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Wednesday, May 31, 2006


It seems that Brian Haw has been permitted to continue his protest outside the House of Commons until 11 July. That is the date when he must return to court to answer charges of exercising his democratic right to protest. Honestly, are we living in a free country or a South American dictatorship?

The Metropolitan Police has wasted over £27,000 on its clamp down on Mr Haw's five year Parliament Square protest. This is hardly money well spent. Liberal Democrat MP, Nick Harvey is spot on when he says: "It is shocking to see the Government so fearful of criticism that it has to resort to inventing a new law to stop a 57 year old man from making his views known.
This dispute has far reaching implications for the civil liberties of each and every one of us."

Right wing extremists

Do not read this if you do not want to know what happens in series seven of the West Wing!

All the signs are that I have chosen the wrong days to go to the Hay Festival. The Al Gore event looks like it was even more unmissable than Clinton (yes, I missed that one as well). His analysis of the Bush administration is spot on even though it is both obvious and a teensy-weensy bit cursory:

Al Gore has made his sharpest attack yet on the George Bush presidency, describing the current US administration as "a renegade band of rightwing extremists".

In an interview with the Guardian today, the former vice-president calls himself a "recovering politician", but launches into the political fray more explicitly than he has previously done during his high-profile campaigning on the threat of global warming.

Denying that his politics have shifted to the left since he lost the court battle for the 2000 election, Mr Gore says: "If you have a renegade band of rightwing extremists who get hold of power, the whole thing goes to the right."

There is no indication if he said this on the night of course but it would have been nice to have found out for myself. I will just have to settle for another losing Presidential candidate next Saturday - that is Alan Alda, who, as Arnie Vinnick, is reputed to have lost the fictional race for an idealised White House by the narrowest of margins in the seventh and final series of the West Wing. I wonder what he will have to say about Santos?

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Spam filter blunders

It is said that at least half of all e-mails sent are spam. As a result most firewalls nowadays have automatic filters to try and restrict the arrival of these missives. Sometimes however there can be consequences as is demonstrated here:

Emails objecting to a house extension failed to reach a council planning department because their computer system blocked the word "erection".

Commercial lawyer Ray Kennedy, from Middleton, Greater Manchester, claims he sent three emails to Rochdale council complaining about his neighbour's plans.

But the first two messages, which contained the word "erection", failed to reach the planning department because the software on the town hall's computer system deemed them offensive.

When his third email, containing the same word, somehow squeezed through it was too late. A planning officer told Mr Kennedy that his next-door neighbour's proposals had already been given the go ahead.

The software used by Rochdale council is designed to filter out any obscene material and thought the word "erection" - used by Mr Kennedy in the context of building an extension - was a sexual term.

It all seems very strange. Surely, these firewalls are capable of being more sophisticated than this.


Is it me or is there something of Sir Francis Drake about John Prescott? There he is playing croquet whilst an armada of Labour MPs gather menacingly in the usual channels. It can only end badly.

Monday, May 29, 2006

As it is a bank holiday...

Your Political Profile:
Overall: 5% Conservative, 95% Liberal
Social Issues: 0% Conservative, 100% Liberal
Personal Responsibility: 0% Conservative, 100% Liberal
Fiscal Issues: 0% Conservative, 100% Liberal
Ethics: 0% Conservative, 100% Liberal
Defense and Crime: 25% Conservative, 75% Liberal
How Liberal Or Conservative Are You?

I expected to come out overwhelmingly Liberal but this is ridiculous. I suppose the problem is that it is an American quiz and thus a bit two-dimensional in a British context.

Little Princess

We have plans to spend next weekend at the Guardian Hay Festival and accordingly tickets have been purchased for a number of events, including Alan Alda on the Saturday night. Not having done the booking myself I was intriqued by Carolyn Hitt's description of the experience in this morning's Western Mail. So much so that I had to check it out for myself.

Sure enough on the checkout screen of the Hay Festival site the drop down menu for 'Title' provides a wide choice of prefix. There is Professor, Lord, Lady, and Princess as well as the more common Mister, Mrs, Miss, Master, Father, and Reverend, but no Prince. I look forward to spending my little literary weekend in the company of the very highest of high society.

She is not the Messiah, she is a very naughty girl!

Today's news that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have named their new baby daughter, Shiloh Nouvel Jolie-Pitt bring to mind that famous scene from Monty Python's 'The Life of Brian', starring Aberystwyth's very own Sue Jones Davies. Shiloh is a Hebrew word which translates roughly as "the peaceful one" and is taken by Christians to mean the messiah.

'New Messiah' may prove to be burdensome and overly pretentious name for the child of two film stars or indeed, for any child. It may be said that Pitt and Jolie have an over-inflated view of their own importance.

N.B. Can anybody confirm whether Sue Jones Davies was actually Mayor of Aberystwyth at some point?

The fastest pushbike in the west

Quoting Richard Littlejohn is not going to become a habit, but this is definitely worth repeating:

You could hear his tyres pound,
As they raced across the ground,
And the clatter of the wheels,
As they spun round and round,
And he pedalled into Westminster,
His helmet on his head,
His name was Davey,
And he rode the fastest push-bike in the West.

Now Davey had a chauffeur,
A fella known as Bill,
He followed Davey in the car,
From his home in Notting Hill.
They said Davey was a hypocrite,
For cycling into work,
With his bags and clothes in a Lexus,
The two-faced little berk.
They called him Davey,
And he rode the fastest push-bike in the West.

He said he'd save the planet,
And if you want the proof,
Davey jetted off to Greenland,
And put a windmill on his roof.
He said I'll bring you happiness,
'Cos happiness is best,
We said Davey we'll be happy,
If you'll just tax us less.
And that flustered young Davey, (Day-vey),
And he rode the fastest push-bike in the West.

Now Davey had a rival,
An evil-looking lad,
Called Gordon Brown from Kirkcaldy Town,
And he drove the voters mad.
He tempted them with his benefits,
And his fancy jobs for life,
In his desperate run at Number 10,
He even took a wife.

And though they swooned at the Cameroons,
Gordon said if you vote for me,
I'll index-link your pensions,
And give you eyesight tests for free.
He thought they'd fall for his new capped teeth,
And his sultry Scottish charm,
But what put them off was he bit his nails,
Halfway down his arm.
Not like young Davey, (Day-vey).
And he rode the fastest push-bike in the West.

But Gordon had a rival, too,
His name was Tony Blair,
It tormented him from dawn to dusk,
That Tony was still there.
He yelled: "If you don't get out now,
Then I'll be in my grave,
And sitting here in Downing Street,
Will be bloody Call Me Dave."
And that tickled old Tony, (To-ney)
And he had the biggest mortgage in the West.

Now Tony had a deputy,
He wasn't any good.
But he had a flat in Admiralty Arch,
And a house in Dorneywood.
He thought he was a ladies' man,
They didn't come much smarter,
But behind his back the whole world laughed,
At the size of his chipolata.
They called him Two Jags, (Two-Jags)
And he drove the fastest limo in the West.

Young Davey had an A-list,T
o get the Tories back.
He'd only choose from candidates,
Who were female, gay or black.
No more old blokes in pin-striped suits,
Called Norman, Geoff or Maurice,
Just metrosexuals who ride bikes,
And Etonians like Boris.
You all know Boris, (Bor-is)
And he pulled the fastest women in the West.

Dave was only thirty-nine,
He didn't think he'd win.
He could only hope that Tone and Gord,
Would do each other in.
Dave couldn't know that Mr Plod,
Would feel old Tony's collar,
For flogging seats in the House of Lords,
For a suitcase full of dollars.

And so, at last, came Gordon's turn,
But as he stepped up to the mike,
He turned to see a man in green,
Approaching on a bike.
His head was down, his legs a blur,
Veins bulging in his neck.
Before Gordon knew what hit him,
He was lying on the deck.

As Gordon lay there dying,
The cyclist gave a wave,
Racing home to prepare for government,
Pedalled Call Me Dave.
His name was Davey, (Day-vey)
And he rode the fastest push-bike in the West.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Comfortably numb

I am still a bit numb after yesterday's penalty shoot-out that left Swansea where they started and allowed Barnsley to progress to the Championship. Swansea were by far the better team but they did not take all their chances, specifically in the second half of extra time. When Barnsley equalised to make the score 2-2, the Swans seemed to freeze and never quite regained their midfield dominance. We will just have to make sure that we get automatic promotion next season.

One team who will not get a second chance if they fail next month are the Independents who are seeking to succeed Peter Law as the AM and the MP for Blaenau Gwent. This piece in today's Wales on Sunday seems to indicate that the love affair between the media and the Law camp is starting to go cold:

Mrs Law is standing for the National Assembly and Mr Davies for Parliament.

But rumours circulating in Blaenau Gwent have suggested both wanted to run for the Assembly seat, causing a rift. Mr Davies was originally set to stand in next year's Assembly election.

The pair have had to face questions on why they were operating from separate offices and had not been seen campaigning together.

But a furious Mr Davies last night turned his fire on "terrified" Labour, accusing them of being behind the whispers.

He said: "It is absolute rubbish. Our campaign hasn't really built up yet, that's why we haven't been seen together. We're operating out of different offices at the moment because the office was a constituency office but we're hoping to have agreement to rent part of it by June 1.

"We have separate agents because there's two different sets of expenses and it makes it easier for us. But the two agents are friends as well just in case anyone wants to start that rumour.

"There's no problem at the end of the day. It's a disgrace. Whoever has been putting this about is sick and if people are believing this they obviously don't know me and Trish."

Whatever the reason for conducting separate campaigns it does not look as if either candidate has really got a winning act together. There is a strong element of naivety in the comments attributed to Dai Davies. If he and Mrs Law are waiting until 1 June before moving up a gear then they are going to be overwhelmed by the level of resources that Labour are already throwing into Blaenau Gwent.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Today's diary

1. Deliver a few leaflets in the rain.
2. Set video to record Dr. Who.
3. Travel to Cardiff to watch Swansea play Barnsley in the League One play-off final at the
Millennium Stadium.

Come on the Swans!!

Weighty matters

What are people's expectations of the Freedom of Information Act? Well, a letter writer in the Western Mail this morning seems to believe that the Act entitles him to know everything about anything:

SIR - Under the Freedom of Information Act our children should be told the weight and waist measurement of all our MPs, AMs and SMPs.

I am not clear what the public interest element is in holding this information. However, what I do know is that in my own case I try to avoid knowing anything about my waist measurement and weight at all.

Friday, May 26, 2006

George loses it

The news media is full of the ill-considered and frankly barmy remarks by George Galloway in which he suggests that it could be "morally justified" to assassinate Tony Blair.

Admittedly, the question as to whether a suicide bomb attack on Mr Blair would "be justified as revenge for the war on Iraq" was wild, but Galloway is experienced enough and intelligent enough to have avoided an obvious trap. That he didn't says a lot about his lack of judgement. There is no room for personal animosity in politics and there is no justification for violence in any form. Galloway is a disgrace to his profession.

Snouts in troughs

Things are getting a bit fraught in the Assembly. There are tensions in the Office of the Presiding Officer between the PO and his deputy and there are a number of members who, faced with some real electoral threats to their future in the Senedd, are starting to get edgy. There was an exchange a few days ago for example between Llanelli AM, Catherine Thomas, and the Plaid Cymru rival for her seat, Helen Mary Jones, that just bristled with malevolence.

John Marek is another member whose bitterness has spilled out into the chamber. He was attacked by Labour last month for organising a fact-finding trip to Gibralter. Apparently, some Labour AMs felt that his justification for this visit was less than robust and they said so in a press release. I would guess that he is also coming under attack in Wrexham itself and is beginning to feel the strain.

A week last Wednesday the Deputy Presiding Officer objected strongly to the establishment of a Shadow Commission and a Committee to draw up Standing Orders for the next Assembly, post-Government of Wales Bill. His main objection in both instances was that he had not been consulted or involved in the process that led to the motions. A week later he was on his feet again, accusing Labour of all sorts of evil. He did not get things completely his own way however:

John Marek: I confine my remarks to the support of amendment 1, which is about whether we will give the Minister the power to subsidise air transport passenger services in Wales. I do not believe that we should give him that power. He did say, in his opening remarks, that he would be open to scrutiny in committee and that everything would be open and so on, but it would be difficult, if he has decided to give a company public money to run air services, for any committee or Plenary meeting to muster a majority to stop that happening. Plenary ought to keep this power unto itself, and if the Minister should want to throw public money away in subsidising air services in Wales, then he should come to Plenary and ask our permission.

There are two major reasons for this. The first is that of the environment. The visibility of the damage that aeroplanes do is now above the horizon, and it will become an increasingly important point as time goes on, and not just in Wales, but everywhere. Are air fares too cheap, and is our planet in danger because of the amount of air travel and the noxious fumes that air transport emits? I am not arguing for no air travel, but I am trying to argue for control, and we can have that control if Plenary decides not to give this particular power to the Minister.

Carl Sargeant: Will the Member be walking to Gibraltar, then? [Laugher.]

John Marek: That is a typically fatuous comment, of course.

The Presiding Officer: Order. This debate is not about international or inter-European air travel—if, indeed, Gibraltar is a European region; it is entirely about air services in Wales. As far as I am aware, Ynys Môn is not Gibraltar.

John Marek: I think that you make my case for me. The Labour Party, as usual, is laughing, but I will come to the point about snouts in the trough in a minute.

My first argument is that there are environmental considerations that will become increasingly important as time goes on, and we should not allow the Minister to use his powers to subsidise air services in Wales.

My second point is that this is Labour Party members with their snouts in the trough again. [Assembly Members: ‘Oh.’] Well, they have plenty of snouts in the trough with secret donations and proposals to make the donors Members of the House of Lords. We only have to talk about the Deputy Prime Minister to know where public money is spent and whether it is being spent properly. I do not think that we have any lessons to learn from the Labour Party.

If the Minister subsidises air services from Cardiff to Hawarden, Cardiff to Valley, or to other places in north Wales, is he prepared to say that he will not use them and that he will use his own ticket, not subsidised by public money. Is he prepared to give a commitment on behalf of the Government that these air services will be subsidised for business reasons and not for public reasons? I suspect that the Government wants these services because members of the Cabinet would love to go from Cardiff—and they are nearly all from Cardiff, or near Cardiff—to north-east or north-west Wales. Even if they were to give me an absolute guarantee that they would not benefit personally from these air services, I would still be in favour of amendment 1; I shall not vote against it, but I might just be tempted to abstain. However, I do not think that they will give me such a guarantee; they are here to please themselves on this matter— [Assembly Members: ‘Oh.’]
Oh, yes, but not in any corrupt way, because it is a perfectly proper way for them to do it. However, I believe that they are here to please themselves in this regard, when they should be arguing for a proper train service between north and south Wales that the ordinary working men and women of Wales can use, and not just those who are privileged to have public service jobs and whose tickets are paid for by the public sector.

It was an entertaining argument but not the best way to win friends and influence people.

The correct use of props

During the 1997 General Election I was based in the Welsh Liberal Democrat Office in Cardiff helping to co-ordinate our campaign across the Principality.

Mainly, we spent the time thinking up ways of getting our message across in the media. This led to a number of stunts such as the Quangobusters and Plaidwayman.

We also sought ways of livening up our daily press conferences by introducing props to illustrate our message. This could be as sophisticated as a giant mocked-up railway ticket or as simple as a piece of wood with a nail through it.

One thing quickly became evident, a lot of our star turns at these press conferences had problems holding the props correctly whilst speaking at the same time. After a while we started a league table of those politicians who were the best co-ordinated.

I was reminded of this earlier in the week when a press release came through from Westminster advocating that people should renew their passport early so as to avoid being lumbered with an ID card.

The Press Release was accompanied by the photograph above in which Simon Hughes, Brecon and Radnorshire MP Roger Williams and Nick Clegg are pictured holding up their passports. If you look carefully however you will see that Roger Williams is out of synch with the other two. He is holding up his passport back to front.

Perhaps we should reintroduce those lessons on hand-eye co-ordination we discussed back in 1997.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Sticks and stones

The war of words in Blaenau Gwent has broken out again with the Independent candidate for the Parliamentary seat accusing Labour of insulting the memory of Aneurin Bevan by selecting a candidate for his old seat who works as a top lobbyist for a controversial drugs firm:

Mr Law's agent Dai Davies, who is standing as an independent with the backing of the Blaenau Gwent People's Voice group, said Pfizer's controversial international record made Mr Smith a wholly inappropriate candidate in the seat once held by the NHS founder.

Although widely known for manufacturing the sex drug Viagra, Pfizer also makes lifesaving drugs for HIV and Aids sufferers and for patients with heart diseases.

A report published by Oxfam five years ago lambasted Pfizer over its charging policies in the developing world, claiming the firm put lifesaving drugs out of reach of millions of people. The report - Formula for Fairness: patient rights before patent rights - accused the drugs giant of enforcing its patents in poor countries, driving up the cost of medicines and, unlike some of its competitors, not reducing the price of branded drugs.

Mr. Smith is on record as supporting Pfizer's policy of protecting its patents. Minutes of a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Corporate Responsibility held in February quoted him supporting earlier comments made on the same occasion by Olivier Brandicourt (OB), managing director of Pfizer UK. The minutes say, "Owen Smith... echoed OB's earlier remarks about the industry's need to protect commercially valuable intellectual property."

Labour's reaction to these accusations is predictable. They have accused Dai Davies of playing the man, not the ball. This is a tactic that they are no stranger to as is evidenced by their disgraceful attacks on the Liberal Democrat candidate, Nicola Davies in the Hodge Hill by-election and the way they also attacked Jody Dunn in Hartlepool. Labour also used the same tactic against Peter Law on a number of occasions as is evidenced on this blog. An independent observer might conclude that Labour are now getting their just deserts.

Rhondda MP apologises

The BBC reports that Rhondda MP and arch-Blairite, Chris Bryant, was one of the two Labour MPs behind the fundraising event where a copy of the Hutton report signed by Cherie Blair was auctioned. He has apologised and has said that no money will now be accepted for the sale of the report.

To be fair, this is an unusual failure of judgement for Chris Bryant, who is well-versed in the ways of the media. His only previous gaffe, posting a picture of himself in his underpants on a gay contact website, is well-documented but has more to do with the prurience of the media than any failing on his part.

Nevertheless, it is my view that in this case, the sheer insensitivity of auctioning off a signed copy of the Hutton report cannot be resolved by just an apology. Mr. Bryant holds a very junior but nevertheless responsible post in government as a PPS, I believe. He cannot be allowed to keep that role now.

Update: I have now confirmed that Chris Bryant has been PPS to Rt Hon Lord Falconer of Thoroton, Secretary of State, Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs since 10 November 2005. Hardly, a suitable act from somebody in that position. Just as seriously, I am told that there were a number of members of the Rhondda Labour Party at this fundraiser and they are less than amused. One of the reasons for their being upset is that David Kelly, whose death the Hutton report focuses on, came from the Rhondda.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Voting in a vacuum

Strange goings on at the Forward Wales party website. In the chamber yesterday Carl Sargeant pointed out that an on-line poll on this site was asking readers to vote on whether things have got better under Labour. He produced a print-out which showed an overwhelming majority had voted 'yes' - 83% to 17%. The party's sole representative in the chamber, John Marek smiled sheepishly.

This morning the party's fortune had reversed. Now 75% of those voting consider that things have not got any better since 1997. How bizarre!

Top of the form

The Western Mail today reports that the Plaid Cymru selection meeting for South Wales West was attended by 89 members. Sixty two of them voted to re-select Dr. Dai Lloyd, 14 voted for Bethan Jenkins. As Plaid Cymru operate a rule that all regional lists shall be headed up by a women then Bethan Jenkins will be placed above Dai Lloyd on the ballot paper. Dai is now faced with an uphill struggle to retain his seat in the face of declining support for the nationalists. All very worthy I am sure but poor Dai cannot be too happy about the outcome.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Comic Book groceries

It is a matter of some regret to many of us that due to a family bereavement Mick Bates' short debate has been deferred from tomorrow to late June. The title of his debate is "Supermarkets - Jolly Green Giants or Incredible Hulks?" A serious topic with a fun title.

Where next?

Now this is worth watching. Americans tell us where they should invade next. Who would have thought that Iran was on the Australiasian continent? Still, at least they didn't ask them to stick a pin in Monmouthshire.

More pie and mash

My little piece on the Englsh Democrats seems have hit a raw nerve. I have been inundated with e-mails from their members objecting to my gentle ribbing. None of them seem capable of posting a comment on this blog and despite their protestations to the contrary do not seem willing to enter into a debate, preferring to indulge in common abuse. This latest one is typical:

A fundamental part of the English Democrats' policy is to give voters a real say in determining issues. You, Mr Black (in common with many other Welsh people), seem miffed that the citizens of Monmouthshire should even be given a chance to participate in making such decisions. Perhaps, you feel that the case for it remaining part of Wales is extremely weak? Perhaps it's simply that the proposal has emanated from England?

You disparage Gary Bushell's idea of England and, in asserting that the Anglo-Welsh culture of Monmouthshire communities are "gentle, sophisticated and diverse", imply that English Democrats are none of those things! Indeed, on the evidence of this blog, there's not much chance of you fitting in with such a culture! Again, it is a poor opponent who contents himself, as you have, with merely being insulting.

From your prejudiced and antagonistic position, you fail to acknowledge that individuals' ideas of England vary according to their tastes and experiences. No doubt, Gary himself could have mentioned other aspects of England and English life which he cherishes, but only gave a 'snapshot'. You even have the arrogance to presume to speak for David Davies MP!

You, Mr Black are obviously one of those sneering, clever dicks who doesn't stand for anything and, if you did, would we want to know? Pity you have been unable to get off your high horse and seriously debate the issue. English and Welsh people deserve better than you in the Cardiff Assembly!

There, I have provided some balance. Just one point, I wasn't implying that the English Democrats are not gentle, sophisticated and diverse, but now he comes to mention it....

Update: You will note that in the e-mail our English Democrat friend accuses me of being arrogant in seeking to speak for David Davies AM MP. Well in the Western Mail today (26 May), David speaks for himself:

Even though there was a big majority in Monmouthshire against setting up an Assembly, people show their allegiance to Wales by supporting Welsh national sports teams. There is no grassroots support for transferring Monmouthshire into England, and while the English Democrats may well find someone to stand against me at the next general election, I'm not losing any sleep over the prospect of losing my seat to them.

David also points out that the Monmouthshire referred to in some old Acts of Parliament was much larger than the Monmouthshire of today. Effectively it is the Gwent area of South East Wales, including Newport and the eastern Valleys. He says that the idea that a referendum proposition in that area to secede from Wales would have any chance of success is a total fantasy. Maybe the party of pie and mash should stick to areas they know something about.

Dawn raid

"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims
may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than
under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes
sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for
our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of
their own conscience. " C.S. Lewis

When I left the House of Commons about 8.30pm last night on my way back to Wales Brian Haw was still there surrounded by his placards and banners. In the early hours of the morning the Police moved in and removed all but one of them. They were acting on behalf of the Government in suppressing Mr. Haw's right to protest outside the heart of government. Their actions raise many questions but the one that stands out for me at the moment is this:

If they did not want to give the impression of a Police state why did they not execute this act in broad daylight when we could all see what they were doing?

Monday, May 22, 2006

Spinning history

Hot on the heels of the Presiding Officer's views on the future of the Assembly, we now have former First Secretary Alun Michael expressing his views on why he lost his job in the Assembly. In an interview with The House Magazine, Mr. Michael re-opens an old row with Presiding Officer Dafydd Elis-Thomas by suggesting the PO ignored legal advice.

'Lord Elis-Thomas's actions paved the way for "endless challenges", says Mr Michael. He had been under pressure in the Assembly over European funding and had been trying to operate without an overall majority.

The Cardiff South and Penarth MP writes, "In the new Assembly, the three opposition parties effectively talked themselves into a position where they couldn't step back from total confrontation.

"There was real immaturity among the opposition parties and the Liberals were an unexpectedly fragile and disappointing group. It seemed that the need for stability in government had not been recognised in the way the Assembly had been designed, so it was a very fragile system."

He says the decision to resign as first secretary, as the post was then known, less than a year after the Assembly had come into being, was "very painful".

"The problem was that the presiding officer - Dafydd Elis-Thomas - made it clear that he would take further motions to challenge me if the first one failed," he says. "That went against the legal advice and opened the way to endless challenges and votes of confidence, so it threatened the integrity of the Assembly as an institution. I felt I had to resign to prevent a descent into farce."

Whereas I would agree with Alun Michael that the Liberal Democrat group at that time was 'fragile', I do not think that was really a valid consideration. His view of the Liberal Democrats did not stop him actively seeking a coalition at the last minute. The problem was that the group were split down the middle even on the idea of going into coalition and could see no reason why they should talk to Alun Michael and Paul Murphy when there was nothing on the table regarding structural funds and no way that a proper policy agreement could be put together in the time available.

When we actually did go into coalition the experience really pulled the group together and we started working much better as a team. I strongly believe however that we made the right decision that night in going for a curry rather than sharing some cheap plonk with the First Secretary and the Secretary of State for Wales on the fifth floor.

As for Alun Michael claiming that he could have held on if the Presiding Officer had followed government legal advice, I really believe that he is in denial. His problems lay in the way that he had been elected in the first place, as Tony Blair's man-in-Wales, in the way he ran the government and in the way that the two combined to corner him on structural funds. I do not believe that the legal advice that Mr. Michael had was politically defensible nor relevant in the circumstances. The Presiding Officer did the right thing in getting his own advice and refusing to be brow-beaten into ignoring the majority view in the chamber.

What Alun Michael describes as immaturity, I would characterise as the Assembly asserting itself as an independent voice for Wales. By casting off Tony Blair's man in Wales they sent a message to Westminster. It was unfortunate for Alun Michael that he was the victim in all of this.

Time wasters?

As is by now well-reported, the Presiding Officer has fired a broadside at the Assembly, challenging us to get our act together in response to the new Government of Wales Act.

Presiding Officer Dafydd Elis-Thomas has strongly condemned the "horrendous time-wasting" and "worthless processes" of the Welsh assembly.

He said it was "exasperating" the full assembly sat only two afternoons a week, and then often finished early.

Lord Elis-Thomas said voters neither loved the body nor had value for money.

He had some particularly strong things to say about Plenary and the subject committees, one of which I chair:

"I think regional committees are a complete waste of time," he said.

First Minister Rhodri Morgan backs change, says Lord Elis-Thomas

"I think the way subject committees are structured does not allow us to have an opportunity to question ministers properly or to pursue policy areas properly."

He told BBC Radio Wales he was ready to abandon the assembly's "family-friendly" hours.
"After all, it would mean sitting after 6 o'clock only two nights a week and I think the people of Wales would expect us to do that - not every night, but some nights.

"And start in the morning on proper plenary sessions and proper questions. Even the House of Commons does that now.

"We sit in plenary for two half-days a week and we often finish early and I find this absolutely exasperating," he said.

"We've got a wonderful chamber, the public come there to look at us, we've had 110,000 visitors [since the Senedd building opened in March], and yet it's very difficult to point out anything that has happened recently."

He said ministers often "got away with it" and he accused some fellow AMs of lacking the appetite for change to be more efficient.

There is no doubt that many of these criticisms are valid. The Regional Committees for example have never really found a niche within the Assembly decision-making structure, though they are invaluable as a means of engaging with people in their own communities and have a dedicated following as they travel around each region.

Subject Committees are a different case in point. The fact that the Minister is a member of these committees can often constrain scrutiny as Labour members feel obliged to play a supportive role rather than ask difficult questions. In fact, in many instances they enter the Committee meeting with a brief provided by a ministerial special advisor suggesting friendly questions and lines to take.

How effective scrutiny actually can be was driven home to me recently when the Education Minister gave evidence to the School Funding Committee. All five members, irrespective of party, tested her for an hour or so on the issues and none of them pulled their punches.

It is also true that subject Committees have fulfilled a valuable role in developing policy, in scrutinising Assembly Sponsored Public Bodies and in taking evidence on specific issues. It has to be said that their role in examining secondary legislation is still a learning experience.

Dafydd Elis-Thomas is absolutely right about the amount of time Plenary meets and also that it is not very effective in holding Ministers to account. Question time is rushed. debates are curtailed and Ministers can often avoid bringing awkward issues to the chamber, as happened recently with the RAISE programme for schools.

There is no doubt that changes need to be made and that the extra powers and the separation of Parliament and Executive contained in the new Act will be the driving force to ensure that these reforms are carried out.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Pie and Mash

I was certainly aware of the intention of the English Democrats to contest Monmouthshire at the next Welsh Assembly elections. Apparently, they believe that the county should be returned to England after 722 years of being erroneously placed on the wrong side of Offa's Dyke.

I was also attracted to the rather frivolous suggestion that I read somewhere that we should retaliate by seeking to claim the Forest of Dean for the Welsh. However, it has taken Matt Withers' column in today's Wales on Sunday to drive home to me precisely how out of touch the English Democrats are with the gentle, sophisticated and diverse Anglo-Welsh culture of Monmouthshire communities. He draws attention to the party's website, where Garry Bushell describes their sort of England:

My England is bubble and squeak and foaming pints of Boddingtons. It is Les Dawson and Barbara Windsor, Max Miller and Page Three. My England is pie and mash and Aston Martins, Derby day and Arfur Daley, Mods and Suedeheads, Lennie McLean and Carry On films. My England stretches from Dennis Skinner to Roger Scruton, from Peggy Mount to Beki Bondage. It's Blackpool beach, Charlie Drake, Charlton Athletic FC, roast beef, imperial measurements and vindaloo. It's defiance. Whether it be King Alfred standing up to the Vikings, Colonel H at Goose Green, or the Metric Martyrs giving the finger to Brussels. No-one likes us! We don't care!

Even the local Tory MP, David Davies, would be appalled at that rather crude caricature of the English.

Scottish Labour in meltdown

If today's Sunday Times is anything to go by, next May's elections for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly are going to be very interesting indeed. The biggest upset could well be in Scotland, where the more proportional electoral system will better reflect changes in public opinion.

The Sunday Times says private polling conducted for the Scottish Labour Party reveals that they are haemorrhaging support and face being voted out of the Scottish executive for the first time since devolution:

Research shows that just 30% of voters intend to back Labour in the constituency vote at next year’s Scottish election, down 5% on 2003. On the second vote support is 27%, down 2% since the last election.

The report continues:

The poll, conducted last month, showed Labour neck-and-neck with the SNP which is on 29% on the constituency vote and 26% on the second vote — in both cases up 5% since 2003.

It showed the Liberal Democrats with 17% on the constituency vote (+2%), and on 21% on the second vote (+ 9%) with the Scottish Conservatives on 15% (-1.5%) and 14% (- 1.5%).
When translated into seats, it would give Labour 43, seven fewer than at present and 13 less than it took in 1999 under Donald Dewar.

The SNP would emerge with 37 seats, up 10 from the last election while the Lib Dems’ total would rise from 17 to 28. The Tories would emerge with 15 seats, three less than in 2003 while the smaller parties, including the Greens and Scottish Socialists, would lose 11 seats.

This certainly reflects trends in recent Scottish by-elections and it is not just Tony Blair's unpopularity that has put Labour in this position. The poll reveals that Scotland's Labour First Minister is equally as unpopular.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Ninety minutes to glory

I had planned to spend next Saturday delivering my ward FOCUS newsletter but now I will have to reschedule. I have just bought two tickets to watch Swansea City Football Club play Barnsley in the League One play-off final. I can hardly wait.

Another desperate throw of the dice

Today's Guardian tells us that Tony Blair intends to move to curb the powers of the House of Lords to wreck his government's legislation programme after a series of bitter clashes between the Commons and the unelected house over terrorism laws, ID cards and hunting.

In doing so he has rejected a deal negotiated by Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, to balance changes in the powers of Lords with plans for a newly elected House. Instead, he wants to end a century-old agreement that, imperfect as it is, has prevented the abuse of power through rational argument and the force of debate.

I would favour bringing some democratic accountability to the process by introducing elections to a second chamber, but there have to be checks and balances in the system that prevent a Prime Minister, who can only command the support of 21% of the electorate, from abusing his majority in the House of Commons.

If Blair gets his way he will have established himself as an elected dictator, subject only to the will of his own party. What will be next? The electoral process itself?



I spent a very interesting evening last night with Trading Standards Officers and the South Wales Police in Swansea City Centre checking out whether pubs and nightclubs were willing to serve underage customers.

We were accompanied by two young people aged 14 and 15, made up for a night out. The idea was that under the supervision of Trading Standards Officers and plain clothes police officers they would try to enter various establishments and attempt to buy alcohol. If they succeeded then they would pass their purchase straight away to Trading Standards and leave the premises. A uniformed Police Officer would then enter with the Licensing Officer and issue an £80 fixed penalty notice to the member of staff who had served the drinks. Other action may well be taken subsequently against the licensee.

I only stayed for a couple of hours but was impressed with the thoroughness of the operation, the way that every effort was made to protect the adolescents who were assisting the Police and at the sheer professionalism of all involved. Sad to say that after being refused admittance at the first establishment, the two youngsters were admitted and served without any challenge at all at the second pub. It was not even that busy as it was pouring with rain and was still early in the evening. When the Police then arrived in an official capacity the bouncers moved very quickly to get the manager but it was too late.

This is part of a big crackdown by the Government on underage drinking and some substantial resources have been made available for it. This is just as well as I estimated that between the Police and the Council there must have been at least ten people involved in last night's operation.

Merge or bust!

South Wales Police want to hear our views on the proposed merger and creation of a single all-Wales Police force. No, really, they do. Log on here and complete the survey. Hurry, the Chief Constables walk out on 1 June so your views could be crucial.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Ali G and the Shadow Home Secretary

Something very strange has happened in the last few days. I have had e-mails from various people asking me to use this blog to publicise party activities.

The first came from somebody who I assumed was either an activist in Cornwall or Parliamentary Staff, asking me to post pictures of Julia Goldsworthy MP campaigning in favour of the "teaching of financial skills in schools across the UK". Presumably my correspondent meant England as Cornish MPs have no jurisdiction in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland on curriculum matters. I declined the request on the grounds that this blog is not an official party publication and the request was outside this website's remit, namely that it is a personal and often alternative look on politics from a Welsh perspective.

The second request was from the Vice Chair of the Welsh Liberal Democrats Executive and Cardiff West activist, Alison Goldsworthy, known to her friends as Ali G. She was keen for me to report on the visit of Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary, Nick Clegg to Cardiff to discuss policing matters. Accordingly, I have featured one of her photographs here.

As a caption competition it is pretty useless, though somebody might suggest why Ali is pointing her thumb backwards over her right shoulder. It has been put to me that she is indicating where Blaenau Gwent is, though that cannot be right as I understand that the visit did not take in the double by-election there at all. I wonder why that was. And why was a non-target seat considered more important for a visit by a possible future leader of our party than this crucial contest?

Spin doctor quits

It was bound to end in tears. The Western Mail reports today that Rhodri Morgan's spin doctor - who mistakenly left a message on a reporter's phone describing journalists as "bastards" - is leaving to take up a temporary post with the human rights organisation Amnesty International. The paper explains:

The trade union Prospect obtained an apology from the Assembly Government in 2004 for its members following a formal complaint about Ms Owens's conduct.

An Assembly insider told us at the time, "Some people working in the press office have not been happy with the way she operates. They believe she has had a very abrasive way of dealing with people, hectoring them both on the phone from her office on the fifth floor of the Assembly building and in person at the press office on the second floor. She would sometimes appear to tell people how to do their job and try to dictate what should go into press releases. Her approach appeared more negative than positive. Sometimes she would be critical of work you'd written, complaining about the line you'd taken in a press release.

"People complained to the union and a written complaint was made about her behaviour. The Permanent Secretary, Sir Jon Shortridge, got involved. Afterwards she was spoken to by Paul Griffiths, the senior special adviser who is her line manager."

The Assembly Government confirmed an apology had been made.

Earlier this year Ms Owens mistakenly left a message on a Western Mail reporter's mobile phone voicemail describing all journalists as "bastards". That was in the wake of criticism by the Welsh Conservatives of intemperate remarks she had made about the Welsh Language Board, which she described as "in its death throes".

Nick Bourne, the party's leader in the Assembly, subsequently made a complaint alleging Ms Owens had breached the code for special advisers. The complaint was rejected by Rhodri Morgan.

To the best of my knowledge I have never met Ms Owens and for all I know she is a perfectly pleasant individual. However, the form of media manipulation she came to personify has suffered a setback as a result of her decision to move on.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Hands on in Westminster

John Prescott's question time yesterday sounds like it was a real hoot. Tomos Livingstone in today's Western Mail reports that the Deputy Prime Minister described the opposition as resembling a public school sixth form and it certainly sounded as if that might be an accurate representation. Still, even politicians like to have fun occasionally and ridicule can be a very effective debating tactic if used properly.

If only the attempts by the Labour backbenchers to help him had been a little more competent:

In his first Commons question time in the new role and since his affair with his diary secretary, Tracey Temple, was revealed Mr Prescott said he had more work than Lord Heseltine had as deputy prime minister under John Major.

"I am doing far more than Lord Heseltine did. No complaints were made about Lord Heseltine at the time," Mr Prescott said, in a performance that was both combative and rueful.

Conservatives laughed when Dari Taylor, a Labour backbencher, asked if he would have a "hands on in those areas" of neighbourhood renewal.

Oliver Heald, the shadow constitution affairs secretary, said Mr Prescott was a "marriage guidance counsellor" between Mr Blair and Gordon Brown and the Labour party should pay his salary. Mr Heald said Mr Prescott had "still got three homes, two Jags and a fancy office in Whitehall". Mr Prescott replied: "Just for the record ... I have one house, one car -10 years old."

Rob Wilson, Tory MP for Reading East, asked Mr Prescott what action he would take to ensure that staff working under him were "not subject to sexual harassment or bullying". The Speaker, Michael Martin, blocked a question from the Tory frontbencher Andrew Robathan, who told Mr Prescott that Latin American leaders he met "would treat him with the same degree of ridicule as this house".

It is possible that these sessions may prove more popular than Prime Minister's Question Time.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A Whitehall farce

News from this morning's Social Justice Committee is that all four Chief Constables are heartily fed-up with the Home Office and seem to think that the Government are living with the fairies when it comes to understanding the needs of Wales and its Police forces.

The BBC takes up the story:

All four Welsh chief constables have written to the Home Secretary formally withdrawing from discussions over the idea of an all-Wales Police force.

North Wales' Richard Brunstrom told a Welsh assembly committee that there was not enough money on the table.

Other groups have described the process as a "farce".


Addressing the assembly's social justice committee on Wednesday, Mr Brunstrom said he and colleagues would lodge a formal objection to the plan unless they were given assurances over long-term financing by 1 June.

The chief constables fear the new budget for the combined operation will be much less than the total of the four existing forces of South and North Wales, Gwent Police and Dyfed-Powys.

The most damning evidence however came from the Welsh Local Government Association:

Also giving evidence to the committee, the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA)'s Steve Thomas described the consultation process as the "best farce since Charlie's Aunt".

Mr Thomas said goodwill towards the changes had evaporated as council leaders had faced an endless procession of confused Home Office civil servants whose knowledge of Wales was limited to the country having a rugby team and a few mountains.

Mr Thomas said the likelihood of the Home Office's timetable being met was as great as "a bacon sandwich flying past the assembly window".

None of this generates any confidence in the proposed merger nor in the ability of the Government to deliver it on time. The latest calculation by the Chief Constables show that by 2012, the annual deficit of a single police force would reach £79m. The prospect of higher Council Taxes for a much reduced service is now a real possibility.

How green is our valley?

The Guardian speculates that Tony Blair's decision to go nuclear poses a major challenge for David Cameron over his green credentials. It seems that the Conservative Party themselves are torn on this issue even though the green lobby is firmly in the anti camp.

As Chris Huhne has consistently pointed out the Tories' green credentials have been focussed on the easy decisions such as more recycling, personal choices on car use and better energy conservation. They have not been prepared to commit themselves on the really difficult issues such as environmental taxes and unpopular form of alternative energy such as wind power. The gauntlet thrown down by the Prime Minister on nuclear power will severely test their so-called 'new direction'.

As for Tony Blair, I thought that the Liberal Democrat Trade and Industry Spokesperson, Ed Davey summed it up well:

Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat trade and industry spokesman, told Channel 4 News: "He [Mr Blair] has bounced his own ministers into this decision. This doesn't smack of proper leadership, it smacks of desperation. Clearly the prime minister under pressure wanted to create some sort of legacy for himself. The danger is it will be a legacy of a high nuclear tax for every family in the country because we all know nuclear is not economic."

The other challenge from this hijacking of the Government agenda by the Prime Minister is to the Welsh Assembly Government. Together with Peter Hain, they have taken a consistently anti-nuclear line and do not seem inclined to allow more power stations into Wales. That may be a fairly clear and popular stance but it will not go down well in Anglesey where Wylfa is coming to the end of its useful life and may be up for replacement as part of the UK Government's nuclear programme.

Caught between a rock and a hard place all the bets are that as with other difficult and potentially troublesome decisions, Rhodri Morgan's Government will put off stating a view until after the Assembly elections.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Exercise guru

It does not bear thinking about. I was initially very sceptical when I read on the Guido Fawkes blog that a new BBC daytime fitness programme, The Body Politics, starring Mark Oaten, will be starting on Monday. However, courtesy of Liberal England, I have now seen confirmation in this Guardian article.

"The programme has a serious message about using free time to get fit, especially now obesity levels are rising," Mr Oaten explained.

"It's been hard work getting into shape, but I feel so much better than I did. I have been playing a lot of tennis and generally eating better."

The married father-of-two recently said his dalliance with the 23-year-old male prostitute started because of the pressure of work and a mid-life crisis brought on by going bald.

Given the amount of work that Mr. Oaten needs to do in Winchester since his fall from grace I am surprised that he has so much free time. Still, if it helps with his stress I suppose it is worth it. He should be aware though that all this exercise will not get him his hair back.

Update: I always wanted to be a critic. BBC on-line are quoting this post as part of their pre-programme publicity.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Stand by your man, Gordon

Things must getting fraught in the upper echelons of the Labour Cabinet. Today's Independent tells us that Tony Blair has warned Gordon Brown that he will not endorse him as his successor if he is "deposed" as Prime Minister before he is ready to stand down.

Mr Blair is said to have issued the threat last week after Mr Brown recalled the way Margaret Thatcher was forced out by her own party in 1990. "Remember that when Margaret Thatcher left, it was unstable, it was disorderly and it was undignified," the Chancellor told GMTV.

According to allies, the Prime Minister viewed Mr Brown's remarks as a "naked threat" to force him out of office. One said: "It was communicated to Gordon that if Tony was deposed, he and his supporters would not support Gordon as the next leader."

Blairites deny they plan to put up a rival candidate against Mr Brown, the overwhelming front-runner to succeed Mr Blair. Yesterday friends of John Reid, the Blairite Home Secretary, dismissed reports that he was canvassing support for a leadership bid.

The Prime Minister may be feeling a bit insecure at the moment but my judgement is that he has the upper hand in this contest at the moment and that he will not relinquish it easily.

Fighting for human rights

Today's Guardian contains a balanced and lucid defence of the Human Rights Act against opportunistic politicians who, having passed it in the first place, now seek to use it to distract from their own failings. Marcel Berlins argues that the Act is increasingly being made a scapegoat for government incompetence, maladministration and badly drafted legislation.

This passage goes to the heart of the issue:

The government usually blames the judges and is looking for ways to negate decisions under the Human Rights Act which it doesn't like. Contrary to Tony Blair's ignorant assertion, the courts do not have the power to strike down a law passed by parliament. All they can do is rule that it is incompatible with the act. Parliament would be expected to pay heed to the judges' conclusion; but it doesn't have to. It is sovereign, which also means that it can pass a law which has the effect of overturning the decision of a court.

Those who argue that the soverignty of Parliament is being undermined by the Act should take note. Judges interpret and enforce Parliamentary law, it is not they or the tools they are given by MPs which are at fault, but the inconsistent and illiberal acts of politicians.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Resistance grows on Police mergers

Predictions that the enforced merger of the four Welsh Police forces will cost taxpayers dear seem to be coming to pass with today's news that the four Chief Constables are in disagreement with the Home Office over what savings can be made by the reorganisation.

Ministers have slashed police estimates of the annual cost of improving the service by £33m, which the officers call "a surprise and disappointment".

There needs to ber "substantially more money placed on the table" for Wales to meet the aim of delivering a more effective service.

Senior police officers estimate that the current arrangements will lead to an annual "black hole" of funding worth £62m a year by 2011.

How the money is raised is also a concern, according to the Politics Show.

Senior police believe that a new funding formula will favour built-up metropolitan areas, whereas the single Welsh force will be one of the most sparsely populated in Britain.

The chief constables fear the new budget for the combined operation will be much less than the total of the four existing forces of South and North Wales, Gwent Police and Dyfed-Powys.

Those Labour MPs such as Huw Irranca Davies who have said in public that the Liberal Democrats are running a "scandalous scare mongering campaign on local policing" should take note. There is genuine concern amongst senior Officers and Police Authority Chairs that this merger is unaffordable and that its financial cost will be made worse by a new funding formula that will discriminate against Wales. What the impact of this merger on Council Tax will be is unpredictable, but I am willing to bet that in South Wales at least we will be paying much more for the same or worst level of policing.

Minister for hypocrisy?

In this morning's Sunday Times, Rod Liddle continues the assault on Ruth Kelly and the impossible situation she finds herself in as both the Minister for Equalities and as a member of Opus Dei. It includes a delightfully bitchy comment from Gwyneth Dunwoody:

She is charged with the task of ensuring that homosexuals do not suffer discrimination at the hands of the rest of us. She is, in other words, an official conduit for the social acceptance of buggery and the consequent persecution of people who think much as she does. How does her conscience feel about that?

Ruth has been afforded, in the chamber, the opportunity to pledge her political support for the cause of gay rights, or indeed to oppose them, on no fewer than 12 occasions since being elected in 1997. She has voted against gay “civil partnerships” but otherwise she has conscientiously abstained.

Fellow Labour MP Gwyneth Dunwoody greeted her appointment with a snigger: “I am glad the prime minister has a sense of humour when it comes to appointing a minister for women and equality.” Perhaps the same sense of humour prevailed when it came to charging John Prescott with the responsibility for upholding standards in local government.

Expect a lot more of this in the months ahead.

Back to the drawing board

Are the Welsh Assembly Government signalling a change of policy in the choice of design for their new offices in Llandudno Junction? The main photo is of Dounreay nuclear power station, the inset is an artist's impression of the new North Wales office. There is a startling similarity between the two.

Either the Assembly Government are planning a dual use for their North Wales flagship or the architect is used to designing a different type of building. I think that the good people of Llandudno Junction deserve an explanation.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

French satire

I found this article in today's Guardian fascinating. They report that French President, Jacques Chirac is about to make history as the first French president to be immortalised as a complete buffoon on the cinema screen, in a satirical documentary by two Oscar winners.

Dans la Peau de Jacques Chirac - Being Jacques Chirac - played to tears of laughter at Paris previews this week. It will open in France on May 31 as part of a phenomenon the newspaper Liberation calls "Chiracophobia: the new national sport".

Already The Tragedy of the President, a book detailing the president's gluttony, lies, and belief in his own mysterious healing powers, sold out its first print run in days and has topped the bestseller list for seven weeks. Its author, Franz-Olivier Giesbert, has been stopped in the street by people shaking his hand and saying "Bravo!".

But being Jacques Chirac goes a step further in its humiliating treatment of a head of state. Commentators say the film would have been unthinkable even a few years ago, and its box office takings will reveal whether the nation has lost all respect for the institution of president.

The 90-minute film is made up entirely of clips from archive television footage of Mr Chirac during nearly 40 years in public office, as minister, prime minister, Paris mayor and president. The footage gives free reign to his perpetual suave grin, vanity and famous political dithering and U-turning which saw him named the "weathervane".

We see Mr Chirac wandering his country estate, his love of shaking hands - even with dogs, his chauffeur relaying how he would come out of 15-minute appointments with his trousers undone; and we see the frostiness from his long-suffering and fearsome wife Bernadette. An alarmingly convincing voiceover by a Chirac impersonator gives a hilarious commentary on the president's life.

With this and Michael Moore's efforts, are we seeing the start of a new trend debunking politicians?

Blowing bubbles

I have just come in after a short trip to Laugharne to find that both cup finals are in extra time. I am sorry that I have missed the six goals that have so far been scored at the Cardiff event as it looks like a cracking game.

Is it me or is there something poetic about Gretna being pitched against Hearts for their cup glory?

Friday, May 12, 2006

Incoherent spinning

Good grief, does my party never learn? This article in today's Telegraph is yet another example of the behind-the-scenes briefing that undermines those of us who are fighting day-in, day-out for the Liberal Democrat principles and policies in our own community. It is precisely the sort of damaging tittle-tattle that led to the toppling of Charles Kennedy, except that this time the tittle-tattlers now appear to be running the party.

The paper reports:

Last week's local election results were a disappointment, with the party gaining two seats overall. One MP said the party was "hitting the panic button" over the threat from David Cameron, the new Tory leader.

The failures at Prime Minister's Questions, including another lacklustre performance this week against a weakened Tony Blair, have bemused friends and foes alike given his background as a barrister and QC.

But at Wednesday night's private weekly meeting of the Lib Dem parliamentary party, he surprised MPs by confessing that his court experience was no preparation for the cut-and-thrust of Prime Minister's Questions.

According to one person present, Sir Menzies lamented: "Juries don't normally answer back."
His aides responded yesterday by effectively announcing a Ming relaunch, promising a better performance, more staff and more bite at the leader's weekly jousts with the Prime Minister.
The relaunch included announcing - to Tory annoyance - that Sir Menzies is to have his first formal meeting with Mr Cameron as part of cross-party talks on the environment.

But some Lib Dems are now privately convinced that they will have new leader within a year, with Nick Clegg, 39, the so-called Lib Dem answer to David Cameron and the party's home affairs spokesman, as the frontrunner.

"Ming will be gone within a year," said one Lib Dem MP.

I was unhappy with the result of the leadership election and I have not been too impressed with what I have seen so far, but surely we can sort these things out without running to the media. The last thing that party activists want is people manoeuvring for position again so soon after the last leadership contest.

The first stage of Ming's relaunch must involve a directive to the MPs to shut up or put up, and if they are incapable of doing so then they should be relegated to whatever the Parliamentary Party's equivalent is of Siberia.

More on the Severn barrage

Interesting letter in the Western Mail this morning from Dr W Roscoe Howells, the former Director of Scientific Services, at the Welsh Water Authority. On the proposed Severn Barrage he writes:

In the early 1980s, I participated in discussions on the likely effects on the environment of a tidal barrage in the Severn estuary. The group concerned comprised representatives of various statutory bodies, including a representative of the then Welsh Office.

We identified a number of problems which could arise.

They included significant changes in water quality and sediments up and down stream of the barrage as well as major effects on birds and other animals living and feeding in and around the estuary.

Another concern was the effects on fish living in the estuary and passing through it. Some of the rivers flowing into the estuary have very important and valuable salmon fisheries and the impact of a barrage could be disastrous.

Only a very few tidal barrages have ever been constructed and significant environmental problems have been experienced at all of them. The construction of a barrage in the Severn would change that estuary for ever.

The "re-emergence" of this scheme has been generally welcomed in the press and in other quarters. In view of the facts, this enthusiasm must be tempered by realism and great caution.

I believe that the Labour Assembly Government must take these concerns seriously and ensure that they are taken into account in any proposals. This is particularly so in the light of the rather curious stance taken by the Minister for Enterprise, Innovation and Networks in the short debate on this subject on Wednesday.

On the Severn Barrage he made some very valid points:

Why does the Assembly Government propose that the Severn barrage should be considered? There is an overwhelming need to reduce our carbon emissions while increasing the amount of electricity produced, so we would consider it extremely foolish to ignore the potential of such a development as the Severn barrage to produce 17 TWh per year. As Rosemary Butler said, it would be equivalent to two large nuclear power plants operating for at least 120 years, and that without the problems of treatment, long-term storage, and disposal of nuclear waste from spent fuel and reactor decommissioning.

He then went on though to comment on the idea of tidal lagoons as an alternative:

Members raised the issue of tidal lagoons in the Severn estuary and elsewhere, and they have been put forward by some as an alternative to a barrage. We would welcome such lagoons if they can be shown to be effective, robust, financially viable, socially acceptable, and environmentally benign.

Surely, these conditions must apply to a barrage as well. The Minister cannot have it both ways, he must maintain an open mind on lagoons. It was pleasing though that he then went on to say:

Concerns have been raised in the chamber and outside about environmentally designated sites, and one cannot, and must not, underestimate the importance of environmental issues when considering the feasibility of such a barrage. Any study of the pros and cons of a barrage will have to consider its potential impact on the Severn estuary special protection area, the proposed special area of conservation in the Severn and on the special areas of conservation relating to the Wye and Usk rivers. We will need to know whether, and to what extent, important species of fish and birds would be affected. It would be appropriate for the study also to consider what impact changes resulting from global warming will have on these species. We need to consider both sides of the issue.

We believe that a new study would need to consider the environmental impacts, the effect on shipping to upstream ports—although I note that the city of Bristol supports our position on a Severn tidal barrage—flood defence issues, as Rosemary Butler has said, the impact on fishing and water recreation, and the knock-on economic consequences for both sides of the Severn.

This is a very important debate, but it is one in which we must not lose sight of the wider environmental impact of any proposal as happened with Cardiff Bay.

Broken Covenant

I am grateful to Jonathan Calder on Liberal England for drawing my attention to this BBC news item on ID cards and CCTV:

Sharper CCTV images are needed so shots of suspected criminals can be matched to the proposed identity card database, a Home Office minister has said.

Baroness Scotland told the Lords poor quality CCTV currently runs the risk of innocent people being wrongly arrested.

"Digital pictures... will enable us, particularly when ID cards come in, to identify those who are responsible for very serious crime," she added.

The Home Office stress safeguards will cover police use of the ID database.

I doubt very much if I could find many people who would have any confidence at all in 'Home Office safeguards'.

This latest development underlines the dangers that anti-ID card campaigners have been talking about for some time - that combined with extensive, linked databases and improved CCTV, these ID cards could be used to manage the population for political purposes.

The expressed purpose of ID cards are to enable people to verify their own identity. We have been assured that they will not infringe our civil liberties. However, already government and the police are finding uses for them that will do just that.

CCTV can be a useful tool to tackle crime and anti-social behaviour if it is used in conjunction with intelligent, responsible and properly resourced policing. Those who object to it are often told that they should not fear if they have nothing to hide. Once CCTV is connected with other technologies the debate moves beyond this mundane justification. Everybody's privacy and freedom of movement and action comes under threat.


Thursday, May 11, 2006

Cash in the bank

For a relatively young institution the Assembly has certainly accumulated a lot of assets:

Mick Bates: Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Assembly Government's property assets? OAQ0515(FIN)

Sue Essex: As at 31 March 2005, the net book value of the Assembly's tangible fixed assets, excluding information technology, plant and equipment, amounted to £9.7 billion. In addition, at that date, the net book value of comparable assets of Assembly sponsored public bodies that merged with the Assembly in April 2006, amounted to £262 million.

It is a shame that most of it is road infrastructure. Still, it is interesting nevertheless.

Labour's con

Are Labour trying to con the Welsh electorate over the Government of Wales Bill? Up until now they have told us that the proposals currently going through the House of Lords are a compromise. As they need powers the Assembly will bid for them to the Secretary of State for Wales and Parliament. Eventually, there will come a stage whereby the logical step will be to ask for the full monty through a referendum, if such a proposal can get a two thirds majority in the Assembly and Parliament. At that point the people of Wales get their say.

Many people are of course sceptical about this process but the Secretary of State for Wales and the First Minister have persisted in their assurances that they are genuinely interested in progressing towards full devolution. They have sought to tell us that there is every possibility that a referendum can be held when it is necessary, however others believe that this provision in the Bill is a sop to the pro-devolution lobby and that the devo-sceptics will prevail.

Now, the Assembly Finance Minister has let the cat out of the bag by confirming that Labour have no intention of ever letting a referendum taking place:

William Graham: Minister, have you consulted colleagues about the necessity to fund a referendum on proposals to extend the powers of the Assembly?

Sue Essex: No, I have not consulted them. That power will be in the legislation, but I do not think that anyone anticipates that that power will be used at any time.

So what was the point of putting the power in the Bill in the first place?

Inward Investment

The imminent Blaenau Gwent by-election is set to deliver a substantial cash injection into South Wales it seems. The spending limit for each by-election has been set at £100,000. It is likely that Labour will splash out the entire £200,000 in an effort to win back its former heartland, whilst the other serious candidates will certainly spend in five figures each. No doubt printers are preparing their prospectuses to post out to the political parties even as I write.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Party, party, party!

Waiting times are down but are still the longest in Western Europe, deficits are spiraling out of control, nurses feel their vital jobs are under threat, and 40,533 people are waiting more than six months for an outpatients' appointment.

The Labour Assembly Government responds by holding a reception for 70 NHS professionals. Worse still, no front-line staff have been invited to this party despite the fact that they have worked extremely hard in very difficult conditions to deliver the best possible service to their patients.

Not only is this party premature, it is insensitive and is a kick in the teeth to those communities and patients who are campaigning against proposed closures of hospitals and other facilities. Labour really have scored an own goal this time.


The highlight of yesterday's Plenary Meeting was a statement by the Minister for Environment, Planning and Countryside on the Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSE) (Wales) Regulations 2006. Put in plain English these regulations lift the ten year long ban on the export of British Beef.

Naturally, this has delighted the farmers but it also raised concerns amongst those who are not keen on seeing live calves bundled up in crates and shipped across the channel for slaughter. One of these was the Labour AM for Cardiff South and Penarth, who is well-known for her views on animal rights:

Lorraine Barrett: Thank you for the statement, and for this opportunity for me to express my concern at the reinstatement of live exports. I have mixed feelings, really. From an economic perspective, the reintroduction of beef exports is fine for farmers. I should, I suppose, declare an interest as a non-meat-eater. However, I take exception to Mick Bates’s comments that people who demonstrate against the live export of animals have, not a hidden agenda, exactly, but only come from one area of life: there are many members in my group—and my husband would want me to include him in this—who eat meat, but who are totally against animals being exported from Wales to other countries.

The Presiding Officer: Order. This is not a debate; it is a statement. I do not think I can possibly call you, unless you have a highly relevant point of order at the end of the statement.

Lorraine Barrett: I will now come to my question, as this is a statement. That was my little preamble.

The Presiding Officer: If you were on your preamble that is alright.

Lorraine Barrett: Thank you. While I hope that we would reach a point in the future at which no live animals are transported from Wales or the UK, can you assure me, Minister—you have already mentioned it, but I want more assurance—that you have sufficient personnel to ensure that you can monitor vigorously the welfare standards that you mentioned in your statement for those animals, which have no choice but to be exported across quite long distances from Wales?

Lorraine might not be a meat-eater but Carl Sergeant is and he was keen to ensure that we all know it. Nevertheless, Carl the Carnivore also had concerns:

Carl Sargeant: I am probably an example of the people whom Lorraine Barrett mentioned—I am happy to eat meat, but I do not agree with live veal exports under the conditions that currently exist. The Royal Society for the Protection of Animals has suggested that there are serious and negative long-term effects on the health of young calves transported in the crates. Minister, you said that the crates will be banned by the end of 2006, and that it is inhumane to transport calves in this fashion—yet it is okay to continue with this inhumane and terrible transportation of young cattle for another six months. You will also be aware that the ‘strict’ controls that are in operation in ports are the same controls on meat imports and the smuggling of meat. There are failures in this respect, and I am concerned about supporting live veal exports. Perhaps I lack understanding about some aspects of this, and I readily accept that, but I am at a loss to explain, if we must have veal exports, why we cannot kill the calves in the UK and send them across to the continent in refrigerated vehicles.

Elsewhere, it was business as usual as the opposition parties worked hard to pin down the Government on their broken promises. Unfortunately, some members found this task more difficult than others and entered the dreaded zone of the mixed metaphor:

Janet Ryder: The foundation phase is another of your lauded promises. When will it be rolled out? It has been delayed for at least two years already. It is happening in pilot schemes, but it has not been rolled out. You may wish to intervene again, Carl—you can fool some of the people some of the time, but your chickens will come home to roost in 2007 when people start to count your pledges.

Any hope that Janet may have had that she had got away with this quickly evaporated with the next speaker, who, in conjunction with his group leader, had some metaphors of his own to share with us:

David Melding: The Mike German award for mixed metaphors goes to Janet this afternoon; I congratulate her on that startling image. I want to return to the issue of free school breakfasts. I try never to miss breakfast, because it is an important meal that sets you up for the day. It was an eye-catching promise when the Labour Party made it during the last election, and it was at the core of the 10 promises contained in its manifesto. If a party cannot deliver on its key pledges or cannot conceive of those promises in a coherent way, it must be brought to book. I find it quite miserable that members of the Labour Party have stood up and said, ‘Of course, we never meant everyone when we said "all"—we only meant about 3 per cent of the population’. I have before me the relevant quotation from the Labour manifesto, which is:

‘Free school breakfasts for all school kids’.

It was discovered on an Easter egg hunt: they had lots of children running around a field finding Easter eggs with promises on. In fairness, it was good campaigning, as it caught the interest of the media. However, did anyone from the Labour Party then tell the media, ‘When we say "all", we mean a certain proportion, which we now realise is 3 per cent’? The Minister for Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills is lucky that the chamber is circular, because if it was in the shape of a classroom she would have been sent to the naughty corner a long time ago for not doing her homework.

Nick Bourne: In an attempt to help the Labour Party, I will just say that there could still be some undiscovered eggs out there, one of which might say, ‘These promises are not to be taken seriously’. That might be the explanation.

I think that we were all relieved that they did not introduce the Easter bunny into the debate.

More equal than others

There is much speculation at the moment as to exactly how committed Ruth Kelly is, as the new Equalities Minister, to ...er.....equality. As a a member of Opus Dei, a conservative religious organisation which takes a hardline stance on homosexuality, Ms Kelly is obliged to bring her moral and religious beliefs to work.

Indeed as Peter Tatchell, has pointed out she has been absent from 12 votes on legislation promoting gay rights since 1997, including the introduction of civil partnerships and an equal age of consent.

Ruth Kelly herself is keen to rebut these notions:

On her first visit in her new role, to Shoreditch, east London, Ms Kelly said: "Personally I don't think you can find someone more committed to making sure everyone shares in opportunities - economic opportunities but also social opportunities that we are providing as the government.

"That includes every individual and every group. No matter what their background, where they come from, no matter what their sexual orientation, their faith or their gender ... I don't think you can really doubt my commitment on these issues."

I believe that she has the right to her own opinions but it would be good if firstly, she actually told us what they are, and secondly, she stopped pretending that equality is solely about social and economic opportunities but recognised that there is a personal context on which she is required to act as well, which cannot be glossed over by these sort of meaningless generalisations. Until she does that then we are absolutely entitled to doubt her commitment to equality on matters of sexual preference.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Viagra factor

I have been resisting this post all day but have finally succumbed to temptation. The New Labour Parliamentary candidate for Blaenau Gwent is Owen Smith.

Mr Smith is a former producer of the BBC Wales political programme Dragon's Eye. He has also worked as a special adviser for Torfaen MP Paul Murphy when he was Welsh Secretary and Northern Ireland Secretary. He currently works as head of government affairs for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, the world's biggest drugs company, which produces Viagra.

I am now going to stop before I am forced to make a whole succession of cheap jokes that may suggest that Mr. Smith's selection has stiffened Labour's resolve to win. Still, if he does get elected he will prove an invaluable ally and aid to John Prescott.

See! I cannot help myself.....

Should he stay or should he go

The First Minister is on record as saying that Wales Labour will do better in next year's Assembly elections if Gordon Brown were to assume the premiership. However, Tony Blair has now indicated that he is not for moving. He is confident that voters in socialist Welsh heartlands welcome his modern New Labour approach with progressive policies and don't want to turn the clock back. No doubt Welsh Labour activists are gearing up for a difficult election.

Just one Cornetto

Today's Western Mail has a list of the top five ice cream van ditties. They are:

1. O Sole Mio.
2. Greensleeves.
3. Boys and Girls Come Out to Play.
4. Yankee Doodle.
5. Teddy Bear's Picnic

It seems that ice cream vans are a dying breed. The paper also provides a list of the Ice Cream Alliance's top five ice creams:

1. "99"
2. Screwball
3. Cornetto
4. Chocolate nut tubs
5. Feasts

Consensus amongst the Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Support Staff is that the chocolate centre in Feasts has shrunk markedly in recent years.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Court backs Government shock!

The Court of Appeal have ruled that Brian Haw must dismantle his one-man, five-year protest outside the House of Commons and leave poor Tony Blair alone. Mr. Haw is understood to be reluctant to leave voluntarily.

No doubt Government Ministers will be celebrating the removal of the makeshift shelter and the display of anti-war banners, placards and flags that Mr. Haw has erected opposite the House of Commons. The significance of this judgement however, goes beyond an improved urban environment. It signals a final victory for the Government in its effort to undermine freedom of speech and of expression.

The imposition of a 1km protest-free zone around Parliament Square is just one of many ways that this Government has usurped traditional British values. It is a measure that a South American dictator would be proud of.

Fighting the censors

There is an interesting contrast in the Welsh papers today that I thought was worthy of comment. In one article in the Western Mail the Archbishop of Wales has joined criticism of "Jerry Springer:The Opera", saying that it is time to "call a halt" on such "gratuitously offensive" material. In another article in the South Wales Evening Post, another Church group is protesting against the film of the Da Vinci Code.

The difference is that whereas the Archbishop and many of his flock are calling for JS:TO to be banned, the group in Swansea just want to have their say. They are arranging meetings for people to learn the facts behind Dan Brown's fiction and to enable them to discuss and challenge those facts. It is the second approach, which is the mature, liberal one and those who call for anything they find offensive to be banned should learn from it.

Frankly, I find the Archbishop's argument hard to stomach. It is an intellectually lazy approach that argues that our freedoms should be limited by the sensitivities of others:

Speaking at the weekend the archbishop, Dr Barry Morgan, said, "I'm deeply disappointed. On the one hand, I can see that we need freedom for the arts to express what they want to express.

"On the other hand, I think they've crossed a line here, because what they say about Jesus in this opera is likely to cause scandal and they'd never get away with saying the same things about the prophet Muhammad."

Like many other Assembly Members I have had letters calling for the performance of JS:TO in the publicly-funded Wales Millennium Centre to be banned. Up until now I have contented myself with replying that the artistic policies of the WMC are not a matter for the National Assembly and nor should they be. However, I decided to respond a bit more robustly to the latest letter, which effectively accused Assembly Members of sitting on the fence over these issues. This is what I wrote:

Thank you for your letter. The artistic policies of the Wales Millennium Centre are not a matter for the Assembly and nor should they be. Just so that you are aware that I am not retreating to a “comfort zone” on this matter, I think I should be clear.

I do not support censorship of artistic productions or events. People are able to exercise choice as to whether they attend them or not and so can avoid being offended. It is not the role of politicians to use their position to impose their morals on others and nor should it be. I take this position in regard to Jerry Springer as I did with The Last Temptation of Christ and The Life of Brian. I also defend the right of publishers to publish cartoons about Mohammed and the right of Salman Rushdie to publish Satanic Verses.

Finally I do not agree with you that freedom of expression should “be tempered by a responsible attitude so as not to cause gratuitous offence”. It is not possible to have a rigorous and mature debate without sometimes giving offence. When you start to define whether such offence may be gratuitous or not then you start to undermine people’s rights. It is only a short step then to a Police state. That is not a route I wish to go down. I fully respect your right to hold your views but please do not seek to impose them on others.

I offer the same response to the Archbishop. Perhaps he should learn from the Christians in Swansea who rather than trying to ban a piece of work that they are uncomfortable with want to debate the issues instead.

The Comeback Kid

The big political news today is the decision by former Welsh Secretary, Ron Davies, to stage yet another comeback. Ron is likely to contest the Caerphilly seat on behalf of Forward Wales at the Assembly elections next year.

It transpires that Ron is the policy director for Forward Wales. John Marek is its leader. Nobody is sure if it actually has any other members. Nevertheless, they have big ideas and aim to hold the balance of power in a hung Assembly. These ambitions are clearly larger than the 1.88% of the vote that they got across Wales at the European elections in 2004.

It is just as well that their policy platform will not come under much scrutiny. They appear to be happy to enter a coalition under the Tories, and they want swifter decision-making through a war on bureaucracy but no cuts and no job losses.

Mr. Davies seems to be confusing the Assembly with his local Council. He complains that "most people who have had personal dealings with the Assembly as a citizen will know - whether over planning matters, health issues, agricultural subsidies, investment decisions or other issues - there are invariably unacceptable delays". He may find that those delays are no greater than when he was making these decisions and that up until now most people have not contacted the Assembly on these issues at all, but the bodies they fund to deliver the services.

Having announced that he wants quicker decision-making he justifiably goes on to complain about the lack of openness, the failure to consult and inadequate scrutiny. He cannot have it both ways. At least he recognises that there is a better way. It is a shame that he did not practise it when he had executive power. It is a shame too that he did not apologise for the shortcomings of the original Government of Wales Act.

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