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Friday, August 31, 2007

Plaid left out in the cold again

Another day, another press release detailing a Welsh Assembly Government initiative, that somehow forgot to mention Plaid Cymru. Instead, Labour are claiming sole credit for a £770,000 school uniform grant:

PARENTS in Swansea received a helpful hand from Welsh Labour today, to get the kids ready to go back to school.

Local AM Andrew Davies welcomed Labour Education Minister Jane Hutt's announcement of a massive £770,000 school uniform grant. The money will help low income families buy the uniforms their children need for the start of a new school term.

It is certainly true that this grant was introduced under the previous Labour government but surely things have moved on.

Once again the culprit is Welsh Finance Minister, Andrew Davies. He also issued a press release earlier this month in which he made the claim that extra support is on its way for disabled children and their families thanks to Welsh Labour, apparently forgetting the partnership his party forged with the Nationalists only a few weeks earlier.

Could it have been these mis-conceived and off-message attempts at spin that prompted Rhodri Morgan to remind his Ministers about collective responsibility yesterday?

It's only money

The publication of party spending details from May's Assembly elections serves to underline my point about the ineffectiveness of the Welsh Liberal Democrat campaign.

One of the reasons why I described that campaign as professional was he huge amount of money we spent that meant we were able to produce a lot of literature, direct mail and a high quality party political broadcast. Unfortunately, we forgot to factor in the need for a message that would resonate with the electorate into this equation.

The Electoral Commission reveals that the Welsh Liberal Democrats spent £239,799 on the national and regional campaign and £167,608 in the constituencies. That is a total of £407,407. Stephen Tall on Liberal Democrat Voice argues that in terms of expenditure per vote we got good value for money. He has calculated that in 2003 we spent £1.63 per vote whereas this year our spend was £1.57 per vote. I am not so sure that I view it in the same way.

Although our constituency vote went up, in the regions we slipped back and there was a marked failure to carry over support from one ballot paper to the other. Accuse me of only seeing a half full glass if you wish but my reading of these figures is that in 2003 we spent £62,115.83 per elected Assembly Member, whereas in 2007 that figure was £67,901.17. It is difficult to justify that as an effective use of resources.

Drugs and poverty

Plaid Cymru's Leanne Wood, demonstrates this morning that being part of a coalition government has not dulled her critical sensibilities with the publication of research, which shows that heroin users are nearly twice as likely to live in former coalfields areas than anywhere else in Wales.

The study reveals 2.8 people per thousand in the valleys had asked for treatment for heroin use compared with 1.5 per thousand in the rest of Wales. Leanne is quite clear as to the reasons for this disparity:

"This research shows that people who live in the former coalfields of Wales continue to suffer the effects of the pit closure programmes," she said.

"Not only does this problem affect the lives of those who use heroin, it also affects the lives of all those who live in these communities.

"They suffer from high property crime levels associated with high levels of heroin use," she added."

Ms Wood said she was "encouraged" by the Labour-Plaid assembly government's approach to tackling drugs.

But she warned that there was a "long way to go" before former coalfield areas could "shake off the damaging effects of previous economic neglect".

Commentators on Radio Wales this morning support her belief that higher drug use is directly related to poverty levels, unemployment and social dislocation. However, Leanne must be disappointed by the response of her government to these revelations. They have issued a statement saying that they recognise the importance of tackling all forms of substance misuses. It continues by asserting that ministers had "acknowledged this through the significant additional investment made to increase access and availability to treatment services in Wales.

"In 2007/08 the substance misuse action fund stands at £22m. This substantial increase of 660% since 2002/03 has created over 9,300 treatment places since 2004. The Welsh Assembly Government is in the process of developing a new substance misuse strategy for Wales to replace the current strategy from May 2008."

So it is more of the same? I am doing some research of my own on substance misuse but my unsupported impression so far is that the information is still not there to properly target resources at the areas most in need or to deal with spikes in demand for services. Equally, it is clear that to put in place a substance misuse strategy in isolation from other policies and strategies is no longer enough.

This agenda has to be about education, prevention, treatment, economic development and regeneration. We also need to think radically about how we view the demand and supply of drugs. If we can undermine the work of criminal dealers by better controlling the way addicts access their drugs then we should seriously look at that prospect.

Leanne believes that there needs to be a wide-ranging enquiry into this issue. I agree with her. We can no longer hide behind old certainties and failed programmes.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Rhodri lays down the law

In this morning's Western Mail, Rhodri Morgan warns that a public clash between Labour and Plaid Cymru ministers in the coalition Assembly Government would be “hopelessly destructive”. What could he be thinking about?

Is it the signs of a growing Plaid Cymru revolt over their joint decision to allow an extra million tonnes of sand to be dredged from Helwick Bank? Or is it concern that the deal that has been stitched together to keep adult neurosurgery in Swansea and Cardiff will start to come apart under pressure from North Wales? It is certainly going to be difficult for the Assembly Member for Ynys Mon to continue to support this deal.

Plaid Cymru will have some difficulty adapting their usual popularist stance to the responsibilities of government and collective responsibility.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A good response

A fairly favourable response to my on-line pamphlet from within the party with the harshest criticism being that it was not controversial enough. Controversy had never been the objective. The intention was to restate key policies and principles and to highlight a way forward. It is the sort of leadership that full time parliamentarians such as myself should be offering and I am hopeful that my colleagues will respond in kind.

The response of our political opponents was more predictable. Tory Party leader Nick Bourne is obviously still smarting at being left out in the cold by the collapse of the rainbow coalition. He is intent on blaming the Welsh Liberal Democrats and painting us as the party who let Labour back into government. This ignores the fact that Labour are now running Wales because Plaid Cymru put them there. However, it is hardly constructive politics. Nick really needs to move on.

All Labour can do is to repeat a rather tired mantra that even they seem to no longer believe. A spokesperson tells the Western Mail that “Across Wales people know what the Lib-Dems really stand for. They know they are soft on crime and anti-social behaviour, and where they run councils they stand for cuts, failure and broken promises.”

Putting aside the fact that this assertion is based on the misleading claim that we opposed all of Labour's anti-social behaviour legislation including ASBOs (we didn't and we voted for the Act that introduced ASBOs) one has to ask what authority they have to make these claims. Labour have been in power for ten years and yet anti-social behaviour problems are as bad as ever, gun crime has quadrupled since 1998 and they seem clueless as to how to now proceed to tackle these issues.

In those local councils we now lead we have spent a considerable amount of time putting right the mess we inherited from Labour. In Swansea for example we have secured investment in the City Centre after decades of stagnation, we are re-opening a Leisure Centre that closed because of the previous Labour-run Council's incompetence, we are putting right their failure to properly maintain iconic buildings such as the Guildhall, are about to produce plans to address a £150 million backlog in school building maintenance, built up on Labour's watch, we are in the process of delivering a major upgrade in public transport provision and we are instigating an overhaul of street cleansing, designed to improve the appearance of our local communities.

We have done all of this whilst keeping Council tax rises at less than half the level they were under Labour. This does not seem like failure to me. It is a success that is duplicated in Cardiff, Bridgend and Wrexham. In these areas people know what we stand for because they can see our successes being delivered in their communities.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

What the Welsh Liberal Democrats are for

I have chosen today to publish my-on-line pamphlet 'What the Liberal Democrats are for' largely because I have just finished it, but also in the hope that it will provoke a debate within the party in the run up to the Federal Conference in a few weeks time and the Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference in Aberystwyth in October.

In the pamphlet I have tried to map out the party's key policies and philosophy and have argued that taken as whole this amounts to a unique Welsh Liberal Democrat vision that will enable the party to build support.

Although the Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Group is still only six strong our relative size means that we will have far more opportunities to scrutinise the Government and to set the agenda both in the Assembly and in the press.

This is our chance to refine a distinctive, dynamic and radical message that will have wide appeal in future Welsh elections. At the heart of that message are the Liberal Democrat principles of fairness, honesty and justice. We are committed to tackling poverty and inequality, to taking the hard decisions that will improve our environment and our quality of life, that will remove barriers and offer people the educational and employment opportunities to better their lives and which will open up government and make it more transparent and accountable.

Despite not being in government the Welsh Liberal Democrats have a major role in prosecuting this agenda. It should form the basis of our campaigning and of our work in ensuring that the new coalition government is giving the best deal for the people of Wales. We may be able to agree with other parties on some common elements but taken as a whole this is a unique Welsh Liberal Democrat vision, which values the individual and the inter-locking communities we live and work in. It is about empowering people, not dictating to them, about using the levers of government to remove barriers and create opportunity, not to run things from the centre. It is about working with local people to take on vested interests where that is necessary.

It is our strength as campaigners, enablers, environmentalists, civil libertarians, federalists, and social reformers that define what the Welsh Liberal Democrats are. Our time will come to implement these reforms as part of a left of centre Assembly Government but in the meantime we should use our position in local government to promote this agenda, whilst using our ideas and principles to redefine the role of the second opposition party in the Assembly as the one that can best reflect the aspirations and needs of people in their communities.

The full pamphlet has been published on the Liberal Democrat Voice website here but it can also be read on my own website here.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The nuclear question

This morning's Western Mail raises the question of just how affordable is nuclear power. Those campaigning against wind farms often raise the issue of public subsidy to support their case that these turbines are unsightly and unsustainable. As the paper points out however, British Energy was bailed out with £5 billion of public money in 2002. Nuclear power is only sustainable at all if the taxpayer picks up the tab for the decommissioning process once the power stations reach the end of their useful life.

The Government is hoping that the new generation of nuclear power stations can be built quickly and from private finance. However, this is a huge risk for those electricity generators who would want to invest in it.

Hugh Richards, of the Welsh Anti-Nuclear Alliance, points out that “A nuclear power programme requires a huge capital investment of up to three-quarters of its costs, compared to a gas plant’s 25%. Interest costs during construction mean that delays can make or break a nuclear project.

“The Government is moving to pre-license standardised designs and streamline planning procedures in order to reduce the lead times for nuclear construction. This, however, increases the risk that public confidence in the regulatory process will be lost, and experience suggests that it will not speed up projects. In England, where public inquiries were scrapped for all the advanced gas-cooled reactors, an average 10-year construction over-run resulted.

“None of the four ‘Generation III’ designs submitted to the regulators for pre-licensing assessment in July are proven commercially; they are design concepts without working prototypes to test their safety. A new nuclear programme in Britain would have to start again from scratch.”

He added, “Far from having settled designs, all four candidates appear to be ‘work in progress’, having been enlarged to try to achieve ‘economies of scale’.

“The Government believes that new nuclear projects will be brought forward on a commercial basis by project sponsors with strong balance sheets, but no attempt has been made to test their financial robustness."

He thinks that a point will be reached when operators will seek public funding to help them construct new power stations, two of which could be on Anglesey. What the attitude of the Welsh Assembly Government is to this nobody can predict. Up until now Labour Ministers have expressed their opposition to nuclear power, but Plaid have prevaricated on this issue in recent times, whilst the present Economic Development Minister is in favour of more nuclear power stations in Wales.

We could turn to the One Wales document for an answer but alas it is silent on the issue. How very convenient.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Gang videos

This morning's Observer contains a plea from a government health minister to ban video clips glamorising gang culture from internet sites such as YouTube.

Ivan Lewis made his call after two local gangs, the Croxteth Crew and the Norris Green Strand Gang - also known as the Nogzy - posted online video of members touting guns. Clips from other gangs, such as the MI6 from Manchester and Soi from Birmingham also feature prominently on the site.

'These videos are clearly an extremely malign and dangerous influence on young people,' said Ivan Lewis, the Health Minister, who has responsibility for intergenerational issues and was the victim of a young gang recently when he tried to stop a crime in his constituency. 'The companies have a responsibility to do everything in their power to prevent young people from being exposed to such imagery and glorification of violence.'

John Carr, an internet expert with the children's charity NCH, last night backed his comments: 'It's very worrying that these sites offer these children their 15 minutes of fame. They are making things worse not better. There must be a rapid way of removing these things.'

Carr said companies such as Google, which owns YouTube, were aware of public concern over the way their sites were providing a forum for gang culture to flourish. 'The political pressure is really ratcheting up,' he said. 'There is going to have to be some movement by the companies on this. Otherwise we'll get kneejerk legislation.'

I do have a lot of sympathy with this view. It is clear that videos like this can create unsavoury role models for some youngsters as well as foster macho gang rivalries. However, I am not convinced that banning them will be possible, simply because there are so many other outlets for this sort of media. Whatever their influence, these videos are the symptoms not the cause.

I was interested in the explanation given by so-called 'supporters of YouTube'. They told the paper that deciding what content should be removed is complex. 'YouTube is a global community and has a single global content policy. In countries like the US, where citizens have the right to carry guns, images of people carrying weapons is not as shocking as in the UK.'

This for me is part of the problem. We no longer have an exclusively British culture. Ever since the Beatles were first influenced by records coming in from America via Liverpool Docks, (and most probably before that) there has been a cross-fertilisation of cultures across the Atlantic. The arrival of mass-media, 24 hour rolling news programmes, instant live footage of breaking news straight to your desk and phone, the internet, the ability to create personal media content and to diseminate it and mobile phone technology have all combined to create an international culture beyond the control of national governments.

Thus the American gang culture, assisted by the right to bear arms, guaranteed by the US constitution, has infiltrated our inner cities. Gangs in metropolitan areas and elsewhere have realised the power they can wield in their own neighbourhoods. They have got involved in drug dealing and protection rackets and are using guns to protect their territory. It is not a new phenomenon, but it is an escalation of an existing one. The larger tragedy is that children are getting involved at a much younger age because of the cultural influences they are subjected to and as a result we are getting awful tragedies such as that in Liverpool last week, in which an innocent child is murdered on the street.

In many ways it is too late to shut the door now. These YouTube videos are a malign but superficial manifestation of what has been going on beneath our noses for some time. The danger is that government will wage a war against these internet sites in the belief that they are taking effective action, when in fact they are merely treating a symptom. The videos will make an appearance elsewhere.

What is needed is effective government action: a dedicated police unit in each force committed to rooting out and breaking up these gangs; even more stringent laws controlling guns; positive action to engage with young people earlier backed up by substantial resources for proper youth centres and workers in each community and many other measures.

We need to try and change the culture and give young people other points of reference by which they can define themselves. If we put the same sort of resource into dealing with this problem in a holistic way as we do in fighting terrorism both at home and abroad, then we could make a difference.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The housing conundrum

I want to do some more work on this blog on the issue of affordable housing but at present I am struggling with an IT nightmare. My laptop swallowed my pamphlet whole last night and it appears to be only retrievable via the server back-up. I am on tenter-hooks, waiting for the service desk to ring me back and utter some soothing words.

I will therefore confine myself to just a few comments about this morning's Western Mail piece on affordable housing. They reveal new statistics that show that average property prices in rural areas is 6.4 times average annual earnings compared with a ratio of 5.5 in urban areas. The average price of a house in rural areas in Wales is £180,283, 17% higher than in urban areas where it is £154, 250. House prices in the countryside have increased on average by 103% in the last five years. Only 14% of housing in rural areas is classed as social housing.

These statistics underline the very real crisis that is facing us. The fact that rural areas are worse off than urban ones is not much comfort. First time homebuyers are struggling to get on the housing ladder all over Wales and we need new policies to try and tackle that. The response of the new Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition however, suggests that they are floundering a bit at the enormity of the task facing them.

Some of their solutions are sound: restrictions on second homes and the right to buy in areas of high demand for example will have a marginal but important impact; increasing the percentage of affordable housing on development sites is essential but there is a need to both get the mechanisms right to make this provision sustainable and also to bring local Councils on board, many of whom are stuck in a rut with regards to their affordable housing policies; increased funding for social housing is also necessary.

The big question is why, when faced with a crisis of this scale, do the government want to waste valuable resources by giving grants to first time buyers? Not only will these grants prove to be inadequate but they will be swallowed up by market forces and lead to further increases in property prices. It is a shameful waste of public money.

The announcement elsewhere in the paper that £29m is to be provided to build new affordable homes is welcome but why rely so much on shared ownership? This type of housing is in fact not very affordable at all as tenants pay a mortgage, rent and often a service charge as well. It may provide a measure of home ownership but its complex nature and the multiplicity of payments involved often put people off. Equity mortgages combined with section 106 agreements are a much more effective way to enable people to afford to purchase their own home, and the joy is that if managed properly the capital costs can be met by the private sector.

Why are we not introducing a key workers scheme, using the best features of homebuy across the whole of Wales to assist people to purchase houses? If homebuy was funded separately from social housing grant and applied universally at a rate of 50% there would be better accountability in its use, whilst local Councils would not find themselves in the situation whereby they have to choose between building homes to rent or assisting people to buy.

It seems to me that we should be expecting a more radical and evidence-based approach from this new government to affordable housing. I will certainly be pushing them to deliver that.

Sex and Independence

If that title doesn't increase my hit-rate then nothing will. Poor old Glyn Davies, not only is he being gently mocked on the interweb for his open enthusiasm for older people having sex, but he is now being routinely misquoted and taken out of context regarding his views on Independence.
What I believe that Glyn said is that Wales could survive as an Independent nation if we were prepared to cut our cloth (and presumably our public services) to fit our means. He is though not in favour of Independence for a whole raft of reasons, including the inter-dependent world we live in that would leave many people in Mid, South East and North Wales worse off once we seek to deliver services on an all-Wales level, rather than cross-border as at present.

This has not stopped people enlisting Glyn's name in support of their own pro-independence agenda. This is a shame as it gives more prominence to a minority pursuit that does not even impinge on the consciousness of the vast majority of people living in Wales. The latest person to adopt this stance is Plaid Cymru Assembly Member, Leanne Wood who, in a letter in this morning's Western Mail argues that this is the first time that anyone from "the London-based parties" has admitted that economically Wales would be a success just like other small European countries, such as Norway, Ireland and Iceland. I am not sure that Glyn actually went that far.

Leanne concludes by asserting that if Iceland can do it then so can Wales, but just because you can allegedly do something Leanne, does not mean that you should or that it is desirable. As usual she has failed to outline what exactly is in it for us if we were to tread this path and why we should suffer initial economic deprivation to achieve it.

The fact is that the economic argument for independence is unproven and relies on spurious assumptions and assertions that do not stack up against serious scrutiny. There is a huge disparity in the amount of money paid in tax by people living in Wales and the amount spend on public services. Suggestions that we can meet that gap by not having an army or a foreign policy frankly don't cut the mustard. They were not included in the assessment in the first place.

Let me be clear. I am not seeking to do Wales down with this argument. I am merely stating the facts. It may be possible over a period of time to become less dependent on English taxes so that an economic case can be put forward that we would survive Independence. But then we would still need a good argument as to why that route would be desirable in the first place. The claim that Iceland can do it so why not Wales is just not a convincing one for me.

I think that nationalist politicians also need a reality check. It is just not credible to argue on one hand that we can be a separate and successful economic entity, whilst on the other to call for the reform of the Barnett formula so as to bring more resources from Westminster into Wales. You either opt for one or the other and personally, my choice would be for an enhanced Barnett formula because at least then we would have some concrete benefits for the Welsh people.

Friday, August 24, 2007

A ray of sunshine

The sun is shining at long last, summer is starting to come good and to top it all they have cancelled Celebrity Big Brother. Can it get any better? I doubt it. Something must be due to go wrong soon.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

GP contracts

If the coverage on Radio Wales is anything to go by then the Auditor General for Wales, Jeremy Coleman, seems to have put the cat amongst the pigeons this morning with a report on the new GP contract.

He reveals that the NHS was forced to raid other budgets to pay for the new GP contract, which cost 44% more than expected in Wales. He says that the extra costs amount to tens of millions of pounds and that as a result local health boards were drained of money that should have been used to develop community services in the first few years of the contract. In the meantime GP salaries have rocketed by 25% over four years, as the contract introduced performance-related pay but reduced workloads.

He says that if the contract is to deliver value for money then “The barrier for the points system [which measures GP performance and distributes funding] needs to be raised to make sure that the benefits for patients are real and continue to follow.”

The BMA seems to have taken this personally, but in my view there is no need for them to have done so. I do not believe that the value of GPs are disputed nor is there any disagreement with the premise that they should be adequately remunerated and have reasonable conditions of work. As Mr. Coleman points out there is evidence that patients have better access to GPs, and some chronic disease management services are now more readily available. The contract has also helped to arrest the GP recruitment and retention crisis in Wales, making the profession more attractive to young doctors – the 2006 GP vacancy rate was 1.8%, compared to 2.1% a year earlier.

There have been benefits to patients from the contract but the thrust of the report is that better management by Local Health Boards combined with the diversion of more resources into Primary Health Care and community services can deliver much more. That will benefit everybody, including GPs and should be a priority of the Welsh Assembly Government.

This report shows the value of the Auditor General's office in driving forward public service improvement and ensuring that taxpayers get value for money. As such it should be welcomed, whatever the sensitivities involved.

An act of collective worship

I was e-mailed yesterday to ask my views on the requirement on schools to provide for all of their pupils a daily assembly in which they participate in an act of worship. This has traditionally been interpreted as a Christian act of worship but for some years now restrictions on accomodation has meant that such a provision has not been practical for many schools. It is also the case that it does not meet the needs of the multi-cultural Britain we now live in.

This is my response and, as it is intended to be circulated via the West Glamorgan Humanist's website anyway, I thought it worth posting here so as to stimulate debate and discussion. I have amended it slightly to take account of some thoughts that struck me as I re-read it:

The present requirement for schools to provide a daily act of what is interpreted as Christian worship for all pupils as enshrined in the 1944 Education Act is not a practical possibility for most schools and does not fit with the cultural, religious and ethnic make-up of modern 21st Century Britain. We have to recognise that pupils live and work side by side with others of all religions and cultures and we should amend the duty on schools to use morning assemblies and lessons to help youngsters understand, appreciate and benefit from the diverse society they live in.

In many schools there is no suitable hall or room capable of accommodating the whole school with the result that most headteachers stagger assemblies and interpret the requirement as providing an act of Christian worship at least once a week. Because of the diverse nature of their pupils many are able to opt out of these assemblies and do so, thus defeating the purpose of them. A multi-faith assembly staggered over the week or one focussed on educating children about the differences between all faiths and none would benefit everybody and lead to better tolerance and understanding within our society.

If at all possible the Welsh Assembly should review the present legal requirement and seek to amend it to accommodate these views.

Update: Oh dear, what have I started? And this.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The cats whiskers

If this is a silly season story then it is time that we re-entered the realms of serious politics. Subject of course to the piece being true, then it is time that they threw away the key on Pete Docherty.

The allegation is that Docherty's adult cat – named Dinger, junkie slang for a syringe – recently had a litter of five kittens. When one of them fell ill, a worried vet tested the sick kitten and found cocaine in its bloodstream. It is suggested that the kitten ate some cocaine left lying around the house.

I look forward to the court case.

Cameron fails to convince Tories of his electability

Writing in today's Independent, Michael Brown suggests that David Cameron has failed to even convince his own team that he can win the next General Election.

The main evidence for this is the comparative inactivity of the Tory front bench with that of Labour during the summer of 1996:

The totality of that Labour campaigning summer added up to a universal impression that Labour was already prepared for a general election at any time and was desperate for office. Labour's total commitment to the goal of winning was further underlined by the absence of outside interests on its front bench.

By comparison, nearly half of today's front bench Tories has lucrative outside interests. This is all perfectly legitimate but it tells its own story as to the limits of the extent to which they are, individually, similarly desperate for office. I have no doubt that they timetable their private business arrangements in such a way that does not impinge on their front-bench duties. But whether it is two hours a day or two hours a week - maybe even confined solely to early morning, weekends or recesses - it is time not spent on the sole objective of winning office. And, even if there is absolutely no detriment to their official duties these interests tell a story that, subconsciously, they are not sure they are going to be ministers after the election.

What Mr Cameron has therefore been unable to do is to convince his own team that he is going to win. The most that can be said is that they think he "can" win. But a robust chance of winning would enable him to order that all of his team must abandon other distractions. Compulsory reading material for many Tories this summer was, allegedly, Alastair Campbell's diaries. Perhaps the most important section is the period that relates to the run-up to the 1997 general election where the ruthless collective determination of Blair, Brown, Mandelson, Straw, Cook and others to win against the demoralised Tory government shone through to friend and foe. Mr Cameron has failed to inspire a similar determination at least among his backbench troops.

Quite how the Tories have got to this point is not hard to work out. Michael Brown believes that Cameron oversold himself during the leadership election:

One fantastically well-scripted speech, learned by heart, at his leadership launch that was repeated during the October 2005 Blackpool Party conference. This made the faithful think he was the Tories' Tony Blair with the Midas touch. But Tories have a habit, like retired generals, of fighting the last war. They were looking for their own Tony Blair at the very moment that the former prime minister had already become so last century. The events surrounding Tory travails during the past three months have already been well documented. But a fundamental Tory miscalculation regarding what political life under Gordon Brown would be like will probably go down as Mr Cameron's most strategic error.

The columnist believes that the right of the party are prepared to allow Cameroonism to run its course, confident that when it fails they will be able to resume the reins. It is the early enthusiasts for the boy David who are most disappointed and who are sharpening their knives. Even so, whilst Nero fiddled as Rome burned, many Tory MPs and shadow ministers will be watching the fall of David Cameron and his new-look Tory Party from the comfort of a company boardroom.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Fresh food on-line

I have resisted so far buying my groceries on-line, even though it would be more convenient. Nothing can beat scrambling for the last bunch of Fair Trade bananas, racing other shoppers for the least congested till and dragging half-a-dozen re-usable carrier bags across a crowded car park and into the back of the car.

I am though sorely tempted by this latest initiative, an on-line farmers' market. There are some very good farmers' markets in Swansea, not least the one in Mumbles, but these only appear once a month. The opportunity to access the same quality and freshness all-year round could prove irresistible.

I look forward to the venture starting up.

In defense of 'Mickey Mouse degrees'

Three cheers for Universities UK, who have today hit back at those siren voices who have been systematically grabbing cheap headlines by attacking legitimate degree subjects.

They have responded to a report by the Taxpayers’ Alliance, an umbrella group that lobbies for lower taxes and allegedly highlights public sector “waste” to support its case, which has singled out two Welsh institutions – the University of Glamorgan and the Welsh College of Horticulture – for issuing “non-degrees”.

The Western Mail tells us that Glamorgan’s science-fiction and culture degree, and equestrian psychology, available as a foundation degree at the Welsh College of Horticulture in Mold, Flintshire, have appeared on a hit-list published by the Alliance, along with golf management, available at Inverness.

What is most peculiar about this list is that the Taxpayers' Alliance is the sort of organisation that might attract Tories who list horse riding and golf as a favoured pursuit or hobby. They would be the first to complain if their golf course or stables were badly managed. Both of these leisure activities are multi-million pound businesses requiring considerable acumen and skill from the people who run them. These courses are precisely the sort of vocational training we need if we are to succeed economically. But don't let me distract from the very effective rebuttal from Universities UK:

“Had they [the Taxpayers’ Alliance] done a little more research, they would have found that these so-called ‘non-courses’ are in fact based on demand from employers and developed in association with them.

“Graduates on these courses are in demand from employers who are looking for people with specific skills alongside the general skills acquired during a degree such as critical-thinking, team-working, time-management and IT skills – a point lost on the authors of this rag-bag of prejudices and outdated assumptions. Students know this – which is why these courses are often over-subscribed and have high employability rates.”

"A degree in golf management would combine elements of business and accounting and prepare students to work in an industry worth millions to the economy, he added.


A spokeswoman for the University of Glamorgan said, “In a time where students are choosing to shun the more traditional science subjects, the BSc science: fiction and culture is successful in engaging students in science.

“The course looks at the role of science in society and the way science is communicated to the public and, as such, many of our graduates go on to become science teachers.

“For other graduates the course is a stepping stone to further scientific postgraduate education as well as successful scientific-based careers.

“Several past graduates from the course have found employment with Nasa.”

A BA in fashion buying for retail at Manchester Metropolitan University seems to me to have as much intrinsic value as a degree in classics. Not everybody can go to Oxford or Cambridge but the fact that those who do not choose more practical degrees does not devalue their achievement. If anything it enhances their employability, whilst giving them the sort of academic discipline available from taking any sort of degree.

Attacking the surveillance society

Today's Independent newspaper reports that the Liberal Democrats will be taking up one of the themes of this blog and be launching an attack on Britain's "surveillance society":

In a strategic break with the Prime Minister, Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, and his home affairs spokesman Nick Clegg will launch their offensive at their party conference next month.

They have decided that Mr Brown's clear support for an extension of detention without charge beyond 28 days for terrorist suspects has destroyed any hope of a cross-party deal.

But they claim they are also responding to public anxiety highlighted by the Government's Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, who has warned that Britain is in danger of "sleep-walking into a surveillance society".

Liberal Democrat leaders say Britain is one of the most spied-on nations in the world and will use the conference to launch a campaign to roll back legislation they claim has gone too far. It includes the Identity Cards Act 2006, the creation of a national identity register and proposals for wide ranging data-sharing powers across Whitehall departments.

The party will demand greater safeguards on:

* The CCTV cameras that have sprouted up in every town and some villages, at a ratio of one for every 16 people, making Britain the most "watched" country on the planet. There are 4.2 million CCTV cameras in streets all around the country.

* The DNA database, "the largest in the world", which has data on 140,000 innocent people, with a disproportionate number from ethnic minorities. Many schools are collecting pupils' biometric data, often without parental consent.

* The Information Commissioner, who has no power to restrict "data mining" and data processing requests by government agencies and reports to ministers rather than Parliament. Surveillance on credit cards, mobile phones and loyalty cards, and US security agencies monitoring telecommunications, require the Data Protection Act to be updated.

* Requests for communications traffic data by the police and other investigative authorities which topped 439,000 between January 2005 and April 2006.

* Intercept warrants, which exceeded 2,240 in the 16 months to April 2006 under laws making the UK alone among democratic nations to have warrants granted by ministers.

In addition the paper tells us that Doctors' leaders at the BMA have also called on the Government to halt a scheme for GPs to pass on sensitive information about their patients to an NHS database until they have more assurances that they will not breach data protection safeguards.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Political games

I know that I have a reputation for sailing close to the wind when it comes to working with my colleagues and allies, but even I have never demonstrated the sort of audacity shown by Plaid Cymru AM, Dai Lloyd in tonight's Evening Post.

Writing about the decision to allow further dredging from Helwick Bank off Gower, Dai accuses Swansea Council Leader, Chris Holley, of smearing Plaid Cymru:

Swansea Council leader Chris Holley (Post, August 16) shows a clear lack of understanding of the Assembly's ministerial process when he criticises Plaid for the decision to proceed with further dredging off the Gower coast. Let us make one thing abundantly clear. Plaid have consistently opposed the dredging on the basis that until robust investigation shows that there is no effect on Gower's beaches, then the precautionary approach should prevail. This will continue to be Plaid's stance.

Councillor Holley knows full well that the decision as to whether the dredging should continue rests solely with the minister for sustainability. That minister is Labour's Jane Davidson, so Councillor Holley's statement, that this was in part a Plaid decision, is simply political game playing.

Jane Davidson made her announcement after the present coalition took power. Unless I am very much mistaken the Cabinet operates on the basis of collective responsibility and so Plaid Cymru Ministers are as responsible as Labour for this decision. I can do no better than quote the outraged resident of Swansea who has already posted his views on the newspapers' website:

This is unbelieveable. Don't Plaid Cymru Ministers have collective responsibility for the actions of the Welsh Government? Dai Lloyd cannot sign up to work with Labour and then just pick and choose the decisions he likes to support. Talk about all things to all men. Plaid are part of this government and they are as culpable as Labour in signing away our natural heritage to big business.

The continuing saga of Newport Station

Despite having been one of those who has missed a train from Newport due to a lengthy change of platform announcement in Welsh, followed by the English, I think that a far more serious concern about this station is its disabled access.

Dr Kevin Fitzpatrick expresses his understandable disbelief in this morning's Western Mail that a new platform at the station is inaccessible to disabled people and is likely to remain that way for some time. In fact lifts will be in place in time for the 2010 Ryder Cup, a situation that Kevin describes as putting golfers’ needs above those of disabled customers.

The paper tells us that the only means of access to the 270-metre Platform 4 is a long walk through a car park or through the station over a footbridge. But both routes are too difficult for passengers with mobility problems. As a result Network Rail is currently paying cabbies £3 to ferry passengers with mobility problems from other parts of Newport station to the platform.

Kevin also points out that the station does not have hearing loops for hearing impaired passengers. I can attest to the fact that electronic noticeboards were in short supply and not placed in helpful locations when I was last there. So, no matter what language is used first, some people may still miss their train.

Another pointless protest

Plaid Cymru MP, Adam Price, threatens to withhold his licence fee this morning unless the BBC put him on Newsnight and the UK National News more often. Oops, that should have read 'improve their poor coverage of Welsh affairs on network news programmes'.

It is a bizarre position for a nationalist MP. He wants an Independent Wales and yet he also wants to dictate the policy of the BBC and other broadcasters in England. For the record I do think that Mr. Price has a point but it is not the BBC who are the main offenders. National newspapers such as the Guardian are notorious for their ignorance of Wales.

When the role of a broadcaster is to educate and inform it is obvious that they will not use stories about Wales over the border unless there are strong jounalistic reasons for it. Items on Shambo the bull and the outrageous attack on a resident of Pontarddulais by a gang of youths stand on their own as strong news stories that resonate across the UK. A nationalist taking public office in Wales for the first time, although historic, has more relevance in Wales than outside our borders.

In return for paying the licence fee we get some very strong Welsh news coverage on a dedicated channel as well as access to many other programmes from the BBC and others. Although I think that the licence fee itself needs to go, I do not accept the argument that we are served less well than other parts of the United Kingdom for it. I say that despite the fact that Adam Price seems to have more success getting in the Western Mail than he does on the Six O'Clock News.

Update: Bethan Jenkins AM, acting in her capacity of Adam Price's representative on earth (just joking, Bethan) takes on Labour MP, Chris Bryant on Radio Wales. They agreed (I think) that S4C's budget should be devolved to the Welsh Assembly Government and that there should be more Welsh BBC journalists covering Parliament. All this consensus politics cannot be good for us so it is just as well that they gave the impression of being on opposite sides of the argument.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


When I blogged yesterday about the return of the Wispa chocolate bar I failed to recall the connection with the Liberal Democrats.

As I was reminded in the comments it was Welsh Liberal Democrat Councillor, Veronica Watkins who, as a young scientist, put the bubbles into the Wispa bar.

Veronica is also Mike German's better half and was number two on the South Wales East list in May. Could this revival be a good omen for the Welsh Liberal Democrats in that region?

Big brother across the pond

The Observer tells us that new law pushed through Congress by the US government will give American security agencies unprecedented powers to spy on British citizens without a warrant.

Although designed to help the National Security Agency in the fight against terrorism, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act gives US security services powers to intercept all telephone calls, internet traffic and emails made by British citizens across US-based networks.

As a large proportion of the world's telecoms networks and internet infrastructure runs through the US, the new act will give the security services huge scope for monitoring and intercepting Britons' private communications, as well as those of other foreign citizens. The paper says that there are fears that it will see a huge increase in the number of British citizens being extradited to the US. This is especially so given the UK Government's capitulation on the issue of extradition last year.

The paper adds that 'concern over US powers to monitor foreign citizens is growing. European privacy watchdogs have expressed fears that the US authorities are to be handed powers to check the personal details of travellers entering America and store them on databases alongside details such as their sexuality and religious beliefs for up to 15 years. The watchdogs, including the Information Commissioner of England and Wales, Richard Thomas, have been scathing in their criticism of the European Commission for granting the US its demand for the new powers.

In a coded statement the Information Commissioner's office yesterday acknowledged concerns that the privacy of some four million Britons who travel to the US each year is at risk because of the new powers.'

In January the Daily Telegraph reported that Britons flying to America could have their credit card and email accounts inspected by the United States authorities following a deal struck by Brussels and Washington. By using a credit card to book a flight, passengers face having other transactions on the card inspected by the American authorities. Providing an email address to an airline could also lead to scrutiny of other messages sent or received on that account. This new law seems to take that breach of privacy one step further.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Nostalgia is not what it used to be

Today's Guardian reports that the interweb has struck again, persuading Cadbury's to re-introduce the Wispa bar.

They tell us that thousands of websites, blogs and internet discussion threads have persuaded Cadbury that Wispas can rediscover a market which seemed to have moved on.

"The change of heart, backed by consumer research into younger, non-nostalgic tastes, follows a gentle lament for the chocolate which online networking has turned into an international campaign. There are 93 Bring Back Wispa groups on Facebook with approaching 14,000 members and the rival directories MySpace and Bebo are catching up."

The downside is that this might encourage further attempts to revive much-missed tastes of the past, particularly sweets. Apparently, Spangles enthusiasts are among those considering a revival of campaigns which, pre-internet, never got far beyond nostalgic sighs amongst friends.

The Wispa bar has of course benefited from the current obsession with the decade that taste forgot, the 1980s. This includes misguided hankering after such TV triumphs as Dallas and Dynasty, as well as leg warmers and neon clothes. Still, who are we to talk? At least they didn't have Big Brother in those days.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Questions, questions, questions

I have done the Normal Mouth quiz and am profiled here, and as he asked so nicely I have even added his Face of Boe comment to the sidebar.

The end

Paul Walter draws our attention to the very last page of the internet. He also provides a link to enable us to find the first page except there are lots of them. Great minds think alike, I suppose.

Sleight of hand

When is a government minister not a minister? Answer: When it is Carwyn Jones.

Another row that has rumbled on throughout the summer re-emerges in the Western Mail this morning. Bridgend Labour AM, Carwyn Jones, has taken on the dual role of Counsel General and Leader of the House as part of the red-green coalition reshuffle. However, the Government of Wales Act forbids the Counsel General from being appointed to any other ministerial office.

Welsh Liberal Democrat Group Leader, Mike German is very clear on this matter: “We have ministers in order to provide accountability. If Carwyn is in charge of Assembly business, then he needs to be accountable, and he should be a minister. But if he is a minister, he cannot be Counsel General."

Tory Leader, Nick Bourne elaborates: “Carwyn’s dual role will inevitably lead to problems with the conflict of interest which his positions will entail. In his role of Counsel General, he has the responsibility for issuing legal advice to ministers in cases where two or more ministers disagree on legal questions. However, in his role as Minister for Assembly Business, he has responsibility for all cross-cutting briefs, and, in any case where there is a dispute between ministers regarding the legality of an issue, he will presumably be involved in any dispute in his capacity as Minister for Assembly Business.

“As such, the legal advice he gives in his role as Counsel General could not be considered impartial.”

The Government thinks that both are wrong: “It is perfectly clear to anyone who understands the Act that this is not a muddle. The position is perfectly consistent with the Government of Wales Act 2006.

“A note issued by the Presiding Officer makes it clear that Carwyn Jones has been designated to exercise the functions of the Counsel General. He will also take on responsibility for Government Business in the Assembly with the title of ‘Leader of the House’.

“The Act does not prohibit the Counsel General carrying out the functions of the Leader of the House. As the duties relating to the Leader of the House do not involve the exercise of statutory functions, there is no legal reason why the Counsel General may not carry out those duties.”

However, this official explanation sounds a bit contrived, the product perhaps of legal advice seeking to defend the politically expedient. Writing in the letters page another lawyer, former Tory candidate, Robert Buckland, offers a different legal interpretation of the position:

Rhodri Morgan's decision to appoint Carwyn Jones as Minister for Assembly Business and Counsel General flies in the face of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Section 49(9) of that Act states that holders of Welsh Ministerial or Deputy Welsh Ministerial posts may not also be appointed as Counsel General and vice-versa.

At a time when the role of legal officers in Government is in the spotlight, it is crucial that the Counsel General be able to discharge his duties impartially. How can the Assembly’s business manager successfully wear two very different hats? Mr. Morgan has not only breached the Act but has placed his Minister in an impossible position.

How will it all end? I don't know, but I think I can predict the subject of the first points of order when we reconvene in September.

Savlon and Gaviscon

This morning's Western Mail continues that paper's reports on the abuse of free prescriptions in Wales. They tells us that patients have visited their doctors to claim free tubes of Bonjela and pots of Vaseline on the NHS. These items cost just a couple of pounds from pharmacies and supermarkets but were issued on a free prescription within the first month of the scheme’s introduction:

A snapshot of prescribing behaviour in April and May also reveals that patients claimed other popular over-the-counter medicines such as hay fever sprays, indigestion and diarrhoea tablets and athlete’s foot creams.

The findings come just a day after the Western Mail revealed that the number of prescription items claimed by patients rocketed by 3m last year, coinciding with prescription fees falling to £3 in Wales.

Welsh Liberal Democrat Health Spokesperson, Jenny Randerson, hits the nail on the head yet again when she tells the paper that “Free prescriptions for all sounds great on election leaflets, but, in reality, the drugs budget is finite.

“Now the election is over the consequences of this policy are becoming painfully clear.

Last year I warned that free prescriptions would mean more Beechams powder for millionaires and less people getting the help they need.

“Labour brought this in with claims it would help a healthier Wales move towards full employment – in reality it will lead to more demands on GPs’ time, longer waiting lists and less money for expensive new cancer drugs.”

Surely, an official review is necessary.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Independence or bust?

Although she does not state it explicitly, Leanne Wood today implies that Wales' Constitutional Convention, agreed under the One Wales pact, is just the first step in a process that will take us all the way to independence. No wonder some Labour figures are unhappy. They are more concerned with what will happen to the can of worms they are opening than with the thought that Wales might achieve parity with Scotland.

Writing in the Western Mail, Leanne adopts the language of the SNP to suggest that the Convention will enable the Welsh government to begin a conversation on our future as a nation. In reality it is there to build a consensus in the run-up to a referendum on full law-making powers, or is it? Perhaps in the light of this article, Rhodri Morgan needs to clear that up.

She asks why it is that other parties often argue that Wales is too small to make decisions for itself, but half the members of the UN are smaller than, or the same size as Wales. The simple answer is that we do not. As she, herself, points out, there is cross-party support for a successful outcome to a referendum on law-making powers. Mixing up arguments for different outcomes in this way does not enhance her case, it makes Plaid appear disingenuous.

What many do not support is full economic and political independence, whatever that means, because unlike those other countries we are starting from a different place in which our prosperity is inter-dependent with England and our tax-take does not meet our out-goings. Leanne fails to point out that the cost of living in countries such as Iceland, Ireland and Malta is very high and it is only because they have been able to sustain a good GVA that their citizens have been able to live with this. Indeed it took decades of struggle and not-insubstantial European funds, for Ireland to reach its present position as the 'celtic tiger'.

Economic success is not forever, as Japan has illustrated, and in our case, where we start with a below-European average GVA, the impact of economic independence could be disastrous unless we have built up a strong niche for ourselves in World markets so as to sustain an economy capable of supporting our spending on key public services.

The fact remains that it is not just the other political parties who are unconvinced by the independence argument, it fails to resonate with the electorate as well. It is not enough to argue for constitutional change on the basis of national pride and envy, there have to be very real benefits as well if Plaid are to convince people of their case. So far the nationalists have failed to answer the fundamental question of 'what is in it for us?'

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

More sniping from the sidelines

Meanwhile, Labour MP Don Touhig has upset Plaid Cymru again with his claim that there is no appetite for the National Assembly to get more powers. And quite right too. Labour have signed up to Plaid's agenda. They will have to learn to live with it.

Sleep-walking to disaster?

Labour AM, Huw Lewis, has published an on-line pamphlet this morning in which he warns that his party it will “sleepwalk” to electoral disaster at the next Assembly election in 2011 without major changes. It can be read here.

Huw argues that Wales Labour needs to be fully staffed and more effectively organised, in effect that it should be on a permanent 'war-footing' so as to connect better with the electorate. He also advocates the adoption of a 10-year policy programme by the party, saying, “The idea that we have to present surprise policy commitments a few weeks before an election in order to grab the news agenda for the day is unhealthy and as we have already seen can lead to undeliverable commitments and gimmickry.”

In particular Huw wants to engage better with the Trade Unions, giving them a guaranteed seat at the decision-making table, a role that will inevitably be controversial amongst the wider electorate.

Huw's pamphlet is the start of an internal debate within Labour that will be mirrored in every other political party in Wales over the next few months as they get to grips with the lessons of the 2007 Assembly elections. I am writing my own contribution to the Welsh Liberal Democrat debate, which I will publish once it is finished.

Bad news

Radio Wales are reporting two animals at a Merthyr Tydfil processing plant are suspected of having foot and mouth. A cordon has been thrown around the plant and Welsh Assembly Government vets are on the way. Let us hope that it is a false alarm. The consequences of this being a positive diagnosis do not bear thinking about.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Inevitable debt burden

The Independent reports that first-year university students are totting up record debt levels of nearly £6,000 a year and face leaving university owing more than £17,500. This is a 25.5% increase on the debt levels incurred by first year students in previous years.

For some reason the University of Glamorgan has the second highest level of first-year student debt in the country with an average of £7,942. Two of the three universities where students have the least debt are in Scotland - Robert Gordon with £1,103 and Abertay Dundee with £1,123 - where they do not have top-up fees.

The paper tells us that the publication of these figures coincide with a study by financial experts that shows student debt has risen by 167 per cent in the past decade - from £1.2 bn to £3.2bn. The study, by uSwitch.com, says it will take the average student 11 years to clear their debts.

A third study shows that youngsters who opt to go on vocational courses will be as much as £70,000 ahead of their graduate counterparts by the time they have completed their degree at the age of 21.

The Association of Accounting Technicians says that figure is the amount that vocationally trained students will have earned on average by the time university graduates are looking for work with average debts of £13,000 a year (at present).

The Government continue to contend that debt levels are not putting youngsters off going into higher education and that application levels are up again. Surely though we are getting to the point where the advantages of a degree are outweighed by the financial consequences. Furthermore, those who are most debt-adverse, often people from the poorest backgrounds and single-parent familes, will be deterred from fulfilling their potential by going on to higher education. If we are to continue to produce the managers, scientists, and entrepreneurs of the future then this is a problem that needs addressing.


Monday, August 13, 2007

Same old story

I note that Wales Labour are up to their old tricks already, and the new coalition ministers have not even answered their first set of questions yet.

A press release issued today by Finance Minister Andrew Davies, makes the claim that extra support is on its way for disabled children and their families thanks to Welsh Labour. Apparently, the "Labour led Assembly Government is delivering on its promise to provide more help to the most vulnerable people in our local community".

No mention of any part played in this largesse by Plaid Cymru. In fact Social Services Minister, Gwenda Thomas, is loath to give any credit whatsoever to her party's new partners. She is quoted as saying "Welsh Labour is committed to providing more care and support to disabled children and their families."

Labour have form on this of course. During the Labour- Welsh Liberal Democrat Coalition they often took to describing the government as Labour-led and took credit for policies put into the partnership agreement by the Welsh Liberal Democrats. I hope that Plaid Cymru are braced for a rough ride.

Something Fishy

Getting back to nature.

No energy

Today's Guardian reveals that the UK government is secretly trying to wriggle out of renewable energy targets signed up to by Tony Blair because they are too difficult:

In contrast to the government's claims to be leading the world on climate change, officials within the former Department of Trade and Industry have admitted that under current policies Britain would miss the EU's 2020 target of 20% energy from renewables by a long way. And their suggestion that "statistical interpretations of the target" be used rather than new ways to reach it has infuriated environmentalists.

An internal briefing paper for ministers, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, reveals that officials at the department, now the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, think the best the UK could hope for is 9% of energy from renewable sources such as wind, solar or hydro by 2020.

It says the UK "has achieved little so far on renewables" and that getting to 9%, from the current level of about 2%, would be "challenging". The paper was produced in the early summer, around the time the government published its energy white paper.

Under current policies renewables would account for only 5% of Britain's energy mix by 2020, the document says. The EU average is 7%; Germany is at 13%. It acknowledges that Germany, unlike Britain, has built a "strong and growing renewables industry".

EU leaders agreed the 20% target for the bloc in spring. The European Commission is working out how to reach this .

One change being mooted is to lobby European Commissioners to allow investment in nuclear power to be counted against the targets. Of course if renewables had received the same level of investment and commitment as nuclear over the last few decades then we would already be on course to achieve our agreed energy mix.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Sunday Trivia

Wales on Sunday tells us that fire chiefs have defended a decision to send three crews and a rescue boat to save a duck trapped in a drain. The duck's owner dialled 999 when the bird was unable to escape from a drainage tunnel it had been washed into during flooding in Earlswood Lakes, near Solihull.

One place that ducks may well be able to find a home is the giant eco-City being mooted by the Tories, to be built on reclaimed land along the Thames estuary between Docklands and the Medway towns so as to alleviate overcrowding in London. John Redwood wants to see more than a quarter of a million homes built on the mudflats there.

This area is of course part of the river's floodplain and although Redwood advocates upgrading the Thames' barrier it is likely that the new 'City' could be prone to flooding, not to mention the cumulative impact further upstream. Has he learnt nothing from this summer's floods?

Finally, the Observer carries a cautionary tale on its front page about the appalling spelling of undergraduates in Imperial College London, Oxford University and presumably every other Higher Education Institution in the UK. Rather amusingly, the newspaper headlines the article: 'Undergraduates let down by week spelling and, punctuation'. Do you think that it was a deliberate mistake?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Terror or protest

I am sure that the vast majority of people in this country want to see anti-terrorism laws used for that purpose. Indeed the government is increasingly seeking a consensus for ever-stronger laws to deal with this threat and providing that an evidence-based case can be made for them and they are balanced and proportionate then I will support this process.

The problem comes when the government exceeds its remit and proposes measures that can not be justified or which are in conflict with important liberties. That can lead to a loss of public confidence, something that can also happen if these laws are used against peaceful protestors rather than terrorists.

The decision of the police to use stop and search powers created to address the threat of terrorism against peaceful demonstrators is a disturbing sign that our democracy has taken a wrong turn. What is more, as the Guardian points out, this is not the first time that the police have exceeded their remit:

The police tactics have echoes of the 2003 anti-war demo at RAF Fairford where law lords eventually ruled police had acted unlawfully in detaining two coachloads of protesters, who were stopped and searched and then turned back even though they were on their way to an authorised demonstration. Police used section 44 of the act 995 times at the Fairford peace camp, even though there was no suggestion of terrorist overtones.

The Guardian has established that at least two climate change campaigners have been arrested recently at Heathrow by officers using terrorism powers. Cristina Fraser, a student, was stopped when cycling near the airport with a friend and then charged under section 58 of the Terrorism Act. This makes it an offence to make a record of something that could be used in an act of terrorism.

"I was arrested and held in a police cell for 30 hours. I was terrified. No one knew where I was. They knew I was not a terrorist," she said.

Ms Fraser, a first-year London university anthropology student, has been on aviation demonstrations with the Plane Stupid campaign group, but claims she was carrying nothing at all. The police later recharged her with conspiring to cause a public nuisance.

If detention without charge is extended to 90 days are we to presume that future demonstrators will find themselves locked up for that period of time so as to spare the government embarrassment? Oh, and surely the whole point of a peaceful demonstration is to cause a public nuisance so as to get a message across? Will the government be seeking to outlaw democratic protest next?

Absent friends

The Wales Labour Party have told the Western Mail that they decided not to exhibit at this year’s National Eisteddfod because last year its stand was “vandalised” by Welsh language activists.

A Labour spokesperon insists that the party have not abandoned the event altogether: “We have had a strong presence at this year’s National Eisteddfod, supporting an interesting and thought- provoking Cymdeithas Cledwyn event. In addition, many of Labour’s AMs and MPs attended the Prifwyl."

That may well be the case but in the housing debate I did for Community Housing Cymru there was no Labour representative on the platform. Instead it was left to Hywel Williams MP to represent the views of the coalition government, a task which he was very reluctant to undertake.

If Labour are to re-engage with Welsh speaking communities as they say then they will need to redress this situation. It might also help if they were to reach out to rural Wales as well, but then that would mean having a stand at the Royal Welsh Show, another missing link this summer. Has ten years of government led them to retreat to their urban redoubts in disarray or is it just that they cannot be bothered reaching out to non-sympathetic groups anymore?

Friday, August 10, 2007

Celebrating being ginger

Tonight's South Wales Evening Post reports that red-haired people are to be offered free entry to the National Botanic Garden of Wales on 26 August as part of the country's first Ginger Family Festival.

The special day is timed to celebrate the opening of the new Tropical House, which features many exotic examples of the zingiberaceae plant family, also known as the ginger family. Visitors can sample the garden's home-made ginger beer, buy something from a variety of stalls selling ginger-related products and dine from a specially created ginger-themed menu. Dishes on offer include Towy salmon with ginger and spring onion.

I wonder what is in my diary for that day. It might be worth a trip.

The answer is four

This week's Golwg has a minor exclusive in its gossip column as the writer speculates as to why I visited the Eisteddfod on the first day. Nice to see that I am being noticed.

Under the heading 'Black days for German?', we are told that it 'was quite a surprise to see Peter Black come all the way to Mold for the Eisteddfod and on the first day at that. Peter Black is not well known for his support of the Welsh language so why come all this way? Could it possibly be that he was gathering support for a challenge to Mike German as leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Group?' This is an excellent example of a silly season filler in which the journalist adds together two and two and gets five.

I think it is worth pointing out that not only have I been a strong supporter of the Welsh language since my University days but that in addition to Social Justice and Housing, I am also currently the Welsh Liberal Democrats spokesperson for culture, the Welsh language and sport. I will shortly be passing that mantle on in a mini shuffle. I also try to go to each National Eisteddfod at least once if I am not on holiday at the time.

Of course there is bound to be lots of Welsh Liberal Democrats at a National Eisteddfod but it is not the obvious place to launch a leadership campaign even if that was my intention, which it was not. The truth is that I went up to the Wirral for the weekend to see my mother. It seemed perfectly natural to then spend the Saturday in Mold with her looking around the Eisteddfod, especially as on my next visit I would be too busy to take in all the sights.

Still, if we didn't have such speculation how would journalists fill all those column inches during August.

Adult neurosurgery

It was inevitable that the Health Minister's compromise to keep Adult neurosurgery in Swansea would start to unravel at some point and today is as good a time as any.

The BBC report that there is growing concern among AMs and MPs about proposals to send patients from north Wales to Swansea or Cardiff for brain operations. So much so that some Labour AMs and MPs are in open revolt.

The problem that the Minister had to overcome was one of sustainable volume. There needs to be a certain population for a neurosurgery unit to be viable and safe. Health Commision Wales otherwise known as Help Cardiff Win in some parts of Swansea, had wanted to merge the two neurosurgery units in Swansea and Cardiff so as to meet this requirement.

However, their option of locating the new unit in the capital city did not win favour in most of South Wales because of very understandable geographical arguments based on keeping journey times below two hours for emergencies. Cardiff is also very close to the unit in Bristol leaving the people of South East Wales spoilt for choice, whilst those of us to the west would face a life-threatening journey.

The obvious solution was to merge the two services on the Swansea site so that the vast majority of people in South and Mid Wales would have a journey of less than two hours to a neurosurgical unit. Instead the Minister kept both Swansea and Cardiff open and announced a review so as to construct an all-Wales solution. This would mean people travelling from North Wales to the south coast for scheduled operations together with all the logistical problems of accomodating relatives and ensuring proper post-operative support.

The outcome of all this is a certain amount of back-tracking on the part of the government. On 4th July for example the Minister told Plenary that "I have given you categorical assurances that the Swansea and Cardiff neurosurgery units will remain open. The purpose of my task and finish group is to look at issues of how this will work and how we will draw in the other work. This solution will work, and that is the end of the matter as far as I am concerned. On my watch as Minister, this will work because we wish it to work, and we will find ways to make it work. It is important that we recognise my clear commitment today to the services." However, on Radio Wales this morning the Chief Executive of the NHS in Wales told viewers on three separate occasions that no decisions have been taken. She implied that the future of Cardiff and Swansea was dependent on the outcome of the review.

I have now written to the Minister to ask her what the government’s position is on this and to confirm that if the review concludes that patients in North Wales should continue to go to Walton then this will have no impact on the decision to keep both Swansea and Cardiff open as part of a managed network? I will be watching developments intently.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Rabbiting on

I called into a small hotel off the A49 for lunch today and was astounded to see wild rabbits playing freely on the front lawn. Sure enough, when I picked up the menu one of the first items was 'Cannon of rabbit, rosemary and black olive'. I had the beef.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Back up North

So the three hours plus journey to the National Eisteddfod faces me again today as I set off to take part in a debate on housing policy being staged by Community Housing Cymru. If you are there pop into the Sbardun tent at 2pm and say hello.

I am only in Mold for today as tomorrow I set off for Ludlow on a fact-finding visit to learn more about their policies on affordable housing.

Blogging will be very light for the next 36 hours or so.

When in a hole...

Methinks that the Tories protest too much. Move on for goodness sake.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Everybody is a critic

The BBC tell us that Dafydd Wigley is to use a speech at the National Eisteddfod to criticise the his own party for signing up to a coalition with Labour.

The former Plaid leader will argue that the One Wales document was compiled too quickly, that almost half the policies in the document will need more funding, which has not been secured and that there is little chance of winning a referendum on the assembly gaining law-making powers.

Mr. Wigley is also concerned at the opposition of most Labour MPs to the agreement and the impact this will have on any referendum campaign. He believes that it will put back the campaign to convert the assembly into a full law-making body by a generation:

Mr Wigley will also argue that of 217 specific policies set out in the document, 102 of them will need additional resources for which funding has not been secured.

The deal should not have been struck without this money, he will say, and if the coalition document is to be delivered, it will necessitate cutbacks in other areas, he will add.

However, Mr Wigley will argue that the One Wales document will deliver and that he will be challenging his party to work as an effective partner in government.

Glad to see that he ends up looking on the bright side after all that. Perhaps he can use his next speech to explain how the Labour-Plaid Government will overcome all the obstacles he has identified so as to justify that conclusion.

On David Owen

An exceptional interview with Denis Healey in Saturday's Guardian, made all the sweeter by this classic summing up of Dr. David Owen:

"When he was born all the good fairies gave him every virtue: 'You'll be beautiful, you'll be intelligent, you'll have charm and charisma.' And the bad fairy came along and tapped him on the shoulder and said, 'But you'll be a shit.' That was his trouble."

Hat Tip to Political Hack and Bob Piper

Fat cats

The Western Mail reports that Rhodri Morgan is back at work, feeling ten years younger and fitter then ever. He has lost a stone in weight and up to four inches from his waist since undergoing an emergency procedure a month ago. I really am going to have to ask him for a copy of his diet.

Meanwhile, concern grows about another group of fat cats who, The Guardian says, are in danger of developing diabetes. They report a warning from veterinarians that Britain's vast population of lethargic and over-fed cats are in danger of developing the disease as soaring rates of feline obesity take their toll on the animals' health:

Lead scientist Danielle Gunn-Moore, a professor of feline medicine at the Royal School of Veterinary Studies at Edinburgh University, said the high level of obesity and diabetes was being driven by dramatic changes in cats' lifestyles, with the pets getting less exercise but more food than in recent decades.

"Cats used to roam free outside, but now many owners keep them indoors and instead of playing with them to keep them active, they just give them food whenever they miaow," said Prof Gunn-Moore.

Personally, I do not want to get into the situation where I have to administer a twice daily injection to my cat, it is hard enough getting her to swallow a worming tablet. The £100 a month cost is also a factor. Professor Gunn-Moore recommends a strict dieting and exercise regime, but have you ever tried to get a cat to take exercise?

I give daily thanks that we still have a healthy 17 year old cat, who we indulge with treats but try to avoid overfeeding and who gets to go outside on a regular basis. The problem is that when she is out there she is either sleeping in the grass or begging food off neighbours. I suppose that metabolism plays a big part in this as well.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Claim and counter claim

Iain Dale gets his knickers in a twist in a quite spectacular manner here, ably assisted by half a dozen Welsh Tories and some unbearably smug Wales Labour activists. I haven't enjoyed one of Iain's posts so much for ages.

Wealth gap

Today's Western Mail reports that the regional wealth gap has widened between Wales and England during Labour’s 10 years in office.

According to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) Wales’ economic output has fallen even further behind that of the wealthiest part of the UK, the South East of England, since 1997. In that year Welsh GVA (Gross Value Added) – the accepted measure of wealth per head – stood at 81% of the UK average, with London on 129% and England as a whole on 102%. But in 2005, the latest figures show Wales has dropped to 78% of the UK figure, London has increased to 136% with England as a whole still on 102%.

The paper reminds us that during the second Assembly term, the Labour administration stated its aspiration was to raise the GVA level to 90% by 2010. The “One Wales” agreement between Plaid and Labour says, “Everyone must have the opportunity to achieve a reasonable standard of living, no matter where they live or what they do”, although there is no specific GVA target.

This is a massive challenge for the new Labour-Plaid Coalition and one on which they will be scrutinised quite closely. It is not helped of course by the fact that despite their strong negotiating position, Plaid failed to get a promise of any extra matched funding from the Treasury for the second phase of European funding.

In the absence of a target in 'One Wales' no doubt people will be focussing on the existing objective of 90% of UK GVA by 2010. To get there will require a massive reversal in fortunes. I hope that the Government is able to do it.

Tories in revolt - again

Just when David Cameron thought he had survived the worst of the storm over his various misjudgements in the Ealing Southall by-election, a fresh one starts up. This time it is Yorkshire Tories who are telling him to shape up or they will ship out.

Today's Daily Mirror tells us that the Tory leader was given a mauling by angry grassroots party members in Yorkshire. They warned him that they will form their own breakaway northern party if he does not shape up. The paper reports that Cameron was said to have been so shaken by the ferocity of the verbal assaults during the get-together with local activists that he could not finish his lunch.

The summit meeting in Leeds was supposed to be a charm offensive to allow Cameron to soothe

But a source who was there said: "There was blood on the walls in no time - and most of it was his. He turned white because everyone was laying into him.

"People got very angry with him. I don't think he enjoyed the meal. By the time we got to dessert, he'd had enough. The dish was put in front of everyone but he just said, 'I don't want one'. To be honest, he looked a bit sick by then. He was given a right good kicking. Some people were so upset with his performance they refused to shake his hand.

"But whether or not we got through to him is a different matter."

The Mirror says that the meeting took place with 22 activists at Bertie's French restaurant last week. It included constituency chairmen and prospective MPs and was called by Cameron after he was warned about the discontent among northern Tories. He was told the party in Yorkshire is on the verge of meltdown, with members leaving in droves. In West Yorkshire alone, 250 party loyalists out of a total of 500 are refusing to renew their membership. Some of those present said they were ready to form a breakaway party if Cameron were to be defeated at the next election but refused to quit.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Every DNA strand is sacred!

No, I don't believe that, but I liked the allusion to Monty Python's 'The Meaning of Life' so I indulged myself. I could happily fill this blog with pieces endorsing every word written by the Observer's Henry Porter. It is rare for me to disagree with him and today is no exception.

Mr. Porter is rapidly becoming the conscience of the nation, weighing up each infringement against civil liberties on the part of the government and measuring it against a carefully crafted set of criteria to see if it stacks up, or if it is yet another unjustified intrusion by the state into our private affairs. Today, he draws an inevitable conclusion and one that some of us are also coming to: 'Britain is on the way to becoming a police state.'

He does not reach this position lightly. Writing about the crisis of liberty in Britain, I have been careful not to use these words, but today I see no other conclusion to draw. Taken in the context of the ID card database, the national surveillance of vehicles and retention of information about every individual motorway journey, the huge number of new criminal offences, the half million intercepts of private communications every year, the proposed measures to take 53 pieces of information from everyone wishing to go abroad, which will include powers to prevent travel, this widening of the DNA database for minor misdemeanours confirms the pattern of attack on us all. It is time to pay attention to what the government under Labour has done to British society and what may be awaiting us just a short distance down the road.

Some will say I am being alarmist, but they should consider what we have lost since the mid-Nineties. The inventory of freedoms is eroded every week with measures and laws that individually seem just about acceptable but which accrue to alter the nature of a society where rights and liberty were believed to be as natural as summer rain. People might be reassured by Gordon Brown's talk of a constitutional settlement and a new Bill of Rights, but they should look at his statist views and what is happening in the Home Office, surely one of the most incompetent of the ministries, yet, with its vision for a totally controlled society, also one of the most malign?

Our liberal society is threatened because we don't think it is. This crisis is a crisis because we have not yet acknowledged it.

What has prompted this conclusion is the government's decision to extend the DNA database:

Let me explain why extension of the database should worry us all. The taking of a swab from a person's mouth - by force when necessary - and retaining that sample indefinitely, whether that person has committed a crime or not, is a very serious intrusion. The state owns and has access to the essence of that individual's being. In the future, it may share the information with whom it likes, investigate the as yet unknown secrets of that sample and make deductions which are prejudicial to that individual or the individual's blood relations. Once on the DNA database, a person is regarded as being in a pool of potential criminals and in an oblique way likely to be guilty of something or other.

DNA is a very useful tool in solving serious crime, but to force people to give a sample because they are not wearing a seatbelt, have littered or let their dog foul a pavement is wrong because it is a measure designed to increase the database, driven by a bureaucratic rather than judicial imperative. In the words of Alex Marshall, deputy chief constable of Thames Valley Police: 'Extending the taking of samples to all offences may be perceived as indicative of the increasing criminalisation of the generally law-abiding citizen.

That is exactly right. Any democratic society with a respect for rights must strike a balance between the needs of crime detection and the principle that a person's privacy is inviolate and their basic innocence unaffected even when they have committed a minor misdemeanour. To compel the sampling of DNA from someone who has driven past a stop sign is a greater offence to society than driving past the stop sign.

This is the latest in a number of measures whose cumulative effect is to take power over the individual citizen. The more power the state has the more likely it is to be abused. Elsewhere I have seen a cartoon in which it is mooted that the government is protecting us from the loss of liberty to terrorists by taking away our rights first. It is a clumsy argument but it is essentially right. We need security measures to protect us from those who would seek to harm us but we need to ensure that those changes are effective and do not go over the top.

Identity cards are a good example of such a measure. They seem an attractive way of combating terrorism and crime but in fact even Government Ministers have admitted that they would not work in achieving such an objective.

Earlier this week in answer to a Parliamentary Question by Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary, Nick Clegg MP, the Government admitted that 722,464 profiles were added to the DNA database in 2006-07, the equivalent of one every 45 seconds. DNA is a vital tool in the fight against crime, but such a massive database must be subjected to proper scrutiny - especially when it contains details of nearly 150,000 people who were never charged, let alone convicted of an offence. This trend must be reversed and the database purged so that it is put to work doing what it was created for: the detection of crime.


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