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Saturday, September 30, 2006


Both the Western Mail and the BBC have used my press release revealing details of a behind-closed doors workshop within Swansea NHS Trust that discussed the closure of Singleton Hospital and its relocation to Morriston, which would then become the single-site hospital for the area.

The minutes made it clear that building a brand new hospital at Felindre was not the Trust's main option. These proposals are dismissed as having "planning risks". They go on to speculate that Singleton Hospital will lose A&E, diagnostics and the intensive care unit, effectively turning it into a primary care resource centre. Cancer patients will be moved when the linear accelerators used to treat the disease reach the end of their operational lives. They state that selling Singleton will gain the trust's commitment to the project.

Services to be retained at Singleton could include outpatients, the minor injury unit and day surgery, but keeping some of these services will maintain the disadvantages and inefficiencies of split-site working and duplication. Effectively, this site would be turned into a primary care centre.

Naturally, the Trust's Acting Chief Executive accuses me of 'mischief-making' and of 'mis-representing the situation' and yet the minutes are crystal-clear. What is not so transparent is how the decision will be taken and on what criteria it will be based. Surely, it is a matter of public interest when the local NHS Trust starts to discuss the closure of a well-established and much-loved General Hospital. Why would an attempt to bring those discussions into the public domain be considered mischief-making?

Mr. Campbell goes on to say that I "did not bother to contact the trust to discuss the situation before making (my) public accusations." This is true. But then again it is also obvious from the minutes that Swansea NHS Trust has failed to engage even its own partners in the work it is doing on the single-site hospital. Absent from the list of attendees are Swansea Council Social Services, the Local Health Board, the Unions, the Community Health Council, the Assembly Government and many other interested parties.

When the Trust does not even extend an invitation to its own partners to participate in working up one of the most significant health developments in the Swansea area since the creation of the NHS, then they should not be surprised that others view them as less than inclusive, accountable or transparent on this and other issues.

The Western Mail's comment page sums it up perfectly: "NHS trust boards cannot be allowed to pick and choose what they consult on, and what they decide unilaterally, when a much-loved resource such as Singleton Hospital is at stake. While NHS trust board officials have the right to discuss options for the future, any final decision must be taken in partnership with the public and not presented as a failt accompli."

Interestingly, I gave this story to the South Wales Evening Post last Tuesday as an exclusive. They are the paper which covers the area around Singleton and Morriston Hospital and they have a circulation well in excess of that of the Western Mail. By the time it came to Friday they had failed to use it. They still do not seem to have room in their paper. We rang the reporter concerned who said that he had not had time to look at it. 'We have been dealing with important stories', he told us. We gave up and released it more generally.

New York Dolls

New York Dolls -

I saw the New York Dolls perform their song 'Dance like a Monkey' on the Jonathan Ross Show last night and for some reason could not get the image of Bill Oddie and the Goodies singing 'Do the Funky Gibbon' out of my head. This video is a much better version and far more successful at getting the song's message across.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Multiple Spin

A letter in the Western Mail this morning largely reflects the line being peddled by Plaid Cymru to whoever will listen:

SIR - Poor Peter Hain seems to have become befuddled in the heady air of New Labour's National Conference. "A vote for Plaid or the Lib-Dems will give a Tory First Minister" says he. Nonsense.

Any fool knows that a vote for a Lib-Dem will give us four more years of Thatcherite New Labour spin.

The failure of Mike German to rule out another coalition with New Labour speaks volumes. The Libs will - as ever - do anything for a sniff of power. A vote for Plaid can only mean a Plaid First Minister. Plaid are the second party and the only party who have policies tailored for Wales that present a credible alternative to the present administration.

The Tories are lost in the trees somewhere.

Treclyn, Eglwyswrw, Pembrokeshire

The Tories are also going around alleging that another Lib Dem-Lab coalition is an inevitability. As it happens, Plaid Cymru have not ruled out a deal with the Tories, Labour or ourselves either. Meanwhile, Peter Hain is saying that a vote for the Welsh Liberal Democrats will deliver a Tory First Minister. They cannot all be right.

Reassuring as it is to be a Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Member at a time when all of the other political parties identify us as the main threat to them, there surely must be a need for some perspective in this discussion.

We will be campaigning on a manifesto stuffed full of exciting policies to improve the lives of the people of Wales. Our number one priority after the election will be to deliver on those policies. We will not compromise our principles to do so. If the other parties took the same attitude and concentrated on what they have to offer the voters rather than peddling so-called scare stories then the whole political process will be much healthier.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Should he stay or should he go?

The BBC report that John Marek has resigned as Chair of the Assembly's House Committee....or has he? Is it a case of toys out of the pram or an attempted putsch?

Like John Marek I was there but neither of us are allowed to comment. It's the rules don't yer know.

So much for open government.

Sorry is the hardest word

Two successive posts about Peter Hain may well appear excessive by anybody's standards and yet, as many commentators have remarked, he has been everywhere this week. He has been schmoozing at Conference parties, lobbying Trade Unionists, greeting delegates and holding impromptu press conferences. Anybody would think he was in the running to be Deputy Prime Minister.

Today he is addressing the Labour Party Conference, preceded by a film of him working in TRW, a car parts manufacturer in his constituency and my region. However, before that he found time to talk to the Western Mail and express his regrets about his part in blocking Rhodri Morgan's bid to be First Minister, shortly after Ron Davies' moment of madness on Clapham Common in 1998:

IT'S been a long time coming, but seven years after one of the murkiest episodes in Welsh political history, Peter Hain has apologised for blocking Rhodri Morgan's attempts to become the National Assembly's first leader.

Mr Hain, now Welsh Secretary, ran Alun Michael's successful campaign in 1999 to defeat Mr Morgan, who had the overwhelming support of the party membership.

At the time it was seen as one of the worst examples of New Labour control freakery.

He told a fringe event at the party's conference in Manchester on Tuesday evening, "In retrospect Rhodri was the natural choice of Welsh Labour and Alun wasn't. I will, at some point, tell the whole story of that but I'm not going to do that now.

"I can't wriggle out of it, it did happen. Was it the wrong thing to do? Yes, it was."

Mr. Hain has an unfortunate record of saying sorry. The last time he came over all contrite was shortly before the Blaenau Gwent by-election when he apologised on behalf of Wales Labour for imposing an all-woman shortlist onto that constituency. The result was a massive rebuff for him and for his party as Trish Law and Dai Davies stormed to victory. Let us hope that voters in the Deputy Leadership election adopt a more charitable view of Peter Hain eating humble pie.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Radio Wales has just reported that the biggest question in Welsh politics has been answered. Apparently, Peter Hain told the Observer's Andrew Rawnsley that he does not use a sunbed or bottled oil to maintain his sun tan. He says that he only has to step into the sun for two minutes and the tan appears as if by magic.

Roger and out

Rather belatedly I found this entry on David Cornock's blog from last week's Liberal Democrat Conference. David continues his long-running obsession in relation to Liberal Democrat leaders that they should have at least one mention of Wales in their key-note speech.

The fact that Wales has at least two Liberal Democrat leaders of our own who do nothing else but talk about how well we are doing here seems have to passed him by. In our new devolved democracy there is no need for the Federal Leader to namecheck every constituent part of the United Kingdom any more. We are able to speak for ourselves, and in any case Ming will be very much in evidence in Wales during our General Election next May.

David finishes with a rather cruel story about Roger Williams, the Welsh Liberal Democrat MP for Brecon and Radnorshire:

Most delegates went home happy, but the MP for Brecon and Radnorshire had something of a sense of humour failure.

Roger Williams had to withdraw from a fringe meeting organised by the League Against Cruel Sports due to a diary clash.

The organisers responded by replacing him on the platform with a tub of lard. That sounds like a cruel sport of its own.

It is just a shame that the gesture by the League Against Cruel Sports was not original.

A question of choice

It is not often that we get interesting philosophical discusions in Plenary but yesterday was an exception. The subject was choice in public services, however the two protagonists in the conversation seemed to be talking about different things.

For the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, choice means the provision of genuine alternatives so as to empower individuals, in other words the establishment of competing services so as to drive down cost. For the First Minister however, the word meant something completely different:

The First Minister: Yes. We believe in a wider range of choices, for instance, on whether to send your child to nursery school, with the availability of nursery school from the age of three, and on free school breakfasts. There is a wide range of areas in which we believe people will want to exercise greater choice for the benefit of themselves and their families.

Nick Bourne: I welcome that. It seems to be a retreat from his earlier statement that greater choice in public services is ‘amoral’. Is this a reflection of the fact that Gordon Brown has said that we cannot leave public services as they were, but must build them around the personal aspirations of the individual? I agree with that, and I presume that the First Minister also agrees with that and so perhaps regrets his earlier statement that choice is amoral.

The First Minister: You are confusing choice for the individual with choice between different providers and the introduction of the market mechanism. There is no retreat and no distinction between what I have said now and what I have said previously on this issue.

Nick Bourne: I cannot see that there can be any confusion about this. Choice for the individual, by definition, means a choice between two different types of service. The First Minister has previously said that that is amoral. I am glad that he seems to have changed his mind, in saying that it no longer is amoral. That, at least, is progress. Would he also go further and say that we must have a radical shift from the centre to the locality? Again, that is something that Gordon Brown has said, echoing the localism that David Cameron has been championing. Will he also nail his colours to the mast on that one and say that localism is the way forward?

The First Minister: You obviously did not hear what I said, Nick. Perhaps you would do well to read the Record tomorrow of your questions and my answers to you. I clearly said that there is a distinction between a choice between different providers of the same service, and giving people more choice of the services to be provided, as with free school breakfasts, which I take it that you now support, as you are so keen on choice, and as with the choice to go to nursery school at the age of three, at least part time, which we provide in Wales. As far as I know, we do that in advance of anywhere else in the United Kingdom. That is quite different from wishing to extend choice in terms of different providers for the same service; we are talking about more choice between different levels of service that you can opt for.

I do not agree with the Conservatives that choice in the provision of public services is always a good thing. Competition can drive down quality as well as price and often it leaves local council's unable to compete on a level playing field due to regulations that apply to them and not their competitors.

That is not to say however that public services should always be provided by the public sector. What is important is value for money and quality. If a Council can achieve that by buying in a service that they are unable to supply themselves or cannot offer at a competitive cost then they should be allowed to do so. Indeed, even the most socialist of Councils do this when they employ contractors to repair roads or Council houses.

In talking about extending public services the First Minister is not dealing with those sort of choices or, indeed, choice of any kind. He has hijacked the word and sought to re-define it to give a softer edge to his government's policies. As an act of spin-doctoring it was a very clumsy attempt indeed.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


The dead-tree version of this Western Mail article has a quite interesting typo. The headline says:

Lib-Dems largest door jailed for two years.


Whatever the truth of today's headlines about Cherie Blair's reaction to Gordon Brown's speech it has completely derailed the Chancellor's make-over.

Mike Smithson on politicalbetting seems to have it summed up when he writes: 'The reason that Cherie Blair’s alleged remarks carry so much force and dominate the headlines this morning is that they ring true. '

In other words she can deny it all she likes, but we want it to be true and we believe that it is the sort of thing she would do. In that sort of atmosphere a rapprochement between Brown and Blair seems very unlikely.

Mike says of the Chancellor's speech: "After watching and re-watching the vast amount of material coming out of Manchester I’ve come to the conclusion that the real problem with Gordon is that he cannot “do” sincerity.

The world “knows” that he was behind the “rolling resignation” plan to oust Tony earlier in the month that it is stretching credulity to it absolute limits for him to be going on the platform talking about the “great privilege” of working for all that time with the Prime Minister.

You cannot but help thinking that if it was such a privilege then why has he gone to such lengths to force Blair out?"

I couldn't put it better myself.

Monday, September 25, 2006

It's not unusual

Somebody has been tampering with the Wales Millennium Centre.

The poem should read "In these stones horizons sing". Still I am sure Tom will be flattered.


I fully support the campaign to designate a Top Level Domain (TLD) to Wales. For a start it will spare Cymuned from having to use an American domain. The issue though is bigger than that.

This is not a linguistic matter but an opportunity for Wales to assert its identity on-line. It is also a chance for Welsh civic society (and the Welsh Assembly itself) to associate themselves with the Country as part of their internet presence. Catalonia has a TLD so why not Wales?

As it happens I have already set the ball rolling in the Assembly and we will be getting a report back on the practicalities and a possible timetable to set this up later this week. This is one issue on which the Assembly can show some real leadership.

No smoke without fire

Although I support the existence of a smoking shelter outside the National Assembly's Cardiff Bay office, I do share the concerns expressed by the BMA in today's newspaper that it will need to be adapted to fit in with new regulations associated with the smoking in public places legislation.

At the time I went to great pains to stress that regulations in Wales will be very similar to Ireland where smoking shelters such as this one, which has a roof, must only have three walls. Instead we have a conservatory extension and the possibility of incurring yet further expense in adapting it in a few months time.

It is astonishing that even though it took a full twelve months to build the contraption once the decision to go-ahead was taken, there was no foresight applied as to what is a suitable design in the light of future legislation, and that the advice of people who have studied the implementation of other smoking bans in-depth was apparently ignored.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Labour and the art of blogging

It is well known amongst bloggers that Labour Central Office do not really get blogging. They are wary because they cannot control it and because it might encourage public dissent amongst the ranks. In this regard they seem to have a bigger problem with their MPs than anything that is happening on-line.

These reservations are of course, shared by spin-doctors in all political parties and frankly, it is hard cheese. They will have to live with it. Iain Dale expands on this issue in today's Observer:

Blogs are a spin doctor's worst nightmare come true - and then some. It would be understandable if political parties regarded them as uncontrolled, uncontrollable and sometimes downright troublesome. But if they did, they would be missing a huge opportunity to market their message without the filter of mainstream media reportage and comment. The political party that can harness blogs to its cause is the one that will win the internet campaigning war.


The trouble is, most politicians see all the dangerous downsides of blogging but rarely the benefits. There are some notable exceptions, such as LibDem MP Lynne Featherstone, Labour's Tom Watson and Tory Ed Vaizey, but they are three of only about a dozen.

You have to register to read the article in full.

Michael Meacher's new blog is guaranteed to send the Labour spin merchants into a tail spin by affirming all their prejudices. He does not pull his punches. In fact, he seems to go out of his way to give the backroom boys at his party's HQ severe indigestion:

I have just heard, from what I regard as an unimpeachable source that Gordon Brown has told junior ministers that if they do not vote for him in the forthcoming leadership contest, they’ll be out.


It’s all very well for Tony Blair at this stage, within sight of his departure, suddenly breaking the habit of a lifetime and announcing a consensual, inclusive review of the whole range of party policy before he goes

But it’s a bit rich to have a conversion to this new style of policy making at the end when for 12 years we have had policy settled exclusively in Labour HQ or No. 10 and election manifestos handed down from on high without so much as a flicker of Party consultation. Still, there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth …


Good to hear that Tony Blair is now saying the leadership, in all this ruckus, should be thinking about the Party and the public. So that means, I take it, an early leadership election so as not to scupper Labour's chances in the Scottish, Welsh and local elections. It means the inovative idea, does it, of actually discussing what the direction of policy should be under the new government?- not shutting down all debate on policy before it's even begun, as Gordon Brown wants, leaving him (he hopes) with a free hand. And it means, I assume, having candidates representing all the main wings of the Party, not just the Brownite Right and the Blairite far Right, but the Centre-Left, which has been disenfranchised for a decade or more.

And so on. It is enough to get opposition politicians purring with pleasure.

Mardy Bum

The Observer reports that Gordon Brown has something else in common with Sir Menzie Campbell (apart from them both being Scottish, etc. etc.). It seems that neither of them can name a single Arctic Monkeys track:

Put on the spot by a men's magazine, the Chancellor proved unable to name a single track from their debut album beyond insisting that 'they are very loud'. And he confessed his favoured listening was actually Coldplay - the band music aficionados love to despise for their middle-of-the-road sound, described by Oasis's manager Alan McGee as 'music for bedwetters'.

The Arctic Monkeys debacle represents the first real snag for the much-touted Project Gordon makeover, supposed to rebrand the Chancellor as a softer, more engaging character en route to Number 10. Along with the lilac ties and family snapshots of Brown with his two boys has even come a new warmth to colleagues: he recently telephoned a string of junior ministers in the aftermath of the coup against Blair, dishing out his phone number and inviting them to call him any time.

Did he get asked to name a Coldplay track as well? Perhaps 'What if' off their X&Y album would suffice.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Queen

I have just come back from watching the film 'The Queen'. It was a fairly insightful recap of the tragic event of Diana's death in 1997 and its aftermath. I thought that the analogy with the stag was a bit laboured, Diana the Huntress becoming the hunted etc, but otherwise it seemed to be spot on. Helen Mirren was remarkable as the Queen, whilst Michael Sheen once more, produced a fairly accurate portrayal of the younger Tony Blair.

My favourite line, which was clearly put in with a subsequent knowledge of events, came about three quarters of the way through the film. Tony Blair is in a room with his advisors and once more trying to sort out a crisis involving the Royal Family. As he moves to leave the room the phone rings. An aide answers it and tells the Prime Minister that it is Gordon phoning for him. Tony expresses exasperation. "Tell him to hang on," he says, and walks out of the room.

Nine years later and Gordon is still hanging on.

Elvis returns to Porthcawl

Elvis Preseli sings the Scissor Sisters

For those who are into the King, the 2006 Porthcawl Elvis Festival starts next weekend. It is on from 29th September to 1st October. Full details can be found here. In the meantime here is the legendary Elvis Preseli singing at a previous festival.

Cash for access

Apparently undaunted by the row still going on around loans for peerages, Labour are using their Conference to try and plug their £20 million overdraft by offering companies and special interest groups the opportunity "to engage first hand" with ministers and policy advisers who work in areas relevant to their business for £1,500 a head during the conference.

The Guardian also reports that the PR company Bell Pottinger Public Affairs is offering clients a package of dinners and meetings with ministers. BPPA, set up by Lord Bell, who was behind successive Conservative party election campaigns, is offering clients dinner with two cabinet members, including the lord chancellor, Lord Falconer, two ministers of state and three senior MPs.

Nobody is arguing that Labour are doing something that has not happened before but one does have to question the values that allow Government to be abused in this way for financial gain. Even if state funding of political parties does not come in then there needs to be a clampdown on the way that people can buy access to Ministers.

Single parents

Like John Redwood before him the Prime Minister has learnt that it does not do to mess with single parents.

The Independent reports that an astonishing attack on Tony Blair as a father was made at a private meeting of Labour's ruling body by a trade union official who is a single mother:

Members of the party's national executive committee watched in amazement as Harriet Yeo launched a broadside over Mr Blair's remarks about teenage mothers in a speech on social exclusion earlier this month.

She hit back by referring to the incident in which his son Euan, then 16, was arrested after being found by police in Leicester Square, where he had vomited on the pavement.

She said she was an unmarried mother but not all of them were feckless. "My daughter has not disgraced me, not like your son who was found drunk in the gutter. We don't want lectures from you," she said.

Ms Yeo, whose daughter Angharad, 27, is studying politics, philosophy and economics at Kent University after trying working as an artist, added: "I don't like establishment men making political capital out of young poor women."

Ms Yeo, from the white-collar union TSSA, was sitting only a few feet away from Mr Blair at Wednesday's meeting at Portcullis House next to Parliament.

She accused Mr Blair of stigmatising all single mothers in a speech in which he called for early state intervention to prevent teenage pregnancies to break the cycle of deprivation. She also objected to his suggestion in an interview that unmarried mothers went into prostitution.

A grim-faced Mr Blair had been taking questions on his leader's report to the NEC. "Blair was reduced to a gibbering wreck," said one eye witness. "Harriet said she was an unmarried mother and how dare he lecture anyone on how to bring up their own family. Gordon [Brown] just sat there. There was a stunned silence." One member of the committee said: "It is the most devastating thing we have ever seen at an NEC meeting."

The Prime Minister insisted that Ms Yeo had misunderstood his speech, saying that he did not attack unmarried mothers and denied suggesting that they were all prostitutes.

But some NEC members said "hear, hear" in support of Ms Yeo when she was speaking. "She was quite right. We don't want lectures from middle-class parents like Blair patronising working-class mothers," said another Labour figure. "His family is dysfunctional. He is not in a position to lecture anyone about bringing up families."

That is what happens when you go in search of easy headlines.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Certificate of merit?

It is said that if you wait long enough then your reward will come and so it proved earlier this week when my pathetic attempts to generate electricity on a push-bike on behalf of World Wildlife Cymru at the Royal Welsh Show were acknowledged by the arrival of a very smart-looking certificate.

Headed 'Pedal Power Champion; politician's category', the certificate tells me that I produced enough power in 2 minutes to make toast. If I have to do that every time I feel like a piece of toast then I will be much fitter. On the other hand I could always give up eating toast.

Punch and Judy

The culture portfolio in the National Assembly for Wales has been subject to more than its fair share of controversy since Labour took it over in 2003. Rows have blown up over the amount of money being allocated to non-Cardiff based Arts Organisations as compensation for the Government's revenue support for the Wales Millennium Centre, over the Welsh Language Board, and of course, over plans to castrate the Arts Council of Wales by directly funding the six biggest Arts bodies. On most of these issues, the Government has been frustrated by the opposition parties.

It seemed entirely appropriate therefore that, as we convened for our penultimate term before the Assembly elections, that the Minister should have to deal with a question on Punch and Judy:

Nick Bourne: In considering the culture budget, would you pay special attention to the international Punch and Judy festival held at Aberystwyth every year, with great success and on a politically correct basis with contributions from all around the world? It attracts many visitors to what is the gem of Ceredigion and it sorely needs funds from the Assembly Government.

Alun Pugh: Decisions regarding small-scale arts projects are probably made at arm’s length by the Arts Council of Wales. The Minister does not decide on these matters. That is not the way to do it—[Laughter.]

Putting aside the Minister's rather weak joke, it is difficult to imagine a politically correct Punch and Judy. Surely, such an event would defeat the whole purpose of the genre.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

So what do we do?

This morning's Western Mail reports on an Electoral Commission survey that has discovered that the people of Wales are warming to the National Assembly, despite many of them not understanding what it does:

More than half (54%) of the people surveyed said devolution had improved the way Wales was governed, and only 13% thought it made things worse.

Experts said the confusion over the Assembly's role was partly down to its dependence on Westminster to pass legislation on issues such as banning smoking in enclosed public spaces.

They also blamed London-based media for reporting on England-only issues without making clear Wales was not affected.

The report continues by identifying that whilst more than half of respondents could name some of the Assembly's responsibilities, a "significant minority" (49%) could not name any.

There is no doubt that it will be easier to promote the Assembly once it ceases to be a corporate body next May, however there is clearly a lot of work still to be done, even if the results of this survey are very encouraging.

Land Registry visit

Back in August I carried out a visit to the Land Registry for Wales, which is based in my region, to find out more about the proposed merger of their two Swansea offices and the subsequent reduction in their work force over the next ten years. I met with management and the Trade Unions.

A couple of weeks later I was asked to write an article for their Intranet in the format of a question and answer session to explain why I had carried out the visit and what I had found out. I replied the same day. For some reason my account does not appear to have found favour with management and has failed to appear even though it is nearly two weeks since it was written.

Although it is unlikely that many Land Registry staff visit this site I thought it worth reproducing the piece for wider circulation:

How and why did the visit come about?

I asked to meet the Trade Unions, the Area Manager and District Land Registrar because I was concerned about plans to merge the two Swansea offices and effectively cut the number of posts by 230 over the next ten years.

What happened during your visit and what did you do?

I had an initial meeting with Management where we discussed their plans for the future. I was told that reductions in posts will take place through natural wastage and were largely a consequence of changes in the way that the Land Registry carry out their work. I was briefed on the development of e-conveyancing and the future accommodation needs of the Land Registry offices in Swansea.

In my meeting with the unions I had a rather different story. They are sceptical that the age profile of staff will allow natural wastage on the scale envisaged by management and believe that changes to reporting procedures and sickness policy mean that staff will be forced out so as to help meet the targets set by management.

The Unions are opposed to the policy of natural wastage at Swansea, due to the fact that the area is economically deprived, and they do not wish to see TBG (the office in Swansea High Street) closed down. They are also concerned at some recent appointments covering both offices that they say indicates that management’s mind is made up on the way forward even though the strategy is still out to consultation.

Following these meetings I looked around the office, talking to staff and viewing the area where members of the public come in with general enquiries.

How long did the visit last?

The meetings lasted about one and a half hours and I spent just over an hour touring the office subsequent to that.

When did it take place?

The morning of Tuesday 15th August.

What were your impressions of Land Registry?

Having spent 16 years working the Land Registry for Wales prior to my election to the Welsh Assembly in 1999, many of the staff there are known to me, whilst the layout of the office, with the exception of the contact centre, is still very familiar.

Things have moved on quite a lot in terms of single handling, computerisation and cross-discipline working, developments that were still in their infancy when I left. There was a fair bit of discontent about the new HR Advance system (a new computerised time-keeping system) but by and large the atmosphere was much the same as I remember it.

The new e-conveyancing project seems interesting though I have questions as to how far it will empower solicitors and how a balance will be struck between what can be done externally and what work will be left with staff. I am also impressed with the landregistryonline website which I have used in my representative role as for some reason constituents come to me with boundary and other land disputes, a possible consequence of me having spent a decade doing R28 examination of title perhaps.

Rhodri Morgan: A Lost Leader

Rhodri Morgan: A Lost Leader

A bit too personal for my taste but entertaining nevertheless.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Back in Wales

Just in case people have not realised I have been back in Wales since Tuesday lunchtime and ensconced in meetings for almost the entire period.

I have o-f course been keeping an eye on the Liberal Democrat blogs and I am a bit envious at the ability of their authors to join in with the important debates on Tax and the party's philospophy as well as be there for the Charles Kennedy speech, fringe events and receptions. The fact that so many people are capturing the spirit of conference on-line this year, has made my absence much harder.

I could of course get in my car tonight and drive all the way back to Brighton so as to be there for Ming Campbell's speech. However, on reflection I don't think I will do that at all.

Separated at birth

On the left is David Moffett, the former Chief Executive of the Welsh Rugby Union. On the right is the newly appointed Chief Executive, Roger Lewis. Have the WRU been perfecting cloning over the last 7 months?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The calibre of our politicians

Two Assembly Members have spoken out to claim that Wales does not have the calibre of politicians to do justice to the new Government of Wales Act:

Alun Ffred Jones, Plaid Cymru AM for Caernarfon, said, "Many Assembly Members live in a fool's paradise.

"They believe it's like a county council or a community council, where it's all just talk and talk, but there's going to be a revolution in 2007, which will pave the way, hopefully, for a proper parliament in the future."

And Glyn Davies, Conservative AM for Mid and West Wales, said, "The new Act is an opportunity for us to raise the standard of debate and our performance.

"I have felt disillusioned in the past by the sheer pettiness, repetitiveness and pointlessness of some debates.

"People stand up to be angry about something that is so minor and so narrow in its concern that only AMs care about it."

Needless to say I do not agree with this analysis, except that if an AM does stand up to make a petty and irrelevant point he or she is as likely to be from the opposition as the Government side.

My view is that members will grow into the challenge of making primary legislation. They have certainly done so in Scotland, where Parliamentary contributions, especially at question time, are equally as capable of degenerating into pettiness and pointlessness and whose MSPs in my view, are comparable in quality to our AMs.

The Comeback Kid

I am told that the lunchtime coverage of the Liberal Democrat Conference included the immortal line that "Charles Kennedy will be speaking from the floor..."

Monday, September 18, 2006

Blogging Conference

My post on the New Statesman Conference Blog can be found here. Lembit Opik's contribution is here.

Talking a new language

Liberal Democrats are often accused of talking a different language by our detractors, however we are in danger of confirming that by the badges worn around the Conference Centre by the many thousands of people who are here.

The problem is that each badge seeks to define our status and reason for being here by colour and by a mysterious code that very few can crack. It is a DaVinci code for modern politics and if you have acronym blindness as I do you don't stand a chance. Here is a full guide:

Party Members - yellow
Voting Representative - VOR
Non-Voting Member - NVO
Parliamentarians - PAR
Party Officers - POF

Non Members - Grey
Commercial Observers - OBS
Diplomats - DIP
International Guests - ING
Sister Party Members - SPG
Exhibitor Observers - EXO
Exhibitor - EXH
NGO/Charity Observers - NGO
Exhibition Technician - TEC

Media - Pink
Press or Media journalists - JOR
Camera crews/Photographers - PHO
Technicians - MTE

Staff - Orange
Headquarters staff - HQS
Parliamentary staff - PST
POLD staff - POL
State, Regional and Constituency Staff- SRC
Local Government staff - LGS

Conference Management - Green
Conference Organisers - ORG - Striped
Federal Conference Committee - FCC - Light Green
Stewards - STW - Dark Green

Fringe and Training - Purple
(Access only to the Hilton Brighton Metropole)
Training member - TRM
Trainers - TNR
Fringe Organiser - FRO
Fringe Guest only - FRG

What complicates things further is that some people are here in more than one capacity and thus are wearing a number of badges. This of course makes it easier to play Conference Happy Families. How many identical categorisations can you spot in any one group of people. If you get a set can you claim a prize? It is the stewards, who have to work with the system, that I feel sorry for.

More on coalitions

The ready availability of politicians at party conferences make then natural feeding grounds for political journalists just emerging from the bleak wasteland of the summer silly season. Thus it is that papers like the Western Mail have started to feature stories about coalitions once more, taken from a fact-correcting interview with Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Leader, Mike German.

Rather predictably, for face-saving reasons the paper cannot let go of its own speculative piece earlier in the summer, in which it suggested that talks have been going on between the Welsh Liberal Democrats and Labour and that cabinet places have already been allocated. The main problem with this piece is that in every aspect it is totally and absolutely untrue. The only thing that Labour and the Liberal Democrats agree on about this piece is that it was planted by the Tories to try and secure a political advantage.

In his interview Mike German again repeats the party's position that we will listen to what any potential partners have to say, with the only criteria being how much of the Welsh Lib-Dem manifesto could be implemented:

"The party's position is that we would work with other parties, and it would depend on the results of the election, and that's up to the people of Wales. We will listen to what the people have to say and what the parties have to say."

The only problem with this of course is that all things are not equal. In particular the prospect of going into a coalition led by a Tory First Minister (even if it is Glyn Davies) would not appeal to many, including some key Welsh Liberal Democrat AMs. The programme is important, but Mike knows as well as I do that instincts and principles are a vital part of any coalition.

There will always be issues that have not been anticipated and how you respond to those can mark out the tone of a partnership government. If there is not an instinctively left-of-centre, liberal approach to them then we will be doing our party and our liberalism a disservice.

We can always walk away from the coalition of course but, as we discovered the last time, that is not so easy. It becomes a matter of timing and of presentation. Would the public really understand if we broke up the partnership over a particular issue? The result is that you hedge a little and a little more. It is the nature of coalition politics.

I am not arguing that we should avoid this scenario next time just that if we have to compromise then we should do so in the context of a left-leaning partnership. Perhaps we should just stop talking about coalitions altogether and concentrate instead on promoting our own agenda.

Conference bits and pieces

Congratulations to Stephen Tall who, as I predicted yesterday morning, was awarded the prize of Liberal Democrat blogger of the year last night. Stephen's blog is consistently thoughtful, intelligent, well-written and above all liberal to its last comma. He was a very worthy winner.

All of the shortlisted blogs will, I suspect, have been visited in the last few days by supporters of Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club. They are campaigning for a new stadium for their football club and were demonstrating outside the Conference in force yesterday to protest at Lewes District Council's position on this. It is essentially a local issue and, as I said in the comments to another post, it is not the first time that a demonstration has gathered outside our Federal Conference, nor will it be the last.

Finally, I got a bit irritated at a Shelter fringe last night with the Party's English Housing Spokesperson. He takes an understandable and quite rational view of Housing Stock Transfer that the Government should offer another option to tenants so that they might be able to have improvements done to their homes whilst remaining Council tenants. He believes though that this just involves changing the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement. Alas, he is about five years out of date on that issue.

Councils already have the power to borrow the money they need under prudential borrowing regulations. Unfortunately, they need an income stream to pay off the loans and most Councils cannot muster that from housing rents alone simply because of the level of historic debt that they carry. In many Councils up to 50% of the income from rent will go towards paying off that debt.

Obviously, the Treasury is keen to keep the borrowing needed to improve Council Housing off the books so they offer an incentive to encourage Councils down the transfer route. They will pay off the historic debt of any local authority who secures a 'yes' vote in a ballot and proceed with a transfer. This means that the new Housing Association will start with a blank sheet and be able to use the income it receives from rent in its entirety to fund improvements.

If we genuinely want to offer an alternative then we need to convince the Treasury to pay off all that historic debt so that Councils are able to borrow the money needed to carry out improvements whilst maintaining control of their own houses. The debate then becomes one about the use of resources. Should we be repairing these homes from public funds or should we be using the money instead to build new homes to rent? Can we afford to do both? There are no easy answers. We should stop pretending that there are.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Top Five

Those of my readers who have doubts about Iain Dale's political judgement will have had that confirmed by his ranking of this blog as fifth in the Top 100 Liberal Democrat Blogs.

It seems that in the overall scheme of things I am rated as the 39th top political blog in the UK. Iain writes that I am a 'Welsh LibDem AM who tries to toe the party line but thankfully often fails.'


Update: I have been placed in Channel 4's list of the top twenty political blogs. Now this is getting scary.


Yesterday's Western Mail reports a moment of embarrasment for Welsh Language pressure group Cymuned. They are currently distributing car stickers promoting the website CaruCymru.com.

The paper tells us that the Welsh-language version of the CaruCymru website notes how Cymuned's members love Wales' "language, culture, history and people" before warning of the dangers of Welsh culture increasingly becoming "uniform" and "Anglo-American". The only problem is that the stickers are printed in America. Correct me if I am wrong but doesn't the suffux 'com' mean that the website is hosted in the US as well?

Meanwhile, today's Wales on Sunday exclusively reveals the location of the green door referred to in Shakin' Stevens 1981 hit of the same name. Apparently, it actually existed and hid a secret lesbian bar off London's trendy King's Road.

The song was originally a hit in 1956 for Frankie Vaughan. It tells the story of a man trying to get into a lesbian bar:

The secret watering hole explains the lyrics belted out by Shaky: "There's an old piano and they play it hot behind the green door, don't know what they're doing but they laugh a lot behind the green door.

"Wish they'd let me in so I could find out what's behind the green door."

The line "Joe sent me" is believed to refer to Joe Meek, the gay record producer who worked on the original. He was an honorary member of the bar.

"When I said, 'Joe sent me', someone laughed out loud behind the green door," complained Shaky.

The inside of the club was only ever filmed once in a 1968 film called The Killing of Sister George. Fifteen minutes of the movie was shot in the Gateways with many of the regulars appearing as extras.

The club shut its green door in 1985 and is now storage space for a nearby dress shop.

All of this reminds me of a conversation I had recently with an Assembly Member, where I discovered that her husband was once Shakin' Stevens' agent. It is a small world.

High noon

As I am at the Liberal Democrat Conference then I suppose that I should write about it. This is not to say that there are more interesting subjects out there, obviously there are not, it is just that I hate doing what is predictable.

I have already been asked to contribute to the New Statesman Conference blog and will be sending my 600 words on Monday night before I head back to Cardiff for the new Welsh Assembly term. My highlight therefore will be the Liberal Democrat blogger of the year awards tonight where I fully expect Jonathan Calder or Stephen Tall to walk off with the prize.

I have just been watching Sir Menzies Campbell being interviewed by Andrew Marr and was pleased to see him play down the idea of a confrontation between the leadership and activists over the party's tax policy. This is not high noon he told us and Menzies Campbell is no Gary Cooper. Thank God!

I was quite taken by Andrew Rawnsley's analysis in this morning's Observer, which in many ways was spot on. Its main weakness was the emphasis on the Party Leader's speech as the main test of Sir Menzies' leadership:

'The conference and the public don't need to be told again that he has a distinguished demeanour,' says one senior Lib Dem who supported Sir Menzies for the leadership. 'They want to hear about his passions.' The leader's speech is not 'just one speech'. It is the biggest opportunity that a Lib Dem leader gets to grab the nation by the ear, to project his personality and to evangelise for his party's vision of a better Britain. It is a chance to engage the county that only comes around once a year. Sir Menzies cannot afford to muff it.

He likes to think of himself as a statesman. He needs to remember that a leader also has to be a salesman.

It is a nice line and we will, of course, all be grateful for a leadership-defining speech, full of passion and gravitas, that puts the party right up there in contention for government. However, this is a marathon, not a sprint. We know that Ming is a passionate, principled politician and we know that he can convey that to an audience. We are far more relaxed about his performance on Thursday. What we are looking for is a sustained repetition of that passion and principle between now and the General Election, for the promises that were made during the leadership election to be fulfilled. I do not believe that we will be disappointed.

The key importance of this Conference for the Liberal Democrats lies in these two paragraphs:

We are in the paradoxical position that we know a lot more about what to expect from a Lib Dem government than we do about a government led by David Cameron or Gordon Brown. Sir Menzies proposes to make large reductions in income tax for those on low or middling salaries, which could make the Lib Dems popular with a lot of people. They propose higher taxes on capital gains and second homes and less generous pension reliefs. That is not going to be so attractive to the more affluent. Boldly going where the two other parties so far fear to tread, the Lib Dems would use higher taxes on air travel, larger cars and other polluters to finance their spending plans.

Here the Lib Dems are performing their traditional role of being ahead of the curve. I have a hunch that the central argument about tax at the next election will not be a repeat of previous battles about whether the overall tax take should be higher or lower. It will be much more a debate about what and who should be taxed. Labour and the Tories will probably try to make their sums add up by placing more emphasis on green taxes. The Lib Dems will have got there first.

We are back where we are most confortable, setting the agenda and leading from the front. The other parties need to play catch-up with us.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Tax debate

The morning of Conference has arrived and I am pulling all my stuff together for an exciting three days before I have to abandon all the important debates on the future of the party and head back to Cardiff to discuss the future of Wales instead.

In this morning's Western Mail the Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Leader, Mike German, makes much the same point. In previewing the Conference and next May's Welsh Assembly elections he underlines some of the uncertainties our party needs to overcome before we have a settled programme to put before the electorate.

I was particularly disappointed at his characterisation of the tax debate, in which he seems to have swallowed the party line completely, that this is a vote of confidence in Ming and that the switch to greener, fairer taxation is somehow in jeopardy. This is nowhere near the truth.

In fact, my reading of the situation is that the package has wide acceptance and that all the debate will centre on the Evan Harris amendment over whether to add on a 50p tax rate for those earning more than £150,000 a year. As Evan has said himself in discussion with Lynne Featherstone on the new Liberal Democrat Voice website, the amendment accepts the Vince Cable/Tax Commission package and seeks to make it more resdistributive again by adding a clear headline level of tax that will take more money from those with higher incomes. This will be used to remove even more people from paying income tax:

The package on offer delivers less not greater redistribution than the package would deliver if amended to include a 50p rate raising £2bn more to be re-distributed to the poorest taxpayers. The difference is - surprise, surprise - £2bn less redistribution without the 50p rate.

Her misunderstanding arises because she - and others - assume that we are calling for the retention of the manifesto policy which was 50p rate to pay for personal care and abolish tuition fees. Those were means-tested charges and therefore the manifesto policy was less redistributive than tax reform. When doing tax reform you have shift a lot more money than small increases in tax take to get small increases in public spending which is why the overall £10bn tax shift needs every £2bn raised fairly as it can get!

That would also deal with Mike German's concern that we are not raising enough money to meet spending commitments such as the abolition of tuition fees and free home care for the elderly. In fact it is proposed to find that money from our subsequent spending review but it will help to have an extra £2 billion in hand from the tax package as a starting point as well.

Mike also argues that we want to keep the current Welsh settlement on tuition fees until at least 2009. As it stands at the moment the Welsh Assembly pays the top-up fees for Welsh Students at Welsh Universities. This is affordable but it may become more difficult to pay for them if the Government lifts the cap on top-up fees in 2009 and raises the fee grant at the same time. My view is that we should be anticipating that and pledging to at least retain the present settlement for the whole of the next Assembly term. We should not be hedging our bets at this stage. This though is a debate that will be had as we draw up our manifesto for the elections and no doubt will feature in it as a fully-costed pledge in one form or another.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Taking blogging seriously

It is nice to see that the Liberal Democrats are treating bloggers seriously. So much so that those of us who have been shortlisted for Liberal Democrat blogger of the year are virtually being treated like lobby journalists.

We have all been offered access to the party's press conferences for next week, plus the opportunity to interview Liberal Democrat campaign supremo, Ed Davey MP. Alas, I will be back in Cardiff when the aforesaid interview will be taking place and I have already passed up the option on the press conferences on the grounds that the Welsh Party have plans for me to feature in some of their events.

There is also a quite intensive campaign going on to get the Tax Commission's proposals through Conference unamended. So much so that I was contacted a few days ago to ask if I minded a quote from one of my blog entries going on a leaflet being produced by the party establishment for distribution to conference representatives. I agreed, despite the fact that I am one of the sponsors of the amendment to add onto the proposals a 50p tax rate for those earning in excess of £150,000 a year, because I genuinely believe that, even as it stands, the tax paper is a good thing. The proposals are fairer because they tax unearned wealth and take 2 million of our poorest citizens out of tax altogether, and they are greener because they switch taxation from income to pollution. The 50p rate for the highest earners will improve the proposals further but it is not the end of the world if that amendment fails.

I have now been contacted directly by our Shadow Chancellor, Vince Cable, who is keen to be interviewed by all the shortlisted bloggers about the tax proposals. Clearly, he sees an opportunity to get his message across and why not? I have though declined his offer for two reasons. The first is that I have already had the benefit of a meeting with him last month when Assembly Members were fully briefed on the proposals. The second is that I do not see myself as a journalist, but as a commentator.

Blogging might be more mainstream but it is not a substitute for television, radio and newspapers nor for other on-line news resources. In the realm of current affairs and news our added value is in the insight we can offer and in the messages we convey. Most of us are partial in one way or another and our readers are aware of that and come back because they are interested in our viewpoint and the way we communicate it. In my case there is the added dimension of the access, transparency and accountability that a blog can offer an elected politician. Provided that we remember that role then we will not overreach ourselves nor allow others to turn us into something that we are not.


I have just been delivering some last minute leaflets before Conference and was astonished at how many spiders are out there. It would not be so bad if they did not build their webs at head height across garden paths.

Apparently, it is the mating season and they are all on the look-out for mates. This means that there will be more in our homes as well.

Just in case you think that this may not be of significance I found on one website that in Britain alone there are over 650 species of spiders - most of these are small and secretive and consequently overlooked by the majority of people. There are however a number of more obvious spiders, often found in or near houses and gardens.

This has been a public service announcement.

Who will rid Tony of this turbulent ex-Minister?

Labour's Chief Whip, Jacqui Smith, seems to have drawn the short straw in finally putting an end to the mutually-endured misery of Clare Short's membership of the Labour Party.

According to The Guardian she has referred Ms. Short's conduct to the Labour Party Chair. The complaint will then probably be referred to the party's national executive committee, with the suggestion that Ms. Short should be expelled if she does not withdraw or "illuminate" her remarks.

It is tempting to accuse Labour of once more seeking to suppress free speech and dissent within their ranks but frankly I cannot muster the indignation and the energy. Clare Short has a history of clinging onto lost causes longer than her principles should have allowed. Firstly, she failed to join Robin Cook in resigning from the Cabinet over the Iraq war, enabling the Prime Minister the political breathing space he needed to commit our armed forces to this illegal conflict. Now she is holding onto her membership of the Labour Party, despite the fact that she long ago became disenchanted with it, its leadership and its direction.

I fully understand why a longstanding MP might want to cling to the party in which she has been immersed for all her adult life, but for once Clare Short needs to make a decision. She is either with them or she is against them. She cannot have it both ways again!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

There will always be Naples

One can only have sympathy for Tory MP, David Jones and his wife, who were mugged recently in Naples and each lost their rolex watch. What is less clear is why Mr. Jones has decided to retaliate by declaring war on the whole City.

On a positive note, the episode has at least opened our eyes to the lifestyle of an affluent MP, that many of us can only envy. The Western Mail has him 'recovering' at his hotel on the island of Capri, an area best known for its patronage by millionaires as well as more humble tourists.

My favourite quote however, which I first saw on the Liberal Review Apollo blog, is the one that defines the standards by which this former Assembly Member lives:

"It's a shame that a city such as Naples is spoilt by uncontrollable crime. The mayor wants to take a look at the fact that a visitor cannot walk safely down a street wearing a decent watch."

A crowded field

The race for Labour's Deputy Leadership is starting to heat up with a number of candidates making it known that they are interested in the job. In addition to Peter Hain, there also appears to be bids from Harriet Harman and Jack Straw.

All the papers are speculating that Alan Johnson may run for the leadership, but he seems to be undecided. I am sure that Bill Clinton's endorsement of Gordon Brown cannot have helped, though how exactly such backing will play out amongst crucial Middle England voters is uncertain. My guess is that it will have no impact whatsoever.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Welsh Candidate for Liberal Democrat President

The Liberal Democrat blogosphere is seething with gossip at the moment about a possible challenge to Simon Hughes MP for his position as Party President. Thanks to Niles however, for the news that an unexpected candidate has emerged, and she is Welsh.

Niles draws attention to the wikipedia entry for Charlotte Church, which states:

"In 2006 media reported that Church was considering standing for the Presidency of the Liberal Democrats."

Not quite sure why somebody might add this to her entry but maybe she should join the party first.

The cost of housing

I had a conversation with a constituent last night that underlined the problems facing young people when it comes to getting onto the housing ladder.

My constituent's son is single and is 24 years old and working. He is earning £22,000 to £24,000 a year and has managed to save £6,000 towards a deposit. However, he has been told that the most he can raise by way of a mortgage is £65,000. That is nowhere near enough to buy a property in Swansea.

His only real option is to buy a house which will require a lot of work and do it up. However, no mortgage company will fund him to do that because they will not accept the property as collateral. His other problem is that there are no longer grants available to do the property up.

His options are limited. As he lives in an urban area then the Assembly's Homebuy scheme only applies in limited circumstances. In fact urban homebuy schemes in which a Housing Association buys a stake in a property which is recovered on re-sale, is only available at a rate of 30%, taking his affordablilty limit to just over £90,000. That gives a limited choice in Swansea but Housing Associations in urban areas are not really interested in homebuy and are even less interested in getting single people ont0 the property market. They are more likely to assist a couple.

The other option is shared ownership but these opportunities are rare, tend to be applied in accomodation for the over-55s and are snapped up very quickly. Low cost housing is also rare and it could be years before a scheme comes on line in Swansea.

In these circumstances the Plaid Cymru policy of offering a cash payment of £5,000 towards the cost of a home would be meaningless. It would have little or no impact on my constituent's ability to buy a home. In fact with a price tag of £75 million a year across the whole of Wales it would tie up a lot of resource with little effect, money that might be better spent on providing affordable homes to buy and for rent.

I do not believe that the Welsh Assembly has anything like enough resources to provide a solution that will help all first time buyers. However, a targetted scheme in which Homebuy is available at a 50% rate in urban areas might help, as might more use by local Councils of all the various mechanisms at their disposal by which they can encourage and require developers to build low-cost housing.

All of this of course underlines the problem identified by the Chartered Institute of Housing this morning. They have warned of a crisis because Welsh homes are increasingly unaffordable. They found that the average house price in Wales was £123,362, compared to an income of £29,241 and that for younger working households throughout Wales, the average house price to income ratio is now more than four to one. That is not an encouraging position for most first-time buyers and means that many may never be able to own their own home.


Now this is rather worrying, this blog has been shortlisted for the Liberal Democrat blog of the year award. Other nominees are:

Andy Mayer: http://andymayer.blogspot.com/
Apollo Blog: http://www.liberalreview.com/blogs/apollo
Jonathan Calder: http://liberalengland.blogspot.com/
Millennium Elephant: http://millenniumelephant.blogspot.com/
Stephen Tall: http://oxfordliberal.blogspot.com/

All of these are outstanding blogs and will fully deserve the award. I do not envy the task facing the judges.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Another Assembly blogger

Another Assembly Member has joined the ranks of bloggers in Cardiff Bay. Glyn Davies, the alternative leader of the Tory Group here has finally taken the plunge. Whether he will allow himself the luxury of refecting on-line the dissent he so clearly shows in the tearoom has yet to be seen.

Blair at the TUC

This morning's Guardian reports that Tony Blair's farewell speech to the TUC was met with a walkout today by disaffected union members, some carrying placards calling for the prime minister to 'go now'.

Delegates from two Unions not affiliated to the Labour Party, the FBU and the RMT have been blamed for the demonstration. As if to show that these delegates are representative the reporter records that Mr Blair received 23 seconds of polite applause from delegates when he finished his speech.

I never cease to be amazed that people actually time these segments of applause after major speeches, after all everybody knew that Blair was not going to be welcomed with open arms by the TUC. I am often astonished too at how short people's memories are when it comes to politics. A letter in today's Western Mail provides the perfect illustration:

Mr David Lewis of Carmarthen writes: "The disloyalty shown by Labour MPs and AMs unfortunately is not confined to the present administration, and recalls the disposal of Margaret Thatcher and her successors as well as more recently of Charles Kennedy by the Lib-Dems. Nor is Plaid Cymru immune from the disease; one recalls the pressures which forced Dafydd Wigley to resign as leader, much to the detriment of the party and its subsequent performance in the polls.

Gordon Brown and his supporters, by their recent behaviour, have demonstrated yet again the disloyalty so characteristic of current politics. The overwhelming message for Labour and indeed for politicians generally is that the voters will not forget this behaviour and will turn away from both Labour and politics in droves."

Unfortunately, disloyalty born of self-interest is not just a characteristic of 'current' politics as Mr. Lewis states. It has been a common feature of politics since time-immemorial as well as life in general. Nobody likes it but it is there and always will be.

If this puts people off politics then that is unfortunate. I suggest that the difference nowadays is that 24-hour news cycles and the tendency of journalists to speculate and pour over every detail and nuance of every plot or coded message means that the machinations of politics are more public, not that politicians are any different.

Monday, September 11, 2006

In praise of devolution

Rhodri Morgan has been in Northern Ireland extolling the virtues of devolution to NI Assembly Members. Next week he will be selling coal in Newcastle and the week afterwards he will be exporting sand to Saudi Arabia.

Remembering September 11th

Remembering September 11th

There are a lot of tribute videos around at the moment made in memory of the victims of the dreadful terrorist attacks on 9/11. I have not had time to view them all, but I quite liked this one so I have posted it on my blog.

Most people remember where they were when the aeroplanes first hit the World Trade Centre. I was in the Welsh Liberal Democrat Campaign Headquarters for the Swansea East Assembly by-election. I had just returned from leafletting. On hearing the news, I abandoned campaigning for the day and went home to watch in shocked horror. It was a truly aweful experience.

We should not forget the victims of this attrocity nor the 75,000 civilians who have died since as a consequence of it.

Smoking shelter

It seems somehow trivial on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 to be talking about the erection of a smoking shelter at the National Assembly for Wales, but the issue has been raised in this morning's Western Mail so I felt that it was appropriate that I addressed it, especially as I was one of those who was instrumental in getting this shelter built.

Dr Richard Lewis, Welsh secretary of the BMA, said, "We find it quite extraordinary that at a time when the dangers of passive smoking are increasingly understood, and as the Assembly itself prepares to impose a smoking ban in public places, this decision should have been taken.

"It sends out completely the wrong message to members of the public and to other organisations deciding what smoking policies they should introduce.

"There is considerable evidence that supports the case for a ban on smoking in public places, and the Assembly carried out its own extensive inquiry into the issue which confirmed the need to introduce tough measures.

"In the old days, smoking rooms were seen as acceptable, but the dangers from second-hand smoke are now so well documented that there is a need to eliminate them. When the doors of smoking rooms are opened, the smell can be overpowering and is certainly very unhealthy.

"The evidence is that many smokers themselves welcome smoking bans, because they help them in their efforts to give up the habit. Where a facility of this kind is provided, it makes their task more difficult."

I am not sure what the BMA believes that the new anti-smoking legislation will achieve. The Committee that investigated this issue were quite clear that it should seek to protect workers from the effects of second hand smoke by banning smoking in workplaces. It is effectively a health and safety measure. It is not and never has been a total ban on smoking, nor does it stop people smoking in every public place. Some may believe that this is what is needed but they have not yet won the argument with the general public.

Once the ban comes in on 1 April 2007 then smoking will be forbidden in enclosed places of work however there will be provision for employers to provide outdoor smoking areas that can be enclosed on three sides if they have a roof. Without this provision the ban will be unworkable and will not gain acceptance. That, at least, is the Irish experience.

The Assembly's smoking shelter is entirely in keeping with that policy. By moving the smoking area outside the building we have protected a large number of workers from the effects of second hand smoke, whilst ensuring that people still have the freedom to choose if they smoke or not.

The BMA have to get real on this. They will not get rid of smoking overnight. They cannot take away people's rights to make personal choices. The legislation must be framed in that context and many workplaces will be following our example in the months ahead in ensuring that this important principle is followed.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Caged again

For the third time I have ended up behind bars for a good cause. Previously, I was locked up with Cyril the Swan and Amanda Protheroe-Thomas for the RSPCA and on my own at Neath Carnival for Amnesty International. Today, it was RSPCA revisited as I came back for more punishment.

For those conspiracy theorists amongst you, yes I am locked up with Labour Minister, Carwyn Jones and his two children. However, we only discussed pacts and coalitions in the context of the Western Mail story earlier this week and then only to speculate about whose vivid imagination made the whole thing up. The rest of the time was spent talking to Jonny B from The Wave and the other captives.

For the record the day, officially titled 'Lock up your boss day', made over £1,000 as visitors put money into two buckets, one to let us out, the other to keep us there. My staff all turned up and donated to the latter. They will be sorry. :-)

Although the animal sanctuary at Llys Nini is part of the RSPCA it is an entirely independent charity and does not receive any money from the central organisation towards its running costs. It has to raise £400,000 a year locally to stay open. If you wish to donate then, it is never too late. Go to their website here and follow the clear instructions under the 'How can you help' section.


The Observer reports that the ipod is no longer cutting edge and has started to go into decline. Just as I was thinking of getting one as well!

Power behind the throne

The other interesting article in Matt Withers' column is that identifying Leighton Andrews' part-time researcher, David Taylor, as the mastermind behind the Keeping the Faith website. There are also rumours that David was involved in the Natwatch website and in the ejection of Walter Wolfgang from the Labour Party Conference. Like Gareth Davies however, I believe that the last allegation is a conspiracy theory too far.

The Bloggerheads website has gone to town on David Taylor in the last few days here, here and here, all of which must be leaving him feeling a little beseiged. It also alleges that David has connections with a negative website about Gordon Brown and a website aimed at undermining Claire Short. How does he find time to do his day job?


Matt Withers' column in today's Wales on Sunday draws heavily on blogs for its inspiration including an interesting article on links between the eight Labour Government resignees which bears an uncanny resemblance to this post on Dizzy Thinks.

Matt correctly identifies that former Defence Minister Tom Watson shares an office in the House of Commons with Alyn and Deeside MP, Mark Tami. Khalid Mahmood, Sion Simon, Mark Tami, Wayne David and Ian Lucas are all linked through Amicus. Whilst Watson, Mahmood and Simon are also West Midlands MPs. Telford MP, David Wright also has his constituency in the West Midlands.

Both Matt Withers and Dizzy identify Hartlepool MP, Iain Wright, as the flatmate of Tom Watson, but there is another connection as well and that is that Watson went up to help run the Hartlepool by-election before inexplicably finding more urgent business elsewhere. Tom Watson also helped to run Chris Moles' by-election campaign in Ipswich.

It is funny how great minds think alike so often.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

One legged duck

The Independent reveals the results of a poll that shows Labour to be perceived as more divided now than were the Conservatives under John Major:

56 per cent of voters see Labour as more divided than the Tories during the Major government, which was racked by bitter divisions over Europe. Only 22 per cent regard Labour as more united. More than a quarter of Labour supporters (27 per cent) believe that Labour is more divided than the Conservatives were in 1992-1997.

With Charles Clarke demonstrating that there is no fury like a former Home Secretary scorned by running to The Telegraph with an angry denunciation of all-things related to Gordon Brown, this perception may grow until it is irreversible.

He says the Chancellor has "psychological" issues that he must confront and accuses him of being a "control freak" and "totally uncollegiate".

Mr Brown is also "deluded", he says, to think that Mr Blair can and should anoint him as his successor now.

Raising doubts about whether Mr Brown is prime ministerial material, Mr Clarke asks: "Can a leopard change its spots?"

He insists that the Chancellor should not assume he will be the next leader. "He doesn't have rights in this, he has to earn them — he has to win the support of the party.

"He, not anyone else, has to win the active support of people like me and his Cabinet colleagues.

Tomos Livingstone in today's Western Mail resurrects the Rhodri Morgan analogy of a one-legged duck as a suitable metaphor for the state of the Labour Party. If they carry on like this then they will spend a long long time going round in circles whilst the process of Government grinds to a halt.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Keeping the faith

I have heard about obscure fanatical religious sects but this takes the biscuit. It is the website of 'Labour members and supporters who are backing Prime Minister Tony Blair against a minority of MPs who want to bring him down':

Just over a year ago, Tony Blair was re-elected with a strong mandate to serve a full third term in office as Prime Minister. A small number of Labour MPs are now trying to force the Prime Minister to break his pledge to the electorate and stand down less than half way through his term in office.

Whilst we do not think the Prime Minister has never made a mistake, we do think he has been the greatest Labour leader of our time and as Prime Minister, has changed Britain for the better.

We believe he should be allowed to get on with the job, without distractions from disloyal MPs. He has earned the right to step down with dignity at a time of his choosing.

I am well-known for supporting lost causes but I think I will give this one a miss.

To boldly go?

For those who believe that fact is stranger than fiction I have had my attention drawn to this item in The Register so as to disabuse you.

They report that William Shatner has turned down a free trip into space because it's "not my idea of a good time."

Richard Branson offered the 75-year-old a £114,000 ticket for Virgin Galactic’s first passenger flight in 2008. Shatner, however, declared: "I'm interested in man's march into the unknown but to vomit in space is not my idea of a good time. Neither is a fiery crash with the vomit hovering over me. I do want to go up but I need guarantees I'll definitely come back."

Never mind, although Kirk will not be there Ripley will be: "We’d be delighted to take Sigourney back to visit the Aliens," said a spokesman.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Secret plots

It was not until I got home that I had an opportunity to read this story in today's Western Mail alleging that Labour and the Welsh Liberal Democrats have secretly agreed in principle to form a coalition Assembly Government after next year's election.

I was informed about the article first thing this morning and can testify that the airwaves have been buzzing all day with Welsh Liberal Democrats, including those most senior people who would have been involved in such talks, asking each other where this very clever work of fiction has come from.

I do not blame the journalist, who I have the utmost respect for and whose integrity is not in doubt, but clearly somebody has an agenda and has been briefing with the objective of advancing it. However, there have been no such talks taking place and if there had been then they would certainly not be of the sort of detail that is recorded here.

For the Welsh Liberal Democrats any coalition talks, if they are necessary after next May's elections, will focus on policy and principle. Only after we have an agreement on that would we even begin to discuss who would be given ministerial posts to implement that deal. The Western Mail say that the fact that it has happened before makes it likely that the current story is true. What nonsense.

The previous talks led to a coalition that enabled stable government for the remainder of an Assembly term. There were no assumptions involved about the outcome of an election. To strike a deal based on possible post-election scenarios is arrogant and presumptious in the extreme. It is not something that the Welsh Liberal Democrats are interested in.

There are two theories as to where this came from. It is noticeable that the article sets up a scenario so that Plaid Cymru and the Tories can knock the Liberal Democrats. It suits both those parties to be able to argue that a vote for us will let in Labour, and it suits them too to try and associate us with an unpopular Labour government. They have both motive and means and even if they did not manufacture the story themselves they have certainly played along with it and given it legs.

The most likely scenario however is that this story has come from within the Labour Party. They realise that they will lose seats next May. It is also the case that at least two of the possible successors to Rhodri Morgan have let it be known that they would rather be in government as part of a coalition and get 70% of their policies adopted than go into opposition. There are others in the Labour group of course who take an opposite view.

I would suggest that these leadership contenders have been doing some detailed thinking on what they would be prepared to offer, even though they have had no contact to see if an approach would be welcomed or not. This thinking has led to internal conversations that have in turn led to rumours. The fact is that if somebody wanted to soften up the Labour Party so as to encourage them to accept a future coalition this sort of anonymous briefing might be the way to do it. It may also have the effect of spurring Labour activists onto greater efforts to try and win a majority, a side effect that would be very acceptable to senior Labour figures.

I can think of no other reason why such a detailed story should emerge out of nothing. What I can suggest however is that Labour put such thoughts to one side. We are not interested in talking at this time and we will not do so until the verdict of the Welsh electorate is known. If we talk and who we talk to then will very much depend on the outcome of that election.

Update: Talking of bizarre and unfounded rumour-mongering I will be laughing about this little gem for some considerable time.

Update two: A colleague suggests that if Helen Mary Jones really has found a smoking gun then it is because she has shot herself in the foot.

False alarm

It has been quite a trying day, largely because I have had my first direct experience of the sort of alerts that are symptomatic of the age we are living in and which are hitting airports all over the world.

Having spent a very productive day in the Scottish Parliament talking to officials and their corporate body about the way that they operate, we caught a plane back from Edinburgh airport to Cardiff. On arriving we were puzzled as to why it was taking so long to unload our luggage when a police officer arrived and we discovered that a threat had been made to the plane.

Piecing together what we were told by the media afterwards together with snatches of overheard conversations, it seems that somebody left a message on an in-flight magazine that led the aircraft crew to believe that there might be a device of some sort on the plane. Consequently, the police were called and carried out a searched. As a result we were left waiting for our luggage for two hours until it had been established that there was no threat.

Although it was quite tiring and a little frustrating, it was clear that these procedures needed to be followed and that the authorities had no alternative but to take the course of action that they did. Mostly, we were given enough information to enable us to know what was going on. The point that is worth making however is that this may have been a slight inconvenience for us, but for those charged with our safety it was an unnecessary distraction. It takes a particular form of courage to go onto a plane to carry out a search when it is possible that there is an explosive device there that could go off at any time. My admiration and respect for those who carry out this role is unlimited

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Ten pin bowling

The BBC report that junior minister, Tom Watson and Khalid Mahmood, a parliamentary secretary to Home Office Minister Tony McNulty, have resigned over the fact that Tony Blair will not name a day. How many more are to follow has yet to be seen.

Blair described Watson as "disloyal, discourteous and wrong" for signing a round robin letter urging the PM to go. Who would have thought it? Politics really is full of a surprises.

Update: It is now one junior minister and six PPSs. It does seem though that some journalists are having a problem keeping this political excitement in perspective.

On the radio this lunchtime Chris Bryant, the MP for Rhondda and Leighton Andrews, the AM for the same constituency, were being interviewed separately about the proposed closure of the Burberry Factory in Treorchy, with the loss of 340 jobs. When the interviewers tried to get them onto the subject of Blair they understandably took exception. After all in the grand scheme of things the job of one junior Minister pales into insignificance when compared to the livelihood of over 300 people. At times the BBC needs to take a reality check.

And so to Scotland

I am travelling to Scotland later today for a 24 hour voyage of discovery. To be precise I am going with the Assembly Shadow Commission to find out more about how our equivalent operates up there, to pick up tips and find out how to avoid bear-traps in the brave new world of a separate Assembly Parliamentary Service from next May.

This morning's Western Mail carries an interview with the Presiding Officer in which he sets out his views:

He said, "The most important thing we have to do in 2007 is to make our proceedings intelligible to the public, as well as open and effective. That means much improvement in our scrutiny activity, a much clearer way of operating in plenary, without being hidebound by very rigid standing orders, as we have been so far.

"We don't need any of this clerking mumbo-jumbo: we want good transparent processes that operate."

He said one of the most important functions of the new post-holder would be to organise democratic accountability.

"That's not doing it in the old way - it means having much more effective committees, it means the challenge of taking on 'e-democracy', a huge area. What do we do here at the moment with all the equipment we've got?

"We could have the Welsh public on screen telling the Members on screen and telling the Government what they think of them. You may think that's a good or bad thing - I think it's a good thing. This job is about championing democracy in Wales."

So far as his critics were concerned, Lord Elis-Thomas said, "Obviously in any institution there are people who do not want change. But the second constitution of Wales is a great challenge to us, and I can tell you that there are scores of members of staff and an overwhelming majority of AMs out there who want to meet this challenge, because it's the only way we can convince the people of Wales that this thing (the Assembly) is worth having.

He goes on to express the hope that we can hit the ground running once we are operating with the new powers made available to us in the Government of Wales Act:

The way to get that, in my view, is to work the system so hard here that Westminster will be fed up with us demanding the opportunity to make legislation. Now that means that this place has got to be doing its job.

"I hope that we will have at least six Measures Welsh laws) from individual Members, six Measures from committees and six Measures from Government every parliamentary year - minimum. That's what a parliament should be doing. I've got two possible Measures which I'm looking at at the moment, but I hope everybody is doing them."

Obviously, we will do our best to learn the best way to achieve this but it may take more than one trip. In the meantime, we might make enquiries as to where exactly in Scotland the Welsh Assembly Government's call centre is situated.

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