.S.-led war toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in April is quoted as saying:

"Even though they haven't found those weapons they got rid of a dictator and made the world more safe. They got rid of a madman."

I am still trying to decide if the piece is satire or not.

No smoke without fire

Yesterday was "No smoking day" and the Welsh Assembly Government marked the occasion by declaring that henceforth all of their buildings will be smoke-free. The one exception to this was the building in Cardiff Bay in which the Assembly holds all its meetings and where we have our offices. This is because that building is managed by the House Committee on behalf of the Assembly Parliamentary Service.

The one concession made by the House Committee was to close its smoking room for the day. Thus, when I popped out of Plenary for five minutes to take some papers back to my office, I observed a gaggle of Assembly Members huddled outside in the cold enjoying a smoke.

The smoking room in the Assembly building is situated next to the Fees Office and not only can the smoke be smelt in the corridor and by the lift, but it can also be smelt in the Fees Office itself. The effects of second hand tobacco smoke and the fact that ventilation is ineffective in removing the most damaging particles is well-documented. We are therefore failing in our duty to protect the health of our staff, visitors and Assembly Members from the pollution generated by this room.

I have argued for some time for the smoking room to be removed and for the building to be completely smoke-free but the powers-that-be have been dragging their heels. They have put in monitoring equipment, they have deferred discussion for further consideration and they have generally prevaricated about making any decision whatsoever. There are other alternatives such as outdoor shelters but so far no costings or concrete proposals have been received.

With the Smoking in Public Places Committee due to report its conclusions in May it must be time to end this embarrasment and close down the Assembly's smoking room as soon as possible. A failure to act may well lead to some awkward questions as to who is delaying this vital health and safety measure and why?

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Those anti-social Assembly Members

Yesterday's Plenary had a distinctly anti-social air to it as members asserted themselves against the monolithic government. First off was Tory AM, David Melding demanding more commitment to public art:

David Melding: First Minister, would you not go further and confirm that Wales has a wonderful tradition of community involvement in art? Look at the work of the late great sculptor, Jonah Jones, for instance, being representative of many of the artists that the nation has produced over the years. When we are talking about substantial regeneration, and the moneys involved, we ought to have, as part of an integral commissioning process, public art being encouraged and developed by the community.

It was left to his colleague, Alun Cairns, however, to really set the tone:

Alun Cairns: Does the First Minister accept that either the Home Office or the police should consider introducing an anti-social behaviour order against some Labour backbench Members, such as Carl Sargeant, who make inflammatory statements in the Chamber, which particularly alienate a small minority of people—

The Presiding Officer: Order. The First Minister has no responsibility for Carl Sargeant, as far as I am aware. However, I ask Alun Cairns to reconsider his statement. Members must not be accused of making inflammatory statements, particularly in the Chamber.

Alun Cairns: Out of respect for you, Mr Llywydd, I am more than happy to reconsider that statement, and I will withdraw it if that would make you happy, in the same way as I had hoped that Carl Sargeant would withdraw his statement about gun-slinging landowners.

Another Conservative. Mark Isherwood, then really stuck the boot in:

Mark Isherwood: I congratulate the Welsh Assembly Government on yet another budget statement that makes up in waste for what it lacks in clarity. We must recall that huge increases in devolved public spending have produced declining public services, despite the dedication and expertise of front-line professionals, because the evidence that they put forward is ignored by these dogmatic, centralising Welsh ministerial commissars.

With Gordon Brown’s black hole hovering over Wales, threatening post-election cuts or unsustainable tax increases if Labour were to be re-elected, we must recall that Brown the Imprudent has consistently got his borrowing, tax and spend forecasts wrong, and that all forecasters tell us that his current spending plans will breach his much-vaunted golden rule. We must take note of the statement in The Economist that Labour’s claims of economic success, which are at the heart of its campaign for the coming general election, are ‘dodgy’, and that Labour is claiming all the credit for reforms introduced by the Conservatives.

After eight years of hard Labour in London, and six years in Cardiff, Wales is now the least prosperous region or nation in the UK, has the poorest basic literacy and numeracy skills of any nation or region in the United Kingdom, and it has seen hospital waiting lists rise to more than one in 10 of the population. The bottom line of this supplementary budget is an increase of £30 million, but, after allowing for a £45 million increase in market support scheme funding for farmers in demand-led funding from the UK Government, it is a cut in real terms, largely because of cross-budget transfers and refunds.

It was one of his better contributions though I have not checked the facts. Mark continued in belligerent mood in the next debate:

Mark Isherwood: As if Brown’s black hole was not enough, Wales is now also saddled with Davidson’s disappearing dosh. If this special education grant is intended to help local authorities and schools drive up standards, as stated, why does it appear to have been cut, as my Liberal Democrat colleague previously mentioned?

....The bottom line is that Mr Blair promised us education, education, education, but Rhodri Morgan saddled us with Davidson, dogma and distortion.

This meddling Minister’s mission to do everything differently in Welsh education is denying our schools and colleges the freedom and resources to deliver for all the young people of Wales. Under this Welsh Assembly Government, the skills and prosperity gap between Wales and the rest of the UK is widening and we now have poorer basic literacy and numeracy than any other nation or region in Britain. We must now replace political correctness with pupil knowledge, and bureaucracy with basic skills. We must teach this Welsh Assembly Government a lesson.

It must be something they put in the water!

BNP platform

The Green Party in Swansea have announced that they will not share a platform with any BNP candidate who stands in the City in the General Election. I fully understand their reasons and their revulsion. However, if we do not confront the misinformed and prejudiced arguments put forward by this party head-on then they will win by default. In a democratic process we cannot rely on people to automatically share our point of view. We have to win the argument.

IRA offer summary justice

The IRA have offered to make amends to the family of murder victim, Robert McCartney, by executing his killers. They just don't get it do they?

Who runs Wales? (a reprise)

Ieuan Wyn Jones yesterday challenged the First Minister to say who was running the Welsh Health Service:

"We have now heard that it is Peter Hain who is in charge of the health service in Wales. Who's in charge, is it Hain or is it Morgan?"

His cry has been taken up by the Western Mail this morning, or was it Ieuan echoing that papers own stories:

Mr Morgan hit back, saying none of Mr Jones's claims was true.

"The number of times I have told you, don't believe everything you read in the Western Mail," he said.

"I often wonder who runs Plaid Cymru health policy, is it Ieuan Wyn Jones or is it the Western Mail? And I strongly suspect, from the evidence of all the questions you have asked, it's obvious it's the Western Mail.

"You're a sandwich-board man hoping to sell papers, unsuccessfully, I rather fear."

To be honest I am getting rather bored of these process issues. It is important that devolution is allowed to run its course and that the Assembly makes the decisions on relevant matters. However, on this issue, can we just stop arguing about who said what and get on with fixing the problem, please?

Tuesday, March 08, 2005


The Western Mail reports this morning that the Welsh Liberal Democrats would consider a coalition with the Tories and Plaid Cymru in the National Assembly for Wales. Or, to be more precise, what the article says is that we have not ruled it out.

Now, I know how this came about. We have a weekly press conference and at that briefing somebody asked whether we would consider working in Government with the other two opposition parties. In response Jenny Randerson pointed out that we work within an electoral system that naturally gravitates towards coalition. She went on:

"If this issue were to arise, it would be something we would think about, because we are a realistic party that knows Wales has to be governed and the best form of government is some sort of majority government, in terms of providing some sort of stability for the Assembly. But it's not something we're looking at at the moment." The party's aim was to deliver as many of its policies as it could," she said. "We will not deviate in any way from that principle."

Strictly speaking this is perfectly correct, but there are other political agendas here. The Tory leader has been advocating this "Grand Alliance" for some time and I understand that there may have been conversations around the subject between party leaders. However, one thing is crystal clear. Such a coalition has not yet been discussed within the Liberal Democrat group and there would be significant resistance to it from a number of members.

Personally, I could not vote within the group for this and I would strongly speak against it there. A coalition at National Assembly level is completely different to one on a local Council. In local authorities you can largely put the philosophical differences to one side and work for the benefit of local people. The potential for conflict is lessened as a result. On a national level you cannot do this. A coalition of ideologically opposed parties could well fall apart whenever a disagreement on policy arose that was not covered by the Partnership Agreement. I may be proved wrong on that but I doubt it.

These conflicts caused problems in the Labour-Liberal Democrat Partnership in the last Assembly, and in that case we were two parties of the centre-left with some considerable common ground on policy and philosophy. That would not be the case working with the Conservatives. This cannot be a runner and we should not encourage it to be so.

Social diary

My attention is drawn to the Debrett's website, which is full of useful information such as today's birthdays. obituaries and, of course, details of the social season. Things to remember in February include:

I am afraid that if you have not done any of these yet then it could be too late.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Mondays are pants!

Rather worryingly, the morning is starting to develop a distinct underwear-related theme and the day has barely begun. There is this article in the Western Mail in which a matrimonial lawyer, a financial adviser, a quality controller and a graphic designer have got together to hang crisp, clean undies out on the line to dry as part of their garden display for a premier horticultural show coming to Wales next month. And then there is this on Sandra Gidley's blog! I am not sure if it is wise of Sandra to admit that she is in the habit of autographing the underwear of strange men so close to the General Election.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Election fever remains untreated

The Sunday Express today (no link) quotes Labour campaign chiefs as believing that the Tories have snuck into the lead and are threatening to overturn the Government's majority. This is attributed to a "secret leaked report". Other secret leaked reports reveal that Tony Blair is an extra-terrestial and that Father Christmas is planning a coup in Equatorial Guinea!

As I have commented before, these reports do not leak by accident and I am astonished that the Sunday Express has allowed itself to be manipulated in this way. It may well be that the Tory Party's appeal to the base instincts of their core supporters has upped their poll ratings but the electoral arithmetic remains stacked against them and the campaign has barely started. A close race suits the Labour Party as it enables them to motivate their voters to go out and vote and to combat leakage to other parties.

As an example of the formidable electoral machine being put together by the Tories, the Wales on Sunday demonstrates that they cannot even keep a show of unity at their Party Conferences. It seems that Welsh Tory leadership has spent much of the time at their Welsh gathering bickering about the future of devolution.

This is not to dismiss the Conservatives altogether of course. They remain a formidable electoral machine and they are re-learning the art of campaigning at the grassroots. They are ruthless opportunists who think nothing about flip-flopping on a policy position to win votes and they have a substantial hard core of support who, if motivated, may well turn out in greater numbers than the core-voters of other parties. In other words the outcome of this election may come down to targeting and differential turnout.

Royal Wedding - now you can lick it

Suddenly, the forthcoming royal nuptials are beginning to take on a life of their own. The Sunday Telegraph (free registration is required) report this morning that a set of stamps are being issued to commemorate the occasion. The Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, has also announced that he is to mark the occasion by writing a poem. In doing so he is following in the footsteps of Sir John Betjeman in 1981. Enough already!

Meanwhile, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, and Gower resident, George Carey, has been roped in as chief cheerleader for the royal couple. He is quoted as saying:

"I think it's good for Prince Charles and Mrs Parker Bowles. I think it's good for the country because it's important that at the heart of the monarchy we have stable relationships, and therefore I do believe that we in the country should get behind them and welcome this relationship, this marriage, support them, and all Christians to pray for them both in the run up to the wedding and afterwards."

Perhaps, he should have a word with his colleagues and with his successor so as to get them to relax their rules and marry the couple in church.

An air of desperation

In politics it is nice to be noticed. It is nicer still when our opponents take us so seriously that they are prepared to organise demonstrations at our Party Conference so as to try and undermine it. So when I read this about placard-waving Labour Party activists stalking Charles Kennedy around Harrogate I was sorry that I had been unable to get up there. There is an air of desperation about Labour's actions. Clearly, the Liberal Democrat's new slogan, "The real alternative", must have some resonance, after all I don't see Labour protesting outside Tory Conferences.

Saturday, March 05, 2005


An unsubstantiated rumour reaches me that UK Gold are running trailers for episodes of Red Dwarf in which Lembit Opik, the MP for Montgomeryshire, is urging viewers to tune in to watch the antics of Lister, Rimmer et al. Please pass onto me reports of any such sightings. I would hate to think that this is an urban myth as well.

Sick note crosses Severn Bridge

It seems that devolution really has been suspended for the duration of the General Election campaign, either that or total confusion has set in at Labour campaign headquarters.

The Western Mail reports that Labour campaign chiefs have advised their Welsh MPs to boast about health waiting times as part of the election strategy - highlighting successful cuts in England. I suppose self-denial might work for the MPs, but I cannot see Welsh voters, who are waiting 12 months plus for treatment, buying into it somehow.

Getting in a lather

It seems that reports that hospital patients were getting drunk on alcoholic soap gel placed at the end of every bed at Prince Philip Hospital in Llanelli are unfounded. This is very reassuring. However, I think it is too late to prevent a new urban myth being born.

A good reason not to tune into Radio Two

The Guardian reports that the odious Chris Evans has agreed to host two shows for BBC Radio Two over the Easter weekend and that he is talking to station bosses about a permanent commitment to present a weekly music show, likely to be on Saturdays. Thanks for the warning. I will re-tune my radio immediately.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Labour pledge flounders

The Labour Assembly Government are doing a good job yet again in demonstrating how writing manifestos on the back of an envelope does not lead to good governance. The Western Mail this morning reports that Labour are letting down the most vulnerable people in society by failing to deliver its key election pledge to provide free home care to disabled people.

Documents released to the paper show that the policy has not been introduced because of a failure to agree on a definition of the word "disabled". The Assembly Government plans to organise an extensive consultation exercise on it later this year. However, not only did Labour publish its own definition on its website at the time of the 2003 Assembly elections but there is also an official definition of a disabled person contained in the Department for Work and Pensions' criteria for benefits such as the disability living allowance.

Why, then, the Government need to consult is a mystery. There are two possible explanations. Either they have found that they cannot afford to implement the pledge and are trying to wriggle out of it, or they have been told by Westminster that to introduce the measure in Wales will undermine the UK Government's resistance to free personal care and that they must desist or at best delay until after the General Election.

Whatever the reason this a very tawdry and shambolic state of affairs that raises doubts about the competence of Labour to govern Wales.

Electoral Fraud in Birmingham?

John Hemming is providing interesting and informative up-dates on his blog of the special election courts investigating alleged widescale abuse of the postal voting system in Birmingham at the last local elections. The details in this Telegraph report however, are frankly shocking. No doubt further information will come out as the court cases continue.

The whole situation has huge and serious ramifications for the forthcoming General Election, as well as for the future of the postal voting regime as it is currently structured. It is also a condemnation of a Labour Government that rushed into implementing postal voting experiments, whilst ignoring warnings from the Electoral Commission and others about the implications for the security and the secrecy of the ballot. There has to be a fundamental review as soon as possible if we are to avoid having the integrity of our electoral process undermined further.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

The cost of clarity

Just a short note from yesterday's Plenary. It seems that the Westminster habit of planting questions for Ministers has spread to the Assembly. Certainly, Irene James was spot on with hers though the Deputy Presiding Officer was having none of it:

Irene James: Does the Minister agree that it is ironic for a Plaid Cymru Assembly Member to ask for clarity on the Assembly’s budget? Is it not the case that Plaid Cymru refuses to offer us clarity over the cost of an independent Wales, as well as the wish list of proposals with which it regularly presents us?
The Deputy Presiding Officer: Order. We will proceed to the next supplementary question.

Professor Sir Glanmor Williams

Doing a history degree at Swansea University had many memorable moments. There was the party to celebrate Dutch independence (at least I think that is what it was for - I just wandered in off the street and joined in), the wonderful course run by Peter Stead looking at how historical events in the late nineteenth and the twentieth Centuries were reflected in the literature of the time, and of course, the tutorials with Rhodri Morgan's brother, Prys. However, if I were to be truthful the outstanding moments were the lectures by Professor Glanmor Williams on the Tudors.

Glanmor was an intellectual giant and each of his lectures were masterpieces in their own right. I missed many lectures during my three years at College but I never ever skipped one by Glanmor Williams. The detail, the sheer depth of knowledge, the quality of his prose and his passion never ceased to captivate me. He brought the subject to life in a way that no other lecturer could.

I post this now because Professor Sir Glanmor Williams has recently passed away at the age of 84. He accomplished so much. Tryst Williams writes about him in the Western Mail today. Professor Meic Stephens puts it so much better than I can:

Meic Stephens, Emeritus Professor of Welsh Writing in English at the University of Glamorgan, said, "He was the pre-eminent historian of Wales, the most prolific and the most authoritative, who made a magisterial contribution to our understanding of religion, language and society in Wales and led, by example, the remarkable renaissance in the writing of Welsh history."

It really was a privilege to have crossed his path, no matter how briefly.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Tanks and gun-slinging landowners

The smell of cordite was in the air in yesterday's Plenary as AMs squared up for the forthcoming electoral battle. For some Assembly Members however, the tension was just too much:

Eleanor Burnham: We all know that it is a complex scenario; I cannot get my head around it. Even getting a new television is an achievement for most of us. What is the Welsh Assembly Government doing to ensure that we have the coverage that we need? I attended an S4C public meeting the other night, where—

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Order. We do not want to hear what meeting you attended last night; we want a question.

Eleanor Burnham: In a nutshell, Deputy Presiding Officer, it was a very relevant point, which I will take up with you another time—[Assembly Members: ‘Oh.’]

Welsh Liberal Democrat Health Spokesperson, Kirsty Williams, was very clear about the direction she was going in. She challenged stand-in First Minister, Sue Essex (Rhodri was in Basra looking for daffodils - sorry, talking to Welsh troops on St. David's Day), to say who it is that determines Welsh health policy:

Kirsty Williams: Many older people are depressed at the prospect of having to wait many years for NHS treatment. That was no doubt recognised by Peter Hain who briefed journalists today on his intention to make a major announcement about health policy prior to the general election. Can you confirm that health policy remains a devolved matter and that Brian Gibbons retains the confidence of Welsh Labour Members of Parliament? If so, will you instruct Mr Hain to take his tank off your lawn?

Clearly, Basra was not the only place boasting UK Government tanks that day. However, the biggest spat of the session came over legislation relating to the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.

When it comes to issues of countryside access and landowning there are some members who adopt a strictly class-based approach. Conservative AM Glyn Davies certainly does:

Glyn Davies: Since the beginning of the passage of this Act, I have been fundamentally opposed to it. I have condemned the Act many times in the Chamber as one of the most appalling bits of legislation that I have seen passed. I have not changed my view—it is a confiscatory Act by a Government acting in the most bullying fashion, and undermines the principle of private ownership, which is a fundamental principle upon which civil society is based. As is the case in many other areas, the current Labour Governments in Westminster and here have no idea about what is needed.

Labour member, Carl Sargeant, never shies away from dropping a grenade into a meeting and seeing what happens. Yesterday, he did just that and set off a feud that ran throughout the debate:

Carl Sargeant: Will you join me in welcoming the commencement of this Act, and do you agree that media training should also extend to landowners to ensure that they do not go out gun-slinging against walkers as they walk across the beautiful landscape of Wales?

One Conservative AM was determined to have the last word on this and in doing so took the debate down to new levels:

David Davies: I raise this point of order under Standing Order No. 7.7 (v), which deals with abusive and inflammatory language. There is a long-standing convention in the Chamber that minorities of all sorts are protected from the sort of language that we just heard, which was inflammatory, abusive, and made wide, stereotyping generalisations. The minority concerned in this instance was an economic minority. However, if it is in order for an economic minority to be tarred with such a violent soubriquet, will it also be in order for other minorities, perhaps religious, cultural or ethnic minorities, to be tarred as gun-slingers, bomb-throwers, suicide bombers, plane hijackers or other similarly violent terms? Can you rule that all minorities are subject to protection in the Chamber?

David Davies as the protector of minorities? Somehow, it does not sound right!

Labour clamp down on devolution

The Western Mail this morning reports that the Secretary of State for Wales has got tough with the Welsh Assembly Government and ordered them to toe the line on health. This was later denied by the Assembly Health Minister, Brian Gibbons. However, it is possible that he has not been kept in the loop.

In any case a major announcement is due at the Wales Labour Party Conference detailing more ambitious targets and presumably, a plan as to how they will be achieved. If this happens it will be very welcome, however it is funny how all that talk of "clear red water" goes out of the window when a General Election looms.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The only socialist in the village?

Tony Blair has been turned down for a cameo role in hit BBC comedy Little Britain. Apparently, the show's stars rebuffed his advances on the grounds that it would politicise the programme too much. Presumably, they also did not want to become props in a re-elect Tony Blair roadshow.

I am unsure as to the welcome that the Prime Minister would receive in the actual village of Llandewi Brefi, as it is situated in a constituency that is not normally Labour territory. However, knowing the hospitable nature of West Walian people I am sure that he would be well received and looked after. Perhaps he should stop touring television shows and actually get out and meet some real people.

Poll endorses devolution

It was hardly a surprise but a BBC opinion poll has found that 50% of those asked want the Assembly to have the powers to make a difference to their lives. The poll also found that those who wanted to abolish the body has halved. Let us hope that sceptics in Labour and the Tories are listening.

By far the most interesting finding of this poll for me was the answer to the question "Whose policies are closest to your own, no matter how you plan to vote?" 33% or one in three of those asked said that they did not know. That is the measure of the task facing the political parties in the forthcoming General Election.

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