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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Charisma by-pass

Sanddef is providing a very useful service at the moment in translating Vaughan Roderick's series of blog posts on how things may pan out in Wales politically in 2008.

The one I have taken the most interest in is the post relating to that part of my own region which is in the former County of West Glamorgan. Here Vaughan predicts little movement in terms of the political tenure of the five parliamentary seats in the County. Even Swansea West, the one seat that looks most interesting, seems destined to stay with Labour if Vaughan is correct:

Geraint Davies the former MP for Croydon Central is the new candidate. That could be bad news for the Liberal Democrats. I think it's safe to describe Geraint as the Peter Black of the Labour Party. He's not a charismatic man nor a colourful one but he will work and work and work to ensure that he keeps the seat. The fact that he has moved his family from Croydon to Swansea in order to be nominated is proof of his unrelentingness and commitment. Without a doubt Geraint will try to match the Liberal Democrats leaflet for leaflet, petition for petition during the campaign and he will be a very difficult man to beat.

We will see. After all, as one comment suggests, Geraint Davies lost Croydon Central in 2005 for a reason, and it was not necessarily anything to do with a swing back to the Tories. I am still trying to work out whether the comparison with me is a backhanded compliment or not. Probably not.

Another Summer video

Like Chris Black I enjoyed this, and it is much better than the latest Harry Potter film.


It is the time of year when the media have a lot of space to fill and very little real news to put in it, so they write about politicians and their holidays instead. Lembit Öpik sums up the phenomenon in this piece in the Guardian:

Not to be outdone, Lib Dem leader Menzies Campbell is taking his traditional holiday on the Hebridean island of Tiree, while Lembit Öpik plans to take a camper van around Wales. Like most MPs, he'll be hard at work in his constituency. "It's journalists who go on two-month holidays because they have nothing to do when we're not spoon-feeding them stories from Westminster," says "Öpik.

Mind you, he has an incentive to holiday at home. According to Digital Spy, both of the Cheeky Girls have moved in with him in his constituency cottage.

The trend is to holiday modestly, preferably in the UK, so as to counter the lavishness so prevalent under Tony Blair. Thus Gordon Brown is going to the south coast followed by a brief sojourn in Kirkaldy and David Cameron will be taking a ferry to Brittany. Just for the record, I will be taking a ferry to Ireland for a week and, no, I will not be blogging whilst I am there.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Obama Girl

A small look at the extraordinary use of YouTube by American politicians and their supporters. Coming soon to a computer near you Giuliani Girl and McCain Mama. Maybe we should do something similar in the UK.

Flooding bonuses

I am not particularly enamoured with large bonuses in either the private or the public sector. There is always a question mark over who determines them, how they are assessed and whether they can be justified or not. I am not therefore singling out the Environment Agency for any other reason apart from the fact that they are the latest body to have gone down this route.

Those officials I have met and worked with in the Environment Agency are dedicated, hard-working professionals who do a very difficult job very well under the spotlight of intensely critical public scrutiny. These individuals deserve large bonuses at the same level as their bosses. I am not entirely sure that they are getting them.

The Guardian notes that the agency's chief executive, Baroness Young, has received a 15% bonus of £24,000 on top of her £163,000 salary. Eight other executives, including the director of water management, received awards averaging 10% of their salaries. Chris Huhne has identified the important lack of accountability in this award, it was announced after Parliament had gone into recess, and maybe this is the point. If public bodies are to award bonuses of this sort then they must be forced to come to Parliament to justify them.

As for the suggestion in many reports that flooding and the failure to keep more than half the flood defences in high risk areas up to scratch make these bonuses indefensible, well perhaps there is something in that too. There is though a political line of accountability that needs to be followed, including questions as to the priority given to public spending by politicians, how government has made things worse by allowing building on flood plains, and what regard Ministers have had to these issues.

We should not allow the very separate issue of bonuses for officials, to distract us from a proper investigation of the planning and strategic management of flood prevention. That matter is urgent and I would hope that all elected bodies will be putting it at the top of their agenda.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Yes, Mr. President!

I went to see the Simpsons' movie last night. It was remarkably good fun. One line in it sounded familiar for some reason. It was almost identical to something I had been told by a newly appointed Welsh Assembly Minister.

I bumped into the Minister in question at a presentation on an issue that affects both my region and his constituency. I congratulated him on his appointment and asked whether he had become bogged down in briefing papers yet. He told me that he had not. In fact he said that he avoids reading large documents whenever possible, expecting his civil servants to summarise the salient points for him and to draw attention to anything controversial or difficult.

Compare this with the President Schwarzenegger character in the Simpson's movie. When presented with a series of large dossiers he hands them back to his advisor, telling him: "I was elected to lead, not read."

Uncanny, huh? I will get my coat.

Previous lives

I know it is not fashionable for opposition politicians to jump to the defence of Government Ministers, but I feel that I have to make an exception for Plaid Cymru's Elin Jones.

Elin is currently on four weeks holiday in New Zealand, an event that was no doubt planned and booked well before she was made Rural Affairs Minister in the Welsh Assembly Government. Despite this there are siren voices in the Wales on Sunday who believe that she should not have gone. Instead, they argue, she should have stayed behind to personally oversee the destruction of Shambo the bullock, an incident which is described as 'the biggest story in Welsh rural affairs since foot and mouth.'

For goodness sake, get some perspective. Not only is Elin entitled to a holiday, but the whole Shambo incident is a huge storm in a teacup. It is a matter that Government officials are more than capable of dealing with on their own without having a Minister breathing down their necks all of the time. Ministers are there to set the policy and strategic direction of the government, civil servants are employed to deliver and administer that framework.

It is my judgement that the active and direct involvement of a government minister in this matter would have made things worse. New Zealand was most probably the best place for the Minister to be as officials executed their instructions, but please don't stay there Elin, come back soon as I am sure we will need you to make some more decisions. Oh, and we will have plenty of questions to ask you as well when the Assembly reconvenes in September.

As if to underline the absurdity of the whole Shambo incident, one of the Monks was on the Radio Wales religious programme this morning. Yes, I know, I have a radio alarm and could not be bothered to reach over and switch it off.

The monk explained to the interviewer his belief that the bullock was a reincarnated soul and expressed the forlorn hope that Shambo might have been a veterinary surgeon in a previous life, in which case I suppose they think he got his just deserts. I was still half asleep at this point but I am sure that the inference was that those who made the decision to destroy Shambo may well be punished by being reincarnated as bullocks.

Still if they can have one those very attractive garlands hung around their necks and have their every need met by Hindu monks it may be worth it. And it will save a fortune in airfares to New Zealand.

Saturday, July 28, 2007


Paul Flynn MP draws a delightful pen picture of some of the distinguishing features of two recent Secretaries of State for Wales:

'The eternal bachelor Paul Murphy led an elevated existence, slightly remote from the Hurley Burley of parliamentary drudgery. His desk shone unsullied with papers. His mornings were passed in his dressing gown listening to Beethoven in his elegant Chiswick flat. He impatiently awaited the call to ministerial office.

Alun Michael was driven by a work obsession. Hugely productive, his day began at dawn with a marathon run and continued with ferocious industry until the early hours of the morning. In our first parliament, we were frequently condemned to linger in our office throughout the night for late votes. MPs will not tolerate this now. While the rest of us were half sleeping longing for the deliverance of a division bell, Alun would be cheerfully working. He had a group of friends who had also adopted a nocturnal life style. To our astonishment, he would ring them in the early hours. One was the late John Reynolds Leader of the Cardiff City Council.

Yesterday, I had an angry carefully written nine paragraph, 500 word e-mail from Alun on higher education.

It was e-mailed at 3.16 a.m.'

I don't think that they will thank him for this insight.

Two birds, one stone

The sun is shining and 800 leaflets and an overgrown garden beckon, so for now I will leave you with two telling quotes from this morning's Western Mail.

First up is Tomos Livingstone on the embattled Tory leader:

Every time Mr Cameron has tried to do policy, it’s collapsed around his ears. The grammar school debacle is one example: one Tory MP told me the press had actually underestimated the damage that volte face had done, an analysis that suggests some serious discontent. And one popular idea suggested – a tax break for married couples – has no guaranteed place in the Tory manifesto.

Mr Brown is letting it be known he might call an early election; Mr Cameron says there will be a Conservative “pre-manifesto” in October.

Most worrying of all, the slump in the polls has revealed how fragile Mr Cameron’s grip on the party is.

The impression MPs have been giving is that they are prepared to put up with a leader with no tie who talks about the environment a lot if it means he’s ahead in the polls, but not if he isn’t. There’s no serious talk of yet another leadership crisis – after all, who else have they got?

Not a good time for the Tories and, according to Anthony Jones of Llanidloes in the letters' page, Plaid Cymru face some challenges as well, in adjusting to government:

The challenge for Plaid, particularly now they have been drawn into the messy political reality of coalition government, will be to maintain their strong perception in the public’s mind. Government is about saying “No” to policies the public wants, and whether they will be happy to watch as schools and hospitals close or sick people are refused drugs will be interesting to watch.

That is one development I will be monitoring very closely.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Enough already

The BBC report that the post-mortem on Shambo the bullock has revealed that it had lesions typical of TB. This means of course that it is possible that other animals in Skanda Vale may be infected:

In a statement on Friday, the assembly government said it was now considering what other action was necessary "to protect human and animal health in relation to the test results from other animals in the herd".

"Further samples have been taken for further laboratory investigations, including bacteriological culture - these results will not be available for several weeks," continued the statement.

........With regard to the rest of the herd, the spokesman said that during the annual test which occurred in June, three cattle came back inconclusive.

I can see this going on for some time. Will we get the same media circus if the Welsh Assembly Government determine that these three animals need to be put down as well? I think I need to have a lie down.

The art of spin

Checking through the website of the South Wales Evening Post tonight I came across this article from a few days ago.

Neath Port Talbot Council has long had a reputation as a high-taxing authority. For many years it has had the highest Council Tax in Wales. This is something that the current leadership is anxious to put right, however short of cutting tax bills immediately, there is no quick way to achieve this goal. It will take a number of years of below-inflation rises, at a rate less than that imposed by other Councils.

The alternative is to try and convince local residents that things are moving more quickly than they think. Thus, after each Council Tax increase the controlling Labour group have distributed leaflets claiming that they have out-performed their neighbours in keeping bills down, even though they continue to charge more for Council services than anybody else.

Now they have adopted a new tack, they are claiming that their average bill is nearly £250 below the highest bill in Wales. A rather convenient report by the Halifax Building Society has shown that at £889, Neath Port Talbot has the 11th lowest bill in Wales. This compares to Monmouthshire which tops the table with £1,130.

Fortunately, one commentator on the Evening Post website has seen through this ruse:

"Comparing the average Neath Port Talbot Council tax bill with that in Monmouthshire is the slickest piece of political spin I have seen in a long time. The reason why the average bill in Neath Port Talbot is £250 below that in Monmouthshire is because they have bigger houses. Thus more taxpayers live in band D, E, F, G and H houses and thus pay more than the vast majority of people in Neath and Port Talbot who live in band A and B houses. The reality is that Neath Port Talbot still has the highest Council tax in Wales and has a long way to go to put that right no matter how its leader spins it."

It was a nice try.

Back to earth with a bump

Those Tories, journalists and commentators who have been talking up Glyn Davies' chance of winning Montgomery at the next General Election must have come down to earth with a bump last night.

A Council by-election for the Welshpool Gungrog ward of Powys County Council saw the Welsh Liberal Democrats retain the seat with 41% of the vote. The Conservative candidate came fourth out of four with 95 votes, losing over 12% vote share in the process.

They really will have to do better than that.

A small oasis of dryness

I have meetings and surgeries all day so very little time to blog. However, I thought that it was worth mentioning one extraordinary escape from recent flooding in the Midlands.

My attention has been drawn to this letter in the Daily Telegraph:

Sir - Why is Ambridge not affected by flooding? Surely the River Am must have burst its banks by now, or has Borsetshire moved to another part of the country? How can they be harvesting at Home Farm in torrential rain?

Karin Proudfoot, Longfield, Kent

What is Ambridge's secret? Surely one of the Archer family should come along and tell us.


I spent most of last night moving the content of my main website to here. I will be re-directing the URL shortly.

I already post all my press releases onto this site so it seemed logical to put everything else there as well. It now serves as a joint site for me as an AM and the South Wales West Liberal Democrats.

The next task is to sort out the archive by putting all the pre-May 2007 material on-line that is not already there.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Life with Lembit

Today's Western Mail reports that Siân Lloyd is about a third of the way through writing her life story – provisionally called Sunshine and Showers. The paper speculates that the book will dish the dirt on her ex-fiancé, Lembit Öpik, though they offer no direct quote from Siân herself to confirm that.

One can almost hear numerous journalists salivating in expectation. I would hope that Siân herself has more class than to succumb to such a base temptation.

Shambo, the sequel

Radio Wales is currently providing near-live coverage of scenes at Skanda Vale as a group of reporters and peaceful protesters await the arrival of Welsh Assembly Inspectors to take away Shambo the bullock for slaughter. They were due at 8am but have still not turned up.

Nobody knows what will happen. I suspect that there will be some sort of sit-down protest and that inspectors may have to force locks so as to get Shambo out, but apart from that nobody is really expecting trouble. No doubt there will be a large contingent of police officers offering support.

Perhaps they should be covering it live on television as well so we can all see for ourselves. Is it the silly season already?

Update 8.50am: The Government officials have arrived but have been turned away as they do not have the correct paperwork. Good grief! What is worse is that I am apparently live-blogging this entire saga. How sad is that? I am now going to desist and get on with my day.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

End of the honeymoon

As one honeymoon ends, another begins. Today's Guardian reports on an ICM poll that suggests that David Cameron is losing his appeal to voters. It shows that he is no longer attracting new support to the party.

At the same time the poll 'suggests that the Brown bounce is gaining momentum: 21% of voters say their opinion of Gordon Brown has improved in the last month, against only 8% who say it has fallen. By contrast, Mr Cameron is in growing trouble: 21% of voters say their opinion of him has dropped since Mr Brown took over.'

Mr. Cameron is also attracting disquiet in his own constituency, so much so that even the Daily Mail is critical of his trip to Rwanda, whilst Witney residents struggle to overcome some very severe flooding. They tell us:

David Cameron is poised to fly home and face his critics following his decision to visit Rwanda while his constituents battle with flood chaos.

The Conservative leader will launch a direct appeal to his MPs for party loyalty and face down "backward-looking" opponents after coming under fire on several fronts during his two-day African trip.

Even Rwandan journalists asked Mr Cameron why he was in their country discussing aid when parts of his Witney constituency in Oxfordshire were "devastated by floods".

The ill-fated 8,000-mile round trip was made worse when he awoke yesterday to an attack from former Tory treasurer and one-time party donor Lord Kalms.

The peer complained in a newspaper interview that he was "disillusioned" with Mr Cameron's abandoning of Right-wing issues and warned that the party was enduring a "summer of discontent".

The storm clouds really are gathering for the Tory leader.

Single Minded

Just in case anybody should be in doubt as to the focus of South Wales West Conservative AM, Alun Hugh Cairns over the next two years, he has just invited me to join a Facebook group entitled, 'Elect Alun Cairns as MP for the Vale of Glamorgan'. I have declined.

No doubt Alun will avoid commiting any of his Assembly resources to this campaign, and will be as active within the South Wales West Region as he has always been.

Update: Martin Eaglestone records some understandable reactions to the news of Alun Cairns' selection. Val Lloyd is particularly scathing:

Alun Cairns' move shows a blatant disrespect to the people in the south west of Wales. It is less than three months after the election and he is already looking about for his next opportunity. It's a disgrace. How can Alun Cairns properly represent the concerns of people in the south west of Wales when he is campaigning for election in a completely different region? Just like his leader David Cameron, he is cutting and running from his constituency at the first opportunity. I call on Carpet Bagger Cairns to resign his seat in the Assembly at once so that people in the south west of Wales get the full-time representation they deserve."

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The cost of free prescriptions

This morning's Western Mail tells us that there is considerable unease on the part of some GPs and medical charities about the impact of free prescriptions, introduced in Wales as of 1 April this year.

The paper reports on anecdotal evidence that patients are already bombarding their GP surgeries with demands for cheap over-the-counter medicines free on prescription. They say that demands include prescriptions for paracetamol, which can cost as little as 1p a pill.

They also suggest there is increasing concern that patients with genuine medical problems are struggling to get appointments with their doctors in an already under-pressure system as people seek to save a few pounds on medicines.

Dr Ashok Rayani, a GP in Swansea, said, “We have seen many more patients coming to the surgery asking for hayfever treatments, paracetamol and ibuprofen.

“When we recommend that they go to their pharmacist, they say why can’t they have a prescription.

“It’s not just the GPs who are under pressure – the nurses are under pressure and other patients, with more health needs or with chronic illnesses, are not able to get appointments to see their doctor for more serious problems.”

The director of Bowel Cancer Wales, Nick Phillips, makes an excellent point when he highlights the inequity of ground-breaking and expensive anti-cancer drugs being denied to patients on the NHS on the grounds of costs, while everyone gets free prescriptions regardless of their means. He asks why should a multi-millionaire have the right to free prescriptions?

Welsh Liberal Democrat Health Spokesperson, Jenny Randerson, agrees: “The 20% of people who were paying for prescription should, in my view, continue paying for them. At the same time we should also be sorting out a much longer list of chronic conditions, which would be eligible for free prescriptions. We have a financially over-stretched health service and this [free prescriptions] is an expensive option.”

Flooding blame game

This morning's newspapers continue to feature the very worrying flooding hitting large areas of Britain. Many of them start to focus on causes and solutions, with the Guardian in particular telling us that the government failed to act on its own advice to overhaul UK flood defences and drainage systems that first highlighted deep-seated problems three years ago.

What is worrying is that the Government seems to be determined that its very admirable programme to build three million more homes by 2020 should not be held up by the problem. The Housing Minister told us yesterday that flood waters covering large areas of central and western England are no reason to delay this scheme, and that includes developments built on flood plains.

Yvette Cooper appears to be under the impression that adequate flood defences built around new housing developments should solve the problem, but she is overlooking an important principle: if the volume of water is expanding then it needs to go somewhere. If we build more and more impermeable surfaces on floodplains and over ground that previously soaked up rain, then flooding will occur regardless, possibly in other not so well protected areas. The Government really needs to think again on this issue.

The Western Mail reports that more than 170,000 households in Wales live in homes which have been built on flood plains. Despite that the Welsh Conservative Environment spokesperson thinks that it is just about building higher walls. He is deluding himself. There needs to be a careful re-evaluation of policy so that if we do build on flood plains in the future then we are clear about not only how these developments will be protected but also what their impact will be on flooding elsewhere. It may not just be about shielding new estates, but existing settlements as well, which may be under threat as a result of this building work.

The Welsh Liberal Democrat leader, Lembit Öpik tells the paper that the Government must now give the overall responsibility for flooding to the Environment Agency and put a significant amount of investment in flood defences. He is certainly right about the extra investment needed, but I am not so sure about the transfer of responsibility he advocates.

The Environment Agency already has significant powers with regards to flooding, and with the introduction of TAN 15 can effectively hold up and possibly veto developments it considers will cause an unacceptable risk of flooding. I am not aware of any clamour from them for even more powers, though I will seek them out at the Royal Welsh Show today and ask them.

I am not happy about ceding control of a democratic planning process to an unelected quango, but I do accept that the Agency's advice must carry weight and that guidance must reflect that. If they are to take planning authorities with them, the Environment Agency needs to have the resources to invest in more complex and precise modelling so that their advice carries greater authority. In the past they have taken a sledgehammer approach when advising local Councils, with the result that whole areas have been deemed at risk of flooding when in fact further work has identified that it is just a small part of it that needs protection from development.

If we can get that advice right and establish some clear principles for future development in Wales, then there should not be a need for a wholescale transfer of powers to the Environment Agency. Local Councils can be trusted to act responsibly if they have confidence in what they are being told and it seems to me that this is where the Assembly Government needs to concentrate its fire, that and more money for flood defences for existing settlements.

We must build more affordable housing but those developments must be sustainable too. That means that they must be protected from flooding but also that they do not cause flooding problems elsewhere.

Monday, July 23, 2007

For Trekkies everywhere

Proof that it is recess after all!


I am in the Assembly all day unpacking my office after the big move. Essentially, the Welsh Liberal Democrats have taken over the Tory offices at the end of the corridor so as to enable all the other groups to work together.

I am due to be in the Royal Welsh Show tomorrow and already I am looking forward to wading through mud to get from the carpark to the main showground. Could this be Wales' answer to Glastonbury?

All the reports of flooding and Cabinet Emergency Sub-Committees are creating the impression of an almost-apocalyptic event. Then just when we thought it could not get any worse, farmers tell us that the impact of the weather on agriculture means that we will be paying a lot more for our food from now on.

Are these the benefits that the First Minister predicted we would be reaping from global warming and climate change? I think not.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

A new Kinnock?

Andrew Rawnsley asks in this morning's Observer whether David Cameron might be the Tory Party's Neil Kinnock, a leader who does much to rescue and rehabilitate the party, but who can't deliver power.

It is the Conservative Party's poor by-election performances on Thursday that has raised these sorts of questions. 'To be more competitive than they have been for the past decade,' Rawnsley tells us, 'the Tories need to be able to demonstrate that they can raise their share of the vote in Labour seats. The Tories should be squeezing the Lib Dems out of the picture, not the other way round.'

Cameron showed poor tactical judgement in the way that he handled the Ealing Southall by-election, raising expectations that could not be delivered. The problem was that Cameron's personally chosen candidate was as ideologically adrift as the Tory leader himself.

Walter Mondale's telling put-down of Gary Hart in the 1984 Democratic Presidential primaries has never seemed so relevant to a British political leader. In a televised debate between the two candidates he leaned over the podium and told his rival: "When I hear your new ideas I'm reminded of that ad, 'Where's the beef?'" It was devastatingly effective.

Cameron now faces growing dissent within his own party, his honeymoon period with the electorate has come to a crashing end, and questions are being asked about his ability to compete on matters of substance with the other two, very experienced party leaders.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats are pointing out that the Tories have not changed, they are still as right wing and as out-of-touch as ever. Tory MPs are arguing that their party needs to move back to the right. Both sides of this argument have a point. Because Cameron has failed to redefine the Tories in ideological and policy terms, he is open to attack from both left and right as soon as the public relations gloss becomes tarnished.

He is now paying the price for an over-reliance on spin at the expense of gravitas and policy. The sobriquet, 'Sham Cam' may well stick, as Rawnsley suggests, in the meantime we will be asking a telling question of Cameron and his Conservative Party: Where's the beef?

Saturday, July 21, 2007

An ordinary working day

An article in the Western Mail on 14th July arguing for an increase in the number of Assembly Members to 80 so as to effectively scrutinise primary legislation has produced a predictable reaction in their letters' page.

David Williamson's original piece pointed out that the Assembly already has 18 separate committees all of which need to be appointed from a pool of 45 available AMs. Fifteen Assembly Members are not eligible to serve on these committees because they are either in government or the Presiding Office. This is the situation now, before we have even started to properly legislate.

I was quoted in support of an eighty member Assembly, telling the reporter that with just 60 AMs, “there simply will not be enough hours in the day to ensure legislation is properly scrutinised.” This has rather got under the skin of Mike Came from Pontypridd:

Shame on our National Newspaper printing such propaganda. What if our well-paid, well-pensioned and underused Assembly Members started to work like ordinary people? Five days a week, 9am to 5pm with the weekends off for constituency business (most of which is completed in the week by paid assistants anyway). What if our overworked AMs received the normal allocation of annual holidays that the working classes enjoy, ie, 30 days plus the statutory holidays? Possibly then we could look forward to St Davids Day as a national holiday. Would these normally accepted conditions of employment give them enough time to complete their onerous duties?

All I can say is that if I reduced my working hours and increased the number of days I take as holiday as suggested in this letter then there really would not be enough hours in the day to do everything I need to do as an AM.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Two classes of MP?

The Conservative leadership cannot be too happy this morning after their imposed candidate in Ealing Southall, standing as a David Cameron Conservative, limped into third place in the by-election. This result will offer succour to those dissident voices in the Tory Party who have expressed doubts about the Cameron revolution, whilst it also underlines just how rootless those changes really are.

As if to reinforce the impression of a Tory leader making it up as he goes along this morning's Western Mail carries news of a new Cameron initiative. The paper's Political Editor tells us that Mr Cameron has floated the idea of “English votes for English issues” in the past, but yesterday he went further, promising it will be implemented if he wins the next general election.

Creating two different classes of MP within one institution is not really a sustainable way to take forward the devolution project. It shows a compete misunderstanding of the whole concept. This is particularly so when the number of Scottish MPs has already been reduced, and when Wales does not have full law-making powers.

As I believe I have said before there are very few specifically English-only issues. A good example is student finance, where although this is devolved to both Wales and Scotland, a decision to increase the level of top-up fees in England will have huge financial consequences for the devolved administrations. Putting aside the fact that half of Welsh students go to English Universities, is Cameron really going to deny Welsh MPs a vote on an issue that will directly affect their constituencies in this way?

If the Tory leader is serious about addressing the West Lothian question then the only logical way is to give English voters the same sort of political empowerment enjoyed by their neighbours. To do anything else will just create more constitutional anomolies and problems.


Apologies to everybody who posted a comment yesterday, I appear to have been so tired after returning late from a Swansea by-election that I pressed the wrong button and deleted them by mistake. Please feel free to re-post them.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

First test

It is a big day politically with by-elections in both Sedgefield and Ealing Southall. It is also the first test of the Brown premiership.

I have blogged previously on the bizarre controversies that have arisen during the Southall election and also the usual Labour thuggishness in Sedgefield. Typically, fate deals one last card with allegations of possible electoral offences following the publication on a Daily Telegraph blog of voting calculations based on the postal votes.

Meanwhile talks continue on who will sit in the new Welsh Assembly Cabinet, with an announcement expected later today. The only thing we know for certain is that Huw Lewis has been sacked as a Deputy Minister.

Like Normal Mouth, I believe that this is a mistake on the part of Rhodri Morgan. It sends a signal about the sort of control freakery that will sit at the heart of this new government. Rhodri always did like getting his way, but I am not too sure that suppressing dissent within his own government is good for democracy either within the Labour Party or Wales as a whole.

Although I will not be at either of the Parliamentary by-elections, I will be particularly busy today in a crucial Swansea Council by-election in the safe Labour seat of Llansamlet.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

All this and the price of cheese

BBC Wales reports this morning that a milk shortage is pushing up the price of cheese in local supermarkets.

In America the situation is critical. Over there, the price of cheddar has doubled, whilst mozarella has risen in price even higher. This is having an impact on the cost of pizza, 350 slices of which are consumed in the USA every second.

Now that is serious.

What will Homer Simpson do?


Tory AM, Alun Cairns, is outraged, but then he has a huge picture of Margaret Thatcher on his office wall and so can hardly be considered an impartial judge. Nevertheless, one does have to marvel at this story about Belgrade-born millionaire Branislav Kostic, who left £8.2m to the Conservative Party because "of his great and long-standing affection for the Conservative party and his admiration for Mrs Thatcher".

Personally, I have a lot of sympathy for his son, Zoran, and his friends, who argue that Mr. Kostic was suffering from 'insane delusions' when he made his will:

Yesterday in court, Clare Montgomery QC, for Zoran, described him as a devoted family man who loved his wife, parents and his only son. But in 1984, according to evidence presented in court, he began to feel ill and started suffering from paranoia, refusing any treatment.

He was, according to Ms Montgomery, "gripped by delusions concerning conspiracies, dark forces and plots to kill him that had already begun to poison his relationship with his wife and sister and came to distort much of his world view. Those delusions over time expanded to poison his relationships with the rest of his family, most of his friends, his professional advisers, his bankers, his business contacts and his colleagues in Transtrade."

He divorced his wife, leaving her with a £1.4m settlement, and left his son a modest house in Gleneagles.

In December 1984 he wrote to Mrs Thatcher telling her she was the only person in the free world who could save "us" from bestial monsters. "You are the only hope for a dignified decent and honest future," he wrote. "Please rehabilitate Cecil Parkinson he is a victim of organised crime ... I am sending a cheque for £5,000 to fight the evil and wicked demons and satans and I am fully at your disposal." He also sent a £3,000 cheque to Lord Tebbit, then chairman of the party. In 1987 he wrote to then Conservative MP David Mellor, asking him to be a trustee for a new will that would leave everything to the Conservative party and disinherit his own family. He asked for his help against the "dark forces" massed against him. Mr Mellor recommended that he should get a new solicitor and the local Putney Conservative Association recommended Trowers, a company used by the Conservatives.

One statement by Andrew Simmonds QC, representing the Tories, sums up how bizarre this whole episode is. Mr. Simmonds told the court that whilst it was accepted that Kostic suffered from a delusional disorder, it was not accepted that this rendered him incapable of making a proper will. All other comment is superfluous.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


According to an interview with the Minister for Sustainability and Rural Development in last night's South Wales Evening Post, the new Labour-Plaid Cymru Government have decided that fortnightly refuse collections are the way forward in Wales because she believes that they make people recycle more. She is also opposed to the tidal lagoon in Swansea Bay as she thinks that 'the technology is not there'. Utter nonsense.

A contrary view on refuse collection appears in this morning's Western Mail from Newport. There we are told that the Council has had
an increase of more than 80% in complaints about rats since fortnightly collections were started.

The Commons local government Committee also takes a contrary view to Jane Davidson. They have concluded that fortnightly rubbish collections are not right for all areas and there is no proof they increase recycling. Their conclusions are a compelling case for local councils to decide for themselves rather than have Ministers dictate from the centre.

In my view a proper investment in kerbside recycling and education will have an equal impact on recycling rates as alternate collections. The problem is finding the money. One of the reasons why fortnightly collections appeal to Councils is because it enables them to both meet government targets and reduce landfill, for no additional cost. Unfortunately, the environmental and health costs of such a policy can be too high, with increases in litter, fly-tipping and rodent activity.

That is why the Government needs to start putting its money where its mouth is. A proper up-front investment in recycling, combined with new measures on reducing packaging and encouraging industry to re-use materials, could help change habits over the long-term and lead to a natural reduction in collection rates for the remaining domestic waste.

Leadership in this case should not be about forcing an unpalatable measure on reluctant residents but in ensuring that facilities are in place to enable them to change their habits easily over time. The hard decision in this case lies with national government, who must find the money to enable local Councils to make this change.

Homer the giant

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the Simpsons as much as the next person. And you have to admit that this little bit of vandalism is actually quite witty. Nevertheless, I do lament the way that we allow our heritage to be subverted by trans-Atlantic culture in this way, just to promote a movie.

Like the joint Wessex district manager for The Pagan Federation, Ann Bryn-Evans, I have to wonder how they got permission to do something so ridiculous. It is after all an area of scientific interest.

At the risk of offending somebody, I have always thought that Dorset has an other-worldliness about it, but even I am surprised at the assertion by the
landlord of the New Inn in Cerne Abbas that many local people will not know who Homer Simpson is. My estimation of the County and its inhabitants has increased tenfold.

Hat tip: Liberal England

Monday, July 16, 2007

Shambo reprieved

Suddenly, Bob Dylan's lyrics have a new resonance.

If anybody fancies taking the lyrics of an iconic sixties protest song and rewriting them to celebrate the survival of a treasured bullock please have a go in the comments.

Standing up for Wales

The annual report of the BBC's Audience Council for Wales contains all the usual stuff about the poor coverage of the National Assembly at a UK level. They are quite right of course but at the same time we do not want to appear too needy in our search for approval from our English neighbours.

Where the lack of coverage does bite is in those areas in Wales who cannot or choose not to tune into Welsh Television stations. If we are to raise awareness of the Assembly then we must rely on network news to give us our fair share of the time available.

There is also no excuse for fundamental errors and omissions such as these:

Decisions of the National Assembly rarely make network TV – or London-based “national” papers for that matter – and then usually in comparison with England, for example when prescriptions became free in Wales.

There was very little coverage of the recent National Assembly election on network news.

There was no live network coverage when the Queen officially opened the third National Assembly.

As recently as last week, proposed changes to the national schools curriculum that would only apply in England were wrongly being described on network TV as affecting both England and Wales.

It does not help the BBC's cause either when the paper reports that the BBC’s National Trustee for Wales and chairwoman of the Audience Council for Wales, Janet Lewis-Jones, has to pull out of an interview with the Western Mail because of a decision taken by senior BBC officials in London.

A matter of perspective

This morning's Western Mail contains overwhelming proof that our political perspective is determined by our own background and experiences, with an article detailing Sir Eric Howell's view that the Conservative Assembly Group are, on some issues, to the left of the Labour Party.

He argues that Tory AMs have gone native and are more interested in maintaining their lucrative positions than in fighting for mainstream Conservative values.

It may well be that Sir Eric's view of events have been coloured by his own expulsion from the Conservative Party for threatening to support an independent candidate in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, however that should not prevent a rational evaluation of his views.

My impression for what it is worth is that now that the Tories do not have to appear so moderate in the hope of getting a rainbow coalition, then they will revert to type. Already, they have started to advocate more PFI deals as the solution to many of Wales' problems, whilst their new Education Spokesperson has even hinted at a re-evaluation of their opposition to top-up fees in Wales.

Expect more of this as the new Government establishes itself and the Conservatives adjust to their own role as lead opposition party.

Sunday, July 15, 2007


I suppose that with all the defections and switching between parties going on in Ealing, the news that a former Conservative and Independent Councillor has joined the Welsh Liberal Democrats in Swansea will not make much of a mark.

However, it is worth noting that Sketty Councillor Huw Rees is no ordinary politician, he has a life. Huw is a former head of music in three secondary schools in Swansea and has been the Assistant Conductor at the Morriston Orpheus Choir for 34 years. He is also an accomplished actor and has appeared in Pobl y Cwm, Cowbois Ac Injans and Casualty.

The role that got everybody talking however was a brief cameo at the end of an episode in the recent series of Dr. Who. He played the elderly Tim Latimer in 'The family of blood', being honoured at a memorial service after having survived the First World War due to the insight he gained from his encounter with the Doctor. It certainly made me sit up. Now, how iconic is that?

A moveable feast

It is nice to see that Matt Withers still has his finger on the pulse down in Cardiff Bay. His lead story in this morning's Wales on Sunday column tells us that the Tories have decided that, as Her Majesty’s official opposition, they want all their offices to be grouped together. The easiest way to do this at the Assembly is for them to take over the Welsh Liberal Democrats’ rooms and, according to Matt, what the official opposition want, they get.

So yes we will be packing up to move next week and so will the Tories, all except Alun Cairns, who bagged Denise Idris Jones' office almost before the ink was dry on the final result in the Conwy constituency, and who was moving into it before his own result had even been declared.

The truth is of course that this move has been on the cards for four years. It has always been considered desirable that group members should, if possible, have offices next to each other. Thus after the 2003 result, a deal was brokered whereby the Welsh Liberal Democrats would move down to take over the Tory offices at the end of the corridor. Alas this did not happen because one Tory AM refused to shift. As a result poor Laura Anne Jones and Lisa Francis spent their sole four-year term stuck on the second floor, sandwiched between Labour and Plaid Cymru members, whilst their colleagues remained on the floor above.

Following this year's election we had another go at sorting it out and this time we reached agreement amongst all members. Things were put on hold a bit so that we could get coalition talks out of the way and then reactivated so that the move could take place during recess so as not to be too disruptive.

I will be packing up next week and will use the opportunity for a major clear out. Who would have thought that so much paper could accumulate in a supposedly paperless office?

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Musical Chairs

I am not going to have a chance to get to the Ealing Southall or Sedgefield by-elections as I am too busy with a key local Council by-election in Swansea. However, the twists and turns in Southall have been absolutely astonishing, in turn throwing the Labour and the Conservative camps into disarray.

I don't think that I can even begin to sum up events, except to say that they make attempts to form a Welsh Assemby Government appear to be routine and humdrum in comparison. It started off with Mr Brij Mohan Gupta, Deputy Chair (Political) of Ealing Southall Conservatives and Vice-Chair of Southall Green and Southall Broadway Conservative ward parties, joining the Liberal Democrats and backing the Liberal Democrat candidate Nigel Bakhai.

Then five Labour Councillors joined the Conservatives, though it later transpired that at least one of these individuals could prove to be a divisive choice for the Tories. A sixth Councillor was allegedly lined up to defect but remained with the Labour Party, leaving the Tories with egg on their face. On Friday, Mr Cameron visited the seat and declared that two more Labour councillors had defected to the Tories. In fact, they were former Labour councillors who had been independent for some time. Meanwhile, there has been all sorts of shenanigans on the internet reported here and here.

Now the blogosphere is buzzing with the news that Tory candidate, Tony Lit, is a Labour donor who posed just weeks ago for photographs at a fundraiser with Tony Blair. The Daily Telegraph reports that just a week before he became a member of the Conservative Party and was unveiled as their surprise choice to fight the vacant seat of Ealing Southall, Mr. Lit donated £4,800 to the Labour Party and attended a glittering Labour fundraising dinner at the Riverbank Plaza on London's Albert Embankment.

To be precise, Mr Lit's company, Sunrise Radio, paid £4,800 for a table at the event in a cheque made out to the Labour Party five days earlier and signed by his father Avtar Lit, chairman of Sunrise. The paper reports that during an auction, the Sunrise table successfully bid £4,000 for a weekend trip to Atlanta, the highlight of which was two places at a fundraising dinner for Hillary Clinton;

Labour insiders said Mr Lit's company had not yet paid the £4,000. If they had, in addition to the £4,800 for the table, it would have put them over the £5,000 limit requiring Labour to declare them as a donor.

You could not make it up if you tried. As Liberal Democrat Chief Executive, Chris Rennard, commented, "this news is yet another blow to a beleaguered Conservative campaign. Their candidate has been revealed as a Labour donor. Perhaps the Conservatives will be relieved that he cannot win the by-election. One has to wonder just what questions were asked before the Conservatives invited Mr Lit to become 'David Cameron's Conservative candidate'."

Tories bite the bullet

The BBC report that the Conservative Party has said it will withdraw the whip from Conrad Black after he was convicted of fraud and obstructing the course of justice. I should think so too.

David Heath MP is absolutely right in arguing that Conrad Black should be stripped of his peerage:

He said: "Members of the House of Commons are automatically disqualified on conviction and there is no reason why the same rules should not apply to members of the Upper House.

"It is essential that a change in the law to that effect is included in the government's constitutional reform bill."

The fact that the peerage meant so much to the former newspaper baron just reinforces that view.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Strengthening the union

Former Welsh Secretary, Paul Murphy, has an article in the New Statesman this week on the 'unthinkable alliance with Plaid'. In it he repeats his disagreement with the proposal to share power with the Nationalists. "For me," he says, " the conflict of ideology with Plaid - our vastly differing ambitions for Wales - meant that I did not favour the coalition."

He continues: "Labour should always prioritise the public services that people care about, and the fight for social justice that changes lives. I felt that an alliance with Plaid Cymru, with their fixation about constitutional issues, endangered that. However, now that the Party has spoken, Rhodri has my support in what is bound to be an interesting few years.

One issue that came up on the fringes of this debate, and will need to be addressed in the future, is the role of Welsh MPs in this new context. Some people questioned the right of Members of Parliament to contribute to the debate on the coalition. ‘MPs should keep their attentions on Westminster and stay off the thorny areas of internal Welsh politics’, they said. But, even leaving aside the fact that many issues in the ‘One Wales’ document directly involve MPs, this position is both wrong and counter-productive for Wales.

Welsh Labour has, and always should, make the argument that Wales works best with AMs and MPs co-operating, working in partnership. A fellow Welsh MP, Chris Bryant, recently made the suggestion that practical steps should be taken to strengthen this relationship and help give us a better understanding of the situations and pressures each other face. Labour AMs and MPs should meet jointly more often, for example, especially when specific issues can be better addressed through working together. This is something I endorse; not because of any wish to direct operations from Westminster, but because a stronger partnership would be beneficial for Wales. "

I was quite interested in his view on unionism. He is quite open in stating that the Labour Party, in Wales as in the rest of the United Kingdom, is a ‘unionist’ party, arguing that through being part of the Union, Wales benefits greatly – as the Union benefits from the presence of Wales.

He then goes on to turn the argument on its head by suggesting that the real divisions are in Plaid Cymru. Their members, he says are split between ‘unionists’ who want to stay part of the UK, and those who will publicly admit to their obsession with independence.

His assertion that devolution should strengthen the union is one that I agree with. If we embrace diversity then we can work better together. If we allow different approaches to problems to cause resentment and to build barriers then the union really will be under threat.


Is the One Wales Agreement starting to unravel already? I ask because according to reports, Peter Hain's press conference yesterday raised a number of questions about Labour's commitment to deliver some of the more crucial aspects of the document.

In particular, Mr. Hain was quite emphatic in his insistence that a referendum on a Welsh Parliament is unlikely to be held before 2011, effectively kicking it into touch until after the next Assembly elections. The Western Mail suggests that this is a sign that figures in Labour and Plaid are already interpreting the deal in different ways.

They also go on to refer to the convention that will be set up under the deal so as to prepare the ground for a referendum. Mike German questioned Jane Hutt, who was standing in for the First Minister, on this aspect of the deal on Tuesday. He wanted to know what the purpose of this convention was. Unfortunately, the Business Minister did not seem to know. Not an auspicious start.

Meanwhile, another key aspect of the deal, the review of the Barnett formula, also looks like it will run into the ground. The Secretary of State for Wales does not even seem keen to carry out the review that has been supported by all the parties in the Assembly. He is quoted in the Western Mail as saying that looking into the system could be “like opening Pandora’s Box”.

A few more Peter Hain press conferences like this and the coalition really will be on the rocks.

Update: There are a number of anonymous Plaid Party hacks and researchers who have interpreted this post as an attempt to break up the coalition. How insecure are they? My role as an opposition member is to scrutinise and to constructively oppose. I will not be deflected from that role by personal abuse from unnamed people commenting on this blog. In fact they are getting boring.

I will still allow anonymous comments provided that they are constructive and that they advance debate. If you want to comment otherwise then please use your own name or an identifiable pseudonym.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Plastic bags and viticulture

I have not blogged much about the goings on in the chamber since we came back, largely because the agenda has been a bit thin and people have been short on humour. It was a pleasant surprise therefore to find that trend being broken in the final session of term yesterday.

The fun began with what seemed like a perfectly innocent question on the Welsh Assembly Government's recycling policies from Eleanor Burnham. Nobody expected the follow up to turn into such a damning indictment of the evil plastic bag:

Eleanor Burnham: I am pleased that the environmental protection and waste management LCO will bring powers to ban plastic bags, because the devastating effect that they can have on the environment is frightening.

A vision of rampaging plastic bags destroying whole swathes of countryside came to mind, but was dismissed immediately. After all this is a serious issue. Nevertheless, an e-mail conversation ensued amongst some AMs as to which bags were the most pernicious. Was it Tescos or Morrisons? And what about those very fetching bright orange bags given out by Sainsburys? At least they are in Liberal Democrat colours.

As usual it needed David Melding to bring a little decorum to the proceedings with an eminently sensible question on viticulture:

David Melding: Mr Presiding Officer, I think that, inadvertently, I may be out of order, because I did not declare my lifelong interest in wine. [Laughter.] I am encouraged by that answer, but I wonder whether the Welsh Assembly Government would work with the United Kingdom Vineyards Association on the marketing of Welsh wine. There is no Welsh division of the association at the moment, and we are currently in with the west of England, which, although I admire the west of England, is quite distinct and different from Wales. One way that we could promote Welsh wine is by negotiating with the European Union to have Welsh labelling. That is currently not legal unless it is translated word for word into English. That might be one way of marketing our distinctiveness.

It was a very agreeable note with which to start the summer recess.

Opposition blues

As the Welsh Conservatives take over as the official opposition in Cardiff Bay, it was interesting to note signs at Westminster that they have not really changed at all, and that they are still the same English-based party they always have been.

The sign in question is the appointment of Lord Glentoran as the new Conservative Spokesperson on Wales in the House of Lords. As the Western Mail reports Lord Glentoran would not list Wales as his speciality if he were ever to appear on Mastermind:

“As far as the politics of Wales is concerned, as of 48 hours ago I knew absolutely nothing.

“I now know nothing, plus a bit. I know nothing about the politics but I know quite a lot about the geography, having climbed most of the mountains.”

Is it any wonder that Don Touhig refers back to the time when the Tories appointed a series of people to run the Welsh Office whose only connection to Wales was that they could see it from their constituencies?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Caring for Carers

Welsh Liberal Democrats are leading a very important debate in the chamber this afternoon, calling for the statutory recognition of carers' rights. In particular we want the government to place a duty on the NHS to consider the welfare of carers, to give them the right to receive information and to give then the right to access respite care.

Astonishingly there is not a single Plaid Cymru AM in the chamber. The ink is barely dry on the One Wales document and Labour are already being left alone to defend the Government's record. One Wales, but only as long as the going remains good.

Having spoken so passionately earlier about the role of opposition being to hold the Government to account, Ieuan Wyn Jones seems to have responded to such an initiative by an opposition party by leading his members out of the chamber. I am sure that the many carers who were reassured of the support of Plaid Cymru before the election will have taken note.

What will be interesting is whether Plaid supports the motion, which was incorporated in the All Wales Agreement they helped to negotiate a few weeks ago.

Update: They drifted back in ones and twos during the second half of the debate and Helen Mary Jones even spoke.

Update 2: Plaid voted with the government to kick the guts of our motion out but both they and Labour needed the bell to get all their members into the chamber.

Spinning the polls

This morning's Western Mail takes on the role of cheerleader for the new Coalition Government with the publication of a poll that purports to show a sudden surge of support for the two governing parties.

The poll asked people how they would vote if an Assembly election were taking place tomorrow. It put Labour on 45.2%, Plaid on 24.3%, the Conservatives on 12.6%, and the Liberal Democrats on 10.1%. The Green Party got 2.2% and Others 5.6%.

According to the Western Mail this poll has given Plaid Cymru and Labour a huge boost. The paper says that the poll 'also suggests that both opposition parties are down, with the Conservatives losing as much as a third of their support within three months' and that 'the Liberal Democrats also appear to have lost support because of their internal disagreements over whether to enter government or not.'

A closer look at the report however reveals that far from being independent, this opinion poll was in fact commissioned as the last in a series of quarterly tracking polls by Plaid Cymru. That should be enough in itself to urge caution in interpreting the poll's results, however the paper is determined to give it all the authority they might otherwise attribute to one paid for by themselves.

I think it is worth pointing out as well that the ratings given for the Welsh Liberal Democrats by this poll are far from the meltdown hinted at by the newspaper and largely reflect the UK trends rather than anything that has happened in Wales.

The paper also illustrate very effectively how Welsh Liberal Democrat poll results frequently under-estimate our support in the ballot box. They point out that the in March 2007 the same tracking poll put Welsh Liberal Democrat support at 12.5%, whereas on May 3 the actual election results gave us 14.8%.

Even if we accept this latest poll at face value 10.1% support for the Welsh Liberal Democrats is very much in line with other mid-term polls. I believe that we can easily build on that and produce a much improved performance the next time Welsh voters are asked to cast a ballot.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Acting up

The BBC report that Ieuan Wyn Jones will be appointed by the Queen as Deputy First Minister tomorrow and will immediately take over as Acting First Minister until Rhodri Morgan has recovered sufficiently to resume his duties.

This will bring Plaid Cymru into government and leave the issue of PO and DPO to be resolved. Standing Orders however, say that any motion to keep the existing appointees does not have to be taken until the next Plenary meeting. This means that, unless the Government decide to do it straight away, we will not resolve this matter until September.

There is no clue yet as to the appointment of Ministers but I would expect that to wait until the First Minister is back at work. In the meantime I join others in sending my best wishes to Rhodri Morgan and hoping for a speedy recovery.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The cost of change

As Wales gets used to the idea of a Plaid-Labour coalition and the two sides sit down to divide up the spoils, new doubts are being raised as to the affordability of the One-Wales document.

According to the BBC, ex-Plaid leader Dafydd Wigley has questioned whether the money will be there to meet the promises in the agreement. Ron Davies has the answer. He says that Labour and Plaid AMs will interpret their deal differently and therein lies the problem.

Although One-Wales is full of lots of goodies, it is couched in such vague terms that it is going to be very difficult to pin-down either side on its delivery. Furthermore, there are no financial priorities contained in it. Dafydd Wigley clearly believes that the UK Government's Comprehensive Spending Review is needed to bail the agreement out, but all the signs are that this will be a false dawn.

Plaid will now start to learn that having an ambitious but financially imprudent manifesto is not sustainable in Government. For Labour's part, one would have thought they knew better, unless that is they have intended using the money all along as their get-out-clause for some of the One-Wales document's dodgier pledges.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

How addictive is blogging?

78%How Addicted to Blogging Are You?

This cannot be right, surely!

Hat Tip: Paul Walter

Scrutinising One Wales

Now that Labour and Plaid have committed to each other for the next four years, it is the job of opposition to scrutinise their agreement and to probe its weaknesses. One item that stands out immediately is their policy on higher education.

Throughout the last Assembly Plaid Cymru joined with the other opposition parties in protesting at the funding gap that had grown in higher education between Wales and England. They even ganged up with the Welsh Liberal Democrats and the Tories to force concessions from Labour to try and close that gap. Needless to say no real progress has yet been made in fulfilling that promise and nor will it if the One Wales document is any guide.

The All-Wales Agreement that formed the basis of the now-abortive rainbow coalition stated that 'year-on-year we will make progress on closing the funding gap between the HE sector in England and Wales.' This mirrored the commitment in the Welsh Liberal Democrat manifesto and was a key sticking point for us in negotiations. Yet the One-Wales document is silent on the issue.

In Plaid's manifesto they pledged to 'help reduce the debt burden of graduates who live and work in Wales. A Plaid government will support students who graduate from Welsh Universities and Colleges and work in Wales for five years by paying their student loan repayments during that period. We will continue to rule out top-up fees at Welsh Universities.'

This has been translated in One-Wales into silence on the issue of student loan repayments, although there is a very loose commitment to 'provide extra assistance with student debt.' Plaid's unequivocal promise on Top-up fees has also been watered down. It will be interesting to see how this translates into Government action.

I will make some more posts over the next few weeks on other omissions in the One-Wales document.


How real Labour behaves. This video was filmed at the launch of the Sedgefield Liberal Democrat campaign at Trimdon Green. Note how, instead of engaging in debate, Labour's rent-a-mob seek to disrupt the event at every turn. Anybody would think that they were afraid of the competition.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Looking for the exit

The highlight of Liberator is inevitably Lord Bonker's diary and Jonathan Calder has surpassed himself once more:

I see that Alan Johnson has been defeated in Labour's Deputy Leadership contest by Harriet Harman, who is some sort of niece of Lord Longford. I can only regard this as something of a shame as Johnson has always struck me as the best sort of postman - the sort of fellow who whistles in the street, always closes your gate and has the sense to leave parcels behind the buddleia if you happen to be out. Harman is best known for walking out of an interview on the Woman's Hour programme when it became too taxing, but at least she was following the first piece of advice I give young candidates when it comes to dealing with the broadcast media: Always know where the exit is.

Update: The full diary is here complete with this additional gem:

So it is this morning that the lovely Siân Lloyd arrives at the Hall to cast her eye over my observations. Inevitably conversation turns to the end of her engagement to poor Lembit and she confesses that she could not face the prospect of being called Siân Öpik as "there would always be something hanging over me". I console her with the reply: "Never mind, my dear, you will always have Powys."

Hanging on the telephone

I have an article in the latest Liberator magazine attempting to explain the chain of events that led up to the Welsh Liberal Democrat special conference on coalition. It was written in the middle of June so it is not up-to-date.

Since writing it I have had two inaccuracies pointed out to me as follows: Firstly, the disagreement between the Group leadership and the Executive was to do with a much earlier stage of the process, that is the point at which the Party decided to negotiate with another party or parties.

On this some AMs wanted the Group to decide alone. The NEC wanted separate votes,and if there was disagreement, the Group Leader and Party President were to find a way through.
The business later of any agreement needing a majoitry in the Group, NEC and Negotiating Team was never raised at NEC by anybody as a potential problem.

Obviously, the triple lock was designed so that nothing could be forced through, against the wishes of the NEC or Group (either way), and to avoid anything which would so obviously split the Party. In this, the triple lock actually worked in the way it was designed to, but clearly no one expected it to be a tied vote.

Secondly, my memory proved to be faulty on the outcome of the consultation with members. The possibility of a deal with Labour was certainly the one having the most publicity when we did the consultation, and hence caused the most reaction amongst members - but it was more like 30/35% anti-Labour. There was actually quite a lot of support for a Labour deal, and also a lot of hostility to the Tories. I think that most of us had the impression from the consultation that a deal with Labour would not have got through conference.

The article is not on-line so I have reproduced it below:

Wales hangs on the telephone

As I write the future governance of Wales remains unsettled; Plaid Cymru have resumed talks with Labour with a view to forming a formal coalition and the proposed rainbow partnership of Plaid Cymru, Welsh Liberal Democrats and Welsh Tories looks to be in doubt.

We are a nation coming to terms with proportional representation, but we are doing so in the context of a hybrid and unsatisfactory system which was stacked in favour of the dominant Labour Party by two successive Acts of Parliament and in which our actions have consequences on other elections, for Parliament and local Councils, both fought under the old first past the post system.

In itself that situation can account for many of the jitters that exist in all parties about various arrangements with others, but there are other factors at work as well. The Welsh Liberal Democrats for example remain a loose coalition of traditional Liberals, largely based in the more rural areas of Wales, where they have always seen the Conservatives and latterly Plaid Cymru as the main enemy; and the more urban Liberal Democrats fighting in the valleys, towns and cities of mainly South Wales, against Labour. Plaid Cymru have similar divisions between the North Wales based ‘conservative nationalists’ and the South Wales ‘socialists’.

For the first time in living memory, the Welsh Liberal Democrats are running Councils in Wales, and not just their traditional strongholds of Conwy, Ceredigion and Powys. We lead four of the six largest conurbations – Swansea, Bridgend, Cardiff and Wrexham – at the head of ‘rainbow coalitions’ with a mix of independents, Tories and Plaid Cymru. The exception is Cardiff where we have a minority administration with no formal arrangement with any other party.

In these urban centres the enemy is seen to be Labour and many of our Councillors do not want to risk their seats and the fruits of their hard work by entering into a coalition with them in an election year. This is especially so as in all of these Council areas the Welsh Liberal Democrats are demonstrating not just that the local Council can be run without Labour for the first time in decades but that real changes and improvements can be brought about as well.

That is the background against which we entered into discussions on a way forward after the Assembly elections but before I look at the chronology it is worth noting the position of the other parties.

Labour under Rhodri Morgan have largely managed to insulate themselves against the anti-Blair/Iraq War backlash in Wales, however even they could not hold back the tide this year. They lost constituency seats and picked up two regional members so as to move from 29 AMs to 26.

The Tories were the main benefactors of that change, picking up four new constituencies but losing three regional members in the process. They increased their group in size from 11 to 12. They too have been trying to carve out a distinct Welsh position as a mainstream centre party who are in touch with people’s concerns and as an alternative competent government.

Plaid Cymru also benefited from Labour’s misfortunes increasing their group from 13 to 15 with a spectacular gain in Llanelli and an extra list seat in South Wales East. In contrast Welsh Liberal Democrat expectations of gains were frustrated and we came out of the election with the same six AMs we have had since 1999. There is one independent.

To understand what happened within the Welsh Liberal Democrats over coalition talks one has to go back before the election. In 2000, when we went into coalition with Labour, we held a special conference to endorse that decision. It was always the intention to do the same again. What was different was the mechanism that was put in place by the National Executive to trigger that conference.

A number of members were deeply opposed to any deal which involved the Conservatives and were suspicious of the way that the three opposition parties had been working together against the then Labour Government. They were convinced that talks had been on-going for some time, even before the election, to set up a rainbow coalition and were determined not to allow the Assembly Group to call all the shots.

A triple lock was put in place therefore against the wishes of the Assembly Group leadership. What this meant was that, immediately following the election, a joint meeting of the Executive and the Group would take place to decide a way forward. Any decision had to be independently ratified by each body. If both decided to enter into talks then a negotiating team drawn equally from the group and the executive would be set up. They would report back to another joint meeting, which would decide whether to trigger a special conference or not. For that conference to happen there had to a majority in favour in each of the negotiating team, group and the Executive.

When we did eventually gather together on the Saturday after the election we were all a bit stunned. We had effectively come through a third successive election without making any progress. Some of us were not in the mood for talking but wanted to get our own house in order first. It was also the case that our four Council leaders got in the act and sought to prevent any talk of a deal with Labour.

Just before that meeting I blogged on the way forward:

“My instincts are that the Welsh Liberal Democrats do not have to be the deal-makers in this process. We have our own issues to sort out first around where we are going as a party and what sort of image we project to the Welsh public. We obviously want to put Liberal Democrat policies into effect but there are other ways of doing that apart from being in government. The last thing we need is to enter a divisive and difficult process of negotiation with a Labour Party that has been rejected by the people of Wales when our own problems remain unresolved. We need to take our members with us on this not drive them away and surely the opposition of our four Council leaders to a deal with Labour must form a part of that process.”

That remained my position throughout. My view was that we needed an early leadership election so as to set the direction and tone of the party (the constitution says there must be one within 12 months of an election) and a thorough review of how we campaigned and how we were relating our distinctive Federal messages on the environment, civil liberties, fairness and honesty to a Welsh context.

It is clear to me that our campaigning did not resonate with people, that we did not get hold of local issues effectively and that our policy initiatives and manifesto seemed remote from people’s daily lives. I accepted in saying all this that I was a party to these decisions and had to take responsibility as well, but the issue was not to apportion blame rather it was to get it right both next time and in the near future.

I took the view that a leadership election was an appropriate vehicle to have a structured and positive debate about these issues. I also took the view that to go into coalition would put all of this on the backburner, prevent that debate taking place and doom us to another election in four years time in which we made the same mistakes.

Needless to say my views did not prevail even though I repeated them consistently in all available forums right up to and including the special conference. What did happen was that there was a mandate for the Assembly Group leader to have talks about talks whilst a consultation took place with party members. A series of joint meetings took place in Llandrindod Wells and a way forward was agreed.

The Executive and Assembly Group heard that of those who responded to the consultation over half were opposed to any deal with Labour. The prevailing opinion was that Labour had lost seats and had been rejected by the electorate. We should not keep them in power. The Group and the Executive decided by a majority vote in each that we should not pursue talks with Labour but instead engage with Plaid Cymru and the Tories so as to pursue a viable alternative government to Labour.

In these talks of course there was a deadline hanging over all the parties. Whilst politicians were circling and talking about the interests of the people of Wales, they knew that if a First Minister was not elected within 28 days then there would be another election. Nobody wanted that.

Essentially, we had about a week left to put together a comprehensive programme for government which was both deliverable and affordable. Whether that was achieved or not is a subjective judgement, however on the last Wednesday before the deadline, with just a week to go, the Welsh Liberal Democrat National Executive met to consider the document.

There was a prolonged debate, following which the group voted 4-2 in favour, the negotiating team voted in favour but the Executive tied 9-9. Two votes cast against from Westminster through a telephone conferencing system proved to be crucial, as was that of a member who spoke in favour and then was persuaded by the debate to vote against. It was only then that we discovered that in the constitution the Chair of the executive does not have a casting vote.

Those who had been promoting the rainbow coalition had failed to secure the votes to get it through the triple lock. However, the reaction of the membership was one of fury. They felt disenfranchised and I confess that, although I was opposed to it, if I had had a vote in the Executive I would have opted to send it to the members for decision and taken my chances there. The tied vote however, effectively killed off the rainbow coalition at that time.

As a result of the outrage amongst members a special conference was quickly summoned by 20 voting representatives and was scheduled to be held in the Saturday slot originally allocated to it. In the meantime Labour had moved quickly and secured the re-election of Rhodri Morgan as First Minister the day before.

The Conference held a high quality and often passionate debate that lasted for nearly three hours. At the end the representatives voted by 125 to 77 in favour of the ‘All Wales Accord’ as the partnership document was now called. Where we go now is in the hands of Plaid Cymru.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Mentioned in despatches

A friend e-mails to point out that my name cropped up in Department of Work and Pensions' questions in the House of Commons on Monday. Obviously, Plaid Cymru MP, Hywel Williams stumbled across this article in the Western Mail and decided to make political capital out of it. The only thing is that the point he is trying to make is as clear as mud:

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): What would the Minister say to Liberal Democrat Assembly Member Peter Black, who said this morning in the Western Mail "benefits and disability payments discourage claimants from seeking work"? Does she agree with him?

Anne McGuire: No, I do not...

Hywel Williams has, of course, taken my remarks out of context, after all the paragraph in question is not even a quotation, it is a poor summation of my view that disabled people who want to work cannot afford to do so because amongst many other problems there are no transitional arrangements in place that allow them to adjust from a high level of benefit to a lower wage.

These views are not just mine, they appear in two Welsh Assembly Committee reports endorsed by AMs of all parties, including Hywel Williams' own colleagues in Plaid Cymru. The Education Lifelong Learning and Skills Committee report into Additional Education Needs for example said this:

6.19 Benefits are not a devolved matter and the operation of the benefits system is complex. It is not an area that the Committee has looked at inany depth during this review. Nevertheless, the concerns expressed were sufficiently widespread to lead us to believe that this is an area that needs attention to ensure a joined-up approach between Assembly Government policies in this area and the work of Job Centre Plus.

6.20 Although we did not look at this issue in depth, the Assembly’s Equality of Opportunity Committee recently concluded a two year in-depth review of service provision for young disabled people. Many of the themes in that review are mirrored in this report. In particular, they were concerned the benefits system could act as a barrier to work rather than a help. We commend their report and we endorse their specific recommendations on benefits. For completeness we reiterate them here as they concern our terms of reference.

[33] The Welsh Assembly Government should make representations to its colleagues in the Department of Work and Pensions on the need to overcome the disincentives to work within the current benefits system that are experienced by disabled people.

[34] The Welsh Assembly Government and the Department for Work and Pensions should work closely together to develop ways in which budgets and the benefits system can be used creatively to ensure that Welsh Assembly Government policies are supported by Whitehall Departments.

The Equality of Opportunity Report is more specific in identifying the problem:

2.29 Proposals designed to help people progress from benefits to work is an improvement on the current situation, but there are still blockages around housing benefit and income support and a need to review the rules around 'permitted work'. Work has been undertaken for the Sainsbury Centre by Patience Seebohm and Judy Scott on addressing disincentives to work, which proposed some radical improvements in relation to earnings disregard, extension of permitted work and introduction of a tax credit starter.

2.30 Welsh partners in a Pan-Disability Partnership (including RNID, RNIB, SCOVO, Mencap, Scope, Shaw Trust) are keen to identify ways of utilising the different funding mechanisms and programmes of support in health and social care, employment and education sectors to develop best practice. There is a need for employment programme funding, direct payments, social and health care monies to be used in a more joined up way to enable people to achieve economic activity Welsh examples could then be fed into UK-wide policy development.

2.31 The bureaucracy around claiming benefits is a problem for many disabled people, and more flexibility, to allow people to work flexible hours dependent on their condition without losing benefits, would remove one disincentive to work. There are particular barriers to work for people in residential care because their benefits are tied into the provision of their residential care package.

Further details can be found here. It is just a shame that Mr. Williams could not have used his valuable question opportunity to raise these issues instead of trying to score a cheap political point.

Another MP who likes to be at the centre of the action is Bridgend's Madeleine Moon. She is credited on the front page of today's Glamorgan Gazette with saving Bridgend's Remploy factory. Closer reading however reveals that she visited the plant, had a discussion with the company secretary and discovered that Remploy has now secured enough contracted work to give the workforce a fighting chance of keeping their jobs.

The newspaper obviously felt that this warranted the tag 'Exclusive' even though they published a column from me only the week before saying exactly the same thing. As I understand it things have moved on a bit since I visited the plant and had discussions with the Company Secretary and it really does look like the factory can be kept open. However that is not down to me or to the local MP, it is due to the hard work of management, the trade unions, the local Council, the workforce and many other partners. Still, it may help Madeleine with her reselection problems.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Oscar Wilde of the front bench?

Political commentators can be very fickle and there is no better illustration of that trend than the coverage of yesterday's Prime Minister's Question Time. For over a year these selfsame journalists have been talking Sir Menzies Campbell down, and then he tells one indifferent joke in the House of Commons and suddenly he is Oscar Wilde, the new Disraeli and David Lloyd George all rolled into one. Long may it continue.

Not so reluctant rebels

This morning's Western Mail picks up on the rebellion by the remaining members of Labour's Gang of Four, joining Lynne Neagle in objecting to their party's link-up with Plaid Cymru.

Meanwhile, the BBC are reporting that former Welsh Secretary, Paul Murphy, has joined in, telling Dragon's Eye tonight that he speaks on behalf of the majority of Welsh Labour MPs in being opposed to the coalition.

Paul Murphy is a heavyweight politician but he knows and has admitted that he is in a minority within his party as a whole and will lose the vote tomorrow.

This is beginning to look like a co-ordinated campaign. No wonder some Plaid activists and bloggers are starting to question whether this pact will be stable as well. What they need to realise however is that dissent within debate does not in most instances signal a permanent split. The outcome is important and provided it has been reached through an open and democratic debate then members will by and large fall-in behind it. And even Paul Murphy believes that the outcome is beyond doubt. Still who am I to reassure Plaid Cymru activists?

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