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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Welcome to the Siambr

So, we are here at last. I am presently in the rehearsal in the new Assembly chamber and everything seems to be in full working order. If all goes to plan then we will be holding our first official meeting here next Tuesday. The only problem is that the new building is like a rabbit warren and it is entirely possible that some members may get lost on the way here.

Rocket Science

I note from Hansard that I got an honorary mention in the House of Commons Committee stage debate on the Government of Wales Bill. Obviously, it is not for me to advise my own MP in how she raises things in the House but does Sian James really want to get into a debate with Lembit Őpik on asteroids? I think not:

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire, LDem): The hon. Lady gives us further evidence of the contradictions in the Government's position. A further example would be councillors. We can all agree that the most effective campaigners and councillors that Wales has ever seen are Liberal Democrats. There can be few hon. Members in the Chamber who are not Liberal Democrats who relish the prospect of an army of Liberal Democrat councillors marching into town to put right the wrongs that they have failed to address. Given the incontrovertible evidence of the effectiveness of Liberal Democrat councillors, is the Secretary of State was originally the title given to the two officials who..."planning to ban them from basing their activities in constituencies held by other parties, such as Neath, Ogmore or Rhondda?

Sian James (Swansea East, Lab): We are getting into the realms of asteroids here. People expect their representatives to be where they are accessible—that is not rocket science. They want their representatives to be where they can be found, so why not spread them around? If representatives base themselves in one spot, it is great for them and their political aspirations, but it does not do a lot for people in the wider region. For example, would it not be nice if someone in Llanelli opened an office in Caernarfon, or if someone else opened an office in Aberystwyth? If people were to spread themselves around, they would be a lot more effective and would get a lot more respect from the public. Hon. Members have already asked what we have to do about this. We have heard about—

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. I remind the hon. Lady that interventions are meant to be brief.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire, LDem): I forgive the length of the intervention, Mrs. Heal, because we can see what is happening to the hon. Lady. She is frit, because of the extraordinary effectiveness of my fellow Liberal Democrat councillors, and Peter Black—

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. Can we get back to debating the main components of the amendment?

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire, LDem): I apologise, Mrs. Heal. I was responding directly to the hon. Lady's intervention, and I would like to add two points of clarification. First, asteroids are rocket science. Secondly, any politician will seek to make a deep impact in his or her neighbourhood. Just as local councillors will seek to maximise the effectiveness of their political operation by basing their offices where they think that would be in the best interests of their party, it is hardly surprising that politicians elected to the Welsh Assembly will seek to maximise the effectiveness of their work, in their party interests as well as in those of the people whom they have been elected to represent, by basing their offices in an expedient fashion.

The voice of Dr. Who

British Telecom has signed up former Dr. Who and Little Britain narrator, Tom Baker, to record 11,593 phrases, covering every single sound in the English language in each of their different contexts. The idea is that if somebody texts your landline, the reassuring voice of Tom will deliver the message to you.

Unfortunately, BT do not seem to have thought about Welsh language texts and in particular, Welsh place names. So if you text a friend to arrange to meet up in Rhayader, LlanfairPG ( Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwll-llantysiliogogogoch in non-text language!) or Ystalyfera they may well not turn up.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Birthday treat

I decided some time ago that I was too old to enjoy birthdays anymore so I was not too upset at the fact that I had to spend this evening (my 46th birthday) speaking at a hustings event in Port Talbot in a bid to be reselected as an Assembly candidate. My big problem now is how I am going to find the time to watch the DVD box set of the entire of series one to six of the West Wing that I had as a present.

Another blow to ID cards

The Government has suffered another blow to its ID card proposals with the announcement by Lord Carlile of Berriew that he has changed his mind on the subject and now believes that they will be of 'limited value' in the war on terror.

Alex Carlile has worked for some time as the official reviewer and overseer of Britain's anti-terror laws, so his views carry considerable weight. He was previously in favour of ID cards but according to the BBC he has now concluded that they are not needed. He says that they would not have prevented the terror attacks on London on 7 July:

"I can't think of many terrorist incidents, in fact I can think of very few... that ID cards would have brought to an earlier end," he told GMTV.

........"ID cards could be of some value in the fight against terrorism but they are probably of quite limited value. They would be an advantage but that advantage has to be judged against the disadvantages which Parliament may see in ID cards.

"I certainly don't think the absence of ID cards could possibly have any connection with the events of last July.

"There may be a gain from the security viewpoint in the curtailment of civil liberties, but Parliament has to be the judge about whether the proportion is right."

He added: "I think Parliament is so unenthusiastic about the ID cards that, in reality, this is a debate rather than a reality.

"I don't think they will get through a compulsory ID card system immediately."

With the House of Lords defeating the government on key amendments to this legislation and with Labour Minister's arguments for ID cards being demolished one by one, the whole project looks in trouble. Even if Labour do get the proposal on the statute book the cost of ID cards both to government and to the public could lead to a revolt that would make opposition to the Poll Tax seem like a stroll in the park.


Sunday, January 29, 2006

A question of image

A fascinating piece in today's Observer by Mary Riddell about the role of image in politics:

Personal enhancement, though, is a side-issue. The humbling of Galloway and the treatment of Hughes are, in their different ways, examples of a more suspect form of image manipulation. They belong to what American social historian Daniel J Boorstin described in 1961 as 'pseudo-events'.

Boorstin's theory was that prosperity and success had led rich citizens into expecting the impossible. They wanted to be rich and charitable, powerful and merciful, greedy and thin, solitary and neighbourly. And so, like Napoleon, they began to believe that they could make circumstances.

When heroes palled, they created celebrities to replace them. When news ran out, they invented it. In the absence of any convenient earthquake, assassination or civil war, a PR stunt or movie premiere could fulfil the craving for events. As Boorstin noted, politicians bought into the artificial world. Franklin D Roosevelt could barely kiss a baby without a sonnet scripted by his in-house team of poets and playwrights. Senator Joseph McCarthy called a morning press conference to announce he would be holding another in the afternoon.

And plain Americans began to live, just as the British would, in a synthetic world, where illusion replaced reality. Boorstin, looking back on the half century in which America crossed the divide from daguerreotype to colour television, remained hopeful. With luck, he thought, the West would modify its expectations.

Instead, the illusionary society he identified branched out into PlayStations, podcasts, probiotic yogurt, plastic surgery, reality television, politicians' sex lives, 24/7 news and audiences of millions in thrall to a fat old exhibitionist in a dance suit. All of Boorstin's nightmares have come to pass. Not since the days of fairies and hobgoblins has society been so beset by myths. We may be turning into what Jean-Paul Sartre called automatons.

No society gifted with techno-magic is going to revert to God and crossword puzzles. And so Boorstin's theory of pseudo-events still looks uncannily right. The paedophile hordes who were stalking our schools a few days ago have been forgotten; bird flu has not killed us all; nano-technology has not reduced the planet to grey sludge; the threat of terror has not justified the erosion of liberties.

Meanwhile, politicians are pawns in pseudo-events, programmed to live or die according to the dynamics of the instant sensation.

The performance of the song "I want it now" by Celebrity Big Brother winner Chantelle and her hitherto fictional band 'Kandyfloss' on Channel Four today illustrates how easily our reality is shaped by the illusions created on television and elsewhere. The manipulation of the mass media for commercial and political ends is a modern phenomena that is growing out of control.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Films at home

The director Ken Russell has launched an intriquing new project, making his movies available over the internet via his own website. Although the sort of films that Mr. Russell may be making these days are not ones I would choose to watch, he does have a point that the future of films will be on the net.

Already, moves are afoot to release DVDs at the same time as the movies hit cinema screens. It is a small step to distribute those films via the internet direct to on-line home entertainment systems. This is, of course, happening in the music industry, where downloaded tracks are now being counted alongside conventional sales for chart purposes. The popular beat-combo, the Arctic Monkeys took this a step further by using the internet to build up a following, making their music available for download free of charge. As a result they have had two successive chart hits and a record-breaking new album. It is a natural progression for this success to be duplicated by film-makers.

The one note of caution in all this 'progress' is the way that it may reduce entertainment options for the poorest people in our society. A night out at the cinema is still a relatively cheap experience, but a recent survey showed that half of the Welsh population is still not on-line. The sort of equipment needed to download and store movies is expensive, as is a monthly subscription to broadband. No doubt prices will fall in time but the effect could well be to limit access to one of the most popular forms of entertainment. If that happened we would all be the poorer.

For now we must wait and see what develops. It is important that the availability of popular films over the internet must widen choice, not narrow it.

The World turned upside down

At 8.15 this morning my local newsagent delivered the final edition of the South Wales Evening Post. Thirty five minutes later I am still waiting for my morning papers to be delivered. Truly, the world has changed since I used to deliver newspapers.

Friday, January 27, 2006


I am going to apologise in advance for using this phrase but I cannot think of a better one, this Western Mail columnist is a complete airhead. She has written a piece for today's paper that argues that gay men do not make good party leaders or Prime Ministers because their lifestyles are "divorced from the norm".

According to Lowri Turner, the only person who should be PM is a white middle class man or women with 2.4 kids and a mortgage. What nonsense. Even if a there was such a thing as a 'normal lifestyle' anymore, it is a surefire bet that those politicians who fit her stereotype no longer live it. That is doubly-true if these politicians are very successful.

Ms. Turner claims that some of her best friends are gay, however their 'biggest headache is whether to have a black sofa or a cream one. If they have a child it is a dog.' I would respectfully suggest that her gay friends are not typical either and neither is she. In fact I would humbly submit that she leave the office a bit more and get a life.

A person's sexuality has nothing to do with their competence or their ability to relate to people and their lives. I have known Simon Hughes, the object of her scorn, for nearly 20 years and can testify that there are very good reasons why he continuously bucks the trend and wins what was once a safe Labour constituency with a good majority over and over again. These are that he works damned hard, he relates to ordinary people regardless of ethnicity, sexual preference or other circumstances and he is good at his job. I can think of no better reasons why he should be Party Leader or Prime Minister.

Ms. Turner also tries her hand at a bit of political punditry, repeating allegations that Simon Hughes has let go for reasons of his own. She says that 'Simon Hughes went as far as to use his supposed heterosexuality to fight a vicious by-election campaign against gay rights activist Peter Tatchell. Twenty years ago, his party material told South London voters he was the "straight choice".'

I was at the Bermondsey by-election and I can categorically say that this is not the case. It is true that there was a viciously homophobic campaign fought against Peter Tatchell and that Simon benefited from it, however it did not originate from his team. In fact most of it came from the independent candidates in the election. As an aside, I recall stopping off at a pub in-between leafleting sessions and having a discussion with some of the regulars at which they made it clear that they had heard rumours that Simon may be gay but that this was not going to stop them voting for him.

The evidence that the Liberal Democrats conducted a homophobic campaign appears to centre on one leaflet, which Ms. Turner claims portrayed Simon as "the straight choice". What the leaflet actually says is that "this election is a straight choice". To some people this may be semantics but there is an important distinction. The leaflet was trying to portray the election as a two-horse race between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. It did so in language that was common to all Alliance literature at that time. Not only was the same phrase used in the 1985 Brecon and Radnorshire by-election but I have a leaflet from the 1986 West Derbyshire by-election that repeats it. Presumably, the fact that I have such a leaflet makes me atypical in Lowri Turner's eyes and therefore not fitted to be leader of my party.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

No planted questions here

It is just as well that Labour AMs are on the ball when it comes to putting Ministers on the spot:

Denise Idris Jones: I met recently with Martin Jones, who is the new acting chief executive of North West Wales NHS Trust. He told me that the scanner was on its way and should be arriving at Llandudno in April.

Janet Ryder: It has been on its way for three years.

Denise Idris Jones: He confirmed this date; he had made an appointment to see me, and I believe that this will happen.

The Presiding Officer: Order. It is not usual for Assembly Members to assist Ministers, so I would like the question please.

Denise Idris Jones: On another matter— [Laughter.] I did not know that that was coming up.

The Presiding Officer: Order. Neither did I.

Denise Idris Jones: Minister, will you join me in welcoming improvements in access to NHS services in Wales, including improved GP appointments services more centred around patient convenience and the patient feedback exercises being conducted at Ysbyty Glan Clwyd? The excellent emergency services healthcare and organisation at Ysbyty Glan Clwyd was brought home to me recently when my son was taken ill. Would you agree that developing similar improvements across Wales is vital to secure a patient-centred, twenty-first century health service for everyone?

Brian Gibbons: Thank you, Denise. [Laughter.] Denise mentioned Ysbyty Glan Clwyd and the out-of-hours GP centre that is across the road from the hospital at Bodelwyddan. That is one of the most well developed and integrated services that exist in Wales and the population served by those combined units is getting a service that other parts of Wales need to strive to emulate.

We could certainly teach MPs a thing or two about effective scrutiny.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Accusing at birth

South Wales West Conservative AM, Alun Cairns, likes to think of himself as an effective scrutineer of government ministers. It is certainly true that he can always be relied on to find a negative slant to any issue in an attempt to put a minister on the spot. Yesterday he tried it again over Welsh GVA. The First Minister however, had his measure:

Do not fail to tell the rest of the world that Welsh GVA is almost certainly now in excess of £40 billion. I doubt whether you will want to do that, Alun—when you emerged from your mother’s womb you probably had your arm pointing out to accuse the midwife of having failed in some respect, because that is how you are built and that is your temperament. The fact is that the figure is now over £40 billion compared with £28 billion when the Conservatives were last in charge.

It made us feel sorry for the midwife.

Curse of the Were-Lembit

In a typically frank interview with the Western Mail yesterday Lembit Opik said that he will not be revealing who he is backing for the party's leadership.

He said, "I was due to announce who I was backing, but I realise now it's more complicated: there's a new phenomenon called the curse of Lembit. After supporting Charles Kennedy for leader at the beginning of the year and Mark Oaten more recently, everyone is worried that my support might be the kiss of death.

Many people suspect I may be behind the troubles faced by Sven Goran Eriksson. I actually bumped into David Cameron earlier, and if I endorse him and Tony Blair the Liberal Democrats should be in government by the end of next week."

Lembit should of course take heart that it is still possible to use his name on the island of Portland without disaster befalling the inhabitants.

Meanwhile, it is time that the media started to get real. The story now appears to be that the Liberal Democrats are in freefall with the Western Mail citing the Election Calculus website as indicating that the party could lose 50 seats at the next general election. Presumably, they used this site as they are too mean to pay for a real political pundit. The Tories too, are celebrating at securing the defection of an obscure Liberal Democrat who, as James Graham pointed out could not even be bothered to sort out a proper photograph for the party's website - not so much a scalp as a toupé.

Despite all this hype, the latest ICM survey, published yesterday, put the Tories on 38%, Labour on 37% and the Liberal Democrats on 19%. Even with the Liberal Democrats in turmoil David Cameron cannot attract enough of our support to secure a decent lead over Labour, whilst my party remains at some of its highest opinion poll levels for many years. With a new leader the prospect is offered that the Liberal Democrats could build on that 19% and reach new heights of support. Perhaps it is the Tories who are the party really in crisis.

Watching out for the 'bastards'

This morning's Western Mail (no link) proves that it is not just Government Ministers and other politicians who feel the strain of constantly being in the spotlight. The pressure also affects the spin-doctors who occasionally forget the golden rule of their trade - don't become the story.

It appears that the Labour Assembly Cabinet's media advisor, Cathy Owens, has put her foot in it again. Last week she was reported by the Daily Post as stating that Ministers would not countenance "Quebec-style" language laws in Wales, even though the Assembly Government understood that the Welsh Language Board was going through its "death throes". Responding to proposals by the Welsh Language Board to extend the rights of Welsh speakers, Ms. Owens said: "it's for elected politicians to agree the way forward for public policy in Wales. We are talking about a situation where English speakers have rights too. Turkeys don't vote for Christmas but no-one voted for the Welsh Language Board either."

Apparently, upset at the way her remarks were interpreted and anticipating that they would be used by the opposition in an attempt to embarrass the Government, Ms. Owens phoned a friend to vent her feelings. Unfortunately, the mobile she left a message on turned out to be that of the Western Mail's Chief Reporter:

Sent on Monday evening, Ms. Owen's breathless voice can be heard saying, "Hi. it's Cathy...It's a quarter to nine. I'm just leaving now. They're all bastards, all of them - not just the one journalist. I think I am going to start a book on how many times my name is mentioned on the floor tomorrow and....I'll speak to you soon. Cheers."

Nice to see that mutual respect still exists between special advisors and the media. Rather sadly for Cathy, nobody mentioned her name at all in the chamber yesterday. Still at least the Western Mail knows who she is.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Whither the new chamber

Tonight's full scale rehearsal in the chamber of the new building, or Senedd as it is to be called, has been postponed amongst much talk of acrimonious meetings and over-large egos. It is true that all the party leaders and business managers are very frustrated by the delay.

The official reason is that the new technology is not working properly yet and having been over there this afternoon to sign onto the new system and to be shown the ropes, it is evident that there may be some substance to this. We were meant to be holding our first meeting on 31st January, although that must be the third or fourth date that has been unofficially bandied around. The word on the street now is that the rehearsal will be held then and we will be officially installed on 7 February. Whether that happens has to be seen.

In the meantime the bridge link between the Assembly offices and the Senedd has been locked for 'health and safety' reasons. The number of keys for the temporary door are limited (I was told that there is only one) and visitors need to walk around. Anybody would think that we were not welcome there, a suggestion that I am sure is untrue.

Monday, January 23, 2006

The art of castration

Having disagreed so sharply with Peter Hain yesterday I am going to make common cause with him today. The issue is the Tories' attitude to devolution and in particular the amendments that they have tabled to the Government of Wales Bill currently going through the House of Commons.

Last week the Assembly Conservative group joined in criticism of the Bill and the way that it puts disproportionate power into the hands of the Secretary of State for Wales to veto the Assembly Government's agenda. This week they are seeking to amend the bill to strengthen that veto and to create the sort of viceroy they were condemning only a few days ago:

"The Tory amendments we are debating would replace the simple procedure set out in the Bill with a byzantine 16-lock process that would cripple the Assembly," he said.

Mr Hain added, "These amendments are a total insult to the people of Wales. Not only do they prove that the Tories still don't understand devolution and don't trust the Assembly. They show that the Tories are trying to turn the clock back and reverse the outcome of the 1997 referendum. These Tory proposals would leave us worse off than we are now."

The only problem with the Secretary of State's comments of course is that he is embarked on a watered down version of the same exercise, as Mike German made clear last week:

We are supposed to be producing better government for Wales through this Government of Wales Bill, securing changes that will enable us to do more for the people of Wales. Unfortunately, despite containing some good points, the Bill spends too much time turning the Secretary of State for Wales into the viceroy of Wales, and creating a labrynthine process for creating new laws when a simple path could have been taken. Lord Richard proposed a simple path, with simple steps towards an easily understood goal, namely a parliament for Wales. Our amendment 10 recognises this. Instead of having a straight 100m dash, we now face the viceroy of Wales’s steeplechase, with two laps around Gwydyr House, one around the House of Commons, and a final leap over the wool sack before we can even start to draw up a single Assembly measure.

However, we are where we are. The Welsh Liberal Democrats have been the champions of devolution for over 100 years, and we will continue to fight to make this Bill better. Look at how long we have been at it. We are going to stick to our original plan to ensure that Wales has a proper parliament.

Perhaps the greatest failing in this Bill is the democratic deficit. Mr Hain gives the impression that the Assembly will be granted whatever powers it seeks—at least that is what he tells us when he is here; it is a slightly different message when he is in London. However, to ensure that the Assembly is not too ambitious, he has put a triple lock on the door. First, the Bill has to have the Secretary of State’s approval, and he must consider whether it is appropriate—his words—that we should have these powers in Wales. It then goes to the House of Commons, where MPs are asked whether it is appropriate that Wales should have these powers. It then goes to the House of Lords, where the Lords are asked the same question. No answer has been given to the question, ‘How do you define appropriateness?’. At any one of these stages, a democratically elected Government of Wales could see its ambitions vetoed by politicians from any part of the UK. The post-2007 Welsh Government will need the skills of Houdini to make the laws that it wants to see enacted.

It seems that castration is the name of the game for both Labour and the Tories and the losers in this process will not be the politicians but the people of Wales.

Steadying the nerves

I was rung by two journalists yesterday asking me to comment on the circumstances of Mark Oaten's resignation as Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesperson. I declined both invitations on the basis that I did not wish to comment on an MP's private life. The second journalist tried to widen the issue to one of whether the media should be indulging in this sort of salacious exposé. As interesting as this debate would be it is my view that it is essentially a circular one that would generate more heat than light and so I declined to comment on that issue either.

The comment piece in today's Guardian sums up why this very sad episode is essentially a personal one, no matter what contradictions may exist between what Mark Oaten did and the image he sought to portray. It is his tragedy, not the party's:

The exposures in the News of the World certainly tell us something about Mr Oaten and definitely reveal something about our society. What they do not tell us - in spite of the inevitable jokes and cruel comments that will now crackle through the political world - is anything meaningful about the Liberal Democrats.

For those of us who have been members of the party during earlier scandals the conclusion of the editorial strikes a particular resonance. It reminds us that our cause is greater than any one individual and his/her qualities and failings. It also provides a compelling argument for the whole party picking itself up, dusting itself down and getting on with the job of campaigning for the principles and values that make us distinctive:

Lib Dems have no alternative but to try to hold their nerve and hope things will improve. This is not just a natural instinct but also a sensible strategy. The Lib Dems are a much more resilient and rooted party than their opponents - including in the media - like to portray them. They are much more than a protest party. People have not joined and voted for the Lib Dems in growing numbers over the last 20 years because they are cross with Labour or want to teach the Tories the errors of their ways. They have done so because they have come to believe in liberal democratic traditions, values and policies, and because they think this is a party that can deliver. There will inevitably be more doubts in more minds than usual about that this morning, but the Liberal Democrats will still be needed and still matter long after Mr Oaten's humiliations are forgotten.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Hain fails to offer value for money

On Friday's BBC radio programme, Good Morning Wales, the Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain, was once more peddling his nonsense about regional list AMs. Yet again he alleged that we are systematically abusing public money, though he failed to give any evidence to back up this claim and none exists. He also alleged that 15 of the twenty list AMs had set up their office in the constituency they fought last time, with the intention of using it as a resource in their bid to unseat the sitting constituency AM at the subsequent election.

Not only is this untrue and unsupportable by the facts but Mr. Hain has even got his boundaries wrong. To achieve the number of 15 I can only assume that he has included me in his calculations. Alas for him, my office is in Swansea West, which I have never fought, and it has been there since 1999. My office is a proper regional office and those of my staff who are based there take enquiries and casework, organise press coverage, visits, surgeries, and other events across Swansea, Gower, Neath, Aberavon, Ogmore and Bridgend. They also support my work as an regional AM and a party spokesperson by carrying out appropriate research and identifying issues on which I can campaign.

As if to underline his cavalier attitude to evidence Mr. Hain then tried to rebut the findings of the Arbuthnott Commission in Scotland, which argued that a restriction on candidates fighting both in the constituency and on the list would be "undemocratic and unacceptably limit the choices available to voters." To do this he quoted a piece of 'research' carried out by the Bevan Foundation, which, he said, unequivocably proved that the Welsh public backed Labour's plans to introduce a pre-counter-revolutionary Ukrainian system into Wales.

The Bevan Foundation's researchers had apparently herded 46 unsuspecting voters into a room, spend an hour or so explaining how undemocratic the Assembly's voting system is and then asked then to give a view as to whether the Government of Wales Bill is taking the right approach to reforming it. If this is the sort of evidence-based policy making Peter Hain relies on then no wonder he is making such a mess of his dual jobs of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Wales. This survey has all the statistical validity of predicting the climate change by putting ones finger in the air, as was proved by Dragon's Eye, who interviewed 47 people in a Caerphilly street and found only one who actually cared.

Another survey was published last week as well. This is a study carried out by academics at the London School of Economics. They devised a formula to find the most cost-effective MPs in the country that measures the amount of expenses claimed by MPs against their voting record in the Commons between 2001 and 2004. This formula is, to be frank, rather crude, as voting is just a small part of an MPs job, but if the Bevan Foundation report is good enough for Mr. Hain then perhaps it is a valid indicator of worth after all. For they found that Peter Hain offers the least cost effective service of any MP in South Wales. Answer that one Peter, oh and while you are at it perhaps you can tell us why you need to spend so much taxpayers money on postage and stationery?

Saturday, January 21, 2006

A Welsh icon

The Sydney Opera House

When the Wales Millennium Centre was opened it was hailed as Wales' answer to the Sydney Opera House. Certainly, although it looks like a mollusc from the outside, the interior is fantastic and well worth a visit.

The Mollusc

The important thing is to ensure that we keep our new landmark building in a state of good repair. In Swansea, where I am a Councillor, we have had more than enough experience of the cost of failing to do so. For want of a million pounds of maintenance less than ten years ago we are now having to spend £25 million on rebuilding our leisure centre. The indications are that Swansea Guildhall, a grade one listed building, will also require maintenance and repair work in excess of that figure and the list goes on.

According to Senator Andrew Bartlett, the Australians have fallen into this trap as well. They need to find $700 million to restore and refurbish the opera house. Andrew also debunks some myths about this Australian icon in his blog:

I know the Opera House is a striking, iconic building from the outside, and its roof may well be an engineering marvel. However, as an actual building for opera, it sounds like a dud. The acoustics are bad, one quarter of the seats have obstructed or poor sightlines, the orchestra pit is too small and has bad sound and the wings of the stage are too small for dancers. In short, Sydney has an Opera House which is crap for opera – and pretty much all other musical performances. Sounds like a real wonder of the world to me! Well worth another $700 million.

These are not criticisms that can be levelled at the Wales Millennium Centre. Perhaps we have surpassed Sydney after all.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Another AM joins the twenty-first century

Gosh, a fourth Assembly Member has started a blog! Plaid Cymru AM, Leanne Wood, has made it a full set with one member of each political party in the Assembly now sharing their thoughts with the rest of the cyber world, but why no comment facility? Come on Leanne, get with the programme, make your blog interactive.

Leanne has also added a podcast to her site but I couldn't bring myself to listen to it. Nor can I motivate myself to enter her contest to win two tickets to sit in the public gallery for the first sitting of the National Assembly for Wales in its new building. If on the other hand she is offering her tickets for the official opening I might be interested. I can think of a lot of people who would enjoy attending that event even if Leanne is not present.

Update: Leanne has now added a comments facility to her blog. Welcome to interative politics Leanne.

Shock and awe

Culture Minister, Alun Pugh, likes to think that he has the popular touch, often coining tabloid-like phrases to drive home his point. Wednesday's debate on the Historic Buildings Council for Wales (Abolition) Order 2006 was no exception. Alun started the debate by reflecting on our heritage:

For a small nation, we have the legacy of a wonderfully rich built environment. I am not sure whether that legacy was in the forefront of Edward’s mind when he built his series of castles in the north. He was out, of course, to shock and awe the local population, and, in that, perhaps he was the Donald Rumsfeld of the thirteenth century.

Despite his reputation as a tyrant, I felt at the time that this was a little unfair on Edward I and certainly far too flattering a comparison for Donald Rumsfeld. Edward was perhaps the most effective and successful medieval monarch in Europe. He was a military strategist and tactician par excellence but on top of that he was also a highly successful administrator and diplomat. He was a tyrant but then he was also a product of his age. As Alun said, regardless of their symbolism today, his legacy can still be seen along the North Wales coast and elsewhere. By comparison Donald Rumsfeld is an insignificant warlord.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Childcare at the Assembly

Today's Western Mail reports proceedings at yesterday's Equality of Opportunity Committee when Huw Lewis again called for on-site childcare facilities in the Assembly's Cardiff Bay offices (no link available as yet). Huw makes the perfectly fair and reasonable point that we need a creche to stop us "sleepwalking into becoming another Westminster boys club".

Having been a member of the House Committee for its entire five-plus years of existence I wholeheartedly concur with this view. Indeed one of the frustrations of being on this Committee is how difficult it has been to effect change. We managed to get an Access Officer appointed but on smoking for example, despite a decision to move the smoking room outside the building into a shelter, we are still waiting for this to be actioned.

I have been arguing strongly for most of those five years for a creche. The survey that is currently underway is the second that has been undertaken. In many ways its results are irrelevant as creche provision should be a matter of principle and be open to AMs, staff and visitors as well as other workers in Cardiff Bay if that is what is needed to make it economically viable. Obviously those associated with the Assembly would take priority.

On the agenda for next Thursday's House Committee meeting is an item on childcare arrangements. Unfortunately, it is a verbal item so I cannot tell you what it is recommending. However, the fact that we do not have a written report containing costings and a clear recommendation is discouraging. It indicates that we are still in limbo on this issue and that we are some way off actually delivering on our good intentions. Frankly, that is not good enough and I will be saying so.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Searching for the question

The debate in Plenary yesterday on the Government of Wales Bill was a very lively affair. This would not have been so bad if it was not for the fact that I was in the chair for some of the more controversial moments.

Labour started off trying to pin down the Tories on whether their call for a referendum means that they continue to be anti-devolution or not. Anne Jones started off with an effective intervention on Nick Bourne on this issue and she was followed shortly afterwards by Leighton Andrews, who highlighted the absurdity of a referendum on whether to have the Assembly's powers advanced by Orders in Council:

Ann Jones: You support full legislative powers for Wales, yet only last week your party at Westminster set out to derail the Government of Wales Bill. Are you not therefore undermined by your colleagues in Westminster? Does it not suggest that there are divisions within the Tory Party?

Nick Bourne: There are divisions within the Conservative Party, there is no question about that, but that is one reason why we need a referendum. There are divisions within the Labour Party—look at your own backbench Labour MPs. Two of them, one of whom was Madeleine Moon, voted for a clause stating that abolition should be offered. There are divisions in all parties and that is one reason why the matter should be put to the people of Wales to decide. [Interruption.] There are within your voters, let it be said.

Coming back to the issue of Labour MPs, Alan Williams, the Father of the House, has called these legislative proposals ‘creeping devolution’. He believes that the Bill is a kind of salami slicing provision—you could have a series of Orders in Council that chipped away one by one at the powers of the Houses of Parliament, giving them to the Assembly. That is true, which is why we need a referendum. There should be a clear choice, and I do not believe in this intermediate stage.

I believe that we should have a straightforward choice for the people of Wales on legislative powers or not, with the referendum powers as set out very fairly in Schedule 6 of the Government of Wales Act 1998, if a referendum is ever triggered. A referendum can only be triggered—the First Minister skated over this thin ice, and who can blame him—if it is supported by 40 Assembly Members, which is two-thirds of all Assembly Members, and not just two-thirds of those voting. It is a pretty unlikely scenario if Labour never wants it, even if it is out of Government, which I sincerely believe it will be.

Leighton Andrews: We are all enjoying the latest development in the Conservative Party’s policy on devolution as of this week. Are you seriously suggesting that there should be a referendum around the question, ‘Are you in favour of the Orders in Council procedure as laid down in the Government of Wales Bill, yes or no?’.

Nick Bourne: I am glad that you follow proceedings in the Conservative Party so closely, and that you welcome what is happening. I certainly do. It is very interesting to look at recent polls—I can understand why some Labour Members look a little rattled and concerned. I believe that there should be a referendum on the Assembly measures. It is a difficult question to put forward, but that is because it is a complex procedure.

Things started to go downhill when Carl Sergeant stood up to speak. He launched into a diatribe about list members in which he demonstrated very little understanding of their workload or, indeed, the system which his party devised that resulted in their election:

Carl Sargeant: I will give all the Clwyd West Members a mention in a moment.

If our current list Members are in any doubt about what their role should be, then perhaps they should consult Leanne Wood’s magic memo, or the additional list Member’s bible, as it is known to some. She set out, with great clarity, her own golden rules on how list Members should abuse the system: avoid case work at all costs, misuse the staffing allowance to benefit the party, locate the party office, not according to the needs of the people but according to the interests of the party, and, of course, only attend events that are in the interests of the party—if in any doubt, send a pro forma letter and rejection.

If list Members do not have the self-discipline and integrity to represent their regions as the system originally intended, then we must force a change by spelling out the role in order to stop this abuse. Alun Cairns seems to be more confused than most in this regard. The latest post on his website is against the construction of a superstore in Barry; for those who do not know, Barry is in the South Wales Central region. That is not even Alun’s region; you represent South Wales West, Alun. What could prompt such concern? Is there not enough to do in your own region?

It was a fair point on Alun Cairns but a totally over-the-top party political rant otherwise. Some would say that it was petulance if it were not for the fact that these views have the ear of the Secretary of State for Wales, whose own prejudices seem to be dictating the nature of the legislation he is currently pushing through Parliament. It took Kirsty Williams to put things into perspective:

Kirsty Williams: We have heard more than enough this afternoon about the electoral arrangements for the National Assembly. My constituents, Jeff, regularly ask me what I and the Assembly are doing to help them with the various problems that they face in their lives—problems with the health service, the economy, agriculture, and schools. In the last six years in which I have represented Brecon and Radnorshire, I have never been asked by them when I will change the way in which I am elected—never, ever.

The preoccupation of Labour Assembly Members with this problem is a distraction from the real issues and the real opportunities missed in this Bill to address the questions asked by constituents: ‘What will you do to help me, and how is this place structured in such a way that you can deliver the policies that I need to get my child in a decent school, to ensure that my son and daughter have decent jobs, and to ensure that there is a hospital open on a Friday night for me to visit should I need to?’. This Bill is a missed opportunity. The way in which we can achieve some of those goals will be such a convoluted, long drawn-out process that I do not believe that the Assembly will be able to act in the way in which its Members will want to, in order to address some of those problems, following the next election.

Things settled down for a bit until Leighton Andrews got up to speak and in the minds of many members took his party's dislike of regional members too far. In fact he got really personal:

Leighton Andrews: I am pleased to support the Government of Wales Bill. This is an important stage in the new phase of devolution that will strengthen devolution and democracy in Wales. It is worth stating at the outset that this Bill puts primary powers for the National Assembly on the statute book. Sections 104 onwards deal with primary powers for the National Assembly for Wales. That ought to be marked, as it is, in many ways, probably one of the most important developments in the passage of this Bill. Such powers are, of course, subject to a referendum, and I have always been in favour of primary powers being subject to a referendum of the people of Wales. However, in this Bill, we are implementing the next phase of devolution. Even before we get to the stage of having primary powers, we are introducing proposals that will improve the governance of Wales in ways that will make our decision-making swifter, clearer and more streamlined. We should place on record again that it is the Labour Party and Welsh Labour that are strengthening devolution, having delivered it in the first place.

Eleanor Burnham: Will you take an intervention?

Leighton Andrews: I will take an intervention from the Clwyd West reject.

Eleanor Burnham: With regard to what Jocelyn has reminded us of about the new procedures and how long-winded they could be, could you tell us exactly how it will be more streamlined, transparent or more open—despite what you have said to me?

The Presiding Officer: Before Leighton Andrews responds, there is a matter of order. I know that we are engaged in a heated debate on these matters, but as long as the Government of Wales Act 1998 has not been changed, none of us here are rejects. We are all elected, some by a different franchise. I do not want to go back over all this.

Leighton Andrews: I hear what you say, Presiding Officer, but it is a fact that Eleanor Burnham was rejected by the voters of Clwyd West. I was simply stating a fact.

The Presiding Officer: Order. I do not approve of Members disputing my rulings. I will make the matter quite clear. Eleanor Burnham was rejected by the electors of Clwyd West, but, through our electoral system, was elected by the electors of North Wales.

Leighton Andrews: I was certainly not disputing your ruling; I was trying to clarify my remarks.

Perhaps he needs to reflect on his remarks and consider apologising for them.

What's next?

Going through the mail this morning I found an invitation to an event at the St. David's Hotel in Cardiff from Hugh James Exchange entitled "The Quangos are going: what next?". The event is to be addressed by Economic Development Minister, Andrew Davies and the registration fee is £20.

The sales pitch tells us to "forget the long speeches...this event promises to be interactive in every sense of the word. The format is a brief thought provoking presentation from key note speaker, Andrew Davies, followed by a question and answer session encouraging guests to stimulate debate and put questions to the panel."

It is nice to know that our Ministers carry enough prestige to enable companies to charge to hear them speak. If Andrew was also able provide a brief thought provoking presentation in Plenary (where people can watch him free of charge by the way from the comfort of their own home) then that might be worth paying £20 for.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Phantom signatures?

It has been a really busy day with very little time to post anything but, despite being bored with George Galloway and the Big Brother house, I felt that it would be remiss of me not to mention the latest controversy.

Chris Bryant MP wants to know how it is that Twinkle could sign a series of early day motions despite being incommunicado in the Channel Four studio. It is a good question. In the Welsh Assembly we are allowed to nominate support staff to table items on our behalf however, I do not believe that this applies in Parliament.

It is possible that George anticipated criticism of his non-availability and arranged a smoke and mirrors campaign to distract attention from it. Hopefully, all will become clear when the Speaker reports back.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Living in the bubble

It is often commented what a small place Wales is. In the Assembly we feel it especially, simply because everything we do is scrutinised in minute detail. Issues that would not raise an eyelid in Westminster are major headline news in Cardiff Bay. It is like living in a transparent bubble.

Do not get me wrong, I am not complaining. Instead, I trying to make a wider point, namely that this sort of introspection (some would call it media incest) can also work against those who propagate it. Politicians and journalists can develop tunnel-vision, so that they fail to see what is going on across the border other than in Welsh terms.

There is a perfect example of this phenomenon in today's Western Mail. In a piece on Ruth Kelly's sex offenders crisis the journalist claims that Monmouth MP, David Davies is the first MP to call for the UK Education Minister to resign. Yet that privilege already rests with former Tory leader, Michael Howard, as is made clear in this Guardian article.

It is possible of course that David is the first MP to call on Kim Howells to resign, or to link that call for a demand for Ruth Kelly's head, but now we are getting into the realms of trivia. After all David may have been an Assembly Member for six years but in UK terms he is still a novice MP with no front bench responsibilities. Outside of Wales his views, no matter how legitimate, would not merit a single line in a national newspaper. Such are the news values we live by.

Update: On re-reading this I think it is entirely possible that I have been unfair. After all both David Davies and the journalist are just doing their job. It is just that sometimes calling for resignation can be lazy politics and in this case, as wrong as Ruth Kelly's decision and the system she operates is, I think that this is the case.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Winning trust

I meant to blog this much earlier but I have spent the day wrestling with pagemaker and a temperamental risograph and time rather ran away with me.

The Observer reports that Simon Hughes signalled yesterday that he was ready to ditch the party's proposal for a new 50p top band on income tax. Their view that this is a dramatic move towards the party's modernisers however, is a bit simplistic even for the media.

The party is already carrying out a fundamental review of its economic and tax policies, nothing is sacrosanct and nor should it be. However, as Simon makes clear, the overall direction most members wish to go in involves a fair and progressive taxation system that helps the poorest people in our society:

Hughes said he was not abandoning his commitment to 'a fairer society' and narrowing the gap between rich and poor, which had grown under both Tory and Labour governments.

But rather than focus on raising the top level of personal income tax, his main aim would be to remove the poorest people from paying the tax altogether. There were areas where additional revenue might be raised, including environmental taxes and possible windfall levies, he suggested.

Nobody should assume that the economic policies we fought the 2005 election on will hold good in 2009 or 2010. As with the other parties, the next few years will be a period in which we redefine our policies and what we want them to achieve in the light of the changing circumstances of the time, our policies and our principles.

All of the leadership contenders recognise this and are articulating their approach as part of the debate this contest is stimulating. What is reassuring is that even for the 'orange-bookers' the ultimate aim is equality and social justice.

What is also useful about this discussion is the way that environmental objectives are coming to the fore. We may not have wanted this leadership contest but it is giving publicity to our ideas and policies that we could only have dreamed about when thie policy review process was started.

Sunset on Gower

The front page of today's Observer features a picture of my favourite bay, Three Cliffs on Gower. Country Life magazine has voted it the best place in Britain to watch a sunset. I would wholeheartedly endorse that, but don't take my word for it, come and see for yourself.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Ruth Kelly affair

The Welsh Education Minister has promised to make a statement in Plenary next week on the issue of registered sex offenders working in schools. What is surprising is that Jane Davidson does not appear to know whether Ruth Kelly has sanctioned anybody on the sex offenders' register to work in a Welsh school or not.

This may not be a devolved matter but at the very least it should be a matter of courtesy to tell the Welsh Assembly Government if such a person has been authorised to work in Wales. The job of tracking sex offenders appears to have been made more difficult by the fact that there are seven lists on which they can feature. After the Soham murders Michael Bichard recommended that these be amalgamated to form just the one reference point. However, we are told that this cannot be achieved until 2008.

That is not satisfactory and on Tuesday I will be urging the Welsh Education Minister to press her Westminster counterpart to move much more quickly on this issue.

Trial of the last century

It is 45 years since the Lady Chatterley trial and the BBC is planning a dramatisation to go out in March. In today's Guardian Simon Hoggart reflects on the role played by his father, who was a witness in the trial:

The BBC is reprising the Lady Chatterley trial, 45 years after the event, with a drama written by Andrew Davies. It will be shown in March on BBC4, and probably repeated on BBC2. Lady Chatterley looks pretty tame stuff now, so Davies has added a fictional affair between two of the jurors, reflecting and expanding on the one between Constance and Mellors.

My father, Richard Hoggart, was one of the witnesses in the real trial and, I guess, helped sway the jury with his insistence that the book, and Lawrence himself, were "puritanical" - not in the sense of hating pleasure but in having respect for one's own conscience. There's a great scene in the new film in which the prosecuting counsel, Mervyn Griffiths-Jones, played by Pip Torrens, reads out some of the most explicit bits, and asks sarcastically if each is puritanical. Dad repeatedly replies: "Yes, puritanical - and poignant, and tender."

They invited some of the relatives to the filming this week at a disused court in south-west London (Dad couldn't make it). One guest was the son of Mr Griffiths-Jones, who was perhaps even more influential in obtaining the "not guilty" verdict when he asked the jury: "Is this a book you would want your wife or your servants to read?" Apparently, his opening speech had been going well and the line suddenly popped into his head. Even though he prepared his speeches meticulously, he ad-libbed that one, with possibly fatal results.

It is an insightful passage that brings history alive. Let us hope that the dramatisation can match it.

Friday, January 13, 2006

That Big Brother moment

It is official, George Galloway is Kitten Kong! Just call him Twinkle from now on.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Blonde joke

I have often said that I am not ginger but strawberry blonde, therefore there is no way I am going to propagate this politically incorrect blonde joke. This is a serious political blog after all.


The Liberal Democrats leadership race is starting to heat up at last. Any chance of a coronation has gone out of the window and a good thing too. Sir Menzies Campbell's performance in Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday seems to have temporarily derailed his bandwagon and caused some members to pause and think about who they will support.

Sir Menzies Campbell and Mark Oaten are the two declared candidates but it is believed that Party President, Simon Hughes will join them today. There is also speculation that Eastleigh MP, Chris Huhne will throw his hat in the ring. Although Chris Huhne has only been an MP for eight months he was previously an MEP and is well-respected within the party. His candidacy will add a welcome dimension to the debate by ensuring that it become more issue focussed.

Chris chaired the party's public services commission, on which I was the Welsh representative a few years ago. The emphasis that commission's final report put on devolution and local empowerment still remains a welcome counterpoint to the free market views of some of the Orangistas.

Interestingly, a rumour doing the rounds yesterday that Mark Oaten had only been able to attract one other MP, his acolyte Lembit Opik, to sign his nomination form seems to be untrue. A suggestion that he might be loaned some of the MPs who have declared for other candidates so as to ensure that he gets into the race also appears to be unsubstantiated. Nevertheless, the idea that he might have insufficient support amongst the Parliamentary Party has succeeded in stalling his campaign, albeit temporarily.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The train now standing...

It was as if we had never left. The first day of formal meetings after the Christmas recess started as we had ended 2005, talking about trains.

The very first question to the First Minister was from Laura Anne Jones who wanted him to make a statement on rail travel in Wales. From then on it all went downhill. We only had a half-decent wordplay to illustrate a serious point from Leighton Andrews to liven up the next hour:

Leighton Andrews: Are you aware that in the Rhondda, Arriva Trains Wales is rapidly gaining the nickname ‘never Arriva’? When you next have the opportunity, will you take up with Arriva, under the terms of the franchise, a range of issues relating to punctuality, to the quality of the rolling stock and to the ability of Arriva to collect fares from passengers? At present, in the Rhondda, and, I suspect in many other Valley constituencies, Arriva Trains is rapidly becoming something of a music hall joke.

I have to admit that Leighton never struck me as the type to frequent music halls but I think I know what he meant.

This morning I chaired the first Education and Lifelong Learning Committee of the new year, a meeting that managed to produce the question of the week so far. About halfway through the Minister's report one AM, who shall remain nameless, asked the Minister: "How are you encouraging partnership working in sex and relationships education?"

Even for the Welsh Assembly Government, which has had an obsession with partnership working since it was set up in 1999, that was possibly a step too far.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Bad news day

Although the Tories think they are at last starting to make headway following the Liberal Democrats leadership crisis, as James Graham points out this is not necessarily so. The latest poll in The Times has Labour up one on 39%, the Tories up one on 36% and the Liberal Democrats down three on 16%. James records that this is hardly surprising after one of the worst months for the Liberal Democrats in recent memory. However, what is more significant is the fact that Cameron's party is still behind during their very energetic honeymoon period.

What gloating Tories like Iain Dale do not seem to have realised is that all this publicity about Charles Kennedy and the leadership crisis has pushed their golden boy off the front pages. Suddenly, it is the Liberal Democrats who are engaging in a high profile and rejuvenating debate (well, we will be soon) whilst the new Conservative leader and his energetic initiatives become yesterday's news.

All of Cameron's momentum appears to have dissipated in a haze, thus the disappointing poll results. The questions that Dave has to answer now are all about substance and stamina and he hasn't shown much sign of having either so far.

The saving grace for the Tories is that they are able to use this lull to rush out bad news in the hope that nobody notices. The decision to perform a u-turn on student top-up fees yesterday is one such initiative.

Previously, the Conservatives had tried to milk student votes on the basis of their opposition to this policy. Their about-face has left the Liberal Democrats as the only party championing the cause of students. It has also left the Welsh Conservatives high-and-dry. Now that is something worth banking so that the new Liberal Democrats leader can cash it in.

Bidding for Leadership

At last a bit of sanity in the Liberal Democrats leadership election! The John Thurso for Prime Minister website launched today sets out an alternative approach for the party. John was of course an hereditary peer before becoming an MP, so somebody thought they would have a bit of fun at his expense:

But what would John do if elected as Prime Minister?

• John is committed to the decentralisation of power and will reintroduce Barons for each constituency. Any persons earning under £13,000 per annum will become their serfs.
• Thus, as Thurso wishes to improve choice in order to do this, he will allow the nobility to choose a mascot from among their serfs.
• As a Liberal, Thurso stands against all religious discrimination; from now on everyone shall worship the same god.
• Thurso is a Green Liberal. It is clear that we cannot continue with our unsustainable levels of energy consumption; therefore electricity supplies will be withheld from the proletariat.
• Furthermore, all coal and gas power stations will be destroyed. To make up for any energy deficit surfs will power dynamos by running on treadmills.
• Thurso opposed the invasion of Iraq; in order to get our empire back we need to start with Ireland.
• Thurso is opposed to top up fees; education should be a matter for the private individual.
• John is determined to prevent Urban sprawl from destroying our nation and the British way of life. To this end all property developers will be arrested under the Terrorism Act.
• Charity begins at home, so Thurso would tax all charities in order to build a winter palace in Aberdeen for himself.
• The pony post was good enough for Thurso's grandfather so it's good enough for you; the internet shall be banned.

This is a joke by the way and should not be taken seriously!

Monday, January 09, 2006

Empowering the Assembly

An important event today marks a unique step forward in the process of devolution, it is the second reading of the Government of Wales Bill MKII.

Welsh Liberal Democrats have a number problems with this Bill, not least the politically-motivated changes to the voting system, but also its reinvention of the Secretary of State for Wales as Viceroy, determining whether or not to accept policy initiatives from the Assembly, and the fact that the transfer of powers does not go far enough.

Despite this we intend to support the Bill's second reading in the hope of amending and improving it at a later stage. We believe that this is a constructive way of working and the least that could be expected from a pro-devolution party. The Tories' instincts seem to lead them in the opposite direction.

Although the Conservatives have heralded their about-turn on a referendum to abolish the Assembly today, their reasoned amendment for rejecting the Bill at second reading, effectively marks them out as still anti-devolution. Their demand for a referendum on the Orders in Council process is effectively a wrecking tactic designed to derail the whole devolution process. They are not so different under Cameron after all.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Coronation not welcome

Predictably, the Sunday papers are full of details about Charles Kennedy's resignation, the events that led up to it, the pressures and more stuff on his drink problem. There also seems to be a head of steam building up to crown Menzies Campbell without an election.

As a member and somebody who has a stake in this I believe that such a coronation would be the worst of all worlds. The MPs have got their way but they have to understand that they do not run the party.

The Liberal Democrats belongs to its members. It is the members now who must decide how we will go forward and in which direction. They must be able to choose the new leader and they must be given the opportunity to openly debate the future of the party. There has to be an election, it is the only way in which we can start the healing process.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Kennedy resigns

It has been a sad day for Liberal Democrats everywhere. Although Charles Kennedy's decision to resign was inevitable and in the best interests of the party, it should not detract from the huge contribution he has made to our cause. He has proved to be a popular and politically courageous leader, who led us through two General Elections to our best results since the 1920s. His speech today was dignified as he has been throughout. It underlined his talent and the tragedy that his own problems prevented him from going on to even greater things.

As I said yesterday, I believed that Charles' position had become unsustainable. Despite his protestations, his alcoholism had undermined his effectiveness, whilst his style of leadership appears to have succeeded in alienating many of his colleagues. As Lynne Featherstone writes on her blog, the Parliamentary Party she joined in May 2005 was "pretty dysfunctional....held in a limbo because of what is now clear - a lack of strategic direction from the leadership." Much of this has only become clear to the wider party in the last 36 hours.

Nevertheless, this is not the end of a third party force as some hope. Parties have gone through leadership crises before and have emerged strengthened and renewed. In the case of the Liberal Democrats, the periods before the election of David Steel and Paddy Ashdown, prove that can happen.

So far only one candidate for the succession has declared his hand. Menzies Campbell could well prove to be the man who can give the Liberal Democrats the gravitas and authority we need. He may well too prove to be somebody who can bring together and reconcile factions within the Parliamentary Party, to quickly heal the sores of the past few weeks and to help us to present a clear liberal alternative to Cameron's policy-lite Conservatives and Blair's tired Labour Party.

It is too early to say who I will be supporting - the party has not yet decided how it will proceed - but I suspect that like many other members I will be looking for somebody who can steer us past ideological divisions of the past, no matter how insignificant and over-inflated, into clear Liberal waters. From that point I believe that we will enjoy more electoral success and prove once more to be a beneficial force for change in the UK.

Hunt the MP

The Guardian this morning illustrates perfectly my point about George Galloway having a job to do. Their journalist poses as a constituent in need and tries to get help from his MP. Alas, all his attempts to secure assistance fails. Meanwhile, Channel 4 makes it clear that George will not be able to use his incarceration to make any political point.

All of this leaves us asking the question: "What is the point of George Galloway?". If he did not exist would it be necessary to re-invent him? The answer to both questions are negatives. Still, he will get the personal publicity he seeks, so it is not a completely wasted exercise for him.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Politicising the arts

Having failed to abolish the Arts Council of Wales and merge it with the Welsh Assembly Government because of a small obstacle called a royal charter, the Government has effectively taken it over by stealth instead.

From this year they will be directly funding Wales’s six biggest arts companies, including the Welsh National Opera, and they have now forced out the current chair. Many view these actions as politicisation of the arts, they are not wrong.

Labour Arts Minister, Alun Pugh, may soon regret this move when he comes under political pressure to censor productions such as Jerry Springer: The Opera and is not able to let an arms-length body take all the heat.


When I was standing at the back of the Charles Kennedy press conference yesterday I noted that a journalist in front of me had written down the names of two politicians at the top of his notebook- Winston Churchill and George Brown. Both of these politicians served at the highest levels of government whilst frequently drunk. It is also the case that the current President of the United States is a recovering alcoholic. The key issue is whether those around them and the electorate at large believe that they are capable and competent enough to do the job they have been elected to do.

Having been my party's social justice spokesperson, I have done a lot of work with organisations who deal with drug addicts and alcoholics. I understand that it is an illness and that it can be controlled. I do not believe that Charles Kennedy is any less capable of doing his job because of his problem. Indeed the evidence is that he is seeking to control it. The question has to be asked though whether two months of being 'dry' is sufficient to give us confidence that he has got it under control enough to carry on?

I must admit that when I posted yesterday I was not aware of the extent to which Charles Kennedy had denied his condition publicly. Our opponents are keen to label him a liar but, as Lembit Opik pointed out on Radio Wales this morning, denial is an intrinsic part of alcoholism and I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. Nevertheless, the issue of trust and honesty is a big one, simply because we as a party have made it a major attribute of the Liberal Democrats.

It is now clear that Charles' attempt to head-off his MPs at the pass has not worked. Key members of his team are continuing to put pressure on him to stand down, whilst declining to openly challenge him in the forthcoming leadership contest. I got the impression yesterday that the problem is not just his drink problem or the direction in which he is leading the party, but also his style of leadership. Many of the MPs do not consider him to be accessible, they dislike the way that they are excluded from key decisions and they are unhappy that he failed to keep his promise to appoint a PPS.

Personally, I have found Charles' collegiate style to be refreshing. He has not always led from the front but he has sought to reconcile differences and find a way through them. He is popular amongst party members and in the country, largely because he is considered to be a good bloke, an ordinary person doing an extraordinary job. Despite the fact that I did not support him in the last leadership contest I have come to respect him and value his leadership. Although I recognise that the time may have come for both the party and him to move on I have resisted such thoughts because I have been unhappy with those alternative leaders who have so far presented themselves. It is time for me to come out of denial.

The worst possible scenario is that Charles stands for leader and is re-elected unopposed. I asked yesterday whether those who have been briefing against him have the guts to stand in opposition to him. It seems that they do not. Charles therefore has to be persuaded to stand aside altogether and to allow a proper contest for the job. We all reach a time when we must move on. Charles Kennedy's leadership and the Liberal Democrats have now come to the parting of the ways.

How that happens is difficult to foresee. There may well be a no-confidence vote at Tuesday's Parliamentary meeting. What I hope is that we can avoid any more of the off-the-record and even on-the-record briefings that are doing so much damage to the party. If possible Charles needs to make the decision himself and go with the dignity and respect that he has earned during his time in charge. Nobody needs this level of grief anymore.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Big bother

Oh, my goodness. I have just got home to discover that George Galloway is on Celebrity Big Brother. Has he not got a job to go to. It really does defy parody.

Live blogging

Kennedy at the press conference where he announces that he has a
drink problem.

Well it is not really live but close enough. I have spent today in Westminster with the rest of the Liberal Democrats Assembly Group and our Welsh MPs. Most of the meeting was spent discussing the Government of Wales Bill and other issues but when we heard that Charles Kennedy was to make a personal statement at 5.45pm we all decided to go and see it in person.

There is nothing like seeing history being made no matter how minor. In terms of the party this was fairly significant history.

Charles' statement was brave and well-judged. He was open about his problem with alcohol and that he believes that he has it under control. His decision to call a leadership election and to stand himself was also the best way to bring to an end all the speculation about his leadership. We will now have to see if any of those briefing against him have the guts to put their head above the parapet and stand as well. As this is live blogging I will add a photo to this entry when I get my act together, most probably next week.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Improving e-government

Browsing through Tim Worstall's anthology of 2005 blog entries I came across this interesting piece of advice from the Never Trust a Hippy blog on improving public sector websites.

It is universally acknowledged that the Assembly's website is dreadful. It is difficult to navigate and impossible to find much of anything of any use on it. In April or May the Welsh Assembly Government is launching its own website, effectively leaving the rump of the existing site to the Parliamentary side. The Assembly Parliamentary Service is intending to follow suit and launch its own website, but because of the need to go out to tender will not achieve this objective until the summer or later.

Let us hope that when they are designing their new on-line presence that they take some of the advice on offer from Never Trust a Hippy.

Celebrating the differences

Yet another example of devolution at work. Whilst England plans to end subsidised school milk for 1.2m Primary School children, Wales continues to offer free milk for all children under the age of seven, thanks to a Welsh Liberal Democrats initiative whilst we were in government. School children in Wales also benefit from free fruit and of course, the more controversial free school breakfasts.

Independent consultants, London Economics, may consider this provision a waste of money but what are the odds that they employ highly-paid executives who can afford to ensure that their children are well-nourished? The Welsh agenda is about preventing ill-health and improving classroom performance. The evidence is that our approach is working.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

No move to the right

Welsh Party Assembly Leader, Mike German, in the Western Mail this morning, speaks for the majority of Liberal Democrats members when he argues that the party should not shift to the right to counter the rise of David Cameron. "The party," he says, "is fundamentally about helping people to help themselves but also supporting the freedom of the individual."

Mike also gives his support to Charles Kennedy, though I suspect that like the rest of us he wants to see a much higher profile from him in 2006. Kennedy of course is busy fighting off a so-called grassroots revolt with an on-line petition claiming to have accumulated several thousand signatures calling for Mr Kennedy to quit. The organisers are claming that the signatories include one in twelve (375) of the party's Councillors.

The problem for those organising the petition is that there is no method of checking who is signing it. There are already reports of people signing on behalf of someone else without seeking permission. There are no checks whether signatories are Liberal Democrats members and in fact in recent days supporters of Charles Kennedy have gone on-line to sign up as Mickey Mouse and have had their signature accepted just to prove a point. There is also no verification of email addresses. I recently came across one Councillor who had an e-mail from the organisers thanking him for signing and encouraging him to go public. However, that particular Councillor had not subscribed to the campaign.

So as to underline these points Ian Ridley has set up his own on-line petition calling on arch-conspirator, Ben Ramm, to stand down as editor of "The Liberal" magazine. With thanks to Jonathan Calder for running with this particular ball. I would encourage a 100% turnout of Disney characters in supporting this cause.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Who is leading who?

Judging by David Cameron's latest about-turn he has forgotten which party it is that he is leading. It is almost as if he really wants to be leading New Labour. Certainly, the tone he is now adopting would not be out-of-place in No.10:

Mr Cameron announced over the weekend in an advertisement that he wanted to “improve [the NHS] for everyone, not help a few to opt out”. He has told colleagues that he wants the party to focus on raising standards through competition and choice.

This comes as the Tory leader warned members of his party not to appear too dogmatic. “For politicians to stick rigidly to an ideology is to court disaster. Nothing can be set in stone.”

He also risked further angering the Right by criticising Baroness Thatcher’s approach to reform of the public services, suggesting they had not been sufficiently flexible.

“At the next election, a whole generation of people will be voting who were born after Mrs Thatcher left office. So when it comes to tackling the big challenges our society faces, I won’t be the prisoner of an ideological past.” He added that he did not believe in the politics of Right and Left but “the politics of right and wrong”.

He will be attacking big business next, or have I missed that one?

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