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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Top Tory suspended

Former Welsh Conservative chairman, Sir Eric Howells, has now been suspended from the party for threatening to support an unofficial candidate in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire.

As reported on this blog, Sir Eric had threatened to support an unofficial candidate instead of Angela Burns. She was selected after the previous candidate, John Jenkins, stood down last year when he came under fire for allegedly describing homosexuality as a medical condition on a website in 2003.

Sir Eric, who is an honorary life president of the party, has been suspended by London Party Officials for three months after he gave an interview to BBC Wales’s Dragon’s Eye programme. Obviously, they acted very quickly, which is more than can be said for the case against Peter Davies.

As David Cornock points out on his blog it is now two months and 24 days since the leader of the Conservatives in the Welsh assembly Nick Bourne asked the party "urgently" to remove Peter Davies, father of MP David, from the Tories' list of approved candidates for the coming assembly elections. As far as I know he is still on the list.

The Conservative Party obviously moves in mysterious ways.

The mark of ambition

The Western Mail finally caught up with Guido Fawkes this morning, reporting on the leaking of a campaign strategy document associated with Peter Hain's Deputy Leadership bid to Fawkes' political blog.

The memo includes a list of MPs prepared to back Mr. Hain in public and in private and also groups of floating MPs who are being targeted. The most telling revelation is that the Secretary of State for Wales has so far failed to secure the support of even half of his party's Welsh MPs. It also lists the names of Labour Party staff who are supporting Hain, even though Party rules forbid their involvement in such a campaign.

Most embarrassing for the Neath MP, is that his deputy at the Northern Ireland Office, David Hanson and his former boss, Alun Michael, who he got elected as Assembly First Secretary, are both on the anti-list.

The article describes Guido Fawkes blog as 'mud-raking' but it does not deny that the publication of the document is both significant and damaging. It is always unwise to underestimate Mr. Hain but in the circumstances one cannot help but think that his bid for promotion may have hit the buffers.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007


There is a clear pattern emerging here:
Are there any more examples? Let me know.

Update: In the comments Kirsty Williams reminds me that the Health Minister has stopped Powys Local Health Board's consultation on closing Builth, Knighton and Bronllys hospitals untill after May 2007. The official reason was the publication of new guidance on Community health services due in January yet for some reason that guidance is now also delayed.

Being 47

Today I am 47. Nothing remarkable about that except that I am told 47 is another one of those numbers that has some significance in the world of pop culture.

Forty Two and its link to 'Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy' I knew about but even though I have most probably watched every Star Trek episode, I had not thought, until informed by a member of my staff, that 47 might be Gene Roddenberry's lucky number and that he made a point of writing the number into as many episodes of the legendary science fiction saga as he could. Apparently, subsequent writers followed suit as a tribute to the Star Trek creator.

Wikipedia offer another explanation:

There exists a 47 society, an outgrowth of a movement started at Pomona College, California, USA, which propagates the belief (or, to some, the inside joke) that the number forty-seven occurs in nature with noticeably higher frequency than other natural numbers. The origin of 47 lore at Pomona appears to be a mathematical proof, written in 1964 by Professor Donald Bentley, which supposedly demonstrated that all numbers are equal to 47. However, the proof mentioned above was used by Professor Bentley as a "joke proof" to introduce his students to the concept of mathematical proofs, and is not mathematically valid.

Joe Menosky, who graduated from Pomona College in 1979 and went on to become one of the story writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation, "infected" other Star Trek writers with it, and as a result the number (or its reverse, 74) occurs in some way or other in almost every episode of this program and its spin-offs Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise. The number might be mentioned in the dialogue, appear on a computer screen a character is looking at, or be a substring of a larger number. The number also appears on some of the DVD menu screens for the episodes. They range from extremely obvious (for example, "shields are down to 47%"), to very well hidden. Some examples are listed here:

In the TNG episode "Darmok," Worf reports a particle gradient of 4/7.
In the DS9 episode "Whispers," the planet Parada 4 has seven moons.
In the Voyager episode "Non Sequitur," Harry Kim lives in apartment 4-G, G being the seventh letter of the alphabet. The intentionality of this reference to 47 was confirmed by Brannon Braga, the writer of that episode.

According to a joke by Rick Berman (the co-creator and executive producer of several Star Trek series), "47 is 42, corrected for inflation".

It can only be a matter of time before Anoraks go on sale with the number 47 on them.

Monday, January 29, 2007

A Triumph of hope over reality

I think it is fair to say that this morning's Guardian article about John Reid is an attempted pre-emptive strike designed to lower expectations and possibly prepare us for more damaging revelations.

The paper records that Mr Reid is braced for further criticism this week when Anne Owers, the chief inspector of prisons, uses her annual report to highlight the rise in the number of prisoners serving indeterminate sentences to about 2,000. And in another potentially awkward intervention, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, will deliver a speech to the Prison Reform Trust on Thursday.

However, the Home Secretary is defiant: "If you renovate a house you start by taking the wallpaper off. It is only then that you discover more problems. That's what it is like in the Home Office," he writes in an article in the Guardian.

"These problems don't leave me beleaguered. If we weren't discovering more we wouldn't be reforming the Home Office. Indeed I expect more problems." He also makes clear he has no intention to quit.

"I was sent to the Home Office to do a job. Being home secretary is my biggest challenge. But it isn't mission impossible. Judge me not on the challenges but on my response to them."

If it had been a television or radio interview I would have expected to hear somebody singing "Things can only get better" in the background.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Politician's charter

Stephen Tall has an important link on his site to a petition which seeks to standardise letterboxes. Designed to make life easier for politicians, the background information says that delivering to the public is an important part of political engagement.

We call for legislation to make it easier for voters to be engaged by requiring all letter boxes to be:

1. Located at a clear height
2. Easy to post through
3. Designed to allow leaflets to be posted without destroying them
4. Designed to protect people's hands when posting
5. Dog proof

In addition we call for doors to have the number clearly displayed and doorbells to be easy to find (with defunct doorbell buttons removed).

Anybody who has ever campaigned for anything will sympathise with the sentiments expressed here. Meanwhile, the petition to proclaim St David's Day as a national holiday in Wales, previously featured on this blog, has now got 9,531 signatories.

Tory 'backs unofficial candidate'

The former Welsh Conservative chairman Sir Eric Howells has gone on record to say that he would support an unofficial Tory candidate in May's Assembly election. He believes that members from outside have taken over the Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire Conservative party, and he and others would back an unnamed rival candidate.

I have to say that I am struggling with the concept of a local Conservative Party being taken over by a pro-hunting organisation, but this does not bode well for their prospects in what should be a winnable seat for the Tories. It is no wonder that Glyn Davies is too depressed to comment on the story.

Birds Eye View

Today's Wales on Sunday reports that the availability of sites such as Google Earth on the internet is leaving high security sites in Wales open to terrorist attack.

They say that detailed photographs and the coordinates of potential targets including Barry's RAF St Athan, arms manufacturers BAE Systems in Usk and civilian sites like Cardiff's Millennium Stadium, are just a click of the mouse away. In addition, using Microsoft's similar Virtual Earth programme, close-up satellite snaps of Wylfa nuclear power station on Anglesey and oil refineries in Milford Haven can be accessed easily. The Welsh Assembly is safe for now however, as according to this image downloaded today, the Senedd has not been built yet.

Fear not, the authorities are not worried. The Ministry of Defence are well used to hiding their most sensitive equipment from spy satellites. They told the paper that they are unable to prevent satellite photos being taken, especially by foreign nations. They agreed the internet was impossible to police but added that blurring property out could imply they had something worth hiding there.

A spokesman said: "All we can do is take proactive steps to protect highly sensitive equipment by putting it away in hangars.

"Anywhere with satellite technology, be that the US, Russia, China or wherever, has the capability to go anywhere and take satellite photos, and those can go anywhere on the net and there is nothing we can do.

"It's a bit like having four stable doors. You can close one but three are, unfortunately, always going to be open.

"One could say there is potentially an issue because these sites show how open we are in terms of sensitive military hardware or buildings."

He said dummy hardware could be left visible to confuse an enemy harbouring sinister plans.

A Google spokeswoman is also keen to put our minds at rest. She said: "All the information on Google Earth about military bases is available from other sources. With many of these sites it is possible to drive by them and many things can be seen by people just going about their business.

"We do not believe Google Earth represents a security risk. The majority of people using Google Earth do so to look at things going on in the environment."

So that is OK then.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

In defence of Liberty

I had rather hoped to be home by now but due to the rather bizarre management of Newport railway station I missed my train. They spent the afternoon playing musical platforms, whereby they change train destinations at whim and do not give adequate notice to the passengers.

Liberal Democrat Voice has featured Baroness Sue Miller's attempt to put through a bill which would repeal Government measures to prevent public demonstrations outside Parliament. Rather unsurprisingly the Government opposed this proposal and for good measure said that will soon be announcing other locations where they intend to curtail the right to protest.

No doubt they will find some spurious justification for this proposal but there can be no doubt that this is yet one more step towards the curtailment of democratic rights in this Country more worthy of a Latin American dictatorship than a western democracy.

The fact that Labour have already gone some way down this slippery slope is illustrated further by yesterday's concession by the Home Secretary that the Government operates an "unlawful policy" in relation to the detention of young asylum seekers. I seem to recall that when the Liberal Democrats championed the cause of asylum seekers' children a few years ago that Labour misrepresented our position in by-election leaflets in an effort to win the little Englander route. How the chickens are coming home to roost now.

Friday, January 26, 2007

A significant resignation

The resignation of Professor Rod Morgan as Chair of the Youth Justice Board is a very significant blow to the Labour Government, if only because of the way that it has exposed their rather sterile and inadequate approach to crime and disorder.

In her response to the resignation, the Welsh Liberal Democrat Cardiff Central MP, Jenny Willott, sums it up:

“Professor Rod Morgan’s stinging attack on Blair’s disastrous criminal justice legacy is the latest piece of evidence that Labour have got it horribly wrong. I’m sure it won’t be the last.

“His harsh critique is testament to this Government’s decade long media-driven regime that has resulted in a record number of young people behind bars while paedophiles are being given breathing room outside jail after the Home Secretary’s panic measures last week.

“Young people have been summarily demonised, crammed into prison places, with no hope of getting the rehabilitative care they need and ultimately been driven towards, rather than guided away from, a life of crime. It is no wonder that two-thirds of offenders re-offend within 2 years.

“The prison population for under 20 year olds has risen from under 2,900 in 2000 to over 3,300. There were 224 more young people behind bars last December than the year before and there has been a 25% increase in the number of young Welsh people imprisoned since last year.

“Wales has so few places to accommodate the conveyor belt of young offenders being sent to prison that 84% are held in England, hundreds of miles away from their friends and families.

“These support groups are essential in helping young people reform themselves and reintegrate back into society. Some Welsh young offenders are held as far away as Newcastle or Suffolk.

“Once again, the message from experts in the criminal justice system is that this Government is incapable of making the public safer and of reforming criminals to become law-abiding citizens.”

As Professor Morgan says we are standing on the brink of a prisons crisis:

"We have tonight lots of people in police cells because there is no space for them in custody, and that's true for children and young people also."

"I regard a 26% increase in the number of children and young people that are being drawn into the system in the past three years as swamping."

He went on to say that government targets for bringing offences to justice are having "perverse consequences" by swelling prisoner numbers unnecessarily. Despite the fact that the Youth Justice Board had a Home Office-agreed target to reduce the number of young people in custody by around 10% by 2008 we are going backwards.

Professor Morgan also argued that reoffending rates for those sent to youth custody were extremely high. This means that "a custodial establishment, no matter how good we make them, is the worst conceivable environment within which to improve somebody's behaviour".

This Labour Government has demonised young people in pursuit of easy votes and yet it has failed to tackle the underlying causes of youth crime and anti-social behaviour. The result is that the problem has come back hard and bitten them.

They have failed to invest in facilities to enable young people to engage constructively with their local community and they failed to invest in prisons to accomodate the growing numbers they have been sending there. Re-offending rates are out of control and there appears to be no attempt do the necessary groundwork to arrest that trend. It is not the Home Office that is unfit for purpose, it is this government's policies.

Spoof e-mail

Honestly, the quality of these spoof e-mails is deteriorating. This one is even more unconvincing than normal:

Dear Friend,

I am Captain Brian James of the US Marine Force on Monitoring and Peace –keeping mission in baghdad-Iraq.On the 23rd day of January 2007, we were alerted on the sudden presence of some Terrorists camping in a suburb not too far from Karbala here in Iraq . After Immediate intervention, we captured three (3) of the Terrorists, twenty-six (26) were killed leaving seven (7) injured.

In the process of Investigation they confessed being rebels for late Ayman al-Zawahiri and took us to a cave in Karbala which served as their camp.

Here we recovered several guns, bombs and other Ammunitions including some boxes among which two contains suspected Chemical weapons, one filled with hard drugs(cocaine) and the other four to my amazement contain some US Dollars amounting to $7.2M after I and two of my junior intelligent officers counted them. I however instructed them to keep this in high secrecy.

Please i would appreciate it if you send me your home address with your real name were you would want the boxes sent to, and also your direct telephone numbers for effective communications.

I am in keen need of a "Reliable and Trustworthy" person like you who would receive, secure and protect these boxes containing the US Dollars for me up on till my assignment elapses in here in Iraq. I assure and promise to give you 14% of this fund, however feel free to negotiate what you wish to have as your percentage in this business..

Please assure me of your keeping this topmost secret to protect my job with the US Monitoring and Peace-Keeping mission. Contact me through my personal

Sincere regards,
Capt.Brian James.

If you get it, then delete it. I wonder if George Clooney and his director David O Russell know that their film is being ripped off in this way.

A second string

There has been some cautious speculation on the blogosphere about this story that Downing Street had a hidden e-mail system from which messages were deleted after the cash-for-honours inquiry began. It has, of course, been denied.

Although I can be cynical at times I have never been a conspiracy theorist and I do not intend to start now. I am perfectly prepared to believe that there is a second, secure computer system connected to Downing Street for National Security purposes, but have my doubts about it being used to contain details of party donors so as to cover up some huge conspiracy in the way suggested by this story.

All the evidence is that those administering loans to the Labour Party believed that they have acted properly throughout and that, until the matter was referred to the police, who took it seriously, they had no reason to think otherwise. Why, then would they set up a stand-alone system in the first place?

As with all police investigations there is little point in speculating or pointing fingers until some conclusions have been reached and the matter has been judged by the courts. Even politicians and their aides have the right to be considered innocent until proven otherwise.

Update: Arch-conspirator Guido Fawkes has an alternative view.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

What's in your microwave?

Today's Guardian has a fascinating article outlining 10 novel uses for your microwave oven. These include:

Get more juice out of lemons and limes, by softening them on high for 15-20 seconds.

Sterilise garden soil to make it fit to plant seedlings. Spread 400g soil on a flat dish and heat on high for 90 seconds or until steaming.

Get extra life out of a dried-up mascara stick by heating for 30-40 seconds on high - with a cup of water in the microwave beside it for safety's sake.

Dye up to 225g of material. Wearing rubber gloves, stir a packet of Dylon natural fabric dye with 200ml cold water in a bowl, add 400ml more water and immerse the fabric. Put the bowl inside a plastic bag in the microwave on high for four minutes. Remove, tip away the dye, and rinse the fabric in cold water. Wash in hot water, then dry away from direct heat or sunlight.

Melt wax for removing leg hair, on 80% power for 10 seconds, assuming it's a full pot. Beware: it doesn't need to boil!

Sterilise jars for jam-making. Put up to six in the oven with about an inch of water in each. Heat for 1½ to 2 minutes, until the water comes to the boil. With oven gloves, remove from microwave, tip out the water and they're ready.

Before I would even consider allowing my microwave to be used for some of these I would need to have a second reserved for food only.

Getting the vote out

Peter Hain steps into the fray once more today by repeating his well-known views on constitutional reform. Voting at 16 and a fully elected House of Lords are all reforms I can happily sign up to, but I am more cautious on the idea of compulsory voting. I do not see what benefits it will bring that can compensate for the loss of freedom of choice.

The Western Mail comment column also has reservations. They point out that people don't vote for a whole variety of reasons but that those reasons are a matter for them. Choosing to opt out of the democratic system is a valid choice, even if we might wish that fewer people would do it. They ask what the value is in having a third of voters marking 'none-of-the-above' on their ballot paper and return to the rather tired old suggestion that using new technology to make it easier for people to vote would lead to an increased turn-out.

My view is that people do not vote because they do not believe that it changes anything. It stands to reason that if we are to tackle that trend then the politicians themselves need to act to ensure that voters have a real choice and that the outcome of an election reflects the way that people have voted. We have to make politics relevant again and rebuild trust in the process before we can expect people to reciprocate with their participation.

That is not going to be easy. It is certainly not available as a quick fix in the same way as compulsory voting or easier access to ballot papers and nor should it be. Part of the answer is in the introduction of the single transferable vote system, so as to better empower individual candidates and to do away with safe seats and rotten boroughs, but the real work lies in our contact with ordinary voters and the painstaking task of engaging them in what we do and in the way that the Country and their local Council is run.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

"If your net is not with us it is against us"

State of the Union 2007 - Bush Impression. Yes, I have got the hang of posting videos again!

Speed is essential

Yesterday, the Assembly returned to its favourite subject, our failing transport system. There is no doubt that this is one subject on which AMs are intimately acquainted, as was evidenced by the many contributions from those who have had nightmare journeys around Wales. As busy people they would like to cut travelling times down to the bare minimum, however, even we accept that there are limits to how fast trains can travel, not Eleanor Burnham:

My constituents in north Wales certainly deserve a clean, reliable and usable service that will entice them from their cars—that is the big issue. As for the air service, I doubt that we should be investing quite so heavily in that. Why not invest in the Maglev train that the Japs use to whiz through the countryside at about 320 mph, rather than piddling around at 60 mph as we do. Last week, there was a nightmare in Newport: I was on the train for two hours while they tried to hitch some other trains behind. It was disastrous.

I checked and the website I found said that the Japansese bullet train actually travels at 300 kilometres per hour, though these are not maglev trains, but Ieuan Wyn Jones had a more fundamental objection:

The vision of a fast train trying to brake from 320 mph on entering Holyhead station filled me with horror, Eleanor; I am not sure whether the breakwater wall in Holyhead would maintain its structure under that sort of speed. However, I believe that what Eleanor was trying to say was that we need faster trains between north and south, and I believe that we will all agree with that.

The Transport Minister meanwhile could not resist a more predictable intervention against the Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader:

Members may be interested to know that those quotations from Hansard were all from the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, one Member of Parliament for Montgomery, Lembit Öpik. Excuse me for being rather cheeky about mentioning this. [Laughter.] I know that certain people transfer their affections at a drop of a hat, but I did not know that the Liberal Democrats changed their policies quite so quickly. [Laughter.]

For some reason the record did not use square brackets to record the chant of 'cheeky, cheeky, cheeky' that started amongst a number of members from a sedentary position.

AM Air

Today's Western Mail reports that just one Assembly Member will use the subsidised North-South air service, which the Assembly Government plans to launch in the next few months. This service will need an annual subsidy of £1.8 million, but because the North Wales terminal at RAF Valley on Ynys Mon, is so far from main population centres, it will fail to attract much business.

The only AM who expects to use the flights to attend business in Cardiff Bay is Ieuan Wyn Jones, who represents Ynys Mon in the Assembly. No doubt he will have plenty of seats to choose from.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

What are the chances of...?

An excellent use of new media to get the Liberal Democrat message on crime across.

Show us the money

Have Plaid Cymru run out of policy ideas? I only ask because all they seem to want to talk about at the moment is how they and other parties are paying for the election campaign.

Actually, the whole tone of Adam Price and his cronies in this little PR stunt is one of annoying smugness. They had a £300,000 legacy from somebody in London, paid off all their debts and invested in new campaign techniques. They are alright so they feel that they can taunt the others by asking why they have not had the same good fortune. It is playground politics on a bigger scale.

The suggestion that parties should not take donations from outside Wales is pretty ludicrous when you think about it, especially coming from a party that dare not utter the 'independence' word any more for fear of offending swing voters. Wales is part of the United Kingdom and even after May we will be dependent on Westminster largesse to get many of our legislative changes through. Plaid can receive donations from London, so why can't we? The SNP get money from a tax exile. How ethical is that?

All of the nationalists' rhetoric on this issue is pretty empty. By all means argue for state funding or for the better regulation of private donations. They are legitimate issues. But Plaid should not pretend that they are better than other parties, because they are not.

Can we go back to talking about education, health, crime and disorder, the environment and housing now? I am sure those issues are what voters are really interested in.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Road rage

Today's Western Mail asked the very pertinent question, 'how many more cars can the M4 take?'

As a frequent traveller on this road there is no doubt in my mind that it is struggling to cope with the sheer weight of traffic. Delays are frequent, whilst there are established bottlenecks that appear day in day out without fail. The number of accidents on this road is also worrying. Often all it takes is a change in the weather for a new set of vehicle collisions.

The paper quotes the South East Wales Transport Alliance as expressing fears of further congestion due to the number of developments underway or planned around the motorway's junctions. They may well be right. However, it is natural for investors to concentrate on the main transport links and there is often a difficult balancing job between attracting jobs and protecting long distance transport routes from locally generated congestion.

As politicians and policy-makers consider this problem I believe that it is important that they do not respond by just extending or widening the motorway. New roads have a propensity to fill up with traffic very quickly and soon begin to exhibit the same problems as those routes they are meant to relieve. That argument does not apply to a by-pass designed to relieve a beleagured community but it certainly is pertinent in relation to long-distance routes.

What needs to happen instead in my view, is that the Assembly Government needs to use more imagination in designing transport links to new developments. They should ensure that developers include access by public transport in their projects and seek to discourage car use. It is often the case that if buses or trains are frequent, reasonably priced, comfortable and clean then people will use them in preference to their cars. That is a habit which we need to establish, but it will take a significant amount of public money to achieve.

A great loss

The death of Children's Commissioner, Peter Clarke, yesterday is a great loss to his family and to Wales. He was an outstanding advocate for children and was liked and respected by all who met and worked with him. He was a persistent fighter whose campaigns on behalf of young people have helped to set the agenda in Wales for many years to come.

Above all Peter was a remarkable communicator who was able to work with people of all ages. His sensitivity, passion and charm enabled him to win the trust of both children and adults, whilst his sincerity and the clear and straightforward way he put his case recruited many allies to his cause.

As the UK’s first Children’s Commissioner he is owed a huge debt for the way that he carried out that role, for the many causes he took up and for the way that he brought to the forefront the many issues that were brought to him by young people. In particular his fight to improve Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, his campaign for a national advocacy unit and his raising the profile of child poverty and bullying in Wales are important contributions to improving the life of many young people.

Peter Clarke’s annual reports often betrayed an impatience with Government and its failure to move quickly enough to implement his many recommendations. What is apparent however is that in many cases it was he and his staff who were setting the agenda and ministers who were struggling to keep up. His death leaves a huge gap in Welsh public life and for all those who he championed. He will be sorely missed.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Hartlepool by-election revisited

Labour politicians in the North East of England have egg all over their face this week after the Hartlepool Mail reported that, following a near four-year review of hospital services, Hartlepool's hospital is to be replaced with a single new one somewhere north of the Tees.

Until that is built – perhaps within as little as four years – maternity and children's services in Hartlepool will be downgraded and the consultant-led services will be centralised at the University Hospital of North Tees, in Stockton.

During the by-election in September 2004 Liberal Democrat Candidate, Jody Dunn, made saving the hospital a big feature of her campaign. In response Labour issued leaflets such as this one in which they insisted that the government had forced a re-think over health officials' plans to run down emergency and maternity services in the town.

In addition, and as the paper reports, days before the by-election the Prime Minister himself told the Mail: "There is no question of the hospital closing or services being rundown. John Reid (the then Health Secretary] is saying it won't close, I'm saying it won't close. I don't know what the next authority is you go to."

It is funny how things change when the media spotlight moves on. Who said that the Health Service was safe in Labour's hands? Certainly not the local MP, Iain Wright, who the paper tells us has resigned his government position over the issue.

The dilemma facing Ruth Kelly

I commented a few weeks ago that as Government Minister it seems that Ruth Kelly has a problem with Labour Party principles. Well she is at it again with an attempt to undermine her own party's anti-discrimination laws by seeking to build in an exemption that will let Catholic adoption agencies turn away gay couples:

Ms Kelly, a devout Catholic and member of the Opus Dei sect, remains determined to include a loophole for her church in the Equality Act 2006 which comes into force this April. A spokeswoman for Ms Kelly, who has overall responsibility for equality, said the minister wanted to "protect the pool of prospective parents" and would be trying to find a "pragmatic way forward" this week.

The Catholic church has threatened to close its seven adoption agencies rather than comply with laws that forbid them to discriminate against gay couples.

Ms Kelly, already at the centre of controversy after admitting sending her son to private school earlier this month, insists she is acting in the best interests of the thousands of children placed for adoption each year.

Her efforts however, have sparked off massive opposition within the Government from such influential Ministers as Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, who refused Mr Blair's request to grant the exemption when he was responsible for the issue last year, Jack Straw, David Miliband, Des Browne and Peter Hain. Blairite loyalists such as Tessa Jowell and Lord Falconer have expressed their dismay as have Angela Eagle, the vice-chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and Rhondda MP, Chris Bryant. Mr. Bryant makes the very valid point that her opposition would have the effect of denying vulnerable children "a loving home".

The sting in the tale is that Kelly is not just trying to impose her personal prejudices onto laws for England and Wales but she is also planning to override the Scottish Parliament's own legislation, thus negating one of the key principles of devolution.

The Scotsman reports: "MSPs took the step of allowing gay adoption barely a month ago when they passed the Adoption Act despite furious opposition from conservatives and church groups.

But Kelly, a devout Catholic, now threatens to overturn the Holyrood legislation with an amendment to her own hugely controversial proposals to outlaw sex discrimination in the business and services industry."

We all know that Blairism was about abandoning key principles to make the Labour Party more electable, but surely even they must know when it is time to stop and start acting in the interests of vulnerable people rather than pandering to their own prejudices.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

'A week of flip-flopping'

The fall-out of the Labour-Nationalist budget deal continues to hit the pages of the Western Mail with chief critic, Leighton Andrews, again outlining his disgust at how his party gave Ieuan Wyn Jones an easy ride, but also making it clear once more that Plaid caved in far too easily, leaving schools to pay the cost of further budget cuts:

"Despite not voting for this, Plaid is trying to claim credit for it. How did Plaid get away with their claims? Because we were asked not to criticise them during the Budget debate. Ministers asked us not to attack Plaid until after the vote, because having watched Ieuan Wyn flip-flop over the previous 10 days they weren't sure that he could be relied on to keep his word to abstain even after he had put out his press release and made his speech.

"Many if not most of us, I think, on the Labour back benches disagreed with the approach of laying off Plaid but out of loyalty - particularly to Sue Essex, for whom there is understandable admiration and affection - agreed to go along with it. I pulled out of the debate, since my speech would have had a go at all the opposition parties including Plaid. So did at least one other colleague.

"We were promised however that the attacks on Plaid would start after 5.30 that afternoon. They didn't, and Ieuan Wyn got a free ride on Wales Today and Wales Tonight, which I thought at the time was a disgrace.

"Laying off Plaid was and is a mistake. A lot of Labour members in the Valleys have asked me since whether the Budget deal means a coalition with Plaid is being secretly planned. I don't believe for one minute that it foreshadows any Labour-Plaid coalition deal - it was simply a judgment made at the time in relation to the Budget. A coalition with Plaid would be highly unpopular with Labour members in the Valleys, and with most Valleys AMs.

"Plaid contributed virtually nothing to the budget settlement, and got virtually nothing out of it. Except that Ieuan Wyn got a life-line after a week of flip-flopping, as he twisted according to the last thing said to him, either by the other opposition leaders or by members of his group and his party. We got our Budget, which was important for Wales and our constituents. Certainly we came out of the Budget debate as the only grown-up party."

All of this contrasts starkly of course with Plaid's own propaganda offensive in which they claimed to have found £14m plus for schools. The reality, as Leighton is all to keen to point out, is that they levered out of Sue Essex another £300,000 across Wales, when if they had stuck with the other opposition parties they could have secured so much more.

Friday, January 19, 2007

The test of a successful policy

Those of us who have argued for some time that students' choices as to whether they go into higher education or not can be influenced by the existence of fees, the level of fees and the fear of debt are feeling vindicated this morning by this article in the Western Mail.

The paper reports on official figures that show an 11% rise in students from Wales over the past year choosing to study at Welsh universities and colleges. The rise, which comes amid a general decline in UK university admissions, has been attributed to Wales' resistance to top-up fees for homegrown students:

The 2006 statistics, released by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas), show Welsh student admissions to English universities dropped by 14.1% - from 6,324 to 5,434 - over the previous year, while admissions to Scottish and Northern Irish universities dropped by 28.8% and 42.9% respectively.

A Ucas spokesman said, "There is an apparent relationship between these figures and the funding arrangements in place in Wales, with Welsh students choosing to remain in Wales to study, rather than other parts of the UK."

Throughout the whole of the UK the number of accepted applicants dropped by 3.6% from 405,369 to 390,890 last year.

The rising number of Welsh students accepted at Welsh universities, meanwhile, actually meant Wales' institutions bucked the trend with a 0.4% rise in accepted applicants.

Irrespective of the arguments over whether it is possible that a more favourable regime in Wales will lead to an erosion of key elements of the university experience for Welsh students, such as gaining independence and seeing "other parts of the world", these figures are pretty compelling evidence in support of the argument that tuition fees can actually put people off going into higher education.

Jo Roberts, the NUS Wales women's officer, sums up the case: "The obvious explanation of these figures is that top-up fees have been introduced in universities in England.

"These figures illustrate that top-up fees deter students from applying to university and fly in the face of the Government's Widening Access agenda."

This is a bit of a kick in the teeth for those Vice-Chancellors who envisage £10,000 tuition fees after 2010, and underlines the dangers of their plan in terms of the potential loss of talented students from the higher education system.

That racist behaviour

There is no doubt that many of the politicians commenting on Big Brother have not watched it. I do not know if that applies to Ken Livingstone but I think that he has it about right:

"It is clearly racist. Jade Goody and the others aren't fully paid up members of the BNP - they've just got that dull ignorant racism that permeates a lot of not just Britain but many societies in the world. It's just shocking to see it."

Meanwhile, Channel Four has still not sorted out their forums.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Breaking ranks

Coming back to the issue of collective responsibility I was intrigued by Peter Hain's latest audacious departure from the official party line in an effort to ingratiate himself with the party faithful.

Reports of his interview with the New Statesman have him describing President Bush's foreign policy as a failure 'wherever it's been tried'. He goes on to say that 'The problem for us as a Government was actually to maintain a working relationship with what was the most right-wing American administration, if not ever, then in living memory.'

The problem is that his government maintained that working relationship by effectively adopting George Bush's foreign policy en bloc. The 'failed' policies he refers to are also those of the Government he serves in and for which he has collective responsibility. Those 'failed' policies also include the war on Iraq, a cause which Mr. Hain actively and vocally supported publicly and which he defended to the hilt in interview after interview.

So the big question must be, who does Peter Hain think he is fooling? His attempts to distance himself from a government he still serves in are not convincing anybody.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Labour's good fairy

It is obviously still the season of good will in the chamber if yesterday's debate on the Business Statement is any guide. Tory Business Manager, Lisa Francis was in a particularly good mood, even going so far as to flatter Flintshire Labour AM, Carl Sargeant:

Lisa Francis: This is an auspicious first Plenary meeting, and I am grateful to you for giving the Welsh Conservative Group everything that it asked for today. It would appear that the pantomime season is almost over and that, perhaps, we may not expect Carl Sargeant to come on later to do his good fairy impersonation.

It is just a shame that my photoshopping skills do not stretch to producing an illustration of Carl in a tutu.

The Sun and devolution

Whoopee! I have made the columns of The Sun and not a Cheeky Girl in sight. Thanks to Iain Dale who obviously reads the paper, as without his post on the subject I would not have known.

Those unreconstructed centralists at The Sun's 'The Whip' column have picked up my press release on Alan Johnson's idea of putting the school leaving age up to 18 and claimed that I am at odds with our English Education Spokesperson, Sarah Teather. What they do not seem to understand is that Mr. Johnson's proposal only relates to England. There is already evidence that the current Welsh Labour Education Minister is planning a different route.

Sarah Teather's comments are quite appropriate within the English context, however Wales has a different education system and the ability to determine our own response to the problem of 16 years olds leaving school with no educational qualifications or training.

My view is that Wales can find a way of dealing with this problem without changing the school leaving age and that within a Welsh context such a change would be undesirable. That is what devolution is about. It is a shame that the London based journalists of The Sun do not understand that.

Control orders

Home Office plans to expand control orders to those suspected of money laundering, fraud, drugs and human trafficking must be worrying for anybody concerned about the integrity of the British justice system. It is not that we should not be seeking to curb such activities, just that we must have proper evidence and ensure due process if we are to properly suppress it.

There is another issue of course, whether these control orders actually work. The present terrorist control orders have been dogged by problems since their introduction two years ago. There are three terrorist suspects already on the run - the third having absconded this month. Without proper police resources and sanctions there is no point having such orders in the first place.

My concern is that the Government is by-passing the proper legal processes. People will have their liberties curtailed on evidence and suspicions that would not normally stand up in court. There are enough miscarriages of justice already without them being added to in this way.

If the Government want to deal with money laundering, fraud, drugs and human trafficking then they must give the law enforcement agencies more resources and allow wire-tap evidence to be admissable in court. At the moment all they are achieving is to hasten our progress towards a police state.

Our hard-working staff

I thought that CBI Director, David Rosser, was being very unfair in seeking to rubbish the claim that Assembly staff have a long-hours culture in today's Western Mail.

It may well be the case that 16% of the workforce reportedly working more than five hours a week above their contracted hours is not comparable to private business, but this is the public sector. In my experience the staff who work here are committed, hard-working and often carry out duties and suffer calls on their time well above the call of duty.

I believe that we can be proud of the contribution that Assembly staff have made to the success of devolution and in particular to getting this fledgling body onto its feet in the first two terms. As we approach a third Assembly, which will have significantly more powers, I know that staff are working hard to familiarise themselves with new procedures so that they will be ready from day one to assist members in putting new laws into effect.

Nobody is pretending that everything is perfect but we need to say a bit more often how much we appreciate the unsung and often inadequately paid civil servants who make our democracy work. It is their talents and ability that keep this place on track.

That magazine and the media reaction


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Racism on Big Brother

I have not really got the time to watch Celebrity Big Brother but from the snippets I have caught there appears to be a completely different atmosphere this year compared to previous years.

Today's tabloids are reporting a torrent of complaints from angry Celebrity Big Brother fans about alleged racist bullying of Indian star Shilpa by Jade Goody and her pals. Whether these complaints are justified is difficult to assess without watching all the video footage, however there does seem to be some reason for concern.

From what I am told the real racism is on the Channel Four Big Brother Forum and the moderators are not being quick enough in responding to complaints about individual posts by taking them down.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Is it good to share?

I have to admit, I had always assumed that any data held by a Government department was shared with all other Government departments as a matter of course. Maybe I am just too cynical, or perhaps I have too much faith in the efficiency and effectiveness of Civil Service record keeping. Why that should be, I do not know. After all I used to be a civil servant.

So, we are now presented with a proposition from the Prime Minister that we have nothing to fear from consenting to a relaxation of the apparently "over-zealous" rules which stop Whitehall departments sharing information about individual citizens. Are there rules or is it just that they physically cannot do it?

I am sure that ease of access and the pooling of information will prevent duplication and enable key service departments such as the DWP to do their job better. However, it will also create a source of information on each individual that can be exploited by the State for its own purposes. The fears expressed by the likes of Shami Chakrabarti, that this will "allow an information free-for-all within government - ripe for disastrous errors and ripe for corruption and fraud," are well-founded.

More interestingly from the point of view of efficiency and effectiveness is the means by which this information-share free-for-all can be achieved - a government IT project. Given the Government's record on managing databases, there may well be a lot of public money spent, but this system is not going to be working anytime soon.

Update: The outrage shown by Tory Shadow Home Secretary David Davies at this proposal could perhaps have been tempered by the fact that this new initiative from Tony Blair was first suggested by the Conservatives.

Largely due to the pointer provided by my fellow Welsh Liberal Democrat South Wales West Assembly candidate, Frank Little, a quick google search found this statement from the then Conservative Minister for Public Service, Roger Freeman MP, on 3rd March 1997:

Madam Speaker, last November I laid before Parliament the Green Paper government.direct (Cm 3438) setting out the Government's strategy for the electronic delivery of central government services. This strategy forms part of the Government's Information Society initiative led by my Honourable Friend the Minister for Science and Technology, and complements our policies to promote the use of IT in business, in education and by the public at large, and to help this country adapt to the Information Society. Today I have placed in the Library a paper reporting on the results of consultation on the Green Paper and indicating the way forward to a radical change for the better in government service delivery.

He goes on to outline some familiar fears:

But concerns too have been raised. Some suspect that our aim is not to raise the quality of service but simply to cut costs, or to create a huge central database on individual citizens. Such fears are groundless. There are also concerns about data protection, and about potential marginalisation of disadvantaged people and disabled people.

Obviously, Tony Blair got his idea second hand, dragged down from a dusty shelf by a high-flying civil servant. It never ceases to amaze me how eerily accurate 'Yes Minister' really was.

Poor Ron

There are days when I feel sorry for Ron Davies. There he is, cast into obscurity, struggling to make a comeback, and yet he is knocked back every time.

Today is no different. The Western Mail reports that his latest attempt to form an election alliance between himself and Blaenau Gwent by-election victor Trish Law appears to have been torpedoed before it was agreed. Apparently, the Peoples' Voice felt that Ron Davies and his Forward Wales party were seeking to 'hijack' their group.

Unfortunately for them, that is the problem when you form an electoral alliance on the basis of popularism and of being anti-Labour. The moment you start to think about what you really stand for is when the group begins to come apart at the seams. Much better to postpone the inevitable for as long as possible.

Where this leaves the former Secretary of State for Wales is difficult to say. His future in politics now depends on him performing the stupendous feat of taking Caerphilly for the Forward Wales Party. I think it is safe to say that he will be still looking for allies to aid his political comeback for many years to come.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Home Office in crisis

So far John Reid has managed to keep things together at the Home Office in the face of the pressure on his apparently floundering junior colleagues. However, today's Sunday papers will make that much more difficult.

The Independent on Sunday reveals that Home Office officials are investigating claims that a man whose conviction in Europe was not registered on the police database went on to kill on his return to the UK:

Dale Miller, from Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, was convicted in 2002 of shooting dead gangster Freddie Knights.

It is understood that Miller is among more than 80 serious criminals who committed crimes abroad and have gone on to reoffend in Britain.

This latest disclosure in the foreign offenders scandal will cause fresh embarrassment to Mr Reid, who has already launched an inquiry.

His officials had failed to log the details of 27,500 offenders convicted overseas on the police national computer, it emerged last week. The massive backlog included more than 500 serious criminals including murderers, rapists, paedophiles and other sex offenders.

This latest revelation has put into perspective the failure of Ministers to act when they received a letter from ACPO warning them of this problem three months ago. The Mail on Sunday has added to that pressure however with news of a further blunder. They report that confidential details sent to MI5 by thousands of individuals and businesses have ended up with an American company specialising in supermarket mailshots.

It seems that MI5's terrorist e-mail alert service is not being run in-house but has been out-sourced to Whatcounts Inc, a US computer firm based in Seattle, who are storing the details and sending out the terror alerts. There are questions about whether this company has been vetted and if the data is secure as it is transferred across the Atlantic.

Faced with the publicising of their faux pas Whitehall officials said MI5's arrangements are now being reviewed and that the email data will be transferred back to the UK. This is a very quick cave-in and indicates either that they (or Ministers) did not realise what was going on in the first place or that things have now got so bad that all it takes is a bit of publicity for the Home Office to back down.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Ducking responsibility

The phenomenon described in this Guardian article of Government Ministers campaigning against their own policies is not new to Wales.

Here we have Labour Ministers opposing their own party's policy of housing stock transfer, fighting against school reorganisations that the Education Minister has virtually ordered Councils to implement and then condemning those same Councils for not tackling surplus places, and campaigning against NHS cuts, reorganisation and hospital closures that have been brought on by their own policy of restructuring the health service.

And it is not just lowly Ministers who do it, the First Minister has played the same game with regards to school reorganisation in Cardiff and then claimed that he and his Ministers have two completely separate roles as a government minister and as local politician. The hypocrisy continues unbounded.

It is a peculiar view of collective responsibility that must surely have been rumbled by the electorate.

The chicken and the M4

As a frequent traveller on the M4 I do see some pretty horrendous sights, not least the sort of accidents and delays that occur as soon as the weather turns bad. I have not, however, so far witnessed the sort of incidents outlined in this Western Mail article, though I have heard some of them referred to on Radio Wales as I have travelled into Cardiff:

Traffic Wales officials have also seen heavy carpets being left on the motorway, a flock of sheep wandering on to the carriageway and a man dressed as Santa being tied to a gantry.

Officials who caught the incidents on CCTV, including a flock of chickens crossing the road, have published a top 10 of dangerous and unusual incidents witnessed on the M4 in Wales in the past few years.

Yesterday the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents condemned the dumping of furniture on the M4 as "lethal". And the RAC Foundation said the two girls pedalling their way along the motorway was "beyond belief".

Traffic Wales' 10 strangest sights

1. A man dressed as Father Christmas tied to a gantry.
2. Two small girls cycling along the hard shoulder near Newport.
3. More than 200 army trucks in convoy on one day.
4. Thousands of tiny polystyrene balls filling the carriageway (escaped from a lorry).
5. A bull charging along the M4.
6. A flock of sheep on the roadway.
7. Stray horses.
8. Flocks of chickens.
9. A pig running loose near the Second Severn Crossing.
10. Fence posts falling off a lorry and carpets and a sofa being dumped.

There is just no accounting for the sheer stupidity of some of the people referred to in this list.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Mediterranean blues

This post from Dizzy has left me open-mouthed. I certainly did not know that ex-Pats living in the Mediterranean were still entitled to winter fuel payments.

Dizzy reports that according to figures from the DWP Minister, James Purnell, in 2005/06, his Department paid £4,215,000 in Winter Fuel Payments to claimants in Greece, Spain, Italy, Malta, Cyprus and Portugal.

The view of one of his commenters that this is a loophole that needs to be closed is absolutely right.

What is in a logo?

Today's Western Mail reports that Welsh Language Channel S4C has spent £606,972 re-branding itself. To be precise it has turned its distinctive logo (pictured) into S4/C. This must be the most expensive slash in history.

S4C's audience consists of the 600,000 Welsh speakers in Wales and it commands a monopoly position as the only TV channel catering for them. It has a huge name recognition amongst its viewer base. Quite how the channel can justify this sort of expenditure on this sort of marketing is difficult to understand.

The Chief Executive claims that the new brand reflects S4C's agenda for "creative excellence". She adds: "It demonstrates a renewed confidence in our content and will help the channel stand out as a multi-platform operator in the all-digital environment." If anybody can translate that nonsense into plain English then I would be interested in hearing it. It is a prime candidate for Private Eye's Pseuds Corner.

What the new brand actually demonstrates is that this television company is failing to spend the £94.4m of public money it receives on what it was intended for - quality programmes in the Welsh language. It is no wonder that they have been fighting against the Welsh Assembly taking responsibility for them. Goodness only knows what would come out if they were ever subjected to vigorous scrutiny.

Coalition or bust

Conservative AM, Glyn Davies, is in the Western Mail again this morning, hammering away at the idea of a rainbow coalition. For goodness sake, Glyn, give it a rest. We are not really interested in your little project. In fact you are starting to sound a bit desperate:

"I think it's absolutely essential that we as a Conservative Party are in the frame to be part of a coalition. We've got to say to the people of Wales that we're a Welsh party, we want to be involved in the government of Wales. That inevitably leads us into a discussion about who could be our coalition partners. It's simple arithmetic."

It may be simple arithmetic to the Conservatives but coalitions are not built on the three 'R's, they are constructed around a common aim and purpose, agreements on policy and on trust. All that the budget negotiations have taught the rest of us is that the Tories cannot be trusted to keep their thirst for power at any cost under control. We have no common philosophical base and little agreement on policy.

If the Liberal Democrats were to be involved in a coalition that included the Tories then there would need to be some very tightly drawn heads of agreement on how that partnership should proceed. I doubt if that could be done. I suspect that Plaid Cymru feel the same way.

The Welsh Conservatives have managed over the last few months move from co-operation with other opposition parties to being Billy No-mates.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

On blogging

Yet another article on political blogging from those rising stars of the Cardiff School of Journalism. This time from Anya Pope.

Ruth Kelly revisited

For once Lowri Turner talks commonsense albeit in her own inimitable style:

My six-year-old son is dyslexic. He is in a class of 30 at his local state primary with one full-time teacher and a teaching assistant. When his father and I attended a meeting with his headmistress to discuss what help was available we were offered two 15-minute "catch-up" sessions of one-to-one reading a week.

When I, slightly flabbergasted, asked if the local authority didn't provide anything else, the head said no and then added, "But fortunately you have the resources".

Kelly says, "I, like any mother, want to do the right thing for my son - that has been my sole motivation". Selfishness is not a good enough defence. It's simply insulting to those whose pockets aren't as deep. Ruth Kelly's actions reveal not only the reality of state education for children with special needs, but also reinforce what has evidently become the New Labour attitude towards education for all children - "I'm all right, Jack, sod the rest of you".

This is the point that I sought to make on Monday. Nobody is arguing that Mrs Kelly should not be able to get the best possible education for her child, just that she is exercising a choice not available to many others and that the dilemma she faced is largely brought about by her own government's failure to create an inclusive education system.

Away Day

Today is the annual meeting of all Welsh Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians in Westminster. Accordingly, I am posting this from my Blackberry sitting in Portcullis House.

For some reason our activities have been overshadowed by the contribution of our Welsh Leader in the House of Commons yesterday. This is obviously very gratifying, after all Lembit did not used to be able to get so much media coverage for a simple question on motor neurone disease.

The last time we held this meeting it co-incided with the resignation of Charles Kennedy and we all dutifully trooped over to Cowley Street to watch. Let us hope that today's meeting is not so dramatic.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Lunch for honours

Today's Guardian reports that the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, has launched a full-scale inquiry into the "dinners for cash" scandal involving 19 Conservative MPs and peers, including the party leader, David Cameron:

The decision, relayed to a private meeting of MPs on the standards and privileges committee yesterday, caused fresh embarrassment for two Conservatives on the committee. Sir George Young, the chairman, had to declare an interest that he had organised dinners. Nicholas Soames, the former defence minister and MP for Mid Sussex, also had to declare an interest over a patrons' club which used the Commons. Both will not be able to rule on the findings of Sir Philip.

The dossier, which included details of dinners held over the past three months, revealed that a number of Conservative associations were offering privileged membership through patrons' clubs advertised on their websites.

Among the prominent Tories under investigation are George Osborne, the shadow chancellor; Alan Duncan, shadow industry secretary; Lord Heseltine, the former deputy PM; Oliver Letwin, the policy chief, and Michael Ancram, the former shadow foreign secretary and deputy leader of the party.

As if to prove the old Corporal Jones adage that "they don't like it up 'em", the decision has sparked off a counter-offensive from Tory MPs, some of whom are questioning how Labour MP, Kevan Jones, got hold of the information in the first place. This will prove to be an interesting diversion over the next few months as we await the outcome of the investigation.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

For Tory read UKIP

Iain Dale rather reluctantly reports on his blog that two Tory peers have defected to UKIP. Lord Pearson and Lord Willoughby de Broke will formally announce that they are joining UKIP this morning, declaring they have "given up hope" on the Tories. Clearly, David Cameron is just too cuddly for some of his members.

I have to agree with Iain that these peers are particularly obscure but nevertheless the significance of this event is two fold. Firstly, it shows that for all the fanfares from the Tories about obscure Liberal Democrats joining them, the movement of individuals on the fringe of political parties to other parties is quite commonplace. After all we must not forget the defection of Tory Councillors to the Lib Dems in Dover and Crawley, which lost the Conservatives control of those Councils. The Tories are losing as many as they gain.

Secondly, Lord Pearson and Lord Willoughby de Broke reflect a strong current of opinion in the Tory Party about the direction in which its leader is taking it. They have jumped ship. What must be worrying for Cameron is that the others are staying put - for now anyway.

Update: The Tories have now lost control of Erewash Borough Council as well after two of their Councillors resigned the whip and became independents.

James Bond on your computer

Never has TV and film drama seemed so out of touch with the real world. Somehow, one could not imagine the characters of Spooks or a James Bond film e-mailing the great British public to warn them of an imminent threat, or to watch out for a dodgy bald guy with a white cat.

Nevertheless, it is very serious and Mi5 are to be commended for trying to raise our level of awareness. Their site is actually stuffed with good advice and useful information on averting terrorist threats. It seems that our spies have embraced modern technology and a new spirit of openness in an effort to involve all of us in the fight against terrorism.

Let us hope that they do not create too much paranoia amongst us as a result.

Monday, January 08, 2007

A little local difficulty

As a Government Minister it seems that Ruth Kelly has a problem with Labour Party principles. First, it was her religious beliefs and alleged membership of Opus Dei that put her at odds with some of the equalities agenda she is now charged with delivering. Now, it appears that her natural concern for her child's education has led her to join other colleagues in abandoning the state education sector and using a £15,000 a year fee-paying school instead.

Those more uncharitable than myself might suggest that a former Education Secretary giving up on the state education sector for her own child is the best possible judgement on her success in the job.

More Big Bother?

A fascinating comment about Celebrity Big Brother appeared on an old post on this blog yesterday. It was from an Al Shabaz:

Jermaine has caused national controversy by openly praying his obligatory five time prayers live on national TV. However Channel Four the Broadcaster has censored any footage of the Former Jackson Five practicing his faith. Outraged muslims have begun to complain on grounds of fair representation as Shilpa Shetty was broadcast practicing Yoga, they are demanding an explanation from Channel four as to why Jermaine praying has been censored. Complaints to Ofcom the body that adjudicates media complaints are set to flood in this monday. Jermaine has begun to attract many thousands of muslim votes.

I have to say that on at least one of the occasions I have seen Celebrity Big Brother this week, Jermaine Jackson was pictured praying. His prayers are hardly comparable to yoga and, in any case, should be a private matter for him, not a spectacle for millions of viewers. I will be astonished if Channel Four has deliberately censored his five times daily prayer sessions as is alleged by the person making this comment.

The comment though does raise a wider matter. Practising Muslims are an established part of our multi-cultural society. It is right that television better reflects that multi-culturalism in its mainstream programming. That is happening slowly and no doubt this trend will continue to develop. However, whether a meaningless light entertainment programme should alter its remit so as to act as the instrument of such a change is a matter for debate.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The development of an international police regime

Further news in this morning's Observer about the extraordinary measures being brought in by the USA to protect their borders and the impact on those travelling to the States. I wrote earlier about the fact that Britons travelling to America will now have their e-mail and credit card details inspected by the US Authorities, now it seems that they will also have their fingerprints stored on the FBI database alongside those of criminals.

The Observer has established that under new plans to combat terrorism, the US government will demand that visitors have all 10 fingers scanned when they enter the country. The information will be shared with intelligence agencies, including the FBI, with no restrictions on their international use.

US airport scanners now take only two fingerprints from travellers. The move to 10 allows the information to be compatible with the FBI database.

'We are going to start testing at several airports,' a Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman confirmed. 'It will begin some time this summer.'

Sources said 10 airports would initially be involved. The scheme will cover most of the major airports frequently used by British travellers, including New York, Washington and Miami. Countries subject to the new scheme include Britain, other European Union nations, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

The paper reports that the director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, has described the initiative as the 'Keystone Cops school of border control.' She believes that accumulating the fingerprints of millions of innocent passengers will not deter would-be suicide bombers. Whilst security experts have warned that the scale of the scheme might jeopardise its success.

One thing is certain, anybody wishing to visit fortress America in future, will now spend a large amount of time queuing just to get out of the airport.

Lost Saturday

In the end I could not work out why I had travelled all the way to Llandrindod Wells yesterday for a party briefing session that effectively just reaffirmed everything I already know about our Assembly campaign. Normally, I would not mind but frankly it would have been much more enjoyable to have got a train to Sheffield instead.

What a result! It really would be excellent if the Swans were drawn to play Manchester United or Chelsea at home in the next round.

Inevitably, some discussion took place yesterday around Lembit and Gabriela. I was told, but cannot verify if it is true or not, that the new Montgomeryshire organiser is living in Lembit's house and had been late for Saturday's meeting as he had not been able to get into the bathroom. It was occupied by the Cheeky Girl.

The general consensus is that the newspapers are getting far too carried away with the whole affair. I read this article in the Daily Mail in a state of despair. My first reaction was to consider the particular conditions needed in which to make mushrooms grow. But the overwhelming reaction was to ask if we really need this level of detail? Give us all a break, please!

Oh, and as for Matt Withers and his predictions, I have no such ambitions, I could not afford the armani suits! :-)

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Weekend madness

This is a quick entry as I have to rush off to Mid Wales for a meeting, however reading the Western Mail over breakfast I noticed that the impending elections are rapidly turning into a discussion on fringe issues rather than the key matters of crime, health and education that concern the vast majority of voters.

First off is Lord Falconer, friend of Tony, and Lord Chancellor, who has warned that Scottish independence will splinter the UK. He is naturally concerned at the growth in support for the SNP north of the border and their promise to hold a referendum on independence if they are elected. Despite his protestations that this perceived threat to the UK is not of the government's making one cannot help but think that this is precisely what he is getting at.

The point is, however, that it is not devolution that has got us to this situation but the shambolic way that the Government has delivered it. They failed to see the big picture, did not have a constitutional end game and allowed the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish settlements to develop independently of each other and of the UK as a whole. As a result each country has developed its own individual momentum and nobody has any clear idea of where we are going to end up.

If the Government had a clear vision of a federal or confederal Britain that incorporated such developments, including some solution for England, then people like Charlie Falconer would not be getting the jitters now. Instead he would be able to incorporate the SNP's plans into that vision and retained a loosely confederated nation state within the European Union.

The second article that grabbed my attention was the launch of the English Democrats' campaign to liberate Monmouthshire. This promises to be one of the more entertaining side shows of the Welsh Assembly elections, especially as the party of luke warm beer and Gary Bushell seem to have missed an essential truth. When Monmouthshire was incorporated as a Welsh County in 1974 it was bigger than the existing constituency, including within its boundaries Newport, Torfaen and part of Caerphilly. In other words it was Gwent.

For some reason the English Democrats are ignoring this and are seeking to liberate only a small part of the original county. Could it be that they know that they are onto a loser in the other areas? Oh, and has anybody told Charlie Falconer about this audacious attempt to unpick the devolution settlement?

Friday, January 05, 2007

Thanks Ieuan!

More evidence of Labour's gratitude towards Plaid Cymru for getting them out of a tight corner on the budget emerges on Leighton Andrew's blog:

Plaid got away with murder following the budget debate. They contributed nothing to the budget but got a free run after it. They tried to take the credit for the budget but wouldn’t even vote for it. They believe they have undermined our message that they will ally with the Tories after the election.

But nothing has changed. Ieuan Wyn Jones has refused to rule out working with the Tories after the May election. People must realise that a one-night stand with Ieuan Wyn Jones could mean a four-year arranged marriage with Nick Bourne.

Clearly, the cheap date led to a one night stand. This courtship ritual between the two parties is fascinating viewing. Presumably, Leighton's post rates as a lovers' tiff.


Today I want to highlight the jobsworth, a particular breed of individual who sticks to the letter of the rules no matter what, somebody for whom commonsense is just a word. This has of course been inspired by two incidents reported on this week's media.

The first one involves an elderly skin cancer victim who was ordered to remove the hood she wore to cover her bandages as she entered a Wirral superstore for some post-Christmas shopping.

Staff at the Asda store in Liscard insisted that great-grandmother Ruth Stoba's headgear had to be removed for "security reasons".

The frail 85-year-old has 19 stitches in her head and wore a long purple padded coat with its hood pulled up because she was self-conscious of her bandages.

She had left her Wallasey home for the first time since an operation to go with her daughter Janet Dellius to the Seaview Road store.

As they entered, Janet was stopped by a staff member and told that her mother's hood must be taken down for security reasons.

Some Asda stores have a 'no hoodie' policy but presumably did not intend for it to be applied in this way. Some commonsense could have saved everybody from embarassment and avoided the humiliation of an elderly and vulnerable old lady.

The other story relates to a government department which is taking its clear desk policy to a hitherto unknown level of control freakery. Black tape has been put on civil servants' desks at National Insurance offices in Longbenton, North Tyneside so as to show them where to put their pens. The pilot exercise is part of a UK-drive to encourage staff to tidy their desks.

The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union claimed the scheme was costing £7.4m nationally and branded it "demeaning" and "demoralising".

HM Revenue and Customs said it was in line with workstation training.

The exercise is part of the Lean programme, brought in by consultants Unipart, which has already seen public sector workers told to clear their desks of personal items.

The scheme is demoralising and demeaning. Staff know how to order their desks themselves.

The customs spokesman said: "Part of the Lean processing is to clear the workplace and only keep essential items to hand.

"This is in line with the workstation ergonomics training that all our staff receive and complies with the display screen equipment regulations (2002).

"The markers on desks are used to demonstrate that it is much better to work in a tidy work environment where everything has its place.

Those darned external consultants, what will they think of next?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Five things...

I don't normally do memes but the author of Blamerbell Briefs has written some nice things about me over the last few months so I will make an exception. I have been tagged by Ciaran Jenkins to tell you five things you may not know about me. For a politician this can be very dangerous so I hope you do not mind if I don't get too carried away:

1. My old school was also the alma mater of Harold Wilson and Ted Rowlands, the former MP for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney.

2. My Grandmother was a Welsh speaker from Llandudno Junction who moved to Birkenhead with her family to be closer to her merchant seaman father when his ship docked overnight.

3. My Grandfather worked at Cammell Laird's shipyard and was involved in the building of HMS Thetis, which was launched and sank immediately on 1st June 1939. A torpedo tube had been left open. Ninety Nine people drowned, only four survived. My Grandfather should have been on board that day but was ill and had been unable to go into work.

4. On my paternal grandmother's side I can trace my ancestry directly back to the McLeod's of the Isle of Skye and a large castle. Alas, so can tens of thousands of others.

5. I have been an Everton FC fan since the 1960s but nowadays only follow their progress from afar.

Enough already.

Overkeen Plaid abandon principles already

As today's Western Mail editorial points out, Plaid Cymru's eagerness to get into bed with Labour after next May's elections appears to have no boundaries.

In an eagerly awaited statement of principle Ieuan Wyn Jones takes up a significant proportion of a full page of the paper spelling out his party's strong commitment to having a referendum on turning the Assembly into a full Scottish-style Parliament by 2011. However, it turns out that even this is negotiable.

Reading through the Plaid leader's interview one is left with the impression that he will sacrifice any policy or principle to get his hands on that ministerial limousine. Even proportional representation for local government, an issue on which Plaid has campaigned strongly on in the past, is now described as unattractive if it blocks his route to power. There is no mention of housing or social justice issues, no reference to education or the health service. How things change. The Western Mail sums the position up quite neatly:

Plaid, however, could be well advised not to seem too keen to prop up Labour. It needs to be clear what it would seek to achieve in joining a coalition with Labour and not seek office just for the sake of it.

That is good advice but it is apparently not being heard in the Plaid leader's office. Perhaps Ieuan should save himself the expense and trouble of publishing a manifesto and just refer journalists and voters to Labour's when he is asked what his party stands for in May.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Cheap shots and the not so cheap art of electioneering

The Guardian headline urges MPs to change their drinking habits but this story is not advocating the closure of Commons' bars or compulsory AA meetings for the most hardened Parliamentary drinkers. Instead Sustain, the food and farming pressure group, is urging MPs to drop the environmentally unfriendly and expensive habit of drinking bottled water at meetings in favour of a glass from the tap. Quite right too!

Meanwhile, negotiations continue over the reform of election funding. It seems that the impasse boils down to Labour defending its interests in resisting a cap on donations, whilst the Tories seek to retain their right to spend lots of money in individual constituencies between elections so as to gain an electoral advantage. Nice to see that they are all working for the good of the Country.

My concern is that the sort of compromise that emerges from these talks will be purely cosmetic. I cannot see how anything being suggested so far prevents somebody effectively buying a peerage or other influence. That can only be stamped out through fairly draconian controls linked with state funding. Hell will freeze over before the two major parties agree to anything like that sort of settlement.

The Western Mail, reports that Alan Trench, an academic at University College London's Constitution Unit, believes it will be necessary to increase the number of AMs from 60 to 80 to ensure proposed laws receive proper scrutiny. He may well be right, however it is too late and we are going to have to make do for now. As Wales Office Minister, Nick Ainger says, "We will suck it and see."

Which brings me neatly to 'This Life'. I agree with Iain Dale that last night's reunion was 'outstanding' - a reference to Warren's parting shot at the end of the last series. I had forgotten how fascinatingly awful all the main characters were. However, if you wanted to see some real monsters at work last night then you needed to tune into BBC4 for 'The Thick of it'. As a one-off special this programme left all the others trailing. It was 'Yes Minister' with menace, 'Commander in Chief' with attitude, Hannibal Lecter in the 'West Wing', 'The Amazing Mrs Pritchard' with vampires. Quite brilliant.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Scandal of Government sell-out on our right to privacy

Those of us who have been worried by the threat to our privacy and basic liberties posed by the introduction of ID cards now have an additional matter to be concerned about. According to today's Daily Telegraph, the Government have decided that our details can be accessed by a foreign country.

The fact that the Country concerned is the USA, who are reportedly an ally of ours, should not put anybody's mind at rest. America has a reputation, irrespective of whichever President is in power, of interpreting its national interest very widely and of showing the sort of disregard for human rights, when it perceives those interests are threatened, that would have shamed many former communist bloc countries.

The Telegraph of course blames the European Union but it seems that they were left with little choice in the matter. The paper reports:

Britons flying to America could have their credit card and email accounts inspected by the United States authorities following a deal struck by Brussels and Washington.

By using a credit card to book a flight, passengers face having other transactions on the card inspected by the American authorities. Providing an email address to an airline could also lead to scrutiny of other messages sent or received

As a result of the US Government threatening to exclude European carriers from their airspace the Americans are now entitled to 34 separate pieces of Passenger Name Record (PNR) data — all of which must be provided by airlines from their computers:

Much of it is routine but some elements will prove more contentious, such as a passenger's email address, whether they have a previous history of not turning up for flights and any religious dietary requirements.

While insisting that "additional information" would only be sought from lawful channels, the US made clear that it would use PNR data as a trigger for further inquiries.

Anyone seeking such material would normally have to apply for a court order or subpoena, although this would depend on what information was wanted. Doubts were raised last night about the effectiveness of the safeguards.

"There is no guarantee that a bank or internet provider would tell an individual that material about them was being subpoenaed," an American lawyer said.

"Then there are problems, such as where the case would take place and whether an individual has time to hire a lawyer, even if they wanted to challenge it."

Initially, such material could be inspected for seven days but a reduced number of US officials could view it for three and a half years. Should any record be inspected during this period, the file could remain open for eight years.

Material compiled by the border authorities can be shared with domestic agencies. It can also be on a "case by case" basis with foreign governments.

Washington promised to "encourage" US airlines to make similar information available to EU governments — rather than compel them to do so.

As usual Liberty's Director, Shami Chakrabarti, has hit the nail on the head in her view of these concessions:

"It is pretty horrendous, particularly when you couple it with our one-sided extradition arrangements with the US.".

"It is making the act of buying a ticket a gateway to a host of personal email and financial information. While there are safeguards, it appears you would have to go to a US court to assert your rights."

The Department of Transport says that the US Government has given undertakings on how this data will be used and who will see it, but I suspect that such assurances will prove to be worthless.


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