.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Jargon and gobbledegook

NUT Cymru chief, Gethin Lewis, is absolutely right when he says in the Western Mail this morning that there is too much jargon and civil service speak in Welsh education.

The first thing I did when I became chair of the Assembly's Education and Lifelong Learning Committee was to have a glossary of acronyms drawn up. It is almost as if those running education are trying to create an aura of mystique around their role so as to protect their position. The 14-19 Learning Pathways report was a classic example of impenetrable prose.

The sooner we get rid of the gobbledegook and start talking in plain English (or Welsh) then the easier it will become to have a fully inclusive debate on the future of education in Wales.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Snow joke

One of the joys of devolution is that we can blame England for most things and in particular for not having a white Christmas, or so the Western Mail would have us believe. Apparently, our neighbours have kept all the snow to themselves and have failed to let us have our Barnett share.

A seasonal trend that is starting to get out of hand in my opinion is that of taking a dip in the sea at Christmas. Porthcawl have been doing it for years in the aid of charity, as have other towns, but it has now caught on in a big way and this activity is spreading around the coast of Wales and England.

It was inevitable therefore that one of the stories on the last day of the year is of two people being treated for hypothermia after a charity Boxing Day swim. A 24 year old man and 14 year old boy collapsed on North Beach in Tenby after joining 600 others in the sea. It appears that they are both OK but their plight does raise the question of whether there are easier ways of raising money for charity?

I am spending the New Year weekend in the delightful town of Laugharne in Carmarthenshire, just a few hundred yards away from Dylan Thomas' boathouse. Blogging therefore will be light to non-existent until I get back. Have a happy and prosperous New Year.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

The fox

Lord Roberts of Conwy writing about Margaret Thatcher on the day that Harold Wilson resigned as Prime Minister:

"She was feminine, very feline - and her eyes became as sharp as a vixen's as we discussed the future."

Let's face it the old school Tories didn't have a chance. Ironically, it was the old school who put her in the position to oust Ted Heath in the first place. As is made clear in cabinet papers released this week, back in 1973, when Heath was considering reshuffling his cabinet, he was being advised to promote her ahead of Michael Heseltine, who was considered too clever for his own good. Tory Chief Whip, Francis Pym, wrote of Tarzan:

"Not everyone's favourite, partly because he is so good. Very much the professional. Becoming apprehensive that events may soon ruffle his hair. Best left alone."

It is a strange world where ability can actually count against a politician, or was it just the hair?

Teachers may strike

It is reported in the Western Mail this morning that teachers in some schools across Wales are considering strike action over the implementation of Teaching and Learning Responsibility (TLR) payments, a part of the workload agreement negotiated with some teaching unions at Westminster.

According to NUT Cymru Union secretary, Gethin Lewis, half of Wales's 28,000 teachers claim a management allowance of up to £10,000. These will be replaced by TLRs, but the new allowances will be fewer in number and may not be as much money. At the same time schools will have to run the old and new system side-by-side for three years as a transitional period. This could add to the cost of running the school with no extra money being made available to cover those costs.

Mr Lewis said, "Unfortunately, in primary and secondary schools, there is not enough money to carry on paying teachers who currently have responsibility payments.

"As a result of this ill-thought-out, badly managed Westminster initiative, many teachers in Wales are going to be facing substantial pay cuts.

"Not only will their pockets be hit but teachers' morale and motivation will receive a severe blow.

"It cannot be good for education in Wales. NUT Cymru will not hesitate to arrange strike ballots in schools where members request it."

When the secondary legislation came before the Assembly in July the Welsh Liberal Democrats were the only group to vote against it. We did so for many of these reasons, but ultimately that vote was a gesture because this is another issue the Assembly does not have the power to change. It was worthwhile, however, airing the issues and registering our objections:

Peter Black: ...............we have concerns about the funding of these regulations and their implications. If there is to be a three-year period during which the old system and the new system will run side by side, there needs to be an assurance that schools will be able to cope with that and to fund it appropriately.

The teaching unions may well be in favour of this, but I am aware of a number of teaching staff who are not so in favour of it because of the impact on their jobs. I have had discussions with some teachers at a particular school, and it is possible that some senior staff who are on leadership scales could see a drop in their salaries of between £8,500 and £12,000 a year because of the redesignation of allowances and the bringing in of the teaching and learning responsibility payment. Although they will have a three-year period during which their salaries are safeguarded, at the end of that period, unless they are able to secure promotion or some other change in their work, they will be in a situation whereby, effectively, they are taking a massive cut in their salaries, and they will find themselves greatly disadvantaged in terms of the money that they are taking back.

What happens next is in the hands of the unions, the LEAs and the Government. At the very least there needs to be a recognition that there will be additional costs to schools during the transition period and that these costs should be met centrally. Let us hope that the Minister sees some sense.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Examining our own navel

The Western Mail this morning reports on the anger felt by the Assembly's Tory leader at proposals to change the electoral system for the National Assembly from 2007 onwards. Nick Bourne accuses the Secretary of State for Wales 'of acting like a "colonial governor" by seeking to rig future elections to the National Assembly that fix the rules in favour of Labour.'

Although Nick has a point here there is a real danger that we are fighting on Peter Hain's ground whilst allowing more important changes to go through unchallenged. We should bear in mind that whilst politicians are getting worked up about this important issue, voters have more other concerns.

I have made it clear in the past that I believe that the Electoral Commission is essentially right in their claim that the adoption of the Ukrainian system of preventing candidates fighting both a constituency and on a list is gerrymandering. That view is repeated by Nick Bourne. What has remained clear to me throughout this argument is that the objective should be to achieve clarity and equality so that all 60 AMs operate with a comparable role and common constituency base. If we are to retain proportionality then STV is the only way to achieve that.

The problem seems to be that the role of a list AM has never been properly defined and as a result we find ourselves trying to determine their job by the way they are elected, a wholly unsatisfactory and absurd position. Hence the Western Mail this morning is able to promote the view that if STV is not acceptable to the UK Government then they should consider a National list. Such a change would accentuate tensions within the Assembly by reinforcing the perception that there are two different classes of AM, taking away the regional role and local links from the list members, leaving them as pure legislators whilst their constituency equivalents would continue to evolve into glorified social workers.

That is a recipe for chaos. It will inevitably lead to an uneven provision of resources to the different categories of Assembly Member, undermining their ability to do the job they were elected for. Such a system would collapse under the weight of its own contradictions within one Assembly term. Nevertheless the paper is able to promote it because they are fixated on process rather than outcomes.

Behind all of this scrapping lies a wider issue, the role of the Assembly itself. A letter in the same edition of the Western Mail sums up where the real debate should lie. It is written by a Gareth Butler of Aberystwyth. Mr. Butler shares the name of a former Plaid Cymru Councillor in that town but I cannot be certain if they are one and the same. Nevertheless, his point is very valid:

The purpose of devolution is to transfer more power from Westminster to the Assembly not from the Assembly to the desk of the Secretary of State. The targeting of the opposition is a side issue to the real debate surrounding the Government of Wales Bill which is how workable the law making proposals will be when Mr Hain has left for another place?

Lord Richard marked the proposals as 'B+'. With a Tory Secretary of State from Chesham, Worcester or Wokingham they'll become 'B' unworkable.

Important as it is that we get the representation right, so that all parts of Wales gets a say and political parties and independents are represented in accordance with the wishes of the electorate, the big issue in the new Government of Wales Bill is whether or not it produces an Assembly or Parliament capable of implementing the changes necessary to make a real difference to people's lives. We should not allow that goal to be lost in petty party political point scoring or in the rhetoric and arguments over electoral systems.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

A caring, sharing Christmas

Have I missed something or are there very few Christmas messages from politicians this year? It may be that this has always been the case but a quick trawl of the main party sites finds only one, a standard text from Conservative Party Chair, Francis Maude, wishing all Christians and Jews a merry Christmas and a happy Hanukah. Mr. Maude uses his message to promote the new respect agenda being promoted by David Cameron:

"however different our customs and beliefs we share at the same time a duty of mutual respect and responsibility - Christmas and Hanukah remind us again to celebrate those best aspects of our individual beliefs while hoping for a happy and prosperous New Year."

Perhaps his party leader's New Year message will contain some policies against which we can test this spirit of harmony. In the meantime the rest of us can take the new caring, sharing Conservative Party with a large pinch of salt.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Boxing Day

I am very tempted to write about the hunting ban today and some of the outrageous comments in today's Western Mail. In particular the claim that "Hunting is humane and natural......It forms a vital part of many rural communities and their social lives. The Hunting Act threatens these communities and their relationship with the local police."

If these people think that using dogs to rip apart another creature is humane then they obviously have a different set of values to most of the human race. There is nothing natural about a group of people dressing up in red and chasing around the countryside on horses, smearing blood on the face of initiates and if the Hunting Act is threatening the relationship between communities and the police then that can only be because they are either breaking the law or pushing it to the very limits. It is like saying that the outlawing of burglary threatens the relationship between burglars and the community bobby. If they break the law then they should be arrested and put on trial.

However, I will write instead about Dr. Who, who I thought, took Christmas Day by storm. The film was witty and it was exciting. The script was audacious, self-aware and at times just too clever for its own good. It is one thing, for example, to use a cup of tea as the device to revive the Doctor, but quite another to use the first letter in each paragraph in the Christmas Radio Times Dr. Who Special to spell out "A cup of tea". The Doctor worries about whether he has regenerated with ginger hair, he quotes from the Lion King and compares himself to Arthur Dent as he fights the Sycorax in his pyjamas.

It was classic Russell T. Davies right down to the killer Christmas Tree. He has created a Doctor steeped in the popular culture of the twenty first and twentieth centuries, an alien who is more rounded and more human than the people he helps, compassionate, knowing and clearly higher up the evolutionary chain. I cannot wait for the new series.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas

Mmm, shall I post on Christmas Day?

No, I do not think that I will!

Have a good Christmas.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Christmas Traditions

It is Christmas Eve and I still need to wrap my presents and finish putting up the decorations. Everybody seems to be agreed that the highlight of the festive season will be tomorrow's airing of the Dr. Who Christmas special. This is a big jump from previous Christmas staples such as the Morecambe and Wise Show and Only Fools and Horses.

Today's Guardian heightens our anticipation by reviewing the standard fare from other countries around the World. Come to think of it, haven't I read this article before? It seems that others have their TV traditions as well.

The French offering of the 1982, black-comedy Le Père Noël Est Une Ordure (which translates along the lines of Father Christmas Is A Scumbag) actually sounds like it is worthwhile watching. The Guardian reviewer says it is 'set on Christmas Eve in a social service helpline call centre, three workers try with varying degrees of failure to spread festive cheer among the depressed, suicidal homeless, heartbroken and bereaved who turn up looking for salvation. Utterly bleak, totally farcical, and very very funny.' It can only go downhill from here, and it does.

In Germany, we are told that no Christmas is complete without three films: 'Little Lord Fauntleroy (small child in daft velour trouser-suit inherits castle. The end); Das Fliegende Klassenzimmer (The Flying Classroom); and classic chick-flick Sissi, a cheery bio-pic about the Empress of Austria's anorexia, marital abuse and assassination. However, topping New Year's Eve ratings every year since 1973 is a black and white, 11-minute cult British comedy sketch called Dinner For One. The sketch centres around a randy, tipsy 90-year-old aristocrat, Miss Sophie, and her long-suffering, equally sozzled butler, James. "Same procedure as last year?" slurs James, chivvying Miss Sophie upstairs for her annual festive seeing-to. "Same procedure as every year!" hiccups Miss Sophie, as millions of viewers all over Germany yell along with the catchphrases in glee. Filmed in 1963, Dinner For One is a holiday hit all over Europe, including Estonia, Switzerland and Latvia. Everywhere, in fact, except for its place of creation, Britain, where we spotted, 42 years ago, that it was really, really bloody unfunny.'

Sweden has Kalle Anke or Donald Duck to the uninitiated, whilst in Russia Eldar Ryanazov's comedy The Irony Of Fate has been an intrinsic part of their New Year's Eve ritual since 1975. Described as a three-hour-long comedy of errors, this film is the tale of a man who gets drunk, goes home to the wrong flat and falls in love with the woman he meets there. It is shown several times a day every December 31 just in case you missed a bit the first time around.

Top of the pops however has to be Romania where the highlight of the Christmas period is footage of the Ceausescus being dragged outside on Christmas Day 1989 and executed by firing squad over the small matter of genocide, moving a billion dollars of Romanian money into off-shore accounts and ruining the country's heritage. They are a cheerful lot these Rumanians!

Friday, December 23, 2005

The wrong button

The BBC reveal this morning that London only made it into the last round of voting to stage the 2012 Olympics because the Greek delegate pressed the wrong button:

"London was ahead, but Paris and Madrid were 33-31 in the votes," said Gilady.

"Let's say what we think now happened, that one member made a mistake and voted for Paris rather than Madrid.

"If he had voted for Madrid it would be 32-32. We would have to have had a vote-off.

"In the vote-off all the votes supporting London would go to Madrid, because the fear was that Paris had a big chance to win.

"Madrid would then have won against Paris.

"Coming to the final against London, all the votes from Paris would have gone to support Madrid.

"Madrid would have won.

"That is now what we think happened. This is what you call good fortune and good luck."

This sort of thing happens all the time in the Assembly chamber of course. We have even had Ministers pressing the wrong button and accidentally voting against the party line due a lapse of concentration. The different technology in the new chamber could well contribute to such incidents in the future.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Exclusive - inside the Assembly Senedd building

I said yesterday that I would post pictures of inside the new Assembly building and in particular the controversial artwork. The picture above is of the Members' tearoom at the rear of the new Chamber. As you can see a particularly garish pink was the colour of choice for the wall here.

The aim is to be able to stage the first Plenary in the new building sometime in the middle of January. On our tour yesterday this seemed to be ambitious if only because of the large number of snags that need to be corrected and the fact that the ICT equipment is still being installed. Nevertheless, it is likely that this work will continue around us as we debate.

The Chamber itself was particularly impressive but I found the Committee Rooms hard to get used to. This is partly because they appear to have modelled them on squash courts as this picture makes clear.

The table itself is very impressive and at least they have toned down the artwork at the back. Apparently, each one of these tables needs four people to move it. There are two more Committee Rooms that can be merged into one meeting room capable of accommodating 40 people. The photograph below shows the dividing wall being moved into place. It apparently also doubles up as artwork!

The next photograph is of the chamber itself. As you can see, it is equipped with the latest ICT equipment and there is even enough room at each desk to sign Christmas cards. It is actually possible to read individual computer screens from the public gallery so I suspect that this will act as a limiting factor for AMs in how they use them. Nevertheless it is possible to get full internet access, to work on documents and e-mails on our main Assembly profile, to send messages to other seats in the chamber and there is even a button to press that tells the Presiding Officer that we want to speak. This ability to work in the Chamber is useful as the main route from our offices is so tortuous that if we tried to move between them and the Chamber on anything like a regular basis we would all be missing votes.

Disabled access in the chamber is provided by two platform lifts on the steps leading down to the well of the chamber. Finally, the Presiding Officer gets used to his new surroundings!

It is worth noting here the plasma screen in the top right hand corner of the photograph. The graph is an example of the way that votes will be recorded. The screens can also include live coverage of the Assembly if required or act as a video conferencing facility. Apparently, the draft bill allows for the Secretary of State for Wales to participate in Assembly proceedings by video conference. It will be like having a rally featuring Orwell's Big Brother!

That petition!

The march of the egos continued yesterday with the launch of an on-line petition calling for the removal of Charles Kennedy as leader. The site is supposedly hosted by an obscure and hitherto unknown approved Liberal Democrats candidate called Ben Ramm. He edits a magazine called the Liberal. Despite claims that it is an 'in-house' magazine, I suspect that its readership can be counted on one hand. The one free copy that was sent to me was so appalling that I threw it straight into the recycling. James Graham has assessed the situation correctly in my opinion:

In all honesty, I think this petition is perversely good news for Kennedy. It will have the effect of over-egging the pudding just before Christmas. They don’t appear to have troubled themselves with the hassle of introducing any way of differentiating members who sign the petition from non-members, which means it can be easily dismissed even if they suddenly came up with tens of thousands of names. And they haven’t included a data-protection statement or opt-out, meaning they will not legally be able to use the email addresses they collect to campaign.

Tom Watson is also right to query this tactic. The one unanswered question is which of the 'cowardly conspirators' amongst the Lib Dems MPs is behind this latest escalation in the media hysteria that has resulted from the election of David Cameron as Tory Leader?

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Scoping the Senedd

The Times yesterday carried an article on the new Assembly building or Senedd, as it is to be known. I have just spent twenty minutes familiarising myself with the new technology in the Chamber and will shortly be going on a tour with the House Committee. I am told that the artwork is 'unique'. I will be taking a camera, so expect some examples to appear here.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

An Australian can look at a Queen

Personally, I quite like Rolf Harris' portrait of 'Her Maj', Queen Elizabeth, however I enjoyed more this gem tucked away in Marina Hyde's Guardian column today:

Discussing his similarly reviled cover of Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven, which featured a didgeridoo solo, Rolf eventually confessed he had never heard the original when he came to record it. "And when I did," he told an interviewer in that familiar half-whisper, "I thought: 'Oh my God ... what have I done?'"

Christmas Rap

As Christmas gets closer the news flows more slowly, hence the Western Mail this morning leads on a Welsh Development Agency staff party. As the WDA will cease to exist on 1 April it is the last such event before the staff all become civil servants, some hi-jinks are to be expected therefore. In this case though those antics take on a political overtone as a song performed by a a few staff members undermines the claim by Economic Development Minister, Andrew Davies, that morale is high and that everybody is looking forward to the challenges ahead.

The words of Newport band Goldie Lookin' Chain's rap song Guns Don't Kill People, Rappers Do were changed to "Funds don't kill people, mergers do, Ask any politician and they'll say it ain't true". The paper reports that it was greeted with spontaneous applause at the party in Cardiff. The Western Mail actually carries the entire re-write but I will spare you the agony. Needless to say, things are not as rosy in the garden as the Welsh Assembly Government would have us believe.

Monday, December 19, 2005

All-out war in Labour's ranks

Although the Government's Education White Paper will have few ramifications for Wales, the all-out war it has provoked amongst Labour MPs continues to provoke headlines. Today, it is the turn of the Deputy Prime Minister, who has refused to retract his outspoken concerns about the impact of the reforms:

Since Mr Prescott voiced his doubts about Ruth Kelly's new education white paper in cabinet last month it has been an open secret that the 11-plus failure, who attended Ruskin College, Oxford, as a mature student, shares many of the concerns voiced by the former education secretary, Estelle Morris, and more than 50 Labour MPs.

As loyalist MPs defended the Blair plan, Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland secretary, welcomed "healthy debate" and Douglas Alexander, the Europe minister and Brown ally, said the outcome would be "informed by the discussions that we have with parliamentary colleagues".

In the interview Mr Prescott flagged up worry about the reduced role of local education authorities if schools opt to become trust schools, controlling their own admissions policy.

Like the rebels, he wants the admissions code for England's 4,500 secondary schools to become statutory so schools cannot ignore it and hoover up motivated pupils who rush to attend good schools. City academies could become the new grammar schools, he explained.

"Since I was an 11-plus failure, since I do believe that produced a 'first-class/second-class' education system, I fear this is a framework that may do the same. I'm somewhat critical of it," said Mr Prescott.

John Prescott has put his finger on the main problem with the White Paper, namely that it puts choice before quality, ideology before the interests of children. What is worse is that the choice on offer is that for the best schools to cherry-pick the brightest kids. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds will be left out in the cold.

It is now looking increasingly likely that the only way that Blair will get these reforms through will be with the help of the Tories. That must be a grim prospect for many Labour activists as it will be for those gungho Conservatives who would rather inflict defeat on the Prime Minister than assist him in advancing the New Labour project.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Times - an apology

OK, I take back what I said about The Times just targeting the Liberal Democrats. They have other victims in their sights as well.

Today we have an article questioning whether the Deputy Prime Minister is paying any Council Tax on his three homes, plus news of a row between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown over the European Union budget deal. It has emerged that the chancellor was not given a say over the prime minister’s last-minute climbdown in which he handed £1 billion over to the European Union. There are also splits between John Prescott and the Prime Minister over the Education White Paper:

"Amid further signs that Blair is losing his grip on his cabinet, John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, has confirmed his opposition to the prime minister’s schools reforms and it emerged that he is leading a separate revolt over public sector pensions. Last Thursday’s cabinet meeting was said to have been the "rowdiest" ever as Prescott and Brown’s allies joined forces to oppose plans to give judges special cash "awards" on retirement."

I am pleased to see that it is not just Liberal Democrats MPs who are briefing furiously against each other in the media! Perhaps the paper will turn on the Tories next.

Cameron drives the Tories to Liberal Democrats

Another spoof website, this time a rather clever one that makes you think a bit before you realise it is not the genuine article. I rather enjoyed the headline - "I'm appealing to all Tory voters, Councillors, and MPs to go and join the Liberal Democrats." (the MEPs might beat you there though...).

The consensus now is that this Hereford speech of Dave's was an own goal and actually threw a lifeline to Charles Kennedy.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Put that cigarette out!

As an Assembly Member I get all sorts of corporate cards, many of them quite original. Although I favour a ban on smoking in the workplace, this card from one of the opponents of that proposition still amused me.

Cameron declares himself to be a Liberal?

So what is he doing leading the Conservative Party? It would be remiss of me not to post about David Cameron's speech in Hereford yesterday when he described himself as a "Conservative liberal" (what exactly is that? - Ed) and said that the two parties now had similar views on issues ranging from the environment to decentralisation, civil liberties and even Europe.

As this is the first time Cameron has mentioned policy then this is news to me and I suspect to many Tories themselves who are opposed to the Euro (unlike the Liberal Democrats), do not want to see green taxation and believe that the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament should be abolished. Perhaps he should get the consent of his party before reshaping it as a Liberal Democrats-mark II. It is all clever stuff but one does get the impression that Dave is thinking on his feet a bit.

Simon Hughes was absolutely correct when he said that the Tories: "may have changed their salesman again, but they haven't changed their product. Talking about the environment, social justice, and a brave new world, is different from changing policy on nuclear power, fairer taxes, and Europe."

Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats Youth and Students have launched their own response with a website entitled Cameron for Lib Dems? On this site they say that:

"we are always delighted if somebody wants to join our party but we have some reservations:

The Liberal Democrats stand for Liberal values. Sadly Dave doesn't."

Friday, December 16, 2005

Waking up in the shower

The closer we get to Christmas the less time I seem to have. There is just time therefore to note that Labour appear to have learnt one of the lessons from their Blaenau Gwent defeat earlier this year. They have selected a high profile candidate for the Assembly with local roots. Now we will see how permanent is the damage inflicted by Peter Law.

Talking about comebacks, I see that Richard Hillman is to return from his watery grave to harrass the cast of Coronation Street once more. Presumably, he will wake up in the shower Bobby Ewing style. If only politics was like that.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

More on leadership

The papers today are full of articles on the so-called Kennedy leadership crisis. The consensus seems to be that he has survived this crisis but that it may well rear its head again in a few months if things do not improve.

On one blog, former Federal Executive member, James Graham says:

The bottom line is that there is no-one in the Lib Dem Parliamentary Party that is of both sufficient calibre or has sufficient experience to in any way challenge Charles; they’ve demonstrated this this week. There is no Hughes, Oaten, Davey or Campbell bandwagon rolling because the first three just don’t cut it and the fourth one is just too old. A serious contender right now would already have at least a dozen identified supporters behind him and could afford to release at least three of them off their leashes to publicly attack Charles. Palpably, this is not the case.

Of course supporting a leader because there is no alternative is not really satisfactory either. On balance my judgement, and I suspect that of others, is that Charles is still an asset to the party and that no matter how many times senior Liberal Democrats MPs bare their egos they cannot change the fact that he remains popular in the party at large and amongst the public.

The misjudgement of these senior MPs is that they have tried to treat this matter as it would be dealt with in the Tory Party - behind-the-scenes briefing followed by a visit by the men in dark suits. That is not the way that the Party should or does work. They have upset and alienated a lot of activists and ordinary members from their cause and done the party no good at all. As for The Times, we have seen now what they are against - Charles Kennedy and the Liberal Democrats - perhaps it is time that they stopped behaving like the worst kind of tabloid and started debating the issues.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Kirsty for Leader!

As we seem to be in the middle of a Liberal Democrats leadership crisis at a UK level, I thought I would stir things up a bit here in Wales as well. Just kidding. Honestly!

Kirsty Williams will kill me for posting this photograph here.

Casanova in a TARDIS

Yesterday's Independent had an interesting article on the Dr. Who Christmas Special in which they reveal that the programme will contain a pointed anti-war message and raise the suggestion that the Prime Minister is a poodle of the US President.

They also provide some tasters for the new series including the fact that the Doctor and Rose will exchange a kiss on the lips. I predicted that this would happen as soon as I heard that they were casting Casanova as the Doctor.

Much more exciting is the return of the robot dog, K9. When I was a kid K9 was by far the best thing about Doctor Who and you just know that Russell T. Davies will not waste the opportunities offered by the presence of this electronic canine.

Sainsburys draw a veil over JS:TO

It seems that my e-mail correspondence with Sainsburys over their decision to ban Jerry Springer:The Opera has been brought to a premature close. I responded to their first answer by seeking to probe their assertion that the ban was a commercial decision:

Thanks for your e-mail. You argue that the withdrawal of this DVD was a commercial decision and yet you admit withdrawing it prematurely as a result of complaints. You cannot have it both ways. Would you be able to supply me with some comparative figures for the sale of other DVDs in the same period so as to enable me to make a judgement as to whether the figures you supply for Jerry Springer: The Opera are really as bad as you say? Thanks

In response I got this:

Dear Mr Black,

Thank you for writing to us again. I am sorry you remain unhappy that we are no longer stocking Jerry Springer - The Opera and that you were not satisfied with our previous response.

Please be assured that we have read your e-mails and have taken all the points you raise into consideration. However, we now feel it is inappropriate to reply to any further detailed questions about our decision to withdraw this product. We will continue to work hard to provide our customers with a range of products we believe they would like to buy.

Thank you once again for letting us know what you think.

Kind regards,

Deborah Hubbard
Sainsbury's Customer Services

Quite how they are proposing to provide customers with a range of products that they believe we would like to buy when they only listen to one particular group is difficult to say. Either way they do not wish to be scrutinised and it seems that they cannot back up their previous assertions with any evidence. This leaves me with just one choice - boycott them and do my shopping at a store that really does act in a commercial way and does not seek to treat its customers like children. I would urge everybody else to do the same.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

In the clink

Plaid Cymru's Leanne Wood has announced that she is prepared to go to jail rather than carry the proposed new ID card. Typical! Just as Labour were started to struggle to get the legislation through, she gives them an incentive to redouble their efforts.


Plain Speaking

Apparently, First Minister Rhodri Morgan has become the first person to win a high-profile UK award for the most baffling statement of the year twice.

Judges awarded him this year's Plain English Campaign "Foot in Mouth" prize for comments during an Assembly debate on policing when he said, "The only thing which isn't up for grabs is no change and I think it's fair to say it's all to play for, except for no change."

Rhodri previously won the award in 1998 for his celebrated "one-legged duck" remark on BBC's Newsnight. Edwina Hart also gets a mention for her eminently sensible contribution to the debate on police reform when she said:

"Let's get the anger and frustration out today but let's not take our eye off the ball. I'm not saying we will win the day but the day we have to win might not be the day next year but it might be in a few years' time when we will have a structure here that can be satisfactorily devolved to us."

Well, at least we are being talked about!

No laughing matter

Liberal Democrats AM, Jenny Randerson, has published the most unlikely response yet by a Government body to a Freedom of Information Act request - "we cannot tell you in case you laugh at us."

In response to Jenny's request for disclosure of documents relating to the budget of the Assembly's economic development and transport division, official Geraint James wrote saying some material would be withheld.

His letter stated, "The convention of collective responsibility of Cabinet is a well-established principle of government that has been adopted by the executive of the Welsh Assembly Government.

"It is vitally important that Ministers feel free to be able to debate fully all possible angles before coming to an agreed position.

"This process is one in which Ministers and officials are encouraged to be imaginative and consider innovative ideas.

"The exposure of some of these discussions to the public domain, via a freedom of information request, may lead to individuals, or Cabinet, being targeted for ridicule through the media.

"Such a prospect would, or would be likely to, inhibit the free and frank exchange of ideas.

"The result of this, in our view, would ultimately undermine the convention of collective responsibility and result in poorer decision making and thus poorer government for the people of Wales."

As Jenny says: "Exposing politicians to ridicule is not an exemption under the Freedom of Information Act allowing public bodies not to release documents. I find it extraordinary that the Assembly Government is using such an excuse.

"Once again, Labour's claim to run the most open administration in the western world itself looks ridiculous."

N.B. By the way I thought that the Western Mail was most unfair to Jenny today in publishing a photograph of her signing Christmas cards in the chamber, whilst Nick Bourne was on his feet speaking. Assembly Members often bring constituency work and other official business into the chamber so as to maximise their time. Some have even been seen reading a broadsheet newspaper. Needless to say that Jenny Randerson was not the only AM signing Christmas cards in the chamber on that day.

Fighting the Ukrainian option

The Western Mail reported yesterday that the Electoral Reform Society has joined in the attack on Peter Hain's Ukrainian option for the Assembly voting system. Electoral Reform Society Chief Executive, Ken Ritchie, said: "Even if dual candidates were banned there would still be conflict between constituency and regional members. There is no proposal for ending that problem. Instead of this artificial ban we would rather see a change in the voting system so that all Assembly Members are elected in a similar manner. Our favoured solution is the single transferable vote (STV) system as recommended by the Richard Commission - a recommendation that the Government has curiously chosen to ignore. Under STV all members are elected by the same method."

James Graham has drawn my attention to another piece on this badly thought through piece of gerrymandering, this time exposing more nonsense by the Secretary of State for Wales as he tries to justify his proposal:

Peter Hain was presented with the finding from two academics that the only system similar to the one he proposed had been used in pre-Orange revolution Ukraine, and why that was the most appropriate model for Wales. Hain replied:

"It is not, and indeed the two academics are wrong because I researched this very carefully. The issue of dual candidacy is one that has proved controversial in many other jurisdictions that have introduced additional member systems, and there are not many that have. This is a fairly unusual system. For example, it was considered by New Zealand's independent commission on electoral systems and two Canadian Provinces that are planning to introduce the additional member systems and are committed to banning dual candidacy. I draw from that that in those British-type parliamentary systems, New Zealand and specifically in Canada, they are committed to doing this. The somewhat gratuitous reference to Ukraine is wrong, and I suggest the academics get better researchers in the future, similar to the ones I have got."

The reference to New Zealand is flat-out wrong. In 2001 their Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry (yes, a government that held an open review into their electoral system!) in New Zealand was very firm about dual candidacy - in support of the idea.

"The committee was unanimous in its view that dual candidacies should continue. Members saw the placement of candidates as an issue for parties to determine. Committee members also considered the alternative would impact unreasonably on small parties who may not be able to field candidates in all electorates. Committee members agreed that parties must have the flexibility to decide where and how members will be placed as either electorate candidates, or on the list, or both. There may be very good reasons for a party’s decision in this regard. The committee also considered that the impact of a prohibition on dual candidacies on smaller parties would be unacceptable. This could be seen as restricting their ability to participate in the democratic process."

There was much more concern in the early years of MMP in New Zealand about the position of MPs elected on party lists who subsequently defect from the party. This led to legislation in 2001 banning party-jumping by list MPs. I might return to the issue of party-jumping among list MPs in due course. The committee's recommendation on dual candidacy was wholeheartedly endorsed by the New Zealand government, who agreed that a ban would interfere in the proper functions of parties in candidate selection and be an unreasonable imposition on small parties.

While it is true that recent Canadian proposals have included bans on dual candidacy, it is not generally regarded as a problem in most countries - the Canadian debate on MMP may have been influenced by the entirely artificial fuss about the system in Wales. AMS is far from an unusual system, either. It has been used since the 1940s in Germany, and was adopted by several countries in the 1990s (there are fashions in electoral systems as in other things) such as Italy, Japan, Hungary (in a complex variant) and New Zealand.

Dual candidacy is just one of the wrinkles and anomalies with AMS systems - STV is a lot tidier in that there is only one route in. Some countries seem to manage just fine with AMS - presumably because, unlike in Wales and Scotland, some thought has gone into the role and purpose of the list members. Another issue is the partisan split. In other countries (including Scotland) all parties have some list representatives, while in Wales a Labour executive draws its support exclusively from Labour constituency members. This then leads to a temptation, into which Hain has unfortunately fallen, to delegitimise the opposition members (mainly from the lists).

It is certainly not an abuse for candidates to stand in both list and constituencies - it is often a lifeline for smaller parties. Peter Hain would do well to read the New Zealand committee's conclusions properly, and not use his position to take gratuitous shots at people who do research whose conclusions he doesn't like.

I thought I would quote it in full as I know how you all dislike leaving this blog to go and look at the links!

More on Jerry Springer

I had a reply from Sainsburys yesterday to my e-mail protesting at the withdrawal of the DVD of Jerry Springer: The Opera from their shelves. It is worth quoting it in full:

Dear Mr Black,

Thank you for contacting us. I am sorry you have been disappointed by our decision to withdraw Jerry Springer – The Opera from sale in our stores. As there has been lots of interest in this matter I would like to clarify why the title was taken out of our range.

We sell many DVD titles throughout the year and our range changes from week to week based on what customers want and, of course, sales. In the first week that Jerry Springer – The Opera was released, we sold only 111 copies in all stores nationwide and received a high number of complaints from unhappy customers. In the early part of the second week we sold only 21 more copies and received further complaints. Due to these very poor sales figures this DVD would have been withdrawn at the end of the week, but in view of the complaints we had received we removed it a few days earlier than planned.

Please be assured that, as a company, we feel it is our responsibility to offer choice. We do not feel it is right for us to tell our customers what they should or should not buy. However, in this case sales were so low that we did not think removing this title would have a negative impact on our customers and we wanted to give them a choice of more popular titles.

Thank you for taking the time to let us know your views on this matter and for giving us a chance to explain the reasons behind our decision.Kind regards,

Graham Salmon
Sainsbury's Customer Services

The point that occurred to me on reading this was that Sainsburys are trying to claim it is a commercial decision and yet they admit that the DVD was withdrawn prematurely as a result of complaints. In other words it was a political decision. I have e-mailed Mr. Salmon back to ask him for details of sales of other DVDs in the same period so as to provide a comparison that might assist us in judging whether this really was a commercial decision or not.

Monday, December 12, 2005

in transit

There is so much to write about today and no time to do it in. I will just have to catch up tomorrow.

Although this is recess I spent this morning in a meeting in Swansea discussing homelessness and the Assembly Government's legislation restricting the use of bed and breakfast. Then it was onto a train to London for some individual meetings with MPs about education policy and the Government's white paper on choice, which will largely apply to England but has ramifications for Wales nevertheless.

My arrival in London coincided with newspaper headlines about a poison gas cloud descending on the capital tonight, following the explosion at the Buncefield oil depot yesterday. As I sit on the train back to Wales the cloud has still not descended but I do not envy Londoners who face that prospect.There are clearly lessons to be learnt here not least with regards to the oil terminals and proposed LNG plant In Pembrokeshire.

in transit

There is so much to write about today and no time to do it in. I will just have to catch up tomorrow.

Although this is recess I spent this morning in a meeting in Swansea discussing homelessness and the Assembly Government's legislation restricting the use of bed and breakfast. Then it was onto a train to London for some individual meetings with MPs about education policy and the Government's white paper on choice, which will largely apply to England but has ramifications for Wales nevertheless.

My arrival in London coincided with newspaper headlines about a poison gas cloud descending on the capital tonight, following the explosion at the Buncefield oil depot yesterday. As I sit on the train back to Wales the cloud has still not descended but I do not envy Londoners who face that prospect.There are clearly lessons to be learnt here not least with regards to the oil terminals and proposed LNG plant In Pembrokeshire.

Swansong of the Tory Europhiles

The most memorable part of this outburst by arch-Tory Europhile, Ken Clarke, is its complete lack of impact on his party. Some might say that the reason for this is that Ken is a busted flush and no longer taken seriously by the membership. More likely however is that the charge of Euroscepticism Ken levels against the new Tory leader is now the mainstream view of both the Party's membership and their Parliamentary Party and that there is nobody left to rally to the pro-European banner.

The splits that characterised the collapse of the Conservatives as a party of Government from 1992 onwards have been resolved by a mass exodus of pro-Europeans from the party. Those that remain are keeping their head down, whilst Tory MEPs find themselves fighting a losing battle against the new status quo.

Whether this makes the Tories more electable is a question that can only be resolved in due course. What it does do is to present a clearer choice to the electorate whilst it may force Labour to be clearer about their intentions. What it also does is to make it more difficult for Cameron to run to the centre. Many of the Tory votes he wishes to reclaim abandoned the party precisely because of their growing Euro-scepticism. Many ended up voting for New Labour, a sizeable number opted for the Liberal Democrats.

It is possible that Cameron has limited his pronouncements on Europe to the one policy of splitting with the European People's Party precisely for that reason. However, he will find it difficult to continue to sit on the fence on this matter or even to deal with Europe on an issue by issue basis. He needs to clarify his approach if he wants to make progress. His problem is that in doing so he will either alienate a large number of his MPs and party members or that portion of the electorate he needs to persuade to vote for him if he is to win.

That is the real test of his leadership. It is also a test of how badly the Tories want to be back in government. Whatever happens, past experience indicate that even the most power-hungry Tory can only hold his or her nose for so long. It is possible that the re-shaping of the Conservative Party will founder on this issue yet again.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Tabloid tittle-tattle

I am resisting commenting on the Wales on Sunday's report that Charlotte Church's family has been rocked by a lurid sex story or even that a racism tsar has been hired to teach Welsh kids how to be nice to the English (actually the headline writer appears to have made that up). I am sorely tempted to refer to yesterday's story that Royal Mail delivery offices across Wales are expecting the biggest postbag of the festive season on Monday, but only because I have already written and posted all my Christmas cards. Instead I am going to resort to triviality and write about the latest Tory own-goal in Wales.

The paper set a test for the new Tory Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Cheryl Gillan - the Cardiff-born MP for Chesham and Amersham in leafly Buckinghamshire, 120 miles from the Severn Bridge. Unfortunately, Cheryl did not know how many AMs are in the National Assembly, had never heard of S4C soap, Pobol y Cwm and was unaware that Cardiff firm Brains make beer. Shockingly, she did not know either who the Wales rugby coach is. It is Mike Ruddock. Come back Bill Wiggin, all is forgiven.

Jerry Springer: The Opera

Like many others I am appalled at the decision of Sainsburys and Woolworths to succumb to pressure from fundamentalist groups and withdraw from their shelves the DVD of Jerry Springer: The Opera. I have e-mailed the two companies customer services departments to protest. You can also do the same if you feel strongly enough here and here. The mediawatchwatch site has more details about who and where to complain to. The background to the ban can also be found on the mediawatchwatch site here. Liberal Democrats MP, Lynne Featherstone, has taken up this fight and offers some useful advice as to how to complain on her blog.

Both Sainsburys and Woolworths have now started to claim that this is a purely commercial decision, however The Independent thinks otherwise:

Major retail chains have bowed to pressure from a tiny fringe Christian group by withdrawing copies of a DVD of Jerry Springer: The Opera from stores around the UK.

Woolworths and Sainsbury have both taken the unprecedented step of removing the film from shelves because of "customer" concerns about the content of the musical, released three weeks ago. Sainsbury has admitted it received just 10 complaints.

I have read a lot about this on the blogosphere recently but like Lynne, I was very taken with this particular complaint to Sainsburys:

I am disturbed by the decision-making in your DVD purchasing department. There is a DVD widely stocked by your otherwise morally upstanding establishment that is frankly (and I apologize for the rough language) a blot on the Sainsbury escutcheon. I am referring, of course, to “Jim Davidson - Full On Live.”

That you would allow such a tawdry, debased and vile individual to leer at your customers from the DVD shelves is a disgrace. I know people who have children, and I shudder to think what kind of example you are setting them, via the promotion of Mr Davidson’s products.

Clearly, by stocking this DVD, Sainsbury are sending out the message that tax evasion, racism, spousal abuse and old jokes are things to be aspired to. I, however, disagree. I would therefore insist that you remove this offensive item from the shelves forthwith or I (and many of my kith and kin) will be forced to take our business elsewhere. I have heard very good reports of the cheese counter of the local Waitrose, for example. Do not make me do this.

My continued support of your otherwise august establishment is also dependent on one other thing - that you reverse your decision to ban the DVD “Jerry Springer - The Opera” from your stores immediately. These sceptred isles have a long tradition of bawdy entertainment, satire and musical theatre stretching back hundreds of years. Your erroneous decision to ban this DVD would have Rabelais, Swift, Pope and Orwell spinning in their graves. Or are you going to ban their fine and upstanding work from your shelves also? I expect to see “Jerry Springer - The Opera” on your shop shelves shortly.

Nobody should support this sort of censorship in my opinion. People should be able to choose for themselves rather than having that choice made for them by a handful of fundamentalists.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Unparliamentary language

My thanks to Kerron Cross for drawing attention to this piece on the BBC website discussing the history of unparliamentary language. Some of the insults are actually rather clever and it is almost a shame that the Speaker acted to censor them:

'Former Labour MP Martin O'Neill had to take back "without reservation" his description of Tory front-bencher Angela Browning as "a second-rate Miss Marple".

She remained remarkably unbothered by the epithet.

Equally, John Major, when Prime Minister, was ordered to withdraw his summing up of Tony Blair, then Opposition leader, as "a dimwit". Tony Banks escaped reprimand for his jibes, earning a peerage instead.

Yet the former Labour MP Tony Banks escaped rebuke for accusing Margaret Thatcher of acting "with the sensitivity of a sex-starved boa-constrictor".

He also once described - with impunity - the former Tory MP Terry Dicks as "living proof that a pig's bladder on the end of a stick can be elected to Parliament".'

I do have a Dictionary of Slang at home from my time doing a linguistics course at University so the historical perspective of some of the terms is fascinating:

'The word "twerp" has had a chequered history. When used in 1956, the Speaker ruled it in order because, inexplicably, he assumed "it was a sort of technical term of the aviation industry".

But when, years later, the late anti-monarchist Labour MP Willie Hamilton described Prince Charles as "that young twerp" he was instantly ordered to withdraw the epithet.

In 1896, the term "Tory skunk" was ruled admissible - "but only just". Yet the term "political skunk" was ruled out of order a century later.

Oddly, "political weasel and guttersnipe" passed muster, but the term "rat" has sometimes been in order and sometimes not.

One Labour MP was called to order for saying that a Tory was a member of the SS. As he withdrew the term, he pretended he thought the letters stood for "silly sod".

Ex-Labour MP Paul Boateng was once hauled over the coals for using the term "Sweet FA" because the authorities wrongly thought it was a way of using the "F-word".

In fact it is a 19th century naval slang for packed mutton. It refers to Fanny Adams, who was murdered in 1867, cut into pieces and thrown into the river at Alton, Hampshire.'

The key to all these insults is whether one can take it as well as dishing it out. Norman Tebbit was a famed bruiser in these sorts of situations but when Michael Foot got one over him by describing him as a "semi-house-trained polecat", Tebbit responded by using a polecat in his coat-of-arms when he entered the House of Lords. Class!

Friday, December 09, 2005

Where have all the top quality politicians gone

So Peter Hain and the Labour Party have gone and done it. They have put into their bill a clause to stop people standing for both the regional list and in a constituency. In his justification for this Peter Hain is fond of quoting the statistic that 15 of the 20 regional members have constituency offices in the area they stood for in 2003 and that we are using these offices to help build up support for 2007. Not only is this nonsense but it is not true.

My rationale in choosing my office was that it should be accessible to the public, good value for money and close to my home. My office is actually in Swansea West, whereas I stood in Swansea East. A scan of those offices of other regional AMs I can locate indicates that this pattern holds for them as well. Furthermore it is actually illegal to use the offices in the way Hain suggests and so I repeat my previous request that he either provides the evidence or he should shut up.

If Peter Hain has gone over the top then so has the Western Mail. Its line this morning that some of Wales' finest political brains could lose their seats in the National Assembly if this controversial part of Labour's proposed new devolution Bill goes ahead is perhaps an exaggeration. Still, their heart is in the right place!

And so to Christmas

Wednesday was the last Plenary session before Christmas. This was despite pleas from the Liberal Democrats AM for Cardiff Central, Jenny Randerson, that we should keep on going, possibly right up to Christmas Eve if necessary. Jenny and I are both on the same wavelength in this regard:

I regret that there is not an oral statement on the Chancellor’s pre-budget statement. It is important that it is known what it will be, it should be timed into the programme, and I do not accept the pressures-of-time excuse, because, as has been said here before, the Welsh Liberal Democrats, in any event, feel that we should be working closer towards Christmas if there is a pressure on time.

The main issue of the day was the final budget. These are the new improved Assembly finance plans following the rejection earlier in the year of the draft budget through the combined might of the opposition parties. Jenny, wearing a different hat as the Liberal Democrats Finance Spokesperson, set out the differences and also the reasons why we would not be voting for it despite getting some major concessions:

Jenny Randerson: The new budget is better than the original budget. The discussions between the opposition parties and the Government have paid off. I welcome the money which will be made available to pensioners for the council tax.

However, this is still far from perfect. It represents what was achievable in the circumstances rather than what we as Welsh Liberal Democrats would ideally wish to see even within the unfair constraints of the Barnett formula.

It is interesting that the First Minister has called this a real Labour budget. I do not follow his logic. Labour’s real budget came to the Chamber, and was thrown out. It was thrown out because there was no help for pensioners, there was no attempt to close the funding gap in higher education, there was no money to improve our children’s school dinners, and there was no extra investment in railways. It was the Labour budget. The Assembly said that it was not good enough. What we have now is a better budget. It has Liberal Democrat priorities in education and help for pensioners back among the Assembly’s spending priorities.

Carl Sargeant: If it is your budget now, will you support it today?

Jenny Randerson: Wait a minute, I have not gone far enough yet.

That is now back among our spending priorities. We have put back the small schools fund, which was created by the partnership Government, which was driven by the Welsh Liberal Democrats, and has been renegotiated by us here.

However, this is still Labour’s budget. It is based on Labour’s plans, and it is Labour’s way of dealing with the amendments that were put forward in the debate on the draft budget.

Labour’s draft budget also put the emphasis on administration, with millions of pounds set aside for bureaucracy, and further millions sitting in the bank, building up, one has to suspect, a war chest for the pre-election budget in 12 months’ time. Forgive me if I sound a little cynical, but I suspect that that is what we will see. Labour told us that we could not touch these pots of money, but it has now seen sense. We have put the money where it is needed instead—in the purses of pensioners, on the plates of our schoolchildren, and to put our universities on a level footing with their neighbours in England.

This is not, and is far short of, a perfect budget. It is not the budget that the Welsh Liberal Democrats would have put forward in Government, but it is a better budget than Labour’s first draft

Mike German underlined the need for Labour to recognise the position it is in and called on them to be more consensual in their approach:

We must remember that, behind this process, this Assembly is not a goal for its own sake, but a tool to improve the lives of the people of Wales. For the moment, distributing the block grant is the single most important way that we, as Assembly Members, can change the lives of the people of Wales. That is why it is pleasing that all of us have had a say in this year’s budget. We have always worked for this Assembly to work for the people of Wales. That is what we did when we were in the partnership Government, when we tried to bring stability, ideas and delivery for the people of Wales. However, this is not a perfect budget, and it would be false of us to say that it was.

The great hope of the Assembly was that it could be built on a certain degree of consensus. The tragedy of the Assembly is that it is only when the Labour Party is defeated that it seeks to find consensus. When you taste defeat, it is not the best time to look for consensus. However, I celebrate the fact that we have set aside some of our differences on this matter. I do not forget that each party has its own policies and philosophies. Our policies are not the same as those of the Conservatives, Plaid Cymru or the Labour Party, yet, by working together on this budget proposal, we have found some common ground on which we can all agree. More importantly for the people of Wales, particularly pensioners and young people, we have found areas of agreement that benefit them.

Finance Minister, Sue Essex, responded in a barnstorming manner that led to applause from her own side. At this point the Deputy Presiding Officer stepped in to demonstrate that the spirit of consensus, even at Christmas, has its limits:

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Order. That clapping was unseemly and unbecoming; it sounded like a Labour Party meeting.

He did the same at the end of Mike German's short debate on domestic abuse as well, just to prove that he was being even-handed. However, we will leave the last word on Christmas to Plaid Cymru's Leanne Wood, who pulled together everything that is bad about the season of goodwill to illustrate why she too might be prepared to skip it and keep on meeting throughout the recess:

Leanne Wood: Thanks for raising this issue, Mike; it is an important issue. It is important to remember as well that Christmas is a nightmare for homeless people, those who have lost someone, those who live in dire poverty, and those who are in debt. They face a horrendous time this Christmas. I am not a big fan of Christmas, so I can identify with many of those sentiments. As Christmas becomes more and more commercialised, the pressures on people increase.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Bill Wiggin bids goodbye to Wales

The Tory Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Bill Wiggin, has jumped ship before he is pushed. He announced today that he was standing down from this post, presumably to allow David Cameron to install a more sympathetic alternative.

In his press release Bill takes all the credit for the Tory revival in Wales:

"I found the Conservative party in Wales in need of support and commitment, which I was delighted to give, and I am grateful to the excellent team of volunteers who worked with me.

I leave this job, and the Conservative party in Wales, in a far better state than when I found it. With the party in fighting form ready to win seats at the next assembly elections this can only bode well for Wales. With the organisation and infrastructure honed by dedicated and expert team of professionals, we have a great many Labour seats in our sights.

"There are many happy moments which I look back on ranging from singing the national anthem with the whole audience lip reading.

"To the debates on television with other party leaders. Despite their own roots in South Africa and Northern Ireland, there was never an opportunity missed to point out that my constituency was the other side of the border."

As ever, Bill's statement has left the Tory Party offices here in the Assembly scratching their heads in bewilderment. The contribution of the Tory AMs to this remarkable turnaround has not even been acknowledged. It is a shame Bill is going really.

Is Wales losing out?

Interesting article in the Western Mail this morning looking at a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research on devolution. The IPPR is a New Labour think tank and at first glance the report appears to have been written from a very English perspective. They argue for instance that the Assembly Government will have to abandon the Welsh Baccalaureate in favour of whatever equivalent qualification is introduced in England. They also fail to recognise the distinctive education agenda being pursued in Wales.

The press however concentrate on the comparative spending figures in the report. They state that since 1999 - the year the National Assembly was set up - spending in Wales on health and education has risen by 55% and 47% respectively. In England, however, the comparable increases were 65% and 56%. They also reveal that over the same period, spending in Wales on agriculture, fisheries and forestry went up by 36% against just 18% in England. Likewise, spending in Wales on recreation, culture and religion went up by 32%, nearly three times the rate of increase in England, which was 11%.

The Welsh Assembly Government response is that the IPPR is not comparing like with like:

"It seems that the figures are some way off the mark. For example, the press release suggests that culture spend has increased by 32%, and environment by 36%.

"In fact it is 96% and 154%. As a devolved government, we manage our policies and our portfolios in a different way than in England."

The most pertinent response to the report however, comes from Welsh Liberal Democrats Assembly Leader, Mike German. He argues that the figures underline the unfairness of the Barnett formula, which allocates money to Wales on a straight proportionate basis depending on population rather than on need:

"We should not lose sight that Wales still spends more per head than England.

"This research by the IPPR, a think tank at the heart of New Labour thinking, has put its finger on the essential problem of the Barnett Formula - the Barnett Squeeze.

"The outdated way in which money is given out across the UK was always designed to narrow differences in spending over time. What the IPPR has done is shown how the Barnett Formula is holding Wales back. A new formula - where money was distributed according to need, rather than a temporary solution which has endured for 25 years - would allow Wales to spend more on health, to deal with our higher level of need.

"If people in Wales have more sickness than those in England, then it makes sense that we should be able to spend more money addressing it."

The problem, as ever, is that Labour prefer to argue over the statistics instead of analysing the issues and formulating solutions. They would rather remain in denial instead of accepting the evidence that change is necessary.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Those trains again

It is the last week that the Assembly is sitting before Christmas and we are still talking about trains. This time the opposition has decided that it wants a task and finish committee to look at rail infrastructure and improved passenger services.

After much worthy debate about services. largely centred on constituency issues, the North Wales members finally got to the nub of the problem, graphically describing the nightmare they have to face each week to get to Cardiff Bay:

Brynle Williams: ...When it is quicker to travel from Holyhead to London than from Holyhead to Cardiff, there is clearly a serious issue that needs to be resolved. I strongly urge the Welsh Assembly Government to work with Arriva Trains Wales to invest in developing a faster north-south, or south-north, line, and to begin a study into a business case for increased capacity.

Ann Jones: Do you not agree, Brynle, that, as of 12 December, which is next Monday, Arriva Trains Wales will be running a two-hourly service between Holyhead and Cardiff? It has also invested quite a lot of money along the north-Wales coast, with the help of the Assembly Government. We also have additional British Transport Police officers to improve safety on the north-Wales line. I do not know why you feel isolated, because I feel much safer travelling on that line now, knowing that the number of British Transport Police officers has increased and that uniformed North Wales Police officers are now allowed to travel on any train in an attempt to keep passenger safety in mind.

Brynle Williams: Thank you for those comments, Ann. I strongly urge the Welsh Assembly Government to work with Arriva Trains Wales, to get a faster—

Ieuan Wyn Jones rose—

Brynle Williams: Go on.

Ieuan Wyn Jones: I was interested to hear the intervention by Ann Jones, as I am sure Brynle was, because when the new service starts in December, all those trains will be stationary in Shrewsbury for between 15 and 20 minutes for no apparent reason. Why should we be treated like second-class citizens?

Brynle Williams: I agree entirely with what my colleague has said.

Eleanor Burnham: Will you take another intervention?

Brynle Williams: Go on.

Eleanor Burnham: The new timetable fascinates me. You are given a timetable that does not link up the whole of Wales; it is all in little bits. You have to acquire a whole library of timetables to make sense of anything. When you look at it carefully, you see that it is inconvenient for most people who travel by train daily. According to the new timetable, Assembly Members in north Wales will have to get on the train at Holyhead at around 5.30 a.m. in order to reach Cardiff by 9.30 a.m. Are we in the third world or is this an advanced nation? In Wrexham, we will have to be on the train at 6.20 a.m. and then, if we are lucky, we might be here for around 9.30 a.m.. Some of our committees start at 9 a.m.. What good is that?

If only we could start our meetings later then the Government might save a fortune in infrastructure expenditure and subsidy.

The anxious First Minister

Rhodri Morgan expressed surprise yesterday that he has not yet been 'no-confidenced by the combined votes of the opposition. Quite why he should hold this view is in itself surprising.

The First Minister is clearly somebody who values the office he holds. He seems to believe that holding that office should be the objective of every party leader and I suspect that he is right in that assumption. However, the value of the office lies not in holding it but the terms on which you exercise the power that comes with it. That is why an alternative government has not and will not emerge before 2007 and why such a creature may prove difficult after the next Assembly elections.

Although Labour are hedged in by not having a majority they still have a fair amount of room to manoeuvre. With only a few exceptions all of the executive power is delegated to their ministers. In addition they know that there are only a limited number of measures on which the opposition parties can agree to unite over to defeat them. What the last six months have shown is that a minority government can work quite comfortably if Ministers are prepared to be inclusive and to make small concessions on their programme.

It is possible that Rhodri Morgan has not grasped that fact yet and that he is still stuck in a 'majority government mindset'. That is the Westminster culture in which he built his reputation and his career. Even in Westminster a minority government may work but it would be far more difficult. That is because there is more effective scrutiny on the principle and the minutae of legislation, more votes and less consensus on the policy agenda than there is in Wales.

As the Assembly acquires more powers and evolves into a legislature then minority government will become more difficult, but it will not be impossible. The centre-left majority here will ensure that consensus will still prove possible if Ministers continue to listen and avoid becoming too partisan or zealous in the way that they administer their briefs. Perhaps the surprise is that most Ministers have adjusted so easily to that way of working and that in doing so have ensured that there are more options facing the electorate in 2007 other than that of electing a majority government.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Sad statistic of the week

The votes cast in favour of Carol Thatcher on "I am a celebrity get me out of here" exceeded the total individual votes received by her mother in a 40 year political career.

Monday, December 05, 2005


I was rather amused by the caption to the photograph that was associated with this article in the South Wales Evening Post tonight. It read "Wayne Price checks to see if there is any sign of the giant spider that has invaded his home in Brynlluan, Gorslas. The spider is thought to be an arachnid..."!!!

Deserting or dying

As a politician it is always reassuring to read that one's opponents are struggling politically and organisationally, however there is always the sobering thought that there but for the grace of God etc.

In this case the decline of the Tory Party from its peak of 3 million members in the 1960s to one of 280,000 today, with the majority of members in receipt of their old age pensions, is not just the story of a busted flush (though it could be that as well) but also of the collapse of political activism and civic responsibility in general.

Of course people do not have to get involved and we have no right to expect them to do so. Many are disillusioned with the whole system, most have found other ways to fill their spare time. All of the parties have found that, with one or two exceptions, building and maintaining enthusiasm so as to retain the volunteers needed to sustain our democracy is growing harder and harder. Raising money is also becoming an uphill struggle with all the parties becoming more and more reliant on large donors and the baggage that this brings with it.

The regulation of political parties through the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) has been necessary to orchestrate a lot of previously hidden activity but it was drawn up by civil servants and passed by MPs and Lords, who have had little or nothing to do with running a political party, particularly in areas where success is hard to come by. As a result a huge burden has been placed on volunteers who are largely voting with their feet.

Although the Electoral Commission is starting to find their feet in this complex world of volunteers and amateurism, they are still struggling to come to terms with it, whilst in the world of election administration and voter participation their intervention to date has been largely ineffective. Their main success has been the reports they have produced on reform and in reaction to Government initiatives, such as the removal of rights from candidates on the list for the Welsh Assembly. Here, they have managed to generate debate and focus minds. The problem is that the Government has largely ignored them when their views are inconvenient to their own agenda and as a result provoked the question, what are the Electoral Commission for?

Much as I want to gloat at the Tories misfortune, I know that a competent party manager will start to turn around a lot of the problems they face and that for a time at least, a fresh faced leader will help that process. What David Cameron (or any leader) will not succeed in doing is to re-energise the political process so as to activate a large number of voters once more. It may be that such a task is beyond any politician. It is possible that as a result political parties will have to rely on professional staff in greater numbers to keep the democratic process going. If that happens then the funding question becomes even more urgent. I, for one, do not want to end up in an American system where money buys influence. Maybe tackling this conundrum could make the Electoral Commission relevant once more.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

The cost of reorganisation

The Observer highlights the fears of most people concerning the reorganisation of Wales' police forces into a single entity, namely the cost. In particular they reveal that forces have been told there is no government money to pay for the shake-up - and the Home Office has admitted council taxes are likely to rise 'for some forces' to pay for it.

Clarke and policing minister Hazel Blears met privately with Labour MPs last week to try to head off a growing revolt. The Home Office is understood to be scratching around for extra funds to soften the blow, and insists no final decisions have been taken.

However, its acting director of policing, Andy Ford, told police authorities at a conference last month that the money from restructuring 'will have to come from borrowing as part of your business cases, as the government does not have the money'.

A Home Office spokeswoman insisted that this was 'not the final position', with talks ongoing. However, she added: 'There may be a rise for some forces in council tax: the majority will see a fall. We are not doing this to cut costs but we think there will be some efficiencies in back offices. We don't accept there will be a rise in precept in all areas.'

The letter from APA chair Bob Jones to Clarke argues that it will oppose the reorganisation until the funding question is settled, adding: 'Authorities want reassurances that, if the government wants restructuring to take place, it is prepared to invest to save: they want confirmation that there will be additional funding to meet the start-up/transitional costs of any mergers.'

In the same letter the APA seeks reassurances that the re-organisation 'does not involve council taxpayers digging even deeper into their pockets'.

The Observer understands that Gloucester, Cleveland and North Wales police forces are considering seeking a judicial review to appeal the restructuring plans unless they receive reassurances over funding.

The Secretary of State for Wales may well regret his rush to endorse an all-Wales Police force, especially if it leads to big Council Tax increases in the month before the Assembly elections.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Wigley is back

The Western Mail's Dafydd Wigley fan club strikes again this morning with the news that the great man is on Plaid's approved candidate list and raring to get back into the Assembly. They report that he is being lined up to succeed Owen John Thomas as the number two on the South Wales Central list. This will obviously be a blow to Simon Thomas, who it was previously reported was seeking to re-enter mainstream politics after he threw away the Ceredigion Parliamentary seat by precisely this route.

According to the paper's correspondents Dafydd Wigley will be able to inject a bit of passion back into his party's performance. Ieuan Wyn Jones has better watch his back.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Aberystwyth or bust

The Western Mail reports this morning on the results of a motoring intelligence test carried out by eBay Motors in conjunction with Mensa. They conclude:

ASTON MARTIN drivers in Aberystwyth are likely to have the worst understanding of motoring of anyone in Wales, a study has shown.

In fact, it may be for the best that the number of people who drive James Bond's car of choice in the coastal town is likely to be somewhat limited.

Well yes! I do not drive that often in Aberystwyth but I am guessing that Aston Martins are not the main vehicle of choice in the town.

Update: Do the test for yourself -

A selection of questions from eBay Motors' motoring intelligence test:

1. For every litre of petrol burnt in a car engine, on average what amount of water is blown out of the exhaust pipe?

a. One litre
b. One centilitre
c. One millilitre

2. Modern halogen high-pressure gas-discharge headlights have a bulb which is filled with gas. What gas do they use?

a. Xenon
b. Neon
c. Halon

3. What is the oldest British car manufacturer still making cars today

a. Aston Martin
b. Caterham
c. AC

4. What is the nearest you may park to a junction?

a. 10 metres (32 feet)
b. 12 metres (39 feet)
c. 15 metres (49 feet)
d. 20 metres (66 feet)

Answers are on the comments.

Another day another filibuster

On Wednesday Assembly Members had another opportunity to debate their favourite subject, the Welsh railway network. What is more they were able to talk on the subject at length as the opposition were one short of the number of votes they needed to get their amendments through and so conducted a filibuster to enable Peter Law to get there in time to vote.

The subject of this momentous debate was a delegation of functions under the Railways Act 2005 to the First Minister. The combined might of the opposition parties did not want to delegate all of the functions to Rhodri Morgan, instead they wanted to keep some of them for the Assembly as a whole. We wanted, for example, to have the final say over who represents Wales on the Rail Passengers' Council, we wanted to be consulted on franchise agreements and we wanted to be able to debate the Rail Passengers' Council's annual report rather than let it fester away in the dark recesses of the Minister's office. There was more but you can always read the record for yourself to get the detail.

Within minutes of the Minister getting to his feet the word went out that we needed to spin out the debate. The Tories had forgotten to get David Davies in from his constituency and Peter Law was not yet in the Assembly. Indeed it took so long for Peter Law to arrive that we concluded that he must have been using the train. As Plaid Cymru AM, Janet Davies said, "my experience of the railways, since we have been in the Assembly, is that nothing has ever happened with them quickly. Railways and the word ‘quickly’ seem to be a contradiction in terms."

The ins and outs of the debate amounted to the usual knocking copy with John Marek at one point even launching into an attack on cronyism:

"no doubt, the First Minister would appoint some Labour crony—not him personally, but the Labour system; I will not attack the First Minister personally. For example, if any of you have £250,000 and give it to Mr Blair as a donation to the Labour Party, you can confidently expect a seat in the House of Lords within the next year. You only have to look at the lists to see that that is so. For lesser sums, knighthoods are available. [Assembly Members: ‘How much?’] I would be straying from the rather narrow range of this motion, were I to answer that.

I do not trust this Labour administration to appoint a person who will speak for Wales and for the Assembly, unless we can have a motion and confirm our confidence in that person. I would be happy for the First Minister to table a motion, after the various interviews had been held."

However, it took Eleanor Burnham to bring us back to the nub of the debate, a passion for travelling (sorry, railways) enjoyed by Assembly Members and politicians:

Eleanor Burnham: I am sure that most of you know that I am passionate about trains and their improvement, particularly the north-south connection, which, in my humble opinion, is a democratic right in a devolved nation such as Wales. Given that, we need a robust Minister for transport, not someone wishy-washy who does not stand up to the Welsh...

Glyn Davies: Will you take an intervention?

Eleanor Burnham: I have hardly got going, but okay.

Glyn Davies: Would Eleanor Burnham agree that, as well as the north-south road, the east-west road is equally important?

Eleanor Burnham: Yes, and I was going to come on to that in my short speech. The Minister needs to show a little bit more of a ‘can do’ mentality. Perhaps he should have read the article on motivation in The Western Mail, by a woman from America; he should discuss it with her. We need to stand up for the railways. We are in a sorry state at the moment, and if some of you had come up with me last week—I was up and down like a yo-yo to north Wales, which I adore doing because there is a wonderful view out of the window—you would have seen that the state of the rolling stock is appalling. I will return to the motion in hand.

At this point everybody wanted to share in Eleanor's passions. It was the Leader of the Plaid Cymru group who got in first however:

Ieuan Wyn Jones: I know your passion about railways, which is shared by me on many occasions as we make this journey. [Laughter.] I said ‘passion about railways’. Does the Member recall the number of times on that journey that we have had to stand outside Crewe station for quarter of an hour while the Virgin train from London arrives and we miss our connection to north Wales? Is that not a disgrace?

Eleanor Burnham: Yes, it is. It is more akin to being in India, although its rail service is probably far superior to ours.

The comparison to India was a curious one. It immediately begged the question as to whether Eleanor actually travels on the roof of the train as some do in that sub-continent. However, by that time Peter Law had arrived and the debate was brought to conclusion. This question will have to wait for another day.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?