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Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Devolution revisited

Yesterday's article promoting the benefits of self-government in Alderney was provided with an interesting counter-point in the Western Mail today. The paper reports that a new book from a pair of Cardiff academics concludes that unless the financial straightjacket of the Barnett formula is taken off the Assembly then it will continue to crisis-manage, regardless of the powers available to it.

'The academics go on to argue that while Gordon Brown's policy of pumping significant amounts of public spending into health and education as a means of staving off recession may have worked well on a UK-wide basis, it has "created absorption problems in Wales where the Barnett formula (which gives the Assembly a share of Treasury funding based on Wales' population rather than need) squeezes expenditure out of the system if it cannot be contained within the block grant cap of some £13bn.'

Inevitably, the Assembly Government spokesperson refuses to recognise the problem, preferring to fall back onto the usual narrative about Wales out-performing the rest of the UK etc. However, the picture painted by Professor Phil Cooke and Nick Clifton is eerily familiar to those of us who have been talking to the people who have to implement WAG policies on the ground.

Cuts of £300m from the Economic Development budget and a huge bureaucracy around the administration of Objective One funding has hampered many projects and left some very frustrated people both in the private and public sectors. I think that the point that devolution in Wales attracted few top-calibre politicians because the Assembly was given too few powers at the outset is also valid. Although I believe that there are some high quality civil servants working in the Assembly and its Government, it is undoubtedly the case that we have fared less well than Scotland in attracting and holding onto the very best politicians.

Work rates suffer on hot days

The Western Mail reports that productivity falls sharply during hot weather. They have failed to mention that the Pope is a catholic or that bears like woods.

In reality this is a puff piece for environmentally-unfriendly air conditioning. This did not stop the Assembly installing it a few years ago to aid the comfort of their own staff. Now all employers are being urged to follow suit despite the fact that there is no evidence to support the assertion that it will reduce absence rates.

Wayne Elliott of the Exeter-based Met Office, brings some commonsense to the discussion: "We have air conditioning here, although just seeing the sun can make you want to be outside."

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Lost in the English Channel

As valid as the argument is, why do I get the impression that this story could have been published by the Western Mail at any time in the last three months? Is this a sustained campaign for more powers for the Welsh Assembly or is it a means of filling up space during a slack period?

Still, Alderney must be a nice place to be at this time of year.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Topical Tropics

This must be the only recorded instance of a front bench Tory spokesperson actually wanting Tony Blair to resume the role of Prime Minister.

Rumours that Mr. Blair has asked the former members of 'Typically Tropical' to take the Bono spot and address this year's Labour Party Conference are unfounded. These lyrics though could well have been written for him:

Far away from London Town and the rain
It's really very nice to be home again.
Mary Jane met the Coconut Airplane.
Now I know she loves me so.

Update: Any similarity between this post and that on John Hemming's blog is entirely coincidental. I only read his after I had completed this.

Has Elvis left the building yet?

Not long to go now until the 2005 'Elvies' and Porthcawl Elvis Festival. However, I am not convinced that the introductory music on the website is, in fact, Elvis.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Confusion rules

This article by Kirsty Buchanan in Saturday's Western Mail gets to the bottom of Labour's strategy with regards to extending the powers of the Welsh Assembly. Essentially, they are seeking to make it virtually impossible to trigger a referendum so as to keep the peace in Wales Labour. The result will be another compromised settlement between Cardiff and Westminster that will once more leave the Assembly without the powers it needs to do the job people expect of it.

'Welsh Secretary Peter Hain argues this is an exercise in what is deliverable rather than desirable - in other words what the Cabinet and Welsh Labour back benchers will stomach. This reality leaves the prejudices of a few dictating the future for the many.'

The challenge that Kirsty Buchanan sets for the opposition of a national petition demanding a referendum is an interesting one. However, as the Secretary of State for Wales and all of the political parties well know, the average voter is, quite rightly, more interested in the future of the health service, their children's education, the transport system or the economy than they are in constitutional matters. In such circumstances the kind of mass petition she calls for would be very difficult to collect indeed.

It may be possible to construct a valid and compelling case linking voters' concerns to the devolution settlement but at the end of the day we would still be battling against the innate cynicism of many people about politicians and the Assembly itself. There is also the question of whether the opposition parties would allow themselves to be distracted from their campaigns on major issues such as health and education in the run up to the 2007 Assembly elections so as to concentrate on such a petition.

It possible of course for the 500,000 signatures that Kirsty Buchanan suggests to be collected by an independent body with the support of pro-devolutionists from all parties. Such an effort is more likely to attract the attention of Peter Hain but even he is going to judge it in the end by whether he believes that people really care about this issue. Which way he would jump is impossible to say.


I have just returned from the Reading Rock Festival, hence the failure to post yesterday. There are a lot of stalls around the main field selling anything from fast food to body jewellery. A lot of vendors were peddling T-shirts containing a large range of slogans, mostly relating to the various groups who were playing over the weekend. One of them, however, simply said "A.S.B.O." It seems that youth culture has caught up with the Government's main weapon against anti-social behaviour and has incorporated it into their own mythology.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Going for gold in 2012

With my interest in George Orwell it was inevitable that my attention would be drawn to this item about the Olympic games. The idea that the Government is to legislate to prevent advertisers using the words "summer", "London", "gold", "silver" or "bronze" in conjunction with "games" or "2012" is truly bizarre. It illustrates perfectly how the original 'Olympian ideal' has long ago disappeared. More worryingly it demonstrates once more that this government's instincts are authoritarian rather than liberal.

The Bill contains an automatic presumption of guilt, the onus is on businesses to prove they did not infringe official sponsors' rights, rather than require LOCOG to prove that they did. Like the abolition of trial by jury, this again turns the British justice system on its head. If only one thing in the Bill is amended it must be this. I despair at the society that the present Government is asking us to live in and at the way they are slowly undermining and destroying the basic values and civil liberties that we have taken for granted for so long.

Take me to your leader

Former BBC Political Editor, Andrew Marr, is in the news himself today calling on politicians to learn how to speak human. This is actually more difficult than it sounds. In many instances the ability to speak human would only be possible if the politician concerned became one. I am exagerating of course.

Nevertheless, the revolution that would follow if we were to adopt Andrew Marr's advice could break the mould of British politics for ever. And where would it leave the honest interpreters who have made a comfortable living telling the British public what it is we are talking about? Andrew Marr would be out of a job for a start. As would all those columnists in the dead tree press who fill up column inches analysing the mystic sayings of MPs, AMs and MSPs.

Of course what Andrew Marr means when he says that politicians should speak "crisply, clearly and vividly" is that this style makes for better television. It has nothing to do with good governance or communication at all. And when we do it then interviewers and commentators will respond in an equally crisp and clear manner to confuse the issue once more by seeking to reinterpret what it is we have just said. That is their job and good luck to them.

The fact of the matter is that politicians are very human indeed. It is only when we view them through the television screen that they become less so. That is because Television and its political journalism often does not deal in real life. It creates artefacts to be deconstructed. Its interrogative and confrontational style forces even the most clear-speaking politician to adopt strategms to survive. We are prisoners of the media and aliens in our own land. Andrew Marr has a lot to answer for!

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Something about Islwyn

The Islwyn constituency seems to have reached centre stage in the silly season. Firstly, there was the case of Irene James' mis-remembered education record, then the former MP for that seat changed his mind once more on devolution, and now I find that the present MP has had a makeover:

I wonder if Don is a horse-racing man.

Blowing hot and cold

So what is Neil Kinnock up to? Having built his reputation within Wales by campaigning against devolution in 1979, he then supported the Welsh Assembly in 1997. Now, he has reverted to his original default setting - devolution of powers at different paces across Britain would lead to misunderstandings and enmity between the nations and the regions, blah, blah, blah...

Frankly, his talk of tensions between nations fostering fears of a break-up of the UK is just nonsense. He knows that devolution is not about independence but empowerment. People need to move at their own pace. They also need to see that the devolved bodies are adding value and that means that there is a need to give them the power to make a real difference. If Kinnock was really worried about the pace of reform he would be supporting full law-making powers for the Welsh Assembly and advocating proper devolution for England or its regions as well. Instead, he just wants to put up a road block and maintain the status quo he is protesting about. His views have the intellectual coherence of an ant.

We already live in an increasingly diverse society. That is a strength and it should be recognised as such. Political diversity means that a region or a nation can develop solutions to its own problems without having them imposed on them from above. It means that one area can learn from another and work with others to press for change. If he were a radical of any sort Neil Kinnock would recognise that. Alas, the ermine seems to have blurred his judgement.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Festival of politics

Now here is an event to attract people in their thousands. Anoraks of the world of the world unite. Better pack my bags!

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Selling books

Today's Glasgow Herald contains a report from the Edinburgh International Book Festival in which Clare Short is quoted as saying that her disgust with New Labour had made her wonder whether she had wasted her life in politics.

Talking about her book, An Honourable Deception? New Labour, Iraq and the Misuse of Power, she told at length of her resignation and her disenchantment with Tony Blair.

Ms Short, the first secretary of state for international development, also revealed that after resigning in May 2003 she thought about standing as an independent candidate, and even considered joining the Liberal Democrats.

She said the current policies of the government made her ponder whether her many years in the Labour movement had been fruitfully spent. Ms Short, who has been MP for Birmingham Ladywood since 1983, said the current government was more right-wing than the Tory administration of Harold Macmillan of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

"I am very isolated," she said. "I have spent my adult life building up the Labour Party as an instrument of justice at home and abroad, but now I think: did I put my life in the right place?"

Ms Short was criticised for not immediately resigning over the war. However, she said the prime minister had made promises to her on Middle East policy and the post-war reconstruction of Iraq. "He was lying to me and I made the mistake of believing him," she said.

It should be noted that Ms. Short is still a New Labour MP supporting the Government she is so disgusted with. Still, it should sell some books.

What college?

Even by the silly-season standards of mid-August, this piece in today's Western Mail on the educational provenance of the Labour AM for Islwyn must hit a new low. The Assembly's website entry for Irene James states, 'Born in 1952, and was first elected to the Assembly on May 1 2003. She lives in Cwmcarn, Islwyn. Educated at West London University, she is a special needs teacher at Risca Primary School. Agent to Don Touhig MP at last general election. Main interests are jobs, education and health.' However, as stated in the Western Mail, the West London University does not exist.

Irene James is quoted as saying: 'I can't understand where the reference to West London University came from. I did my teacher training at Borough Road College in London.' As is the way of things this college merged with the West London Institute of Higher Education in 1976, and this in turn became part of Brunel University, West London in 1995. Irene states that she has contacted the relevant department and asked that the mistake be rectified. Good luck to her.

My website biography concludes that my 'interests include housing, local government and substance abuse.' I did e-mail the webmaster some time ago to point out that the only substances I am in fact interested in abusing are chocolate and Joe's ice cream, but alas nothing happened. A more accurate rendition would of course be that I have an interest in substance misuse policy. C'est la vie!

Update: I have received an e-mail alleging that the West London University is quoted in interviews Irene James gave to the South Wales Argus in 2003, however I cannot find such a reference. It was referred to in her biography on the Wales Labour Party website but this was updated around 1pm today.

Update 2: Why do research when people will do it for you. I have now been e-mailed a copy of an article in the South Wales Argus (pg.7) on Saturday 3 May. It is an interview with Irene James and clearly states that she went to West London University.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Repeat free zone

Only a month ago the BBC Chairman, Michael Grade, promised that BBC1 and BBC2 could be "repeat-free zones" within 10 years. I have just watched a repeat of 'Silent Witness'. Apparently this is not a repeat, it is a second viewing opportunity!

The football manager syndrome

There is a tendency in football for the Chairman of a club to publicly offer his full and unequivocal support for a beleagured manager just before he sacks him. I wonder therefore if that is what is going on here.

Most politicians are waiting for the outcome of the independent police watchdog's confidential probe into the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes before expressing an opinion on the future of Sir Ian Blair or his political masters. This is despite the damning evidence that is leaking out from the inquiry. No such restraint seems to apply to the Prime Minister, his Deputy or the Home Secretary:

The government yesterday entered the dispute to give Sir Ian its full backing. Asked if the prime minister had full confidence in the Met chief, a Downing Street spokeswoman said: "Yes."

John Prescott, the deputy prime minister - in charge of the government while Tony Blair is on holiday - and the home secretary, Charles Clarke, also both insisted Sir Ian, the most senior police officer in the UK, retains their full confidence.

In many ways the Government finds itself between a rock and a hard place. If they equivocate in any way, then they will have effectively hung Sir Ian out to dry prematurely. If they offer their full confidence, as they have done, then they have become inexplicably linked to his fate. One wonders if, having chosen the latter course, whether the Prime Minister and his Cabinet will find it so easy to let Sir Ian go if the inquiry finds that the buck really does stop with the Met Chief and public opinion demands his head. If they do subsequently sack him, then what does that say for their political judgement now?

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Welsh language boycott

I know that it is the silly season but this just takes the biscuit. Either Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg want Government organisations to use the Welsh language or they do not. They cannot have it both ways. Nor can they pull up the drawbridge and pretend that this will make Wales immune to terrorist attacks, it will not.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Stuff on my cat

By and large cats are proud and dignified creatures. This website therefore is beyond the pale. How anybody can treat such a noble creature in this way is beyond me.

Sue calls it a day

I am sure that many Assembly Members will agree with me that whereas we wish Sue Essex well in the future, her decision to stand down from the Assembly at the next election will leave the whole institution impoverished. She is a highly capable and effective Minister who has had an enormous influence on the new agenda being carved out for Wales by the Assembly.

Sue's main legacy of course will be the All Wales Spatial Plan, which has already started to transform the way that we plan the shape of our communities and the services they rely on, however her contribution to transport policy, the environment, and the Assembly's Finances will also prove invaluable. There are very few Ministers who can command the same sort of respect across the political spectrum for their work as Sue Essex.

An MP's dilemma

It was inevitable really that those MPs who voted through the 24 hour licensing laws would end up on the wrong end of them. For despite all the spin about empowering communities and enabling democratically elected local Councils to determine applications in accordance with the needs of communities, the reality is that the legislation has left Licensing Committees with very little discretion to turn down applications. Furthermore, the rolling up of a number of licenses for music, alcohol, dancing etc into one super licence has left many establishments with little choice but to apply for permission to carry out activities on their premises that have traditionally not taken place there, even though they have no immediate plans to make any changes to the way that they operate. This has increased anxieties amongst local people.

Thus the explanation of Aberavon Labour MP, Hywel Francis, that he objected to the application by the Morpeth Arms for longer opening hours, because it will "destroy the peaceful character of the locality", even though he voted nine times with the Government during the passage of the controversial Licensing Act through Parliament, does not really stack up. If he had any experience of the way that local Councils have been forced to apply the Act that he supported then he would know that even police objections can prove insufficient. That is because the police have to prove that a particular establishment is responsible for law and disorder problems before their application can be refused. They cannot rely on the general reputation of the area or on non-specific policing issues to support their objection. For all intents and purposes Licensing Committees are acting with one hand tied behind their back and all the talk of accountability is without substance.

Hywel Francis is not the only MP who is desperately trying to pass the buck over this legislation. An article in this week's Glamorgan Gazette by Labour Ogmore MP, Huw Iranca Davies, claims that the new Licensing Act contains 'more powers than ever before for local people to influence alcohol and entertainment licensing decisions'. He believes that 'if many residents are rightly aggrieved at the lack of control by a licence holder they should and can demand action.' He goes on: 'It is now easier for police and residents to seek a review of licences, including limits on hours of opening. And for the first time ever, residents have a statutory right to comment on licensing policies and make representations on licence applications."

Huw is absolutely right of course, residents do have those powers of objection but they are retrospective and only in a very few cases will they prevent a license being granted. Furthermore, if an area becomes unruly because of a concentration of establishments then it is not so easy for police and residents to deal with the issue unless they can prove specific culpability on the part of the establishments they are seeking to curtail. That can be very difficult.

How the new licensing laws impact upon communities has yet to be seen, however the fears of people are very real. It may well be that the worse excesses can be recovered subsequently through evidence-based objections but it does not help when those who imposed the laws upon us seek to lay the blame elsewhere, whilst claiming benefits that are not immediately apparent to those who have to live with their actions.

Friday, August 19, 2005

The alternative AA

I have just finished reading an excellent book I picked up in Dublin. Called 'The Naked Politician' it is written by Irish journalist Katie Hannon and claims to lift 'the lid on a political system that rewards mediocrity and punishes idealism.' The blurb goes on to say that the book 'shows how elections are really won and lost. It exposes the power of the party machines and the fear and loathing in the constituency trenches. It is a book about pride and prejudice, about ego and ignominy, about the power, the glory and the grubby truth that lies behind it.' You get the idea.

In actual fact the book is a fascinating study of every aspect of the life of Irish politicians. It is based on a series of revealing, and sometimes anonymous, interviews with Senators, PDs, party officials and Councillors, and it trawls through some of the more interesting developments in Irish politics in the last 20 years from that perspective. Much of the inside story is very familiar. It is a fascinating read and I would recommend it to any political anorak or just to anybody who has an interest in finding out what it is like to be a full-time politican and what makes us tick.

Like all of us, Irish politicians spend a lot of time doing casework, and get their fair share of unusual or just downright strange referrals. In many ways the electoral system they fight under puts more emphasis on the pastoral side of their job. Every elected politician is competing within his or her constituency against other elected politicians of different parties and often of the same party. In these circumstances, and when elections can turn on two or three votes, a representative's personal support can be a deciding factor. It pays therefore to cultivate your constituents and to be on hand to help them in any matter whatsoever.

The book is full of stories of politicians and their wives attending every funeral they can find within their constituency, whether or not they knew the deceased or their family. Often they will be invited to the funeral by a friend of the family keen to impress that he or she has some influence and can get the TD to attend.

The current Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, consistently returns one of the highest first preference votes in the country. As the book says 'No matter how pressing the affairs of the nation, no matter how unreliable the Government jet, Bertie will always try to fix his schedule so that he is back in Dublin every Sunday night to meet the lads for a pint in one of his few favoured locals in Drumacondra.'

Mr. Ahern also spends as much time as he can speaking to his constituents on their own doorsteps as this story illustrates: 'In November 2003 Irish Times columnist Roisin Ingle wrote hilariously of her shock at discovering the Taoiseach on her doorstep when she answered her doorbell one Saturday morning. We must surely live in one of the only modern democracies where the Prime Minister makes unsolicited house calls at the weekend.' Tony Blair has a lot to live up to.

My favourite casework story in the book is this:

'One secretary to a high-profile politician recalls taking a call at 5pm one evening just a week before Christmas from a woman who was in some distress. The caller explained that she was ringing from the hard-shoulder of the Naas dual-carriageway. Her car had broken down and she wasn't an AA member. She was in a pickle. So she rang Leinster House, asked for the office of a TD she thought looked kind on TV, and explained her predicament. His secretary was non-plussed. What did the caller think the TD could do for her? The caller said she thought he would help her because she liked the cut of his jib on the news. She appeared to want the TD to drive out to the Naas dual-carriageway to tow her home. The secretary remembers: "She was gobsmacked when I said no."'

I cannot say that I have had a request like that, yet!

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Made up

Rhodri Morgan must be grinning like a cheshire cat at recent revelations about the exaggerated claims for cosmetics. After all, his spokesperson proudly told the Wales on Sunday that the First Minister does not spend a penny of public money on make-up to prepare him for his recent TV appearances. Indeed, many people would have stopped and paused for thought after reading passages such as this:

Yesterday the French cosmetics giant L'Oreal was forced by the Advertising Standards Authority to withdraw a major ad campaign after making claims for two products, Anti-Wrinkle De-Crease face cream and Perfect Slim anti-cellulite cream, that it couldn't back up scientifically. The TV ads, which starred Claudia Schiffer, claimed that 76% of women had "visibly reduced expression lines" after using Anti-Wrinkle De-Crease, and that 71% of women found that Perfect Slim "visibly reduced the appearance of cellulite". The ASA found there wasn't enough evidence to support either claim, and the ads will now have to be amended. In May, similarly, advertisements by Estée Lauder were also found to be misleading.

But has anybody told Tony Blair?

Crisis? What crisis?

I have been banging on for some time about the problems facing science subjects in Welsh educational establishments. The closure of the chemistry department in Swansea University is just one aspect of this. It was a particularly good example of what happens when market economics are applied to education. Disturbingly, it is the application of the laws of demand and supply to education that is accelerating the crisis in the sciences that faces the UK.

The latest development in this is the emergence of a disparity between England and Wales in the amount given in bursaries for people doing postgraduate teaching courses in maths and the sciences. It is my view that this could lead to a brain drain of graduates across the border. From next September those pursuing a postgraduate teaching course in the sciences will get a bursary of £9000 in England, but only £7,000 in Wales.

Yesterday the President of the Royal Society warned that the decline in the numbers of students taking A-levels in physics, chemistry and maths is not sustainable. Lord May of Oxford told us that unless this decline is arrested then the UK risks losing not only the next generation of highly skilled scientist, technologists and engineers, but also the teachers to train the generation that comes after them.

Earlier this year a report of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee predicted that core science subjects such as chemistry and physics will only survive within Higher Education if universities agree to collaborate through a series of regional networks to maintain teaching and research.

No-one is happy with a bidding war developing in the training of teachers, however we cannot avoid the fact that when we face a shortage in these subjects, then we need to be able to compete to attract sufficient graduates of the right calibre to fulfill our needs here in Wales. The Minister needs to ensure that Postgraduate students in Wales do not lose out. We cannot afford to fall behind.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

No more middle way

The rather blunt dismissal of pleas to give the Welsh Assembly powers to restore hunting with hounds to parts of Wales was inevitable. As I said previously, this was always an exceedingly thin thread that the pro-hunting lobby was clinging to.

The Government recognised that the plea for more power was never based on any principle other than self-interest. Most of those supporting the Middle Way Group are opposed to the existence of the Welsh Assembly and under normal circumstances would rather eat their own intestines than advocate greater powers for it. The only reason they are doing so now is that they have found one or two sympathetic Assembly Members who fancy their chances of a do-or-die bust-up in the Assembly chamber on an issue of 'principle'. However, the fact is that there is no majority in the Assembly chamber for their point of view and even if the powers were devolved it is likely that they would get the same short shrift for their arguments as they did in Parliament.

If there is an argument for a modification to the law so as to accommodate local circumstances then farmers and landowners need to put their case to Ministers in Westminster. There is no easy route here, no back door. The hunting lobby need to use the appropriate forum like everybody else.

I also think that it is time for some politicians to move on, particularly those who have a wider responsibility than just their constituency. I resent my party constantly being associated with the pro-hunting case, no matter what its merits or demerits.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats are no longer a party of the rural fringes we also have elected representatives in urban areas, the valleys and the North We lead four Welsh urban Councils and are involved in the adminstration of three more. We have set the agenda on housing issues and homelessness, and we have been in Government, where we were responsible for establishing Iaith Pawb and for economic development. We have helped to mould Welsh policies on education, social justice, health, culture, language, local government and transport. Now that we are the second Welsh party in Parliamentary we need to reflect that contribution more prominently in all of our pronouncements and our campaigns.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Lord Bonkers and the hot air balloon

The latest Liberator arrives on my doorstep with a very funny Lord Bonkers' Diary (well done, Jonathan). This passage made me laugh out loud but then I have always had a strange sense of humour.

One of the great disappointments of the twentieth century was the failure of the airship to maintain its early promise as a means of mass transportation. I remember with fondness those great ships of an earlier age: the Graf Zeppelin, the R101 and, here in Rutland, the First Lady Bonkers. The problem that saw the downfall of these graceful galleons of the sky was an uncertainty over what should be used to fill them. Some favoured hydrogen, but it had the unfortunate habit of going off pop at the most inconvenient moments. The choice therefore fell upon helium, but this gas had the effect of making everyone on board speak in a high-pitched, squeaky voice. I recall that it was this affliction that reduced the effectiveness of the Address to the People of America that I gave in New York upon disembarking from my first flight. Nevertheless, I did receive a letter, years later, from a chap named Disney who told me that my words had been an inspiration to him throughout his career, so all was not in vain.

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Boy's toys

After week's of failing to inspire, this morning's Western Mail hits home with its gadget spot known as "Big Boy's Toys". They have found a USB cup warmer and 4-Port Hub.

Plug it into a spare USB port on your computer and the Cup Warmer will keep your beverage at the optimum operating temperature for as long as you care to leave it.

And as if that wasn’t quite enough functionality for your £12.95 thank you very much indeed, it has the added bonus of also being a four-port USB hub, allowing you to connect many more cup warmers to it and open your own premium-priced cup-warming service from the comfort of your office chair. You’ve got to speculate to accumulate, as they say…

IT support will almost certainly disapprove.

Living History

One of the highlights of my week in Dublin was the visit to Kilmainham Jail. This was, of course the prison that held the ringleaders of the Easter 1916 uprising and it was here that 14 of them were executed.

The exhibition at the jail is packed full of information outlining its role in the developing social history of Ireland. Charles Steward Parnell was held here briefly, whilst the courtyard contains the graves of hundreds of prisoners, many of whom were victims of the great Irish potato famine in the 1840s and 1850s. The last prisoner to be held in the jail was Eamon de Valera in 1924.

What struck me, as I walked into the main cell area, pictured above, was how familiar it was. It took me only a few minutes to pinpoint it as a location for the filming of the Italian Job in 1969. Those who have seen the film will be able to picture Noel Coward descending the stairs to the acclaim of the other prisoners as news gets through of the successful heist in Turin. The jail was also used for filming "In the name of the Father" and "Michael Collins", though the latter was never held as a prisoner there.

The guide told us that the design of the cell area is considered to be a model for good prison architecture and was used as a template for many other prisons. It is open, well lit due to the glass roof and guards situated at ground level have a good view of all 99 cells. He also said that this template was used by architects as a model for shopping centre developments.

This I found hard to believe until I went into St. Stephen's Shopping Centre in Dublin (above) later that week. Astonishing!

Monday, August 15, 2005

Protecting their constituents

The saga about Leanne Wood's memo to Party bosses continues to trundle on with an article in the Western Mail this morning questioning whether the use of casework records to identify potential voters is legal or not:

Last month Labour released details of an internal Plaid Cymru report written by South Wales Central AM Leanne Wood in which she questioned the value of constituency case work because it didn't necessarily translate into votes for the party. She proposed that regional AMs should spend less time on casework and only attend functions if that would help Plaid.

Plaid denied that Ms Wood's suggestions had been accepted by the party. In a letter to Anne Jones, the Assistant Information Commissioner for Wales, Rhondda Labour MP Chris Bryant, referred to Ms Wood's leaked report, stating, "She cites the case of former Rhondda AM Geraint Davies who dealt with 2,500 individual complaints during his four-year term: 'A very small proportion of those people indicated that they would be voting Plaid Cymru in telephone canvassing.'

"This suggests that Plaid Cymru had access to Mr Davies's database of constituency casework names and addresses.

"My understanding is that it is illegal for constituents' names and addresses, supplied to an elected representative for the purpose of casework, to be passed on to a political party for political or electoral contact."

Rhondda Labour AM Leighton Andrews has now jumped in by urging the Assistant Information Commissioner for Wales to launch a full investigation. In a letter to her, he claims that the reference to Geraint Davies in Leanne Wood's report, "clearly indicates either that Plaid Cymru used the casework names and addresses for telephone canvassing purposes, or they subsequently compared their telephone canvassing returns to Mr Davies's casework records.

This is indeed a serious matter and there is no way that Labour are going to let this one go. They can see clear party political advantage in pursuing it and personal hatred of Plaid Cymru is sufficient for some of them to want to bury Plaid politically. Leighton Andrews however, has genuine and high-minded reasons for taking this matter further. As he explains on his Rhondda blog:

We need to get to the bottom of this. My constituents are entitled to know that their confidential records have not been misused.

Leighton's principled concern about the rights of his constituents should be applauded.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Blogging on the front line

Blogging is in the news today, so much so that constant references to these items by bloggers such as myself is beginning to get incestuous. The Observer reports that ambulance staff, police, magistrates and other state employees are dealing with daily pressures by turning to blogging to describe their frustrations, and sometimes triumphs. They often disguise their identities to avoid giving offence or sparking libel proceedings.

Meanwhile The Independent reveals a distinctively lower-tech trend in the USA with the advent of 'freeway blogging'. This involves hanging banners with political epigrams off bridges so as to express an opinion, normally against the present Administration. Typically, this fad is being perpetuated and encouraged through internet sites giving instructions on the most effective way to get your message across. One such is the freeway blogger site. In Britain we have not yet got past the use of badly painted messages on sheets so as to embarrass friends and family on their latest birthday.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Fighting the good fight

It is not just Westminster where there is a shortage of Catholic priests. There they have resorted to advertising on beermats in the hope of attracting the right sort of applicant. In America the Catholic Church are making it clear that entering the priesthood is not just a vocation but a continuous fight against evil. They have turned to the film The Matrix for the inspiration for a series of adverts that portrays the priest in full cassock -- and the requisite Roman collar -- holding a cross in one hand and a rosary in the other. And he is wearing sunglasses.

'Father Meyer said the poster, on which he is featured as the "Matrix"-style priest, had its origins in a skit that he saw during his first year at the North American College, the U.S. seminary in Rome. The skit, put on by a group of older seminarians, was based on the film. In it, a group of priests fought Satan in a series of mock martial-arts confrontations.'

The concept seems to be a major success, but it is unclear how many new priests have emerged from the campaign. Still, image is everything, as they say:

Father Meyer said it got a huge response. "They were going like hotcakes. Young kids wanted them to hang in their bedrooms, high school students wanted them to hang in their lockers," he said. "That is invaluable. If we can get kids to hang a picture of a priest in their room, we've done something huge for vocations."

The response, though, seems to make sense to him. It appeals to people at a level that everyone appears to share. "People love heroes. The poster personifies the priest as a hero," he said.

And it speaks of a faith that meets people exactly where they are in their lives. The poster itself says, in a parody of the words which any watcher of videos knows by heart, "This faith has not been modified from its original version. Yet, it is formatted to fit your life."

Friday, August 12, 2005

School's out

This article in the Western Mail underlines what we have been saying for some time, there simply is not enough money in the system to meet the Welsh Assembly Government's 2010 target of every school being 'fit for purpose'.

WAG argue that they have exceeded their 2007 target of putting £560m into the system 'with investment already standing at £629m', however this is not strictly true. The actual amount of public money going into schools is less than £560m with the difference made up of PFI schemes, many of which have still not got off the ground. Furthermore the Assembly Government spokesperson's statement is misleading, as the implication is that this amount has already been spent. It has not, it is budgeted as future spend.

What is not clear is the attitude taken by Minister's to PFI. They are perfectly content to rely on already approved schemes to bolster their own figures so as to create the illusion that their election promise has been met, but they are not prepared to countenance or encourage any more PFI schemes to enable Councils to deal with some of the problems they face in maintaining schools. The only consistency in this position is that it gets the Education Minister off a particularly nasty hook of her own making.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The fear of debt

For those who argued that the Welsh Assembly's decision to not charge top-up fees was a subsidy for the middle classes this article in the Western Mail offers food for thought. A survey by NatWest Bank has found that the introduction of increased tuition fees in England could put off A-level students next year. They also estimate that Welsh students about to start their first term of university this autumn will expect to spend £30,241 during a three-year degree course, including tuition fees. On average they expect to graduate with debts totalling £13,950.

The key finding for us is that the introduction of increased tuition fees charged by universities in England could put off A-level students next year. The NatWest found 64% of sixth formers would be less inclined to go to university in 2006 when the new fee structure is introduced.

Things are still bad in Wales but at least we have done what we can, within the powers and the finance available to us, to mitigate the worst effects of Tony Blair's market economy in education.


Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Smoked out

One of the attractions of Dublin of course, is the fact that the City operates a smoking ban in its places of work. This means that I can go into a pub, restaurant, club, shop or railway station and breathe fresh air. In doing so I normally have to hold my breath to get past the smokers gathered on the threshold but that is a small price to pay for a healthy social environment.

The downside, I have discovered, is the fact that I cannot adequately take advantage of the good weather. Most cafes, restaurants and pubs have tables and chairs out front and in normal circumstances I would make a beeline for them so as to enjoy my pint or my food in the sunshine. Unfortunately, these have now become the preserve of smokers and, although I could still sit there, I must do so without the significant advantages that are available indoors. Dublin's cafe quarter atmosphere has become smoked out!

Monday, August 08, 2005

Making up

Blogging will be light this week as I am in Dublin, however I could not resist referring to the article in the Wales on Sunday yesterday, which reported that whereas Tony Blair spends thousands of pounds of public money each year on make-up to prepare him for his TV appearances, the First Minister spends not a single penny. The Welsh Assembly Government spokesperson took a positive pride in this announcement.

Somehow this news does not surprise me, nor does the fact that a journalist asked the question in the first place. It is summer after all.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Into the new stadium at last!

I finally got the opportunity to look at the new Swansea stadium yesterday when I joined 16,732 other fans for the opening game of the season against Tranmere Rovers. Having grown up watching Tranmere there was a potential conflict for me as to who to support, but I had no doubt that it was Swansea I was going to cheer on as it has been for many years now and I was as delighted as every other Swansea fan that the team succeeded in getting the first three points on the scoreboard with a 1-0 win.

This photo is of the inside of the stadium as the teams warm up. It seems that whereever one sits in the ground one gets an excellent view of the action. The Ospreys are due to start their season here later this month against Wasps, whilst the Wales football team will be playing Slovenia here in a few weeks. It is rumoured that a number of high profile concerts are also being lined up. This stadium is going to be a massive asset for the City.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

A third world country?

According to The Guardian Britain is now on the verge of acquiring third world status with regards to the propriety of our democratic status. International election monitors are applying fresh pressure on the government to introduce new measures to combat postal voting fraud.

And to think that we used to send people to monitor the safety and security of electoral processes in other countries.

Scotching the rumours

Tory AM, Mark Isherwood, writes in the Western Mail letters page this morning:

"It was with much surprise that I noted the article in the Western Mail speculating about the leadership of the Welsh Conservatives in the Assembly.

As a member of the Welsh Conservative Group I can confirm that this is the first I have heard about such speculation.

...We are a strong united group within which there has been no speculation whatsoever about our leadership."

Is it me or does he protest just a little too much?

Friday, August 05, 2005

A crisis of leadership?

Radio Wales reported this morning that Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas will not be celebrating today's 80th anniversary of Plaid Cymru. He believes that the party is stuck in a cycle of permanent opposition and needs to buck up its ideas if it is to become more than a political protest group. In particular he wants them to take the idea of a coalition with the other opposition parties seriously.

His views are echoed by Party historian and former Plaid Cymru candidate, Professor Laura McAllister. She is quoted by the BBC as saying that the party is still struggling between the tension of being a political party and being a campaigning or pressure group.

"The stark electoral facts are that Plaid Cymru is very, very unlikely to form a government in Cardiff Bay on its own," she said.

"I don't see there's any way the party can avoid this issue because if it's really serious about shedding its pressure group past and moving to becoming a serious political party and a party of government it has to think about its relationship with the other parties."

The issue of leadership in the party continues to be a moot one. One letter writer in the Western Mail on Tuesday asked "How can any political party be taken seriously when it has three leaders that don't even agree?

Plaid is rather like a car with three steering wheels, one for each leader, with each leader heading off in different directions at different speeds. Such a car would never feature on Top Gear. However, it would go down a treat with clowns in a circus."

It is a fair point but not, in my opinion, the real leadership issue for Plaid Cymru. That seems to be their choice of President. Dafydd Iwan does come across as a leader, to most people he is a folk singer masquerading as a politician and because of that the party appears rudderless. There are many examples but the most recent was his inept handling of the boundary changes in Gwynedd. Equally, what other party would leave its most successful former leader hanging on to hear if he should make a come-back bid or not? According to the Western Mail, Dafydd Wigley asked his Party's Chair several weeks ago whether they would like him to stand for election to the Welsh Assembly or not. He has now been told that he will get an answer in "a week or so".

Plaid are not the only party facing a leadership crisis of course. It is said that not all Labour politicians are happy that the First Minister will be staying on until 2009, though the prospects of anybody doing anything about this is remote. In the Western Mail this morning it was reported that some senior Conservatives in Wales would like to see Nick Bourne challenged as leader of the party group at the National Assembly. These are mostly anti-devolutionists who are unhappy at the direction of the debate in their party. There is no indication that any AM is seriously contemplating such a move.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats group appears to be stable at the moment as well. According to our constitution there should be an election for leader after each Assembly election, so Mike German is secure in his role until then. It would take a curry house style plot and ten constituency parties to table a motion of no confidence to shake that position. That is unlikely to happen. Thus for all four of the major parties the position as it is now seems to be the one that will be presented to the voters in 2007. What they make of it has to be seen.

Blogging on air

It may simply be that we are into August and real news is scarce, but the existence of blogs is starting to permeate the consciousness of the mainstream media. This morning I was in the Swansea BBC studios at 7.15am to contribute to a piece on the growth of blogs. I shared the limelight with Peter Cox, a long-time blogger from Cardiff, who I had not been aware of before.

I was asked the inevitable question as to whether blogging was a bit risky for a politician, given the propensity for gaffs. As I tend to be fairly frank then I suppose the answer is yes, but as with everything if you are careful and aware of the implications of what you write then it should be no more risky than delivering an ad-lib speech to a public meeting, answering questions or producing an endless stream of press releases. There is too much control-freakery in politics, blogs are a refreshing change.

N.B. It was nice of David Cornock yesterday to acknowledge the contribution made by Leighton Andrews and myself to opening up the world of politics through our blogs. Neither of us were shortlisted for the New Statesman New Media Awards, largely because they were looking for innovation in the use of new technology. I think that both Leighton and I would agree that the quality and effectiveness of the site should be a deciding factor. There are few enough politicians using this medium properly as it is without setting impossible standards for us to meet.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Being right!

It is nice to be proved right, even if being so does not change the proposals we are fighting one iota.

The Guardian reports this morning that:

The government has admitted that it has been guilty of "overselling" the case for a compulsory national identity card scheme in Britain and conceded that it will not prove a panacea for fraud, terrorism or the abuse of public services.

Tony McNulty, the Home Office minister now responsible for identity cards, has also admitted that "in its enthusiasm" the government also mistakenly emphasised the benefits to the state rather than arguing its benefits to the individual citizen.

Well, yes. The question now has to be asked that if the Government accept that ID cards will not prevent terrorism, fraud or the abuse of public services, then how can they justify spending billions of pounds of public money on developing them, when that cash could be so much better spent on tackling those very problems? Equally, what is the benefit to the individual citizen and can it justify the £300 charge they will have to pay to carry an ID card?

It is time that the Government admitted that their proposals are in tatters and abandoned them altogether.


Liverpool or bust?

The former Archdruid of Wales is absolutely wrong to accuse Liverpudlians of intolerance towards minorities. Liverpool has a long-standing multi-ethnic community and, despite the views and actions of a very very small minority, is as welcoming as any other part of the Country to incomers.

It would be just too easy to compare the attitude of some Welsh language campaigners towards incomers with that exhibited by Liverpool. They do not want any non-Welsh people settling in North Wales, whereas Liverpool has a centuries-old tradition of welcoming people from all over the world.

Dr. Robyn Lewis is doing neither the Welsh language nor the Eisteddfod any favours by his outspoken intolerance. If the Eisteddfod does go to Liverpool in 2007 then I am sure that he will be welcome as well. Somehow, though, I suspect that his own prejudices will get in the way of such a short journey.

Devolution lite

I have to say that when I caught this initiative on the news the night before last that for once the Government and the media fooled me as to its applicability. It may be that I was half-asleep but I recall thinking what a good idea it was to distribute home-testing kits for bowel cancer to all over-60s and anticipating the kits arriving on the doormats of my constituents sometime next year. Naturally, the journalists did nothing to disabuse me of this notion as they mostly think that anything that flows from Westminster must apply nationwide.

It was only the next day when I sat down and thought about it that I realised that it was an England-only initiative. Let us hope that the Welsh Health Minister does not take too long in following suit.

Finding a level

I really do worry about the level of political debate in this country.

Plaid Cymru distribute a poster portraying the First Minister and the Secretary of State for Wales dressed in hoodies so as to protest at the demonisation of young people and the 'failure of the Government to tackle social problems, a lack of jobs and house prices.'

Plaid say Labour's anti-social behaviour policies demonise young people for their dress sense, instead of tackling crime effectively. Labour say that the posters, put up by the Plaid Cymru Youth Movement, prove Plaid is "soft on crime".

For goodness sake! How is any of this rhetoric actually advancing the cause of young people or of safer communities? No wonder politics is so devalued in the minds of the general public.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The purpose of protest

I have commented a number of times already about the ban on protestors outside the House of Commons. In discussions about the future of the Prime Minister on Radio Wales this morning it was suggested that Tony Blair is living in a bubble, divorced from the outside world. Therefore if he is no longer going to see protestors outside his main place of work, the House of Commons, then it is unlikely that he will come across them anywhere else. Convenient as this may be for him it does not give the rest of us any confidence that he is in touch with the general concerns of the populace.

When even the chattering classes around whom New Labour has been constructed are now being dismissed by Labour politicians as 'self-indulgent dinner party critics' and 'metropolitania' and being told that their views are irrelevant to the re-election of the Government, then it is surely valid to ask whether anybody is listening at all.

The condition seems to have spread to the First Minister, who at least does get out and about to talk to ordinary people. His visit to the Eisteddfod yesterday must be termed a public relations gaff if only because most of the protest he encountered could have been avoided if he had agreed to meet with the Cymdeithas yr Iaith to discuss their proposals. At least he could have argued then that he had listened instead of spending the day fending off a deafening megaphone and a road block.

Personally, I am not convinced of the case for a new Welsh Language Act covering the private sector which is currently being argued for. However, I do believe that more can be done with the existing Act and that there may be some measures that can be included in any legislation to abolish the Welsh Language Board that will help without proving too onerous a burden for business. Surely, that is the point of talking, so that acceptable solutions can be found to commonly agreed problems.

I do not think that the Welsh Language Board has helped this situation with its comparison with Quebec. Rhodri Morgan is right that the example is inappropriate but that should not preclude him talking with protestors. The reference by his office to 'bullies' was just crass. These people have a legitimate point of view and a right to be heard. After all we would not want to see the First Minister wrap himself in a bubble as well.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Who is spinning now?

Maybe Guido Fawkes is right that those spinning against the Prime Minister are his nearest and dearest. Now his local Party Chair is speculating publicly about his future as an MP. Meanwhile his sister-in-law is openly defying the ban on protest he instigated around the House of Commons.

Lauren Booth was quoted as saying, "This is all about silencing critics of the war in Iraq and ID cards and denying people the right to free speech. If you heard on television that someone in another country was banned from gathering near a government building to stage a legitimate protest you would probably think thank goodness that kind of thing doesn't happen in this country."

What was that about keeping your enemies close to you?


Monday, August 01, 2005

Should he stay or should he go

I bought a Stranglers greatest hits CD from the bargain basket in Virgin on Saturday, but judging by today's headlines I should have opted for the Clash.

This morning The Guardian reported that Tony Blair was going to leave us in no doubt as to whether he will be standing down as Prime Minister before the next election, by departing the House of Commons at the same time. Apparently he does not want a big job such as Earth supremo but just wants some time working to promote inter-faith unity. By 1pm it seems that all of that was just baseless speculation. After all God-forbid that anybody might have been spinning against the Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, one former party leader who is threatening to throw his toys out of the pram is Iain Duncan Smith. He has threatened to resign and run as an independent if the two people he regards as responsible for his downfall are allowed to stand as Tory candidates. Here, at least, is one politician who is prepared to stand up for his principles and put his faith in his own natural charisma and popularity for political survival.

Rumours that Robert Kilroy-Silk has resigned as the leader of the one man Sun Tan Party are as yet unconfirmed but do not at this stage appear to be true.

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