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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Another gaffe?

The US Ambassador was in the Assembly today with his wife. I am told that she was wearing a Burberry coat.

The Gaffer

Rhodri Morgan's latest gaff is emblazoned across two pages of this morning's Western Mail. It transpires that he delivered a joke too far at the Wales Labour Party Conference dinner at the weekend:

He made the joke about the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party in the company of the Prime Minister, who has been trying to build bridges in Northern Ireland for a decade.

Also present was Wales and Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain, who has been leading the delicate efforts to restore the stalled peace process.

Witnesses say that both the Prime Minister and Mr Hain visibly cringed as Mr Morgan slipped a joke into his speech. "Did you hear about Ian Paisley's death bed conversion to Catholicism," quipped the First Minister. "He thought it was better to have a dead Catholic than a dead Protestant."

This is of course a very old joke and on those grounds alone it may have been better for Rhodri to have left it alone. The issue is, however, that he does not seem to be able to tailor his humour to the occasion. It is entirely inappropriate for the First Minister of Wales to be disparaging the potential First Minister of another part of the UK in this way.

Another controversial statement yesterday came from the Prince of Wales, who announced to the World that McDonald's food should be banned in the interests of improving diet and fitness. This may come as a big shock to Glyn Davies who in the past has extolled the virtues of the Big Mac.

In August 2004 Glyn issued a statement in which he said: "McDonalds restaurants use 100 per cent British beef, are cutting back hugely on salt levels, are promoting salads in all of its restaurants, and are plastering its packaging with nutritional information."

What I am trying to come to terms with is picturing the Prince of Wales carrying out his research. Which branch of McDonald's did he go to and did he pay the extra for large portions?

Update: The Daily Mail has an interesting angle on this story. They point out that the Big Mac contains fewer calories, fats and salt than some products in the Prince's own organic Duchy Originals food range. His Cornish pasty contains 264 calories per 100g compared to the burger's 229 calories, and 5.5g of saturated fat as opposed to the Big Mac's 4.14g.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

St. David's Day

The Government has now responded to the 11,000 signature e-petition calling on St. David's Day to be made a public holiday. Rather predictably they have said 'no':

The Government receives a variety of suggestions for new or different Bank Holidays and celebrations. Whilst the Government is pleased that so many people are interested, as you can imagine it is not possible to please everyone as to who or what should be celebrated. Unlike Northern Ireland, where St Patrick's Day is a bank holiday, bank and public holidays in Great Britain do not, by tradition commemorate particular individuals, events, or institutions, other than those associated with Christmas and Easter. Moreover, many individuals and communities in Wales already celebrate St David's Day in a way they consider more suitable. The present pattern of bank holidays in the United Kingdom is well established and accepted, and the Government has no current plans to change the arrangements.

I hope that this is helpful.

Well actually it is not very helpful at all.

The earth moves

A minor earthquake has started to gather momentum in British politics and its epicentre is Wales. The Western Mail reports that the Welsh Conservatives are planning to commit themselves to the introduction of proportional representation in council elections.

A draft version of the party's manifesto for May's National Assembly election contains a section that advocates PR in local government. If the final version includes the commitment when it is published towards the end of next month, it will be the first time the Conservative Party has formally backed PR at any level in Britain.

The acceptance of PR will be hugely controversial within the party. Last Friday, for example, the Newport West Conservative Association passed a motion opposing PR at any level. But the matter will not be discussed at this weekend's Welsh Conservative conference in Cardiff.

A party spokesman would neither confirm nor deny the presence of the commitment to PR in local government in the draft manifesto, saying, "We are not saying anything about the manifesto at this stage, because it has not been signed off by the board in Wales. Although it is near completion, policies could still be inserted or taken out."

David Melding, who has drafted the manifesto, really does have his work cut out in getting his party to accept this reform but if he succeeds then we may well have a very interesting consensus developing here. It is no wonder that he is looking so stressed at the moment.

Powder of choice?

Today's Daily Post reports that traces of cocaine have been found in the Senedd in Cardiff Bay. Tests were carried out with pink paper swabs which turn blue on contact with cocaine by some budding investigative journalist but are nevertheless very disturbing.

North Wales Tory AM, Mark Isherwood is quite right in his comments that “Given that the Assembly building has very quickly become one of the most-visited attractions in Wales, and it is being visited by a very broad section of society, it should not be particularly surprising.

“But it is reflective of the reality of the society we live in today and how common the use of cocaine is."

It looks like we will have to be more vigilant in future.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Eluned wades in

I notice that Labour MEP, Eluned Morgan, has now waded into the Deputy Leadership contest by endorsing for Peter Hain. What is most interesting however are her remarks about Gordon Brown. They hardly amount to an overwhelming vote of confidence in his future leadership of the Labour Party:

Eluned Morgan, a member of the European Parliament, said Mr Brown lacked Tony Blair's communication skills and had a poor record on European affairs.

Although she stressed she was still supporting Mr Brown as the next Labour leader, her remarks come at a time when some Labour MPs are privately nervous of a Brown premiership. Opinion polls suggest he may struggle to beat David Cameron at the next general election.

Ms Morgan told a fringe meeting at Welsh Labour's conference in Llandudno that she admired the Chancellor. "He is the person who has redistributed wealth to the poorest part of our society, yes, sometimes by stealth, but the results have been unbelievable," she said.

But she went on, "He does have weaknesses, and we need somebody to rebalance some of those areas... whichever way you look at it, Gordon Brown does not have those communication skills and we need someone to counterbalance that.

"The other area where I think Gordon is a little bit weak - and I am a big fan of Gordon - is on the European Union, and even his inner circle admit there are weaknesses. It [the EU] is one of our arch weapons against Cameron."

Maybe there is something in all this talk about Labour Parliamentarians casting around for an alternative leadership contender after all.

An opportunity not to be missed

As Alun Cairns points out there is a very real chance that the Millennium Stadium will have one last opportunity to stage the FA Cup final this year.

The Telegraph reported on 13 February this year that the new Wembley stadium may not be ready in time to stage the FA Cup final on May 19 because of a legal dispute between contractors:

It is understood that an impending legal case involving Wembley contractor Multiplex and one of its subcontractors, Honeywell, could delay the staging of test events.

However, Multiplex have rubbished the claim as "misleading" and said that the stadium will be ready.

Work on the project, which has cost an estimated £750 million, was originally due be completed in January last year. However, repeated delays, including a 50-ton steel roof girder slipping out of place, forced the FA to abandon the stadium's opening and move the 2006 FA Cup final back to its temporary home of Cardiff.

FA chief executive Brian Barwick said last week that everything was "on track" to host the FA Cup on May 19 at Wembley but pointedly added that there were "no guarantees" it would be ready on time.

As ever we will have to wait until the last moment before knowing for certain. In the meantime we should concentrate on getting the transport links right so as not to suffer the same travel chaos as occurred yesterday.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Bremner on Hain

The BBC carries an article on Rory Bremner's little prank on Margaret Beckett and Peter Hain. Unlike the Foreign Secretary, Mr. Hain saw right through it due to Bremner's lack of knowledge about Wales.

In The Observer this morning Bremner still seems confused about what happens this side of the Severn Bridge, referring to the Blaenau Ffestiniog by-election instead of Blaenau Gwent.

What Bremner did of course is entirely wrong and irresponsible. Nevertheless, he has a good line in patter:

Bremner questioned Mr Hain's views on renewing Britain's nuclear weapons and the Iraq war and said: "I want to know who's impersonating Peter Hain, because I remember you as this left wing and ideological figure."

In response the Welsh Secretary asserted that he has kept to his principles and that he is proud of what he has done in the past. And so he should be.

Accentuating the positive?

Whilst we are on the subject of constructive political debate, Bethan Jenkins, highlights the latest poster campaign from Plaid Cymru. The message is simple - 'fed up with Labour, then vote them out'.

Somehow this translates on her blog as a 'positive change of direction'. Given that the poster has nothing positive to say whatsoever in terms of policy or direction, I have a great deal of difficulty accepting that premise. Bethan also legitimately claims that Labour are falling back onto 'fear factor politics'. A neutral observer may notice that this is something close to what Plaid are doing with this poster.

Far from showing that Plaid 'have a hugely successful election campaign this year- more professional than ever before', this poster just demonstrates that they have more money than before. If they want to turn it into a successful campaign then they need to use that cash to start telling people what they stand for.

Stunted ambition

This morning's Observer leader is absolutely damning about Labour's Leadership and Deputy Leadership battles:

Paucity of debate means also that the deputy leadership election is shaping up to be a drab parade of stunted ambition, a conference sideshow of apparatchik introspection with nothing to add to the conversation about what direction the country, rather than just the Labour party, should take.

By contrast a proper battle for the leadership would put some wind into the sails of a becalmed government.

It would give the Chancellor the opportunity to refute his critics, demonstrating that he can respond nimbly to the quick-fire battle of an election campaign and be graceful in victory.

If he is not given the chance to show those qualities, voters will be entitled to assume the worst: that their new Prime Minister is a bully and that, after 10 years in power, the Labour party cannot muster from its ranks more than one heavyweight player with the guts and imagination required to even want to lead the country.

When Harold Wilson resigned there was a contest for the Labour leadership that involved politicians of substance from all wings of the party. The final run-off between Michael Foot and Jim Callaghan was enthralling and created the impression of real debate within the party. The present contest leads one to believe that New Labour is afraid of its own shadow.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The same but different

So what exactly is the relationship between these two speeches?

In one Tony Blair tells the Wales Labour Conference: 'I think, over the past few years, when people talk about 'you've got New Labour in the UK and more traditional Labour in Wales', one of the benefits of devolution is you can take different paths to the same goal.

'When you strip away all the rhetoric and what goes in and out of the media 24 hours a day, what's left is something that unites us all in the Labour Party.

'It is a belief that we are the right people to handle the future and the modern world.'

In the second speech, to be delivered this afternoon, Rhodri Morgan will tell the same set of delegates that there is still clear red water between Labour in Wales and New Labour in Westminster. He will seek to distance himself and his government from Blairism and its most unpopular policies.

Whilst the Prime Minister is trying to cwtch up to Rhodri, the First Minister is discreetly pushing him away. What they have in common is that they both want Labour to cling onto power at any cost.

Rhodri's problem is that despite his efforts to concentrate solely on Welsh issues, the Prime Minister and his wife have now been in Wales campaigning for a Labour victory. The two of them are stuck with each other and Wales Labour is now fair game. It will not be able to escape demands that it answer for the disaster that is the Iraq war, loans for peerages and all the other issues that are dragging Labour down in the polls at the moment.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Fighting climate change

Found courtesy of Tim Worstall, how to save the planet whilst making a profit. According to this item on Bloomberg.com you can now mitigate your cat's flatulent contribution to global warming for £3.22 or make your granny 'carbon-neutral'' for £4 a year. So that is what Rhodri Morgan meant when he said that global warming is an opportunity.

The foot in mouth election

Tony Blair is scheduled to appear at the Wales Labour Conference today but, like the prodigal son, he cannot be certain of the welcome that will await him.

Rhodri Morgan has just been on Good Morning Wales and must have left their studio covered in splinters after an extended session sitting on the fence. He refused to be drawn on whether he believes that the Prime Minister is an asset to Wales Labour or not and once more refused to express an opinion on whether Britain was right to join with George Bush in invading Iraq.

The First Minister also repeated the claim of a Tory-led coalition of the three minor parties despite a splutteringly indignant performance from one of Plaid's four leaders on the Television last night and the threat of legal action against anybody who has the temerity to float such a possibility.

Still, if the delegates are short of something to talk about they can always resort to Agas. Peter Hain's views on this splendid culinary aid finally made the dead-tree press this morning, a full eight days after I pre-empted BBC correspondent, David Cornock with his own exclusive story.

As David says: "Perhaps it is time for a crusade to rescue the people of Britain from 'second class' food. Let them eat Mr Hain's favourite marinated tuna steaks." What are conference delegates having for lunch this weekend and how has it been cooked? These are the questions that are on the lips of voters throughout Wales. I wonder if Rhodri Morgan is prepared to give an opinion on Agas.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Good Grief!

Dragon's Eye today reported that Plaid Cymru are threatening to sue Labour for misrepresentation if they keep on claiming that the Nationalists intend to go into coalition with the Tories after 3rd May.

Plaid Cymru's Parliamentary leader, Elfyn Llwyd, was virtually apopolectic in his interview, repeatedly calling senior Labour politicians liars. It was not a pretty sight and certainly not a good start to the campaign. That interview alone will be enough to turn many people off politics.

As for Rhodri Morgan, he was like the cat who had got the cream. Plaid Cymru have done his job for him. They have paraded their own sensitivities and insecurities for all to see. They have gone onto the defensive before the campaign starts, and they are not even in Government. At this rate they will self-destruct before nominations close.


As the Wales Labour Party head up north for their pre-election conference it is clear that jitters are already starting to set in.

As I reported yesterday Rhodri Morgan has come out blazing in a very personal attack on David Cameron. His claim that the Tory Party Leader had never had a proper job has led to a feature in today's Western Mail looking at the employment history of the two men and explaining why it matters what MPs and AMs did in a previous life.

As usual in these matters rumours continue to spread amongst political circles. There is talk of secret party opinion polls, of individual AMs worried for their seat and of deals being done already behind closed doors for post May.

A sample of the gossip I have heard in recent weeks includes secret talks between Labour and the Tories to hammer out a post-election deal (ridiculous!) and a high ranking Labour member telling people that he believes that his party may lose Newport East.

Whatever the truth or otherwise of these rumours, it is obvious that Labour AMs in particular are very nervous. Not only are they down in the polls and having to defend an unpopular Prime Minister, but a number of them have problems with many of his policies as well including the war on Iraq, Tuition Fees and many more. It will be an interesting few months.

More excuses

The Chief Executive of the NHS in Wales, Ann Lloyd, has told a summit on devolution and health policy, organised by drugs manufacturer Pfizer, that the Welsh Assembly Government has failed to win the public's hearts and minds over the reconfiguration of health services.

In their report the Western Mail adds that concerns about the future of health services - particularly hospital-based services - have sparked a series of protests, demonstrations and petitions around Wales:

Many people have raised concerns that services will be lost from the area and because they do not know what community-based services will be available in the future, they are worried that patients will have to travel further distances for healthcare.

The Assembly Government wants more healthcare to be provided in the community and for people to be kept out of hospital as much as possible.

But, as yet, no details about new community-based services have been published - only plans to reconfigure hospital services.

The paper adds that although both First Minister Rhodri Morgan and Health Minister Dr Brian Gibbons have spoken of the need to ensure the public understand the reason for the changes, this is thought to be the first time such a high-ranking official has admitted the strategy so far has failed.

The NHS Chief Executive, the director of the NHS Confederation and the Assembly Government spokesperson all talk about ineffective communication and failure to engage stakeholders, but what they are looking at in reality is a failure of trust in Government and in the process of change.

That failure has come about because for all the talk about reconfiguration, service users are still only being offered jam tomorrow. They are being asked to rely on NHS Trusts and LHBs investing in new community services after the hospital has closed, rather than seeing those services in place beforehand. Furthermore they are being asked to show this faith when they can plainly see that the Trusts concerned are in deficit and do not have the resources to invest in new services. In these circumstances a natural suspicion grows up that these changes are cost-cutting, and have nothing to do with an improved service.

Unless the Assembly Government changes its approach and starts to invest in replacement services up-front, before facilities are closed, then they will find resistance to change growing from both politicians and members of the public.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Drinking Smoothies

It has been an exceptionally busy day including a visit to the COSI cosmetics factory in Maesteg and the new Children's Centre in Clwyd School in Swansea. I have also spent an exceptionally large amount of time with Assembly technicians who, very efficiently refreshed all the hardware I have the use of whilst I remain an Assembly Member.

In all of this rush I have not had much time to blog and really only have a few minutes now. Nevertheless, it would be remiss of me to let the day pass without commenting on Rhodri Morgan's attack on David Cameron in this morning's Western Mail.

By and large it was difficult to disagree with anything that Rhodri said. It certainly upset the Tories. The response on their official campaign blog was positively vitriolic. This included the devastating (not) conclusion that 'Rhodri Morgan has become something of an expert in trading in personal insults. The popular image of Rhodri, Man of the People, has long since disappeared.'

I am not sure what exactly either diatribe achieved. Only a few weeks ago Rhodri Morgan said that he wanted to fight the Assembly elections on Welsh issues and on Labour's 'achievements' such as they were. Now however, he is getting down and dirty with the UK leader of the Conservatives with barely a mention of their Welsh leadership or their Welsh policies.

Can we now take it that Labour are happy for non-Welsh issues to be brought into the election? I doubt it, but that is what is going to happen regardless and Rhodri Morgan has opened the door to that widening of the campaign. Cherie Blair was in the Welsh capital a few days ago campaigning for Labour's Cardiff North candidate, her husband is due to follow as, no doubt will other UK politicians. The Assembly elections will be as much about Tony Blair's record as Rhodri's and he knows it. Maybe that is why he is trying to distract us.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

There will be trouble ahead

It appears that the Conservative revival in Wales has started to stutter to a premature halt. First, there was the debacle that is Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire and now a prominent Young Conservative, Monmouthshire activist and blogger has packed it all in, citing control freakery and being taken for granted.

James Skinner, who has been on my blogroll for some time, has announced on his blog that he is quitting the Welsh Conservatives to go independent. He tells us that promises made to him by prominent Conservatives were not fulfilled and that attempts were made to censor what he wrote on his blog.

Meanwhile, Luke Young has spotted the arrival of a new Welsh political party. People's Voice has registered with the Electoral Commission as a fully fledged political party and recorded Blaenau Gwent MP, Dai Davies, as its party leader. The party is registered to fight elections in both England and Wales but, judging by its party descriptions, will be concentrating on Blaenau Gwent and Torfaen for now. So what happened to putting the people above party politics?


I am grateful to James Graham for drawing my attention to this quote from Danny Alexander:

“Nationalism is about building up barriers between people, liberalism is about breaking those barriers down.”


How many times can one party introduce the same policy? This morning's promise by Plaid Cymru that they give every 11-year-old a laptop computer is by my reckoning the third time it has been announced.

I have to say that this is not how I would have approached the issue of rolling out new technology to youngsters. Apart from the child protection problems of young people accessing the internet without supervision, there are also issues of value for money and questions about effective educational outcomes. Essentially, it is a gimmick.

If we are going to invest a large amount of money into ICT then my first priority would be to make sure every classroom has access to an interactive whiteboard and enough networked PCs to make a difference. There is also the question of adequate ICT provision for the teachers.

Vulcans on the starboard bow

John Redwood is known chiefly for three things in Wales: his patronising and incompetent attempt at singing Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau at a Welsh Conservative Party Conference; sending a substantial chunk of the Welsh Office's budget back to the Treasury, unspent; and his attack on single mothers on a visit to a Cardiff estate 14 years ago.

He is also known of course by his nickname, the vulcan; for announcing his challenge to John Major as Leader of the Conservative Party whilst surrounded by various exotic members of the Tory Parliamentary Party; and for never spending a night in Wales when he was the country's Secretary of State. All in all, it is difficult to see how we have survived without him being in the frontline of British politics for so long. It has certainly been a lot duller.

Mr. Redwood has re-emerged onto the pages of the Western Mail this morning with a blistering attack on Labour MEP. Glenys Kinnock, and others who he has accused of besmirching his reputation:

The MP told The Independent, "I made just one speech on welfare reform on 2 July 1993 which contained only two paragraphs on single parents ... It was far gentler than most of the things that have been said on this subject by the current government. I said, 'It must be right, before granting state aid [to a single mother] to pursue the father and see whether it is possible for the father to make a financial contribution or even a fuller contribution by offering the normal love and support that fathers have offered down the ages to their families.'

"It encapsulated the thinking that lay behind the subsequent bipartisan support for the proposal that fathers should be asked to contribute financially to the upbringing of their children."


He said, "I had countless letters in the past [about the speech] and I send everybody the speech. They always write back and say 'We want the real speech' but that is the real speech."

He said Labour politicians had "attributed to me all sorts of things I didn't say" in the wake of his 1993 speech.

"I was a pioneer for the argument for a Child Support Agency, saying fathers should at least make a financial contribution. I said nothing negative at all. Go back and read the speech. There is a copy in the House of Commons library. I am telling the truth, they are just fibbing."

I have to say that this is not how I remember the speech either, but then I only read the newspaper accounts of it. Whatever Redwood said, it sure wasn't reported as he now recounts it.

One last thought, in addition to all the other things does John Redwood really want to be remembered for initiating the disastrous Child Support Agency? The principle may well have been right but the execution of that idea has failed completely.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Yet another stealth tax?

The Western Mail reveals that the Welsh Conservatives intend to spend the recess campaigning against the council tax with a claim that homes with nicer views were left with bigger bills after the controversial 2005 revaluation.

They tell us that the handbook used by the Valuation Office Agency reveals that inspectors were told to take into account whether properties were near shops or public transport or had pleasant views. Although the guidance related only to mobile or park homes rather than conventional houses, the Tories say it reveals council tax to be "the cruellest stealth tax of all".

They are absolutely right. Council Tax takes no account of people's ability to pay and penalises elderly people on a fixed income particularly harshly. By a remarkable coincidence this is the group of people most likely to vote.

What political party would be so callous as to introduce such a tax. Oh yes, it was the Conservatives! How did they think Council Tax would work?

The stink of opportunism and hypocrisy from the Tories on this issue is overwhelming. The day that the Conservatives start to support a viable alternative, such as for example a local income tax as advocated by the Liberal Democrats, I might start to take them seriously.

Update: The Tories really are in denial on this issue. Richard Hazlewood on his Sky Blue Thinking blog states that Welsh Conservatives 'have always accepted that revaluation was a necessary part of council tax'. Their beef apparently is with the 'incompetent' way that Labour have handled it.

Admittedly, it would have been possible to have had a longer period of transitional relief or to change the bands more radically, but that would still have produced losers and winners. The problem lies in the nature of the tax. As a property tax it is inflexible and fundamentally unfair.

We have now established that the Tories introduced Council Tax and that they were in favour of revaluation. How can their opposition to the last revaluation exercise be anything less than cynical and opportunistic, when they have still not put forward an alternative?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Putney and all that

As I am in a nostalgic mood it is worth noting this article in the Sunday Times about the 1976 trial of Peter Hain, accused of robbing Barclays Bank in Putney, southwest London. The occasion is the release of legal papers relating to the case under the 30 year rule.

The suggestion is that Peter Hain was framed by the South African Intelligence Service and there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence to support that hypothesis. As the paper says:

Hain was from a white South African liberal family that had moved to Britain in 1966. He had become active in the Young Liberals, which in those days was a vocal organisation with 24,000 members.

Soon Hain was the most famous student radical of his generation. He organised demonstrations that disrupted a Springbok rugby tour of the UK in the winter of 1969-70 and led to the cancellation of a tour by the South African cricket team in 1970.

Hain was demonised by British cricket and rugby fans and to many white South Africans he was Public Enemy No 1. Nelson Mandela, imprisoned on Robben Island at the time, later remembered: “The soup served up was thinner and the prison guards would curse ‘that bloody Hain’.”

Peter Hain is now a respectable member of the British establishment, but has spent a great deal of time in the last few months seeking to reinvent himself as a left wing radical again. The publication of these files is therefore, very convenient. It is a pity that his target audience remain unimpressed:

“All this stuff coming out now at this time is great for Peter,” said one MP last week. “After all, it reminds everyone of the anti-apartheid hero he was. Shame he has turned into such a boring bastard now.”

Democracy on the net

With Downing Street still reeling from the 1.5 million on-line signature petition against road pricing another interweb initiative is being launched, this time in Scotland. Two former Labour activists are attempting to appeal to disaffected voters and transform democracy through YouScotland.com.

The founders tell us that this site will rely on digital technology to challenge Holyrood's political establishment and change the 'malaise, cynicism and disillusionment' with the Scottish Parliament. It is modelled on the three-million-member US site moveon.org, which was hugely influential during last November's Senate and Congressional elections.

The objectives of the Scottish site are to rename MSPs as 'representatives' and to reduce their number from 129 to 108 - a move it claims will save around £4m a year. They also want to introduce a citizen's right to initiate parliamentary debate via a petitions system: once any petition received 100,000 valid signatures, a day would be set aside in parliament to discuss it. In addition the site will be arguing for a referendum on independence and to reduce the voting age to 16.

The Observer quote unnamed critics as dismissing the initiative as a method of reaching political anoraks rather than the general public. However, I am not so sure. It is true that ordinary people are far more likely to sign an on-line petition against road-pricing than they are to browse political web-sites, but any contribution to debate is welcome.

Given the increasing number of voters who now have internet access, I would not be surprised if youscotland.com gets quite a few hits as the election campaign picks up momentum. If that happens then politicians on mainstream media programmes will find themselves having to deal with the issues raised by the site. That can only be a good thing for democracy. When are we getting an equivalent in Wales?

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Best of Paxman

Found care of Stephen Tall I am a great fan of Paxman, as long as I never have to be interviewed by him.

Happy Birthday

Belated birthday greetings to Mrs Adelaine Hain, who was eighty years young yesterday. Mrs Hain, whose son is of course the MP for Neath, Secretary of State for Wales and Northern Ireland, Labour deputy Leadership contender and one of my constituents, celebrated the big day as guest of honour at a reception in South Africa House.

This was of course the same place where, in the 1970s, she used to lead protests against the apartheid regime in her beloved homeland. Her courage and that of her family in standing up to the South African Government on matters of deep principle was quite remarkable.

I met her for the first time a few months ago at an Amnesty International Event in Neath and found her to be pleasant, friendly and very agreeable. She has led a remarkable life and still has a great deal more to contribute. Happy Birthday, Mrs Hain.

First amongst equals

The Guardian speculates on a possible looming challenge by David Miliband for the Labour Party leadership, arguing that many MPs are uneasy at the prospect of a Gordon Brown accession. Although Martin Kettle has largely based his piece on rumour, speculation and gossip he nevertheless paints a fascinating scenario. I was quite taken by this section:

If it is true, as several MPs have already estimated to me this year, that no more than 70 of Labour's 352 MPs are enthusiastic - as opposed to fatalistic - about Brown as the next leader, is that in itself not also extraordinary? Two senior Labour figures, admittedly critics of the chancellor, have separately suggested to me that as many as 180 Labour MPs are undecided about whom to vote for in the event of a credible senior challenge. Given that there has never been any sign of such a challenge, this is an exceptional level of doubt - if true.

There is a case of course for arguing that all of this background rumbling against the Chancellor is largely being stirred up by journalists looking for a story. After all there is nothing much that is newsworthy in Gordon Brown just walking into the job with little or no opposition. However, it is clear that lines are being fed to the press and journalists are being pointed at interesting story angles. Whether it all amounts to anything we will have to see.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Always look on the bright side of life

I had a tremendous sense of deja vu this morning when I read in the Western Mail that a small Welsh group of self-appointed guardians of our morals have reacted angrily to plans to turn controversial comedy Life of Brian into a musical.

When the original film came out I was a student at Swansea University and was outraged that it was both banned in my adoptive City and in the area of my birth, Wirral. As a result it was some years before I saw it.

When I was elected to Swansea Council, I made it my business to ensure that the Council could never ban films again and was instrumental in the motion that removed that power from Councillors. However, I could not muster enough support to overturn existing bans on the Life of Brian and the Last Temptation of Christ. Thus Swansea gained a reputation as one of the most reactionary Councils in Britain, the City which sustained the world's longest-running ban on the film.

People like Christian Voice can by all means protest but they should not prevent adults making their own choices about what they watch. This knee-jerk reaction of seeking to ban anything controversial belongs in the middle ages. As my late ward colleague, Rev. Wynford Thomas, once said of the Councillor Richard Lewis referred to in this article, "he would have been happier living in a time when they still burnt witches".

Common DNA

Today's Daily Telegraph is right to be sceptical about proposals to give Police across the European Union free access to Britain's DNA, fingerprint and car registration databases.

Apparently, the Home Office has agreed to a deal that will set up a network of national crime records across 27 states. All member states will have access to other countries' DNA and fingerprint data, as well as direct online access to vehicle registries. The exchanges could be up and running as early as next year and might eventually lead to the creation of a single Euro-wide database.

The problem is that not all the countries are operating the same standards of security, data protection or even have a common justice system, so that information held in Britain could suddenly become freely available elsewhere in Europe:

They also said British tourists fingerprinted in the UK as witnesses may find themselves sucked into foreign police investigations after innocently leaving prints, or DNA, at a location that later becomes a crime scene.

British police have millions of fingerprints on file – and this number will grow when they are taken for passport applications from 2009.

Britain also has by far the largest criminal DNA database in the world – 50 times the size of the French equivalent.

When Labour took office in 1997, it held only 700,000 samples. By next year, it will hold the samples of some 4.2 million people – seven per cent of the population – and is growing by about half a million a year.

The next largest DNA database in the EU is in Austria, where less than one per cent of the population is included. Coverage in Germany is half of that.

Britain gives its police greater freedom to obtain, use and store genetic information than other countries, who remove the profiles if the person is acquitted or not charged.

Civil liberties campaigners complain that the British database has effectively become a "permanent list of suspects". It includes at least 140,000 samples from people never charged with any offence.

The DNA from nearly one million juveniles has been added over the past decade.

Liberal Democrat MP, David Heath is quite right when he says: "While sharing information about convicted criminals is obviously helpful to crime prevention, it is quite another thing to be sharing information about innocent citizens, and worse still to be sharing it without the approval of either the UK or European parliaments."

Tory Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis also hits the nail on the head when he comments: "The decision to share broad categories of information across the enlarged EU is deeply troubling. The information includes personal data, it is not limited to criminals and there are no reliable means to guarantee the safeguards on the use of that information by criminals gangs or those not entitled to use that data."

"At a time when the Government's failure to ensure the proper registration of criminal convictions by British nationals in the EU is the subject of investigation, it is astonishing that ministers are proceeding with such a risky scheme without properly thinking through the consequences or debating it properly in Parliament."

DNA may well be valuable in detecting crime but there is an urgent need to purge databases of non-criminals and to get adequate safeguards into place across Europe before even considering this sort of sharing.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Aga news

Ok, own up, who remembers Lembit and Sian in Hello Magazine posing in front of an Aga in their new Mid Wales home? I have to confess I had managed to erase the image from my mind until a BBC journalist reminded me of it today and showed me this website. Peter Hain, the Secretary of State for Wales and Northern Ireland has got an Aga too.

It seems that no self-respecting Cabinet Member would be without one. What better way to escape from the pressures of brokering the Northern Ireland power-sharing agreement than to whip up a meal for 350 guests on your Aga?

Update: David Cornock now has this story on his blog. Judging by the tone of his piece he does not own an Aga himself, nor does he fully appreciate the advantages ownership of one bestows on up and coming politicians. This is not a campaigning tool, it is a way of life.

Further Update: It seems that the piece has mysteriously disappeared altogether from the Aga Westend website. Fortunately, there are cached searches, so we need not worry about this picture of domestic bliss vanishing from our lives.

Women in politics

It is sometimes surprising what arrives in the mail at an AMs office. Normally, it is correspondence relating to constituent's problems, invitations and a whole host of books and reports. There is not enough hours in the day to read all of these so we have to be very selective. Today, however, there was something, a 2007 ELDR Calendar themed around 'Successful Liberal Women' and containing pictures of twelve female Liberal MEPs from all around Europe.

I am sure that it was a good idea at the time but in the cold light of day it was just bizarre. Somehow, having a different Liberal MEP as a monthly pin-up did not appeal to me.

Most hated?

Today's Independent asks 'Is Norman Baker the most hated man in Westminster?' His crime apparently is to win a two-year battle to obtain a detailed breakdown of how much every MP spent on travel by car, taxi, air, train and even bicycle. The outcome has thrown up some interesting facts:

Janet Anderson, the Labour MP for Rossendale and Darwen, will not have been relishing exposure as the most enthusiastic motorist in the Commons, submitting a £16,612 mileage claim last year, the equivalent of covering 60,448 miles.

She was not returning calls yesterday but another Lancashire MP remarked acidly: "Janet has always loved her car."

Tory MP Mike Penning claimed £7,978 for mileage, although his Hemel Hempstead constituency is less than 30 miles from London. And Diane Abbott, the Labour left-winger who represents Hackney North & Stoke Newington, some five miles from Westminster, received £2,235 in car hire and taxi fees.

There might also be a certain froideur in the air when Mr Baker next bumps into Chris Huhne, his successor as the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman. Mr Huhne spent £3,284 on car mileage - but only £176 on train tickets, even though his Hampshire constituency is easily reached by rail.

It is possible that some MPs may well resent his tenacity but in my view he has done the right thing. The biggest drawback of this sort of transparency of course is that many people cannot see beyond the cost, they do not understand that when you represent a sprawling rural constituency like Rossendale and Darwen or Brecon and Radnor, with little or no public transport, then you need to use your car extensively. They do not understand that when you represent Orkney and Shetland then you need to use planes as otherwise the time you spend on a train is lost to your constituents. Many do not appreciate the demands on the time of a full time public representative. Much of the apparently inexplicable expenditure is down to MPs seeking to make best use of their limited time by minimising travel inconvenience.

This is the cost of having a representative democracy. The alternative does not bear thinking about. However, those who are paying also have a right to be able to scrutinise and question how their representatives are spending their money. That is why Norman Baker was right to ask and why I am still awaiting judgement on my own appeal regarding details of MPs postal costs. The Welsh Assembly needs to get in line. It is better to do it voluntarily than be dragged kicking and screaming into compliance.

Update: I have been reminded in another forum about a famous answer given by Jo Grimmond, a former MP for Orkney and Shetland, in a travel questionaire. When he was asked to state his nearest railway station, he answered Bergen. You simply cannot get to this constituency by train.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Environment day

The comments by the First Minister on Monday night could not really have come at a worst time for him given that yesterday was effectively environment day in the National Assembly. Not only did we have Rhodri's own statement on climate change but also a Tory motion on the same subject.

This is a difficult subject for the Tories. On the one hand they have a shiny new green image to defend, handcrafted by David Cameron's spin doctors, on the other they have a long history of contradictory statements and actions in defence of the motorcar and the aeroplane as well as opposition to wind turbines wherever they appear. It is difficult now to reconcile their opportunism with their words, a point that the Environment Minister was not slow to pick up on:

We are taught, are we not, that it is important that repentant sinners are welcomed back into the fold? I look towards the Conservative benches and I welcome the sudden conversion of Conservative Members. However, I ask myself whether they are truly repentant. We heard nothing about climate change before David Cameron became their leader; like sheep, they follow him and now talk of little else. Brynle made several points in the course of his address to the Assembly; I hate to mention the irony, Brynle, but you rose to prominence as someone who campaigned for cheaper road fuel, and that is one of the reasons why you became a national figure at the time.

The Tories also seem to be pushing nuclear power as a carbon-free alternative energy source. In doing so they seem prepared to overlook the other environmental and health impacts of such provision and somehow square their opposition to wind power. A point that Carwyn Jones also picked up on:

Today, David Davies has argued or put points in favour of nuclear power. He makes the point, and he is right in this regard, that nuclear power is carbon dioxideneutral—it does not create carbon dioxide except during the manufacture of the power station. There is that thorny problem with the waste, but perhaps that is for another day, as far as this debate is concerned. However, there is another form of energy that does not create any CO2, namely wind power, yet the Conservative Party has set its face against all forms of wind power. On the day after TAN 8 was published, Nick Bourne was quoted in the Western Mail—and I raised this with him at the time—as saying that he would oppose each and every windfarm application in Wales. You cannot have a sustainable energy policy, or hope to deal with climate change, if you exclude a form of energy that does not generate carbon dioxideand can give you the best opportunity to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

David Davies: I do not think that it is Conservative policy to oppose wind power as part of an energy mix, but we have to take account—and I hope that all responsible politicians will share this view—of the fact that you cannot deliver baseload electricity using wind power because you cannot store electricity. Therefore, you must have a means of producing electricity that you can rely on to generate a certain percentage of the electricity that you need. Wind power is never going to be able to do that.

Carwyn Jones: There is a limit to what wind power can do, that is quite right, but that does not mean that you should exclude it completely.

A myth is sometimes perpetuated that, somehow, wind power is extraordinarily inefficient compared with other forms of energy generation, but that is not right. We know that other forms of energy generation—gas, for example—operate at 40 to 45 per cent efficiency and wind will operate at around 20 to 25 per cent. What is important is to have a mix of energy sources, with as much renewable energy as possible, to ensure that you have enough electricity to meet demand at any one time.

Of course Carwyn Jones has had his own problems with wind power in the past as well. Like me he took the view that each application needs to be treated on its own merits and opposed the Scarweather development off the coast of Porthcawl. However, unlike me, his voting record did not match his rhetoric as Alun Cairns pointed out:

Alun Cairns: I am aghast at the statements that the Minister has just made in support of wind power, because they are completely contradictory to the arguments that he sought to give in Porthcawl during the time of the application for the offshore windfarm. I remember his standing at a public meeting, where there were more than 300 people, and the sum of his contribution was almost, ‘Over my dead body’. It was quite different to the way in which he voted here and quite different to the theme of the argument that he is making now.

Carwyn Jones: He is talking about a public meeting at the Grand Pavilion that he addressed—he was not even there. [Assembly Members: ‘Oh.’] I chaired that meeting and there was no sign of Alun Cairns at all. No-one noticed him and he did not speak at the meeting. However, he poses a fair question and the answer is this: times have changed. Climate change is far more real a problem now than was the case even a year or two ago and we all have to reassess the way in which we look at wind and other forms of energy in the light of new evidence.

It seems that we all having to re-evaluate our positions on these issues, including exploring alternative non-carbon energy sources such as tidal lagoons and micro-generation. However, the Tories have more ground to make up than most.

Sunnier Climes

For those like the First Minister who believe that global warming will mean hotter summers and a Spanish climate here is a sobering alternative view from Friends of the Earth:

Friends of the Earth's Assembly campaigner Gordon James, said, "This is a dangerously complacent and irresponsible statement by the First Minister. Although opportunities exist in areas such as clean energy developments, the environmental and economic threats posed by climate change significantly outweigh any benefits.

"The climate will become more unstable producing extremes of weather, such as flooding, droughts and storms, which will cause significant economic, social and environmental problems.

"The report from the National Trust about the damage to Wales' coastline gives an indication of what lies in store for us.

"Rhodri's statement gives the impression that there is little to worry about here in Wales. We can, it seems, sit back and look forward to enjoying Spanish sunshine while the tourists flock in.

"The reality will be very different as northern Europe will be creaking under the strain of millions of environmental refugees heading north to escape severe droughts whilst struggling to cope with rising sea levels and extremes of weather.

"Our response to the severe threat posed by climate change is already far too little too late. What we need now is strong political action - this sort of muddled thinking from the First Minister shows a serious lack of leadership on the most important issue of the day."

I would say that we are already seeing signs of those extremes of weather.

Mirror, mirror

He is back. In todays Telegraph Robert Kilroy-Silk accuses Marks and Spencers of using "distorting" mirrors in its changing rooms to make women look slimmer when they try on clothes:

M&S immediately denied the allegation, insisting that its mirrors were "bog-standard".
Nevertheless, the matter was elevated to the European Parliament.

Mr Kilroy-Silk raised the issue in a written question after his wife Jan and daughter Natasha said that mirrors in their local M&S stores in Windsor and Maidenhead were deliberately tilted or angled to make them look slimmer.

In his question, Mr Kilroy-Silk asked if, among the millions of EU regulations "covering virtually every aspect of life in the EU", there was not one that made it illegal for M&S to have mirrors that distorted women's body shapes.

Meglena Kuneva, EU commissioner for consumer protection, replied that the alleged practice "may fall under the scope of the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive".

"Under the directive, a commercial practice will be considered unfair if it is contrary to the requirements of professional diligence and if it materially distorts the economic behaviour of the average member of the group of consumers to whom the practice is addressed," she said.

But she advised Mr Kilroy-Silk to take up the issue with the "national authorities".

Nice to see that the former UKIP and Veritas MEP still has his finger on the pulse of the nation.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Our shifting shores

The National Trust, this morning, have issued a stark warning about the impact of global warming on Wales' coastline. Their report, Shifting Shores, shows that more than 70% of the coastline managed by the Trust in Wales, much of it internationally renowned, is under threat from coastal erosion and flooding. The land covers more than 143 miles bordering the sea - a sixth of the Welsh coastline.

The Environment Agency confirms this trend: A spokesman said, "The Severn Estuary is at high risk of flooding and the Lleyn Peninsula, inner Severn and Dee Estuary are vulnerable to coastal erosion and damage to coastal defences.

"The vulnerability of the Welsh coast poses problems for a large proportion of the population living in coastal communities, affecting the waste infrastructure - landfills, incinerators and waste transfer facilities - and transport infrastructure, rail and road."

As if that isn't bad enough Eluned Morgan MEP warns that rising sea levels could drown the landmark £67m Senedd building itself.

This process is a long-term one of course and how much land is lost very much depends on what we are prepared to defend. It is also possible that no matter what we do now, much of this flooding and erosion is inevitable.

Still, at least the First Minister is looking on the bright side. He told an audience of business people that it will “hardly be unhelpful” to the Welsh economy if global warming gives Wales a Spanish or Californian climate. He believes that a warmer Wales will have a competitive edge over other parts of Britain. Well, that is OK then. I am sure we will all sleep more soundly in our beds as a result of those soothing words.

In memory of Helena Parobij

A very moving ceremony last night as I attended the KPC Youth Centre in Pyle, Bridgend for the unveiling of a memorial bench for Helena Parobij, who founded the centre.

Helena was a quite remarkable woman, who following the drug-related death of her 18 year old son effectively squatted on a parcel of Council land at the rear of her house, enlisted the help of local businesses, moved the old canteen from Parc Prison there and opened up a youth club. She did all of this without any help from the local authority and , through a series of grants expanded it into a major facility. Tragically, she died of cancer a few years ago.

At the ceremony last night a bench, designed by the local kids, was unveiled by the Lord Lieutenant of Mid Glamorgan, Kate Thomas. Roy Noble was also there and the picture shows him saying a few words to those present. He has in fact, just mentioned it on his radio programme as well.

Today the KPC youth centre has a computer suite, pool and table tennis tables, drop-in cafe, information centre, all-weather pitch, BMX course, skateboard park and much more. It has 750 eighteen to twenty five year olds on its books from Pyle, Cornelly, Kenfig Hill and Cefn Cribwr and there has been a drop in crime in those communities. Agencies such as the Police are fully engaged and plans are afoot to set up a social enterprise there so as to ease the path of local youngsters into employment.

The big problem with the centre has been the lack of core funding. They are now on their third three year lottery grant and raise money from a whole host of other events and donations. The Council cannot afford to pay their running costs and there is no statutory duty on them to provide these sort of facilities. I have been arguing for years in the Assembly that this should be corrected and I am pleased to say that the Welsh Liberal Manifesto in May will contain a proposal along these lines.

Workers at the centre are hopeful that the social enterprise project will provide an income stream that will assist the sustainability of their work for some time to come but that does not help other communities that need a centre like this. Everywhere I go I tell people about this centre as an example of good practice. We need more of them.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Muddy Red Water

The fascinating thing about this letter from Bob Hart in today's Western Mail, defending the Welsh Assembly Government's record on civil service cuts from a PCS union point of view, is not that he is married to the Social Justice Minister in the Assembly Government, but the way he tries to establish Wales Labour as a completely separate entity from Tony Blair's creation on the other side of Offa's Dyke. Bob writes:

Within the constraints of limited powers and finance, the WAG is working to a philosophy quite different from that of New Labour. Most Labour AMs simply do not share the free market zeal or disdain for working people which characterises Blairism.

For the Wales Labour Party this is not a position that can be justified from a constitutional, financial or regulatory point of view especially when the actions of Tony Blair and his likely successor, Gordon Brown, are threatening the livelihood of thousands of civil servants in Wales. For most people Wales Labour is Tony Blair's Labour, no matter how hard AMs work to distance themselves from Blairism. They either want independence or they do not, they cannot claim a halfway position in which Wales Labour gets all of the plaudits for doing its own thing but none of the brickbats for what its parent body does, especially when the two are indistinguishable as accounting and constitutional units.

Indeed the position of the Welsh Assembly Government on these job losses is far from clear. Whereas, the Finance Minister Sue Essex told a rally in Cardiff on 31 January that the Assembly Government will oppose the job losses, her Government colleagues and the First Minister in particular have been more circumspect.

A Welsh Assembly Government spokesperson told the media that in a meeting with Dawn Primarolo, Rhodri Morgan would press for those job cuts to be offset by new jobs coming as part of the Lyons review. The First Minister was less than clear when pressed on this point in the Assembly last week.

The point is that although Bob Hart has the freedom to put some distance between Wales Labour and his colleagues in Westminster, his wife and other official representatives of the Assembly Government have to be more cautious. They cannot shake off responsibility for the Government's actions in Westminster or their consequences for Wales, because they remain elected representatives of the UK Labour Party. Any attempt to do so will soon be seen through by voters. The way that they run the Assembly is important but so too is the 'disdain for working people' shown by their party.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Discussion points

Many of the Sunday papers are leading on the frankly shocking (not) revelation that Tory leader, David Cameron, took drugs when he was 15 years old. Personally, I am with Jonathan Calder on this issue. He writes that the story will harm the Conservative leader 'not because people care about cannabis, but because everyone will be reminded that he went to Eton.'

Meanwhile, The Scotsman wins the prize for most original headline of the day over its very serious story of how confectionery giant Cadbury is seeking to recall Easter eggs because they have the wrong nut allergy labelling. Their copywriters came up with the following: 'Recall of chocolate leaves egg on the face of Cadbury'. Enough already!

Funding the election

The other article in the Wales on Sunday that caught my eye this morning was one about the BNP picking up hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers money to contest this year's Welsh Assembly elections.

The paper makes the assumption that the BNP will be able to find a full slate of 60 candidates for these elections, thus entitling it to a party political broadcast worth £75,000 in equivalent advertising costs and freepost leaflets to all 1.2 million households in Wales. The cost of second class postage on these would be £335,000. Against this would be balanced £22,500 in lost deposits as the party discovers the depth of its unpopularity across Wales.

All of this makes for good headlines but the chance of it happening are pretty slim. At the last Assembly elections the BNP managed to find one candidate. It did not do much better in the 2005 General Election. As a party they are very adept at talking themselves up and in this they are assisted by other politicians, who are keen to stamp their anti-racist credentials on the minds of the electorate, however, when it comes to the BNP delivering the candidates that they have promised, they always fall well short.

In the article Plaid Cymru's Dai Lloyd states that he is 'sickened' that 'so much public money is going to help [the BNP] peddle their racist, prejudiced claptrap. They are an absolutely abhorrent organisation and I don't want any part of my taxes going to fund them." He continues: "But we are where we are - they're not illegal, unfortunately, and they're allowed to stand in elections."

In the judgement of the BNP as an organisation I stand side-by-side with Dai in condemning them, however we live in a democracy and that means that we have to tolerate the fact that views can be expressed that we find objectionable and that people should be allowed to stand for election, even though their policies are contrary to the basic tenets of our democratic state.

In these circumstances we cannot apply rules differently to some parties, nor should we be seeking to outlaw views that we find to be illiberal and offensive. We have to win the argument, not employ the BNP's own tactics of exclusion and oppression against them. Once you do that then you set a precedent for them to do it to us.

The paper also quotes the regional organiser for Unison who says that his organisation will support postal and broadcasting workers who refuse to distribute or be involved in the production of the BNP's "electoral poison". Again, I have every sympathy with this view, but those who take it need to think through the consequences. If it is acceptable for workers to block the legal dissemination of propaganda for one political party, is it then right that they should do the same to other more mainstream parties? Would Unison support a member of a far left organisation who refused on grounds of conscience to do his or her job of delivering leaflets for the Tories for example? I think not. But once the precedent has been set then it is a very slippery slope.

My view is that if the BNP are able to find candidates then we must oppose them with every ounce of strength that we have. We must expose their racist nature, their distortions of the truth and their hateful, vile and prejudiced policies. But we must do that by winning the argument and by demonstrating their irrelevance. We must not do their job for them by allowing them to portray themselves as political martyrs.

Cheeky Brits

Matt Withers reports in today's Wales on Sunday that Lembit will be accompanying his Cheeky Girl girlfriend, Gabriela to this week's Brit Awards. However, it seems that the duo have unaccountably been overlooked for an award. The only explanation for this must be that they are not British. That must be right, surely.

Matt should rest assured that when I launch a document containing Welsh Liberal Democrat Education policies on Monday I have no fears that its very relevant and effective contents will in any way be overshadowed by this royal occasion.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Ming Campbell skewers Tony Blair at PMQs

Ming comes good!

Hospital blues

In a further embarrassment for Wales New Labour it emerges that yet another of their policy initiatives has hit the rocks, this time before they have even had time to implement it. Today's Western Mail reports that contractual issues will prevent the party from fulfilling its pledge that all hospital cleaners in Wales will be employed by the NHS, not outside agencies.

Private companies currently hold the contracts to manage Neath Port Talbot Hospital, Chepstow Community Hospital and St David's Community Hospital, in Cardiff, under the PFI deals struck to build the hospitals. These include long-term cleaning and catering contracts, which have been awarded to other private companies.

In response a Labour source is quoted as saying that the lack of control over staffing matters was one reason why the Assembly Government had avoided PFI projects. Yet not only is Neath Port Talbot Hospital in the Health Minister's constituency but it was built on the authority of his predecessor, another Labour Health Minister. Oops!

Snow traveller

The news that Hay-on-Wye has been twinned with Timbuktu has led to a number of comments. One entertaining one is in today's Guardian letters' page in which, presumably alluding to the snow, Aidan Roe of Manchester compares travelling experiences:

I went to Timbuktu (Hay-on-Wye toasts its twinning with Timbuktu, February 7) in 1965. Then, as now, there was a regular air link from Bamako to Timbuktu via Segou and/or Mopti. A regular ferry service runs from Mopti to Timbuktu. You can also take a king-size pirogue, which is usually faster. Getting to Hay-on-Wye? Now there's a problem.

It is of course worth the extra effort to get to Hay-on-Wye.

Friday, February 09, 2007

The 'I' word

As my surgery venues closed due to the snow, I was forced to postpone them. The chances are that nobody would have been able to get there anyway, the city was gridlocked. It took me nearly and hour and a half to travel from my Regional Office to my home, a distance of about two and a half miles.

I took the opportunity afforded by my enforced time at home to catch up on my e-mails and to watch last night's Dragon's Eye. The feature on Plaid Cymru's ambivalence about Independence was fascinating.

Their reporter Phil Parry, took as his starting point an entry on Bethan Jenkin's blog in which she declared unequivocally her support for a stand-alone Welsh Socialist Republic. On her blog she said "We should embrace the debate on Independence in the same way that the SNP have done in Scotland." She went on: "I support Independence because I'm embracing the opportunity to create a better Wales, a republican socialist Wales", and "I support Independence for Wales. I believe we should have the right to our own Government."

Bethan is of course Plaid Cymru's number one list candidate for South Wales West and a virtual shoo-in as an Assembly Member on 3rd May. Her views therefore carry some weight. However, when she was asked to comment on them on the programme she spent an hour on the phone with party bosses and then declined. It appears that the party hierarchy have put her back in the box. A shame really.

Update: Just to be clear I agree with Glyn Davies. It is important for politicians to have an opinion. The objective of my scorn is Plaid Cymru for seeking to gag Bethan, not her for saying what she thinks.

Repenting at leisure

The revelation today that the Assembly Government has a £67.5 million underspend this year must leave Plaid Cymru feeling very foolish. They rushed to do a deal with Labour to get the budget through in return for an extra £300,000 for schools. That is equivalent to 10 extra teachers across the whole of Wales.

Prior to Plaid breaking ranks the combined opposition parties were seeking £17.9 million extra for schools or 200 more teachers and were confident of getting it. We also wanted more money for Tir Mynydd and to close the funding gap between England and Wales in Higher Education funding. All of that went out of the window when the nationalists ran for cover, arguing that they had got the best possible deal. That claim has now been shown to be a fallacy.

As Jenny Randerson said in today's Western Mail, if Plaid had stuck to their guns then we could have had more money for schools in the budget. Instead they sold out teachers and pupils. They will have to answer for that at the ballot box.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Whatever the weatherman says

As we are talking about the weather it is worth reflecting on one exchange in yesterday's Plenary questions to the Environment Minister, or to give him his full title, the Minister for Environment, Planning and Countryside.

The Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Member for Cardiff Central, Jenny Randerson, started it off with a fairly innocuous question about global warming and then conjured up an image of its impact on Cardiff far worse than anything the City experienced today:

Jenny Randerson: You may be aware that Cardiff will be one of the first places under water. I am sure that you will have seen the thought-provoking picture produced by the World Wildlife Fund of the Millennium Stadium with a boat floating in the middle of it because it is under water. The Stern report said that expenditure of 1 per cent of GDP now could secure our future, avoiding the need to spend a much higher percentage later. Are you aware that the February tranche of the low-carbon building programme grant, funded by the Department of Trade and Industry and administered by the Energy Saving Trust was totally allocated by 11.30 a.m. on 1 February, the first day that it was available? Clearly, there needs to be an increase in the allocation for such grants, and since the DTI is clearly not providing enough money to meet the demand, will you please fill the gap?

David Melding, as ever, provided some reassurance. He is obviously a 'fight them on the beaches' sort of politician, rather than somebody who believes that we have to pick and choose where we do our King Canute thing:

David Melding: Before we all reach for our flippers, we have about 50 years or so before we will see some of the more alarming and measurable increases in sea levels. We must ensure that, in all sorts of infrastructure projects and work, measures to address the expectation of a pressure on our defences are built in. Thereafter, we must ensure that we start to recover the situation, and that we do not add to the climate problems that are now locked in, so that future generations will go on to enjoy our wonderful capital city.

Jenny is right though. The Senedd may have built to last over a 100 years but it will not be too useful if it were under water.


There was only a small amount of snow in Swansea this morning but listening to the radio I very quickly established that it was much worse towards Cardiff. As soon as they reported that two eastward lanes of the M4 were closed because of an accident I decided to let the train take the strain to get me to my 9am meeting in the Senedd.

Reports in the newspapers tell us that Industry chiefs believe that transport failures today could cost the economy hundreds of millions of pounds:

Paul Knightley, forecaster for MeteoGroup UK, the weather division of the Press Association, said, 'It's going to be pretty dire. It's enough to bring the transport system into chaos.'

David Frost, Director-General of the British Chambers of Commerce, said, 'The impact of this weather forecast on Britain will be huge.

'UK workers already have to deal with constantly delayed and over-crowded trains for which they pay exorbitant fares.

'This situation highlights the need for a real change in the current UK travel infrastructure.'

'It is expected that the lateness and loss of work hours caused by transport disruptions will cost the British economy up to £400m.

They are absolutely right about the need to invest in transport infrastructure, but is it any wonder that the main topic of conversation in Britain is the weather when a little snow cause so much chaos?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Ming and The Barrage

I am very much in favour of new media but there is a case for ensuring that you get the camera angles right. For example the last video of Ming had a tree growing out of his head, whilst this one....

On Peter Hain

Via Liberal England comes this passage from today's Guardian on my constituent, Peter Hain:

Gordon Brown comes out of Iraq better than Peter Hain. It is a very long time since British politics has witnessed anything quite as abject and contemptible as Hain's recent interview in the New Statesman.

"The neocon mission has failed," Hain proclaims - now. "People have forgotten about [the government's achievements] because of the Iraq conflict," the Northern Ireland secretary tells us - now. The government found itself working with "the most rightwing American administration, if not ever, then in living memory", he observes - now, in the year 2007, just as he happens to be running for the Labour deputy leadership.

But really, what an utter wretch this man is! What a dismal, slippery poltroon! Like Molière's Monsieur Jourdain learning that he had been speaking prose all his life, Hain suddenly discovers that George Bush is a rightwing politician, something he evidently never noticed in the years when Bush was governor of Texas, and presided over the execution of 153 people - on one occasion publicly mocking a woman he had put to death - or indeed when he reached the White House.

It's quite true that we took part in the Iraq war in order to demonstrate our - or Blair's - absolute loyalty to that American administration. Like Brown, Hain was a member of the cabinet when the war began. Like him, he could have resigned. Like him, he decided, in Lloyd George's phrase, to perish with his drawn salary in his hands.

In fact, Hain went further. Two years ago he was still defending the case for regime change, or insisting that "an Iraq moving into democracy provides a better future for the Iraqi people". And he sneered at what he called the "tired old attack" which "questions the prime minister's integrity" - over the dossiers and claims about weapons of mass destruction, that is.


It was a day of lists and challenges in the chamber yesterday. First off was Neath Labour AM, Gwenda Thomas, who set a new standard in the number of local organisations that can be squeezed into a single question:

Gwenda Thomas: I am sure that you will join me in welcoming the work of Neath Port Talbot Age Concern, which has developed two projects under the community food co-operative programme: the ‘you are what you eat’ lunch clubs and the Bangladeshi community women’s taster group. Will you also join me in welcoming the £160,000 recently received by organisations in my constituency from the Sports Council for Wales’s active lifestyles fund? The organisations that have received this money include Llangatwg Comprehensive School, Celtic Community Leisure, Tairgwaith trotting club in the Upper Amman Valley, the Cwmllynfell welfare hall, Tonmawr 2000 and the Neath YMCA. This is welcome news, as is the Welsh Assembly Labour Government’s investment through the ‘Climbing Higher’ strategy for the benefit of all our communities.

It is entirely possible that as the election looms then other members may seek to emulate this example. They will have a tough job beating Gwenda. Carl Sargeant did accept the challenge but his emphasis was slightly different. He was determined to paint his home County of Flintshire as a mecca of Welsh football:

Carl Sargeant: I did not take part in the overall debate, but I welcome the committee’s report and the contributions that have been made. Do you agree that Flintshire is pretty good on the wing, particularly Airbus? We have home-grown players such as Kevin Ratcliffe, Michael Owen and Ian Rush. We should recognise that football is associated with the whole of Wales, and we should embrace funding across the north and south.

I am sure he must have missed somebody out but cannot think of a name for now.

Another Government IT success

For those who still have confidence in the Government's ability to deliver the technology that will make their ID card work, then this article in today's Guardian must be sobering reading.

The paper tells us that the microchips in 3 million passports, which are supposed to be valid for 10 years, only carry a 24-month warranty:

Whitehall spending watchdogs also warn today that much of the technology surrounding the new ePassports is still unproven and could lead to passenger delays at airports, raising doubts about their immediate security benefits.

A National Audit Office report says the £440m Home Office ePassports project has so far been delivered on time and on budget but flaws in its technology mean that it may still prove not to be value for money. The cost of renewing a passport has been increased from £51 to £66 to pay for the introduction of ePassports which include a digital photograph and biographical details held on a microchip which is read by an electronic scanner at immigration control.

The ID card project becomes more problematic by the day not least in its potential to be delivered on time or on budget.



The letter bomb attack on workers at Swansea's DVLA this morning was quite shocking. I cannot find words strong enough to condemn this outrage and when I told Sky News this afternoon that when the perpetrator is caught then they should lock him or her up and throw away the key, I was not understating my feelings.

The Guardian website is reporting that there have now been seven such attacks and it is difficult to know or understand what is motivating them. It is important however that everybody dealing with mail now takes extra precautions until those responsible are caught.

In the meantime my sympathies and best wishes go out to all the victims of these attacks and their families.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

An unpalatable coalition

All the Tory blogs are talking about the possibility of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government after the next General Election. Just in case anybody is tempted this video of Jacob Rees-Mogg on Newsnight illustrates perfectly why that should not happen

Should he stay or should he go?

It was inevitable really, Rhodri Morgan says that the Assembly election campaign should be about Welsh issues, so the Western Mail rings around all the Labour AMs to ask them if they think Tony Blair should stand down before the May elections. The response was lukewarm to say the least.

Only one Labour Assembly Member was prepared to offer unequivocal support for Tony Blair to stay on. The rest stuck to the party line, which is basically 'we are trying to pretend he is not there.'

What was interesting for me was the admission that the Prime Minister is planning to play a full role in the Assembly election campaign with a series of high-profile visits already pencilled into his diary. This is going to make Labour's 'Welsh issues' strategy very difficult to sustain. I can think of no better way to associate Wales Labour with the failings and scandals of the Blair government than by having the man himself campaigning in Wales during the Assembly elections.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Disappearing Parties

Is the Forward Wales Party a dead duck? I only ask because its 2004 European List Candidate and former Secretary of State for Wales, Ron Davies, has announced that he will be contesting Caerphilly as an Independent in May.

On the BBC this morning Ron elaborated on his reasons for this decision:

Speaking on BBC Wales' Good Morning Wales programme, Mr Davies said although he was standing as an independent, he was still "very much a member of Forward Wales" - the new independent party of the left.

The reason he was not standing under the Forward Wales banner, he explained, was because of the "party political pantomime down in Cardiff Bay at the moment" and the changes to the assembly electoral system introduced last year.

"The electoral system has been rigged," he added. "The Labour Party last year introduced changes which will make it very difficult for the small parties to get a foot in.

Fair enough you would think, but then just now Radio Wales that Forward Wales' leader and its only Parliamentarian, John Marek, is also going to be standing as an Independent when he defends his Wrexham Assembly seat.

Could it be that both men have worked out that Forward Wales is about as popular in Wales as a dose of bird flu and that their best chance of maximising their vote is to put as much distance between themselves and their former political base as possible. Perhaps they should just disband it and have done with it.

Another Tory bites the dust

David Cornock confirms that Nick Bourne has finally got his way and had Peter Davies, father of AM and MP, David, removed from the list of approved Assembly candidates, just days before the party chooses its candidates for the regional list in south east Wales. The process took three months to bring to a head.

Mr. Davies' crime was to write to the Western Mail to propose that the Welsh Assembly should be scrapped. Obviously, freedom of speech and thought is not something that the Conservatives value in their candidates.

Mr. Davies has taken the decision well. He is said to have compared his treatment by the Tory party with chairman Mao's China.

In three months

With less than three months to go before voters go to the polls to elect the third National Assembly for Wales, speculation as to the outcome continues apace. Continuing a long-running theme of theirs, today's Western Mail considers that the best chance for a rainbow coalition is the installation of Dafydd Elis-Thomas as First Minister. Whether the Presiding Officer could even win the support of his own group for that position is questionable but the idea is a mildly amusing diversion nevertheless. Alas the paper goes and spoils it all by asking Dr. Denis Balsom to give his assessment of who is going to win what.

Dr. Balsom's view that Labour is likely to lose Clwyd West, Cardiff North, Preseli Pembrokeshire, Aberconwy and Llanelli, while picking up a regional list seat in Mid and West Wales is a fair bet. However, my understanding is that Llanelli at least is no sure bet for either Labour or Plaid. I would also not be so sure about John Marek holding his seat or of Plaid hanging on in Ceredigion.

My concern with Dr. Balsom's analysis is that he has not taken account of the impact of some of the Tory gains on other parties. Thus it is likely that if Jonathan Morgan wins Cardiff North then the Welsh Liberal Democrats will pick up a list seat in South Wales Central, putting us on 7 seats. On balance, if I was asked to predict the outcome I would say that Labour will have 25-26 seats, Plaid Cymru on 11-13, Tories on 12-13, Independents on 1-2 and the Welsh Liberal Democrats on 7-10 seats. All this proves is that there is no point speculating as anything can happen.

Far more important is the report on cancer services in the same newspaper. The Assembly Health and Social Services Committee review into this subject concludes that there are key shortfalls in the provision of radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery in Wales - all of which could have potentially disastrous effects on a patient's treatment and chance of surviving cancer. It also found that patients are struggling to access these services in some parts of Wales and are suffering distressing and sometimes harmful delays in diagnosis and treatment and that Wales needs to boost its cancer workforce and investment in equipment.

I know that in Swansea the NHS Trust is not meeting its targets on cancer treatment and that as a result patients will suffer undue distress and risk. These are the issues we should be talking about, not who is going to win what seat in three months time. That is because whatever happens on 3rd May, the first task of any new Assembly Government, irrespective of its colour, will be to put this right. We should not be distracted from that task by all the talk of coalitions and ministerial limousines.

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