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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Asking the people

It is difficult to go into things in any depth when my only access to the internet is via a limited blackberry but I was intriqued by one of the proposals in Chris Huhne's election manifesto published today.

Unfortunately his suggestion that we might want to adopt the Swiss idea of a people's veto on unpopular legislation smacks a bit of finding something radical to say for the sake of it. It is not in my view a Liberal proposal.

I am not somebody who is generally in favour of referendums. We live in a representative democracy in which the quality of our legislation is enhanced by a thorough process of scrutiny and review. It would be impossible to replicate that procedure in any public vote in which the strength of the argument for or against is often dictated by the resources available to either side. Even a retrospective vote could lead to important legislation being subject to a bidding war by well-heeled vested interests in a way that is not possible in a proper Parliamentary process. However if Chris Huhne can come up with a worked up proposal I am prepared to look at it.

What puzzles me the most about this suggestion however is why, given his sudden enthusiasm for the plebiscite, Chris Huhne remains so resolutely opposed to a vote on the European Treaty. It is a position with which I agree but it hardly smacks of consistency on his part.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Anticipated pleasures

I am disappearing off for a week during half term to regroup, recuperate and regenerate, so blogging will be non-existent for a short while. I am sure that you will all find something else to do for a few days but please don't forget to come back.

Some of the delights that await us in the second half of the term include a debate on equal opportunities, the annual report of the Voluntary Sector Scheme, the Assembly budget and of course Alison Halford's account of life in the Assembly, warts and all. I can't imagine which we are all looking forward to the most.

Checking the expenses

In general I am not one who gets excited about the fact that MPs, AMs and MSPs need appropriate support to do the job they are elected for. Often this will require the provision of allowances to employ staff, run offices, to travel to and from the relevant Parliament and to stay away from home when necessary. However, there are grey areas and there are also differences between Parliaments that are difficult to justify.

The £10,000 allowance available to MPs to promote themselves in their constituency for example, is indefensible in my view. It is a state-subsidised boost for incumbents that is neither transparent in the way it is spent nor fair to their opponents. There are also question marks about the differences in the way that the postage allowance is used by some MPs. It is difficult to be more precise than this because the House of Commons refuses to reveal details even when requested under the Freedom of Information Act.

It was no surprise therefore that the latest publication of MPs allowances revealed that some of the highest claims came from MPs in marginal seats. MPs may give excellent value for money but in some cases that value is tempered by the need to have higher activity levels so as to hold onto their seat. There is nothing wrong with that, but is it right that it is taxpayers who must pick up the bill, especially when we do not actually know what we are paying for?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Re-opening the debate

It is difficult to know what precisely the British Medical Association are seeking to achieve by re-opening the debate on the running costs of the Assembly.

On the one hand you can see their point that the money received by the Welsh Assembly is directly derived from expenditure on devolved services in England and that to siphon off even a penny of it to fund the 'overhead costs of devolution' is depriving our own services of much needed cash. However, on the other hand we already had this discussion in 1997 and nothing that the BMA says is new. In fact they could be accused of trying to re-open the devolution debate and making the case for the abolition of the Assembly altogether.

In truth they have raised this issue now because they want to increase pressure on the UK Government to turn the Barnett formula into one based on needs. However, even then the same situation will prevail. Whatever lump sum we get to spend in Wales will be top-sliced to pay for the democratic process. And even though the situation is less transparent in Westminster, the same mechanisms effectively exist there too.

The cost of running the Westminster Parliament is taken directly from taxpayers money raised to pay for public services. The same sort of arrangement applies to local Councils. It is an inevitable part of any democratic process that we must use some public money to ensure that we get good administration, transparency and accountability. I suppose it is preferable to having a similar lump sum siphoned off to a Swiss bank account by an unaccountable dictator.

Perhaps the BMA's energies might be better spent unearthing the health deficit between England and Wales, by which I mean that they directly catalogue our greater health needs and put a figure to the sort of extra cash we would need to address them. I can think of no greater contribution that might be made at this stage by such an important and influential lobby group to the cause of financial transparency.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Trekkies of the world unite...

Yesterday was the 100th day of the One Wales Government and as a consequence there was a two hour debate on their programme. This was very welcome especially as it was marked by some deft use of a computer by the former Plaid Cymru MP for Ceredigion, Simon Thomas, now employed as a Government Special Advisor.

Mr. Thomas produced a series of 'lines to take' for the Plaid Cymru Group in response to the raft of amendments tabled by the Welsh Liberal Democrats. Unfortunately, he managed to send it to all of our support staff, a gaffe that was not lost on Kirsty Williams:

I welcome the fact that, after much nudging and prodding, the Leader of the House has seen fit to table today’s debate. Before I move to the amendments, I thank Plaid Cymru Members for the new spirit of openness that they have brought to Government in Wales. Sharing their lines to take on the Liberal Democrats with the Liberal Democrats is more than we could have expected, or even hoped for, in these new arrangements. Of course, it was the Liberal Democrats who gave that hapless individual the opportunity to become a special adviser, by relieving him of his Westminster duties. While we might not have been grateful at the time, it is nice to see him opening his heart and his inbox to us.

As lively as the debate was, it was Mick Bates who managed to produce the most obscure reference of the day:

Mick Bates: I welcome the debate, because there are similarities here with the documents that we have produced in the past, and I am sure that we all share the same ambitions. One hundred should be a significant milestone. Those of you who remember that great film, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, will remember that 100 beings were sent out to explore the universe. Therefore, I thought that, today, I would explore the universe according to the 100 days of the newPlaid/Labour Government.

Actually, this analogy was a missed opportunity. Mick was of course referring to the TV series known as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in which a formidable space empire called the Dominion sent out 100 shape shifters to explore the universe. Did some of them end up in the One Wales government? We should be told.

Whatever the answer to that question, it is clear that tensions continue to exist between the Labour Party and Plaid Cymru. Merthyr Tydfil AM, Huw Lewis, brought those tensions to the surface in the chamber earlier in the afternoon:

Huw Lewis: The programme is, of course, inspirational. However, on the dualling of the Heads of the Valleys road, you will be aware that I have now on three occasions—in Plenary, in committee and through email—pressed the Deputy First Minister for an answer to my question of whether there will be any slippage in the timetable or disinvestment in the dualling of the A465 Heads of the Valleys road link. I am deeply concerned about the lack of response from the Deputy First Minister on this. Can you reassure the people of the Valleys that there will be no time slippage and no disinvestment?

I am surprised that the Deputy First Minister did not ask his Special Advsior to reply on his behalf. Maybe he did and the e-mail went astray.


It is well worth quoting in full the question asked of the Leader of the House by Labour Torfaen AM, Lynn Neagle, yesterday. Although her intervention received quite extensive coverage on the BBC for some reason the Western Mail failed to cover it this morning. How strange.

This is what she said:

Lynne Neagle: Will the Leader of the House consider providing time for a debate on Welsh Assembly Government advertising? Members will be aware that this institution pays the Media Wales Group in excess of £3 million per annum on advertising for Assembly jobs. However, Members may not be aware of some of the double standards employed by those newspapers in relation to their advertising.

In Thursday’s South Wales Echo, the paper ran a hard-hitting expose of how sex trafficking impacts upon young, vulnerable women from across the world now living in Cardiff. The paper detailed their ordeals of rape, beatings and abuse, and went on to name three massage parlours where these beaten and raped women were forced to work. In the very same newspaper, adverts were carried for several massage parlours, including all three parlours mentioned in that horrific story.

These adverts net the paper roughly a cool £1,000 per day. While paying tribute to the journalism and investigative work that has uncovered this scandal, we must question the management of the paper.This advertising, carried through papers with whom we advertise, rakes in roughly £0.5 million per year for Media Group Wales.That makes it, at least in my eyes, the richest pimp in south Wales.

Will the Leader of the House therefore urgently consider a debate on the Assembly Government’s advertising policy, with a view to imposing a moratorium on our placing advertisements alongside organisations that are known to be involved in the scandal of sex trafficking?

Rent-a-quote strikes again

Plaid Cymru's Adam Price is a politician of substance, who has made a remarkable and valuable contribution to Welsh politics, however he is in danger of becoming just another rent-a-quote politician as his latest pronouncement illustrates.

Mr. Price has called for the scrapping of the Wales Office and for its budget to be given to the Welsh Government instead so as to be spent on front line services. Putting aside the fact that Peter Hain's total budget would not even make a dent in the £280m that we appear to have lost from the block grant due to a 'technicality', Adam does seem to be overlooking some basic constitutional issues in his suggestion.

He asks: “What precisely is the role of the Wales Office now? The Secretary of State for Wales, who heads it, used to hold most power in Welsh politics, but that is no longer the case.

“We had a transitional period for a while, where the power was shared between the Secretary of State and the First Minister, but there has now been a pivotal change, and the centre of power now clearly resides in Wales with the First Minister and other Ministers of the Assembly Government.

“We have a part-time Secretary of State in Peter Hain who is clearly far more preoccupied with his other role as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

“Power has also shifted in the Labour Party, and there’s no doubt where the shots are now called. It’s also clear that relations between Peter Hain and Rhodri Morgan are at another low ebb. This dates from Peter Hain’s remarks before the Assembly election ruling out Plaid as a possible coalition partner. It was a classic error – it wasn’t a call for him to make, and he turned out to be wrong.

“In the past it has been argued that the Wales Office represents Wales’ interests at the Cabinet table. I think that has always been exaggerated, but it is certainly no longer the case. Today the Wales Office is acting as a brake on the Assembly Government’s ambitions, doing the bidding of Whitehall departments in seeking to restrict the legislative powers passed to Cardiff Bay.

“The Assembly Government is quite capable of having a direct relationship with Whitehall departments, and there should be more direct engagement between Welsh Ministers and their counterparts in Westminster. If the UK Government wants a little outpost in Whitehall to ‘spin’ its relationship with the Assembly, it should not take the money from the Welsh block grant, but pay for it itself.”

Mr. Price is absolutely right in most of this of course but the one function he has missed, which is currently exercised by Peter Hain, is Viceroy of Wales. The Secretary of State for Wales has a legal responsibility, set down in the Government of Wales Act 2006 to orchestrate the Legislative Competence Order process by which the Assembly acquires new primary law-making powers. Until this mechanism is dismantled we are stuck with the office and its associated costs.

It is also right that whilst we remain a part of the United Kingdom our interests need to be represented around the Cabinet table and vice versa. I am not prepared to break that link even if Adam Price is.

An electoral travesty

Whilst the report into the Scottish election shambles was bound to be damning, it is quite refreshing that it has also turned out to be very frank and honest as well. According to this mornings Times' newspaper, Labour ministers on both sides of the border treated voters as an “afterthought”, preferring to concentrate on “partisan political interests”:

The report says: “What is characteristic was a notable level of party self-interest evident in ministerial decision-making (especially in regard to the timing and method of counts and the design of ballot papers).

“In considering the circumstances surrounding the planning, organising and implementation of the elections, the voter was treated as an afterthought by virtually all the other stakeholders.

“Voters were overlooked as the most important stakeholders to be considered at every stage of the election.”

In total 146,000 ballot papers for the Scottish Parliament elections and 38,532 papers for the local council elections, held on the same day, had to be rejected because they had not been properly marked.

Voters were asked to use a new design of voting paper for the Parliament election and a new method of voting, the single transferrable vote, in the council elections - both of which were also counted electronically for the first time in Scotland. Such was the scale of the resultant chaos, that in some constituencies the number of spoilt ballot papers outnumbered the winning candidate’s majority and the overall result of the election, won by the Scottish National Party, was not known until 20 hours after polling stations closed.

Scotland Secretary, Douglas Alexander held ultimate responsibility for the decision to put both the first-past-the-post vote and the proportional representation vote on the same ballot paper instead of two separate papers.

However, the report makes clear that one of his main mistakes was to consult too widely and for too long on the ballot paper design.

“Months of partisan political discussion were wasted that could have been used to establish a ballot paper that voters would find easy to understand,” says the inquiry report.

The Labour-led Scottish Executive of the time was responsible for the decision to hold both parliamentary and council elections on the same day.

The report recommends splitting the Holyrood and local elections so that they are held on different dates and calls for the creation of a chief returning officer for Scotland.

It also argues that in future, the two sections of the Scottish Parliament election should be on different ballot sheets.

It is easy to judge after the event, though I have to admit that I privately questioned the decision to move Scotland's local Council elections to the same day as those for the Scottish Parliament at the time. However, this fiasco is just the latest in a long line of incidents in which politicians have interfered with election administration in an effort to 'modernise' it or to engineer higher turnouts. In each case they have succeeded only in reducing the security of the process, whilst turnout has remained largely unmoved.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Foot in mouth

The view of the UK government's chief scientist that badgers should be killed to prevent the spread of TB among cattle has really put the cat amongst the pigeons, to coin a phrase. Sir David King believes that culling could be effective in areas that are contained, for example, by the sea or motorways. His report though follows a previous study that said culling badgers would be ineffective.

That previous report by the Independent Scientific Group (ISG) assessed the results of a nine-year experiment to discover whether killing badgers would stem the spread of disease. Its findings, published in June, said badgers did play a role in the spread of bTB. However, it warned that the culling would have to be so extensive it would be uneconomical. It found that although TB infection dropped in the immediate area of the cull, it increased on adjoining farms, in effect shifting rather than solving the problem.

There is also a view that in fact it is the cattle that give TB to the badgers and that a vicious circle is involved that is almost impossible to break. It is not just badgers who are involved in this circle, other wild animals such as deer can catch and spread bTB as well. I do not see anybody calling for a cull of wild deer. Perhaps that is because even those in favour of a slaughter pull back when confronted with the 'bambi' factor.

Despite the fog surrounding the issue my Parliamentary colleagues in Westminster are unfazed. Our Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Roger Williams, for example, fired off a statement straight away demanding an effective and humane cull in areas where there is a high incidence of bTB, ignoring the evidence that such an action would be ineffective because of the movement of badgers into the culling area so as to fill the void. But he went further by claiming that 'The Liberal Democrats have long supported the culling of badgers to protect cattle.' Er..no, we haven't.

The Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly manifesto in fact said that we would 'aim to eradicate TB in Wales by intensifying the testing programme. Consideration must be given to the immediate slaughter of all animals which are test reactors; and the testing of contiguous farms where TB is confirmed. We will ensure that wildlife on infected farms is subject to full scrutiny and investigation.' That falls well short of support for culling.

Important as it is to solve this problem we do need to proceed on the basis of evidence, assessing what is effective before jumping headlong into a judgement either way. I accept that MPs like Roger Williams have valid local concerns that they need to address and that bovine TB is very high on their list of priorities but it may be easier to take colleagues with them if they did not attribute policy positions to the party that we do not have and which are not supported by the facts.

Update: A useful contribution arrives by e-mail: Once the farmers have slaughtered all the badgers, then they'll have to slaughter all the deer.....

It's from the pro-badger people but what stands out is:

Five out of the six species of deer in Britain are affected by bTB, with infection detected in between one per cent and 15 per cent of sampled deer;

A scientific report, published on 9 July 2004, concluded that deer should be considered as a potential source of infection for cattle. It found that in fallow deer, when whole carcasses were examined, the estimated prevalence of infection could be as high as 16.22%;

There are between 1.25 and 2.6 million wild deer in Britain, compared to around 300,000 badgers

Deer are particularly vulnerable to bTB infection and exhibit symptoms which mean they can be highly infectious. They also frequently share the same pasture, feed and water troughs as cattle;
European scientists have suspected deer of transmitting bTB to cattle and even to badgers since 1938;

See: this

Monday, October 22, 2007

Gwynedd Schools

Despite the fact that many of us have been on the wrong end of a Plaid Cymru rant about how to handle school closures, about the importance of small rural schools and the necessity of keeping them open for the benefit of the language, I have no intention of returning their ire over Gwynedd's school reorganisation plans.

They have already lost their Education Cabinet member over these proposals, whilst Councillor Seimon Glyn has resigned from the Plaid Cymru group altogether. Welsh language campaigners are organising parents to protest and no doubt there will be a knock-on effect for the party in May's local elections. This is the biggest school closure plan ever proposed in Wales and it is bound to be controversial.

These proposals just underline the dilemma faced by every Council in Wales, falling pupil rolls, expensive surplus places, unfit buildings and much needed adaptations to meet modern teaching methods. The money is just not there, Welsh Government support is non-existent, whilst guidelines and funding methods make it well-nigh impossible to use the opportunity to introduce smaller class sizes, a moot point in Gwynedd anyway with its many small rural schools.

There are no easy solutions, but that does not necessarily mean that the hard solutions are the right ones either as no doubt Plaid Cymru will discover. I applaud their courage, and I sympathise with their plight and with that of parents, teachers and pupils. We cannot modernise our education system without breaking a few eggs but ultimately it is the electorate who will determine how many eggs and where.

You spend your money, you take your chance

This morning's Guardian reports that Gordon Brown's decision this month not to call a general election has left the Labour party with a bill approaching £1m. They say that by Saturday October 6, when the prime minister decided not to go ahead with the election, party officials had sanctioned hundreds of thousands of pounds of expenditure on booking hoarding sites, literature and recruitment of staff, and were at an advanced stage in setting up a media centre to handle daily press conferences.

Of course this is not public money, it is Labour's money, and they have responsibility for paying all the bills. It is possible too that Labour also benefited from increased donations in the same period. The significance for other parties lies in the fact that there is a national spending limit for General Elections and Labour has now spent about 5% of it, before an election is called.

Meanwhile, Swansea West Labour Party are continuing to deliver their flying start leaflet featuring their new candidate, the previous MP for Croydon Central, Gordon Brown and the sitting MP. Alan Williams. Glad to see that all that printed material is not going to waste. Mind you it might have been quicker if they had posted it.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Where is Socks?

Hillary Clinton's attempts to soften her image so as to win the women's vote in next year's Presidential elections are threatened by the mysterious fate of Socks the First White House cat according to The Sunday Times.

They tell us that as 'the “first pet” of the Clinton era, Socks, the White House cat, allowed “chilly” Hillary Clinton to show a caring, maternal side as well as bringing joy to her daughter Chelsea. So where is Socks today?

Once the presidency was over, there was no room for Socks any more. After years of loyal service at the White House, the black and white cat was dumped on Betty Currie, Bill Clinton’s personal secretary, who also had an embarrassing clean-up role in the saga of his relationship with the intern Monica Lewinsky.'

Obviously, anybody who had to 'clean-up' after Monica deserves the comfort and company of such a gorgeous looking feline but according to the paper, it would have been better for Hillary if she had held onto Socks:

Clinton’s treatment of Socks cuts to the heart of the questions about her candidacy. Is she too cold and calculating to win the presidency? Or does it signify political invincibility by showing she is willing to deploy every weapon to get what she wants?

“In the annals of human evil, off-loading a pet is nowhere near the top of the list,” writes Caitlin Flanagan in the current issue of The Atlantic magazine. “But neither is it dead last, and it is especially galling when said pet has been deployed for years as an all-purpose character reference.”

Flanagan’s article, headed No Girlfriend of Mine, points out that Clinton wrote a crowd-pleasing book Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids’ Letters to the First Pets, in which she claimed that only with the arrival of Socks and his “toy mouse” did the White House “become a home”.

Being Clinton, she also lectured readers that pets are an “adoption instead of an acquisition” and warned them to look out for their safety. (Buddy, the chocolate labrador, it should be noted, bounded into a road soon after leaving the White House and was promptly run over.)

It is lucky that the care of one's pets will not be a deciding factor next November. Then again look at the damage suffered by Cherie Blair when she re-homed the Downing Street cat.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

A timebomb waiting to explode

This morning's Western Mail reports that homeowners in Wales are paying nearly twice as much in monthly mortgage repayments as they did five years ago. People's average monthly mortgage cost has rocketed from £201 to £465 since 2002. This figure represents 18.8% of Wales’ average joint take-home income.

In many ways this should not be a surprise. There has been a huge and sustained increase in house prices over the last few years that has led to people borrowing more and more to get onto the housing ladder. Lenders have responded to this crisis by relaxing their rules as to the proportion of a person's income they will advance for a house purchase.

None of this is sustainable of course. The level of personal debt in the UK is already at record levels. Back in August the financial consultants, Grant Thornton, suggested that as a whole we owe £1,335 billion, which is £5 billion more than the economy is worth. Credit card debt alone is £126 billion.

My concern is that the house price market is starting to level out and may soon start falling as it has done in Ireland. If that happens then the level of negative equity could easily out-pace that which was around in the last such crisis under the Tories.

In the meantime we still have hundreds of young families who cannot afford to get on the property ladder at all and who are being driven away from their own communities in search of somewhere to live. It is time the Welsh Government started to put in place its proposals to deal with that issue.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Class sizes

This morning's Western Mail reports that more than 1,000 children in Wales are being taught in infant classes of more than the legal maximum of 30. They say that a total of 47 primary schools across Wales had 31 or more pupils in their infant and reception classes. This is despite the fact that under Assembly Government legislation, no infant class – pupils aged four to seven – should exceed 30 children.

Commenting on the statistics, the Welsh Liberal Democrats education spokesperson, Kirsty Williams said: “In an era where we are constantly told that the number of children is falling, I’m amazed that there are still so many classes with more than 30 pupils.

“Smaller class sizes make life easier for teachers, and leads to better teaching for pupils. This is particularly important at the primary level where children discover how to learn and put in place the building blocks for future learning.

“In partnership government from 2001 to 2003, Welsh Liberal Democrats invested to reduce class sizes – giving each pupil more teacher time. Unfortunately, in government alone, Labour dropped the promise to continue that work.

“The new Labour/Plaid government has failed to make it a priority.”

Whatever happened to 'education, education, education'?

Caption Competition

Poor David Melding, he does get some stick but he always takes it in good heart. This is not my caption competition, it is being run by Sarah Sharpe in David's office to raise money for Children in Need.

You are invited to print the attached photo, think of a suitable caption, write it on the back and return it to her in Room B3.15 in the Assembly, together with a £1 donation for each entry. There will be a prize for the winner. As Children in Need takes place on 16th November then you should get it to her before then.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Wake up call

In many ways the discovery by Leanne Wood that her government's legislative agenda is being dictated by UK ministers is no surprise. The Government of Wales Act was designed so as to effectively confer on the Secretary of State for Wales, the position of Viceroy. Still it is nice to see it out in the open. Perhaps Plaid Cymru now understand the sort of animal that Wales Labour is. They have made their bed and they must lie in it.

Plaid Ministers' worse day

Yesterday in delivering a statement on the funding of the Wales Millennium Centre, Plaid Cymru's Heritage Minister, Rhodri Glyn Thomas, delivered the sort of obstructive, tight-lipped performance that if he had been on the receiving end as an opposition member he would have torn to shreds.

Everybody understood that negotiations were on-going and that Rhodri Glyn was not in a position to give us details of those but as David Melding said "it is extraordinary that a Minister comes to the Assembly Chamber to make an oral statement and then impugns those Members who are cheeky enough to hold him to account on what is being said. You are here to be scrutinised, Minister. If your decisions are effective and the proper ones, all the scrutiny that we could bring to bear will just strengthen your position. What we are doing now will strengthen effective negotiation. It is a bit rich for you to say that somehow these things are not now properly in the public realm. They clearly are."

There were a number of legitimate questions that could have been answered without compromising those negotiations, and which would have enhanced our understanding of how we reached this position in the first place, but the Minister was having none of it and he put up a brick wall to all enquiries.

If this was not Rhodri Glyn Thomas' finest hour it was nothing compared to his disgraceful behaviour and that of his party leader earlier in the day. He and Ieuan Wyn Jones were scheduled to attend the National Assembly’s Enterprise and Learning Committee to be scrutinised, however they failed to show up and left Education Minister, Jane Hutt to bear the brunt of the Committee's anger.

There really can be no excuse for this behaviour. Both Ministers are paid handsomely to take responsibility and to make decisions, there is a democratic process in place that they are part of. They cannot opt out of that process because they feel like it. We have already seen Plaid Cymru members seeking to excuse themselves of collective responsibility for actions taken by Labour Ministers. If this is what a Plaid Cymru Government would look like then both the Tories and us had a lucky escape. They are not fit for Government.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Arian i'r chwipiaid?

The row about proposals to pay party whips in the Assembly continues to rumble on with an article in the Western Mail this morning. This is not a new controversy of course. If first appeared on Betsan Powys' blog on 21 September. Glyn Davies wrote about it on the 11th October. It was only when the BBC picked up the story properly yesterday that things started to kick off with the Welsh Liberal Democrat and Conservative leaders accusing the First Minister of misrepresenting them.

In truth, shocking as the proposal is, the whole mess owes a lot to Rhodri Morgan's clumsy and inept approach to it. According to reports his letter to the Presiding Officer claimed that a 'consensus view' had emerged on the payment of whips. Despite this he had not discussed the matter with either the Conservative or Welsh Liberal Democrat leaders, whilst the publication of the contents of the letter caused minor ructions in the Plaid Cymru group. Clearly, there never was such a consensus other than in the First Ministers' office.

In the paper this morning Jane Davidson, speaking on behalf of the government, claimed that their understanding was that there was a broad agreement on the matter but that this "seems to have fallen away." What nonsense. It would be nice if she could demonstrate where this "broad consensus" existed in the first place.

The fact is that since the One Wales coalition got underway, regular meetings of all the party leaders have ceased. It is almost as if Rhodri Morgan has abandoned consensus altogether now that he has a majority. That cannot be healthy for democracy and it is certainly not conducive to the smooth running of the institution.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Talking to voters

I have no intention of making this blog a leadership-focussed one so this is the last post on the subject for now. However, I could not resist drawing attention to this post by my former researcher Francesca on what happened in Italy when the Italian Democrats chose their new leader.

They adopted the Tory idea of primaries but went much further than just collecting names, addresses and e-mail lists for future fundraising, they charged a minimum fee of one Euro to each participant. The result was that 3 and ½ million Italians turned out to vote for the new leader and some paid more than the minimum.

Seems like a good solution to party funding problems. The only drawback would be that parties might be tempted to hold leadership elections every two years so as to top up their coffers. Oh yes... scrub that one then.


I am already being asked who I will support in the contest for Liberal Democrat leader. So who are the candidates?

Seriously, though any candidate would do well to avoid asking me. So far I have supported John Pardoe (lost to David Steel), Alan Beith (lost to Paddy Ashdown) and Simon Hughes twice (lost to Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell). Not a good record I admit.

Update: I spoke to Nick Clegg this morning and explained my record on supporting party leadership candidates. There was a clear hesitation before he asked me for my support.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Ming resigns

When I wrote back in July last year that it was 'Time for Ming to shape up' I did so because I genuinely felt that a thoroughly decent and honourable man was struggling with the role that he had taken on. I was honestly stating what I felt at the time and perhaps I was being a bit unfair, but in the end I was impressed at the way that he slowly pulled himself into the role, took charge of the party and projected an essentially liberal outlook.

By the end of that year I was able to write that 'in my view Sir Menzies Campbell has started to grow into his role as Liberal Democrat leader over the past year. His Common's performances, although in no way startling in their brilliance, have improved; he has taken the party's internal organisation by the scruff of the neck and shaken it up until it started to show some shape; and he has started to make use of a very talented team of MPs to stake out clear policy positions that will serve us well in future election campaigns.'

That Ming ultimately failed to make the sort of impact needed as leader was not his fault. As others have said, he was the right person in the right job at the wrong time. This was not about his age but about his inability to connect with ordinary people in the same way that Charles Kennedy had done before him. Under Ming the party became more professional, it adopted a radical, coherent and liberal policy position that has the potential to make us stand out from the others and for the first time in my memory we started to benefit from a leader's team-building skills in bringing forward talented MPs and allowing them to develop their own profile around a portfolio.

Where we fell down was in our lack of a narrative. We have failed to find a niche in the post-Blair, post-Iraq war, post-student fees Britain. It helps of course if we are able to build that narrative around a popular and/or forceful leader, after all many voters come to us in search of an alternative to Labour and the Conservatives and are influenced by such considerations, but the vision-thing is essential if we are to build a long-term future for our party.

In many ways I thought we were getting there. The strong emphasis on civil liberties and individual rights being championed by Nick Clegg and his team, the development of a strong green agenda under Chris Huhne and the radical, competent, tax-switching agenda being promoted by Vince Cable all combine to form a coherent and distinctive policy agenda that places the Liberal Democrats at the cutting edge of British politics. There were signs too that we were prepared to take principled and liberal stances on unpopular issues so as to move debate on, though I regret that we did not go far enough in our opposition to the renewal of Trident and that we only cautiously edged our way into calling for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

In the midst of all this we got caught in a classic squeeze and unfortunately Ming did not have the public recognition and popular strength to drag us out of it, at least in the short term. That he recognised this himself and tendered his resignation without the party having to go through all the angst and upset of a few years ago is to his credit. He is a true gentleman and a good liberal, a man of substance, a genuine human being, a skilful and dedicated party politician and a respected statesman.

That we are now able to choose from so many potential alternative leaders within the Parliamentary Party is largely down to Ming. I do not yet know the choice that will face us but I am confident that whoever emerges from this leadership election will be able to use their honeymoon period to start pushing us back up in the polls and to turn our many policy strengths into the sort of narrative that will take us to greater things when the General Election eventually comes.

It is not right to start looking at the runners and riders in what is essentially a tribute piece to Ming, but my view is that if there is an election (and I believe that there will be) then it will come down to a contest between Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne. At this stage I could not possibly say who I might vote for out of these two, but it may surprise those who believe that Nick Clegg is of the right that I do not share that view and that I am as equally prepared to consider voting for him as I am for Chris Huhne. The deciding factor will be the vision being promoted by each candidate, their view of how our party should be positioning itself and the narrative that they wish to bring to the job.

For now however, it is a moment when we must give thanks to Sir Menzies Campbell. We should not forget his contribution easily. If we come out of the next General Election with substantially the same or more seats then it will be down to the work he put in and the way he conducted himself as leader.

Fighting elitism

If you are outraged by MPs demanding that all staff give way to them in the queue for coffee and a whole range of other services then you can now do something about it. There is a petition, which is only available in pdf format but I have put it on-line, and you can download it, sign it and return it to Lembit Öpik's office at the House of Commons here.

Speech on the BNP

This was my speech moving the motion on multi-culturalism and the BNP at last weekend's Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

An inconvenient fact

The Observer reveals that the school governor who challenged the screening of Al Gore's climate change documentary in secondary schools was funded by a Scottish quarrying magnate who established a controversial lobbying group to attack environmentalists' claims about global warming:

The Observer has established that Dimmock's case was supported by a powerful network of business interests with close links to the fuel and mining lobbies. He was also supported by a Conservative councillor in Hampshire, Derek Tipp.

Dimmock credited the little-known New Party with supporting him in the test case but did not elaborate on its involvement. The obscure Scotland-based party calls itself 'centre right' and campaigns for lower taxes and expanding nuclear power.

Records filed at the Electoral Commission show the New Party has received nearly all of its money - almost £1m between 2004 and 2006 - from Cloburn Quarry Limited, based in Lanarkshire.

The company's owner and chairman of the New Party, Robert Durward, is a long-time critic of environmentalists. With Mark Adams, a former private secretary to Tony Blair, he set up the Scientific Alliance, a not-for-profit body comprising scientists and non-scientists, which aims to challenge many of the claims about global warming.

There is a lot more. It just goes to show that nothing is as it seems.

A new mandate

At our Conference today Mike German will announce that he is re-standing for the position of Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Group leader. He will tell Conference that he will stay on long enough for him to finish work he is currently engaged on and that he will stand down as soon as possible after the May local elections so as to give the longest possible period for his successor to establish themselves.

This is a formula that has been agreed by the group after a number of them took it upon themselves to ensure that there will be no contest for that post. I am content that if the election to succeed Mike is concluded before the summer recess as I believe we have agreed then the debate we need on the party's future will have taken place within a reasonable time scale and without impinging on key local government elections.

It remains my view that the Group leader needs a fresh mandate. If the election takes place in June or July next year then we will be able to ensure that this is the case.

Conference highlights -caption competition

Keep it clean please.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The cost of Brown's indecision

I am sitting in Aberystwyth about to set off for the Welsh Liberal Democrats' autumn conference. I am blogging on my blackberry as I cannot get my Council laptop to work on the hotel's wireless network. Apparently it is too securely locked down. Assembly laptops are not yet wireless enabled. As a consequence I cannot do hotlinks.

I note in this morning's Western Mail that groups affiliated to Labour are asking how much money was spent preparing for a snap election. It is believed that Labour hired a number of temporary staff to work for the party in the run-up to 1st November.In addition poster sites had been booked and millions of leaflets printed to go to marginal constituencies. Some of the letters were actually posted but are only now arriving due to the postal strike. Some were pulped.

I can confirm that leaflets were hand-delivered in the Swansea West constituency announcing the candidacy of Geraint Davies, the former Croydon Central MP, who has been selected to succeed Alan Williams. These leaflets were keen to anticipate and rebut attacks from the Welsh Liberal Democrats on Mr. Davies' record expenditure of taxpayers money on postage and other expenses in his last year as an MP. Obviously Labour think that it is an issue as well and are clearly more than a little embarrassed by it. Will they be issuing any more literature on the subject in the two year run-up to the 2009 election? We will see.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Black hole?

When the Assembly Government went ahead with the construction of the Wales Millennium Centre there were a number of us who had doubts. It was inevitable that such a project was going to need substantial public revenue subsidy. Yet our fears were assuaged by promises of equal funding for projects outside of Cardiff, as well as an assurance that the business plan was robust and not overly-optimistic as had happened elsewhere.

We became less easy when the new Labour Arts Minister scaled back the commitment to non-Cardiff based arts projects and as successive motions came to Plenary asking us to underwrite loans to the WMC.

However, nobody knew or suspected the financial mess that the Wales Millennium Centre is now in. The BBC told us last night that the WMC has debts of £13.5m which it cannot repay, the Government's surety for this debt runs out at in December, and that if it is to survive then its annual subsidy will need to be increased to about £4m a year. The Welsh Government are now being asked to pay off the loan and to up its annual contribution.

It seems that Ministers have known about this situation for months but have kept it secret whilst they sought to negotiate a solution. It is now in the public domain and we must have questions answered about why such a crisis developed in the first place, why we were not told and what the government intends to do about it.

I am uneasy about pouring the sort of cash required into a potential black hole. I am highly reluctant to give yet another public handout to the Cardiff area when the capital City soaks up so much of the public and private investment that comes into Wales anyway. And I am adamant that if we do this then the rest of Wales must receive a commensurate share of cash as well. We cannot though allow the WMC to close. That would be a major blow for the prestige of Wales and the devolution project.

What we need is for the Minister to pull a rabbit out of the hat. I suspect that he has not got one. Accordingly I have asked the Chair of the Communities Committee if we can undertake an emergency scrutiny of this situation and I will be pushing for a very robust business plan and an affordable solution. We must not forget the rest of Wales either and I will be seeking a commitment from the Minister to give projects elsewhere some parity as well.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

New words

Dull as many Plenary sessions can be, we can always rely on Tory AM, David Melding, to liven them up, especially when he is on his favourite subject of heritage. Yesterday, the Presiding Officer even coined a phrase to describe his unique perspective on such matters:

David Melding: As you know, this whole area is under review at the moment as a result of the White Paper, albeit at a UK level. However, one of its main aims is to promote an appreciation of the built heritage in Wales, and to secure the preservation of ancient monuments and historic buildings. Cardiff is one of the finest Victorian cities in the whole of the British Empire—[ASSEMBLY MEMBERS: ‘Oh.’]—former British Empire, I should say. Given the recently appointed Prime Minister’s rediscovery of Britain, I am overwhelmed by a wave of nostalgia.

However, there continues to be a lack of appreciation of this heritage, and it is similar to the thinking that prevailed in Dublin until a generation ago, when Georgian architecture was routinely demolished, and certainly not cherished. Cathedral Road is one of the finest residential streets in the whole of the Commonwealth—[Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer: Order. Could we please have order so that we can hear further Meldingisms?

David Melding: I was about to say: or indeed the English-speaking world—[Laughter.] Do you agree that, before we turn the whole of Cathedral Road into flats or other developments, Cadw ought to preserve one of these fine buildings, and restore it to the condition that it would have been in at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when I understand that the road was known as ‘Millionaire’s Row’?

Perhaps the next Oxford English Dictionary will contain the word Meldingism, defined as a phrase or saying couched in such a way that it causes the listener to experience a feeling of nostalgia and/or an appreciation of fine art, heritage, literature, architecture, food or drink.

Missing money

The Welsh Government seems to have given up on the fight to get additional cash from the UK Exchequer so as to match-fund European Convergence money, they also have a £260m gap in their block grant due to some sleight of hand on behalf of the Westminster Labour Government. Now it seems that another £6.5m has gone missing.

Farmers in England have been promised compensation to help them cope with the aftermath of the foot and mouth outbreak there, but the £8.1m for Scotland and £6.5m for Wales that should have been announced at the same time has disappeared into the mists of time, along with the General Election.

The Rural Affairs Minister has said that she is going to protest in the strongest possible terms but it is difficult to get away from the thought that Wales has been done over once more by Gordon Brown and his Ministers. This is an especially bitter pill to swallow when one considers that the blame for this costly foot and mouth outbreak can be pinned firmly on DEFRA itself and the failure of bio-security at Pirbright.

When Plaid Cymru signed up to this coalition they did so because Rhodri Morgan claimed that he had substantial influence at Westminster so as to deliver key parts of the One Wales agreement. Isn't it about time he used those contacts so as to get this compensation re-instated?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Redwood et al

Good line from David Cornock yesterday on the two hundred million pounds that has disappeared from the Assembly's base budget:

The Assembly Government says it's keen to negotiate with the Treasury to get the money - after all it's twice what John Redwood sent back during his time as Secretary of State in the 1990s.

I might even use that line in the chamber if I get the chance.

Comprehensive Spin

As James Graham points out it is not so much that Labour stole its tax policies from the Tories as that they both ripped off their ideas from the Liberal Democrats:

Which party was the first in this Parliament to call for an increase in the IHT threshold?

The Liberal Democrats

Which party was the first to call for replacing air passenger duty with a tax on planes?

The Liberal Democrats

On behalf of Labour, Peter Hain, says about the Comprehensive Spending Review that, “This is a good deal for Wales... "; Welsh Finance Minister Andrew Davies believes that the settlement is "particularly tough"; however Adam Price MP, speaking for Plaid Cymru tells us that this announcement is “the worst since the days of William Hague." Even the coalition partners cannot agree what the impact on Welsh public services will be.

Even more intriquing is that nobody seems to know the exact bill for all the pledges in 'One Wales', never mind whether the cash is available. On Radio Wales just now Andrew Davies could not tell the interviewer what the total cost of his government's programme is nor the price tag on crucial elements of it. It does not exactly engender much confidence that the Labour Plaid Welsh Government knows what it is doing.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Coffee time

Never let it be said that MPs do not have a sense of their own importance. They have only been back a day and already a memo has gone out throughout the Parliamentary estate demanding that all staff give way to them in the queue for coffee and a whole range of other services:

Before the recess the Speaker approved the Administration Committee’s recommendation that Members should have priority access to services throughout the Commons part of the Parliamentary Estate.

With effect from today, staff and other users should be prepared to give way to Members when queuing for retail and catering services, the post office, travel office or when using other facilities such as lifts, photocopiers, telephone cubicles, etc.

When using parliamentary facilities, please bear in mind whether there is, or is likely to be, a heavy demand from Members and, if so, try to amend your own plans or schedule.

Don't they just delegate such chores to their staff anyway?

Update: This is now subject to an Eraly Day Motion: That the House notes with astonishment the announcement made on Tuesday 9th October that “Members should have priority access to services throughout the Commons part of the Parliamentary Estate”; further notes that such an approach is expedient in certain areas at certain times, such as during a division, but not everywhere all the time; believes that this announcement serves to create a rigid two tier system which is counter to an enlightened image of Parliament; further believes there is merit in a general presumption of equality on the Parliamentary Estate; and urges the Accommodation Committee to reconsider.


Further to my post on Friday about Labour making automated telephone calls in the Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire constituency I note that similar activity elsewhere in the Country has been referred to the information commissioner by the Liberal Democrats.

The BBC report that under an EC directive unsolicited calls made solely to gather information are legal, but are banned if they are used to promote a product - or political party:

The Lib Dems argue that unsolicited "information gathering" calls in which parties ask people if they would mind being sent more information, do contravene the EC directive.

Asked about the Lib Dems' use of automated calls, spokesman Mark Pack told the BBC: "It's not something we do. Our view is that it's illegal."

He said the information commissioner should be more assertive against Labour: "It is clear that they are making automated phone calls to people where they have not had specific prior consent from those individuals.

"I think when they (the information commissioner's office) have pursued this issue before they have been far too willing to take at face value the answer given to them."

What the outcome of this referral will be has yet to be seen.

Modern Art

It seems that the best craic is to be had at the Tate Modern.

Troops out?

Although Gordon Brown announced yesterday that British troop numbers in Iraq will be reduced to 2,500 next spring, there is no sign that the USA will be following suit. Not under the present President anyway.

That does not mean that there is no debate about a withdrawal amongst candidates in next year's Presidential election. Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton at least, continues to attract controversy for her position, which seems very similar to that adopted by the British Prime Minister:

'A retired U.S. Army general visiting the state to campaign for Hillary Clinton said yesterday she does not oppose the Iraq war -- and she said she's never heard Clinton oppose it, either.

Retired Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy, the Army's first woman to reach the three-star rank, said she supports Clinton's promise to withdraw the majority of U.S. troops from Iraq if she is elected President. But Kennedy said she does not consider her position to be opposing the war as it is currently being conducted.

"Senator Clinton has it exactly right," said Kennedy. "If she is elected, her plan is to bring together the chairman of the joint chiefs, the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Council and get them to create a plan that will have the withdrawal begin within 60 days."
Kennedy said she does not consider such a position opposition to the war.

"I'm from the Vietnam era, and in the Vietnam era, we were very cut-and-dried," Kennedy said.

"You were for the war or against the war, and being against the war was, 'Hell, no, I won't go.' I don't buy into that one single bit.

"The reality is, here we are now," she said. "We have got to be responsible in the way we transition from war to just being in support of the Iraqis in some less prominent way; some way that gets us out of the neighborhood and being in between opposing internal forces. It's not our job to sort out their civil conflict. They are the only ones with the authority to fix it. You can go in any time you want to as a third country, but it will never get fixed by you. People in their own country have got to do it."

Kennedy said, "I don't oppose the war. I think it's being very badly led by the civilian leadership." And, she added, "I have not ever heard (Clinton) say, 'I oppose the war.' I've heard her say that we need to begin withdrawal under a plan led by the military and defense secretary. I've heard her say we need to create a regional stabilizing group by allies, by leaders in the world and by all of the states that are bordering Iraq. That is a very important idea and the point of that group is to create incentive and assurances that will keep the neighboring countries from becoming involved and entering Iraq. That's a much more sophisticated thing than saying, 'I oppose the war.'"

Kennedy said she does not believe that her position and Clinton's is damaging to troop morale.
"I'll tell you this," Kennedy said. "It's terrible for morale for soldiers to think they are fighting a war when they themselves don't know why they are there. They can be given all kinds of really good leadership and good leaders can hold them together at the immediate level. But long-term, it's a betrayal of our soldiers to send them to war with reasons that keep shifting on the basis of apparently pretty deceptive reasoning and lying to the public by the Republican administration. That is not good for morale at all.'

There are others though who believe that the groundwork is being laid for an attack on Iran and that votes by Hillary Clinton and others, which have labelled the Iranian Army as a terrorist organisation, are laying the groundwork for such an offensive:

NEW HAMPTON, Iowa -- At a campaign stop here, Hillary Clinton sparred verbally for several minutes with a man who pressed her on her recent vote to call Iran's army a terrorist organization.

Randall Rolph, from nearby Nashua, asked why he should support Clinton's candidacy when she did not appear to have learned any lessons from having voted to authorize force in Iraq.

Rolph said after the event that he was a registered Democrat who had come with an open mind but that he would not be supporting Clinton after the way she responded.

"Who in this room believes we aren't going to attack Iran before Bush leaves office?" Rolph said.

Let us hope that Brown's 'distinctive' foreign policy rejects such options altogether.

Monday, October 08, 2007

A march too far?

It is difficult to see whether the Police ban on anti-war protestors entering Parliament Square, under the provisions of 19th century sessional orders passed to protect the passage of MPs and peers against radical mobs, is an attempt at censorship as alleged or bureaucracy gone mad.

The Police say that Parliament Square is a relatively constricted space and that three other protests there have been approved to coincide with MPs' return to work. Accordingly a spokeswoman claims that the sessional order has been invoked "to uphold access and egress for MPs and peers in order to protect the democratic process."

Liberty say that "This proposed restriction on peaceful protest is a disproportionate interference with the vital democratic rights of free expression and free assembly," whilst John McDonnell, Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington, calls it "an unacceptable assault on our civil liberties."

It is in everybody's best interests to sort this out soon by Police agreeing a route with organisers that they are happy with. Whatever one thinks of any cause itself, the right to protest should be inalienable. That is why I deplore so strongly Labour's decision to ban peaceful protest within a one mile zone around Parliament.

Democracy has already been damaged by that decision. We should not allow it to be damaged further as a result of the so-called concerns of the Metropolitan Police. They have the resources and the expertise to properly police this march, they should not seek to prevent it taking place so as to spare the Prime Minister's blushes or otherwise.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

And so it starts..

A little bit of fun from the Liberal Democrat campaigns department.

No General Election, that book about Lembit and the over-zealous Plaid MPs

I am going to impose a new discipline just for today, I will restrain my urge to rant at length about news items that make my blood boil, so that I can get some work done. That does not mean that I will not refer to them, just that I will do so in a restrained and succinct manner.

First up in this trilogy has to be Gordon's postponement of the General Election that never was. Like many others I predicted that he would go to the Palace on Tuesday, however I did so because he seemed to have painted himself into a corner and because a senior Labour Party figure told me that he would. That is my excuse anyway.

We all forgot to factor in the prudence that made him the Chancellor he was, but also mitigates against the sort of risk-taking which is sometimes needed in any successful politician. As Gordon's bounce consequently deflates we can almost hear Tony Blair informing anybody who will listen that he told us so.

Second on my list is the report in this morning's Wales on Sunday that Plaid Cymru’s three MPs have been told to declare adverts they put in newspapers a week before May’s Assembly Election as election expenses. Those who considered that adverts paid for by parliamentary resources had been mistakenly placed at a time and in a way that would give Plaid Assembly candidates an electoral advantage appear to have been vindicated.

The Electoral Commission has told the three that the adverts were electoral and must be declared as expenses before November 2. It means the party will have to pay the money back to Parliament. But let us be clear, it is not just Plaid MPs who have used this facility in ways that might be open to question. During the Assembly elections my household received a glossy report from my Labour MP detailing all the work she was doing in the constituency. Included in it was a picture of her cutting a ribbon at a local community project with the Labour Assembly candidate for the same constituency.

I should record that the Plaid MPs concerned are insisting that they did nothing wrong. They have pointed out that the Communications Allowance was introduced to allow Members of Parliament to inform constituents of their work on their behalf. The MPs concerned individually used the allowance to issue an annual report to constituents via newspapers which covered their constituencies: "The content, timing and use of the advertisements were approved by House authorities,” they say.

Of course if the mechanism is there then MPs will use it and who can blame them. However, the whole process is both flawed and suspect. Assembly Members do not have this facility and nor should they. It is a means of using public money to re-inforce incumbency and as such is open to mis-use. If a local Council offered this facility to their members then MPs of all parties would come down on them like a tonne of bricks and quite rightly so.

What is worse is that the Parliamentary Authorities refuse to provide details of how this and other allowances such as postage are used. As a result there is no transparency or accountability in the process. If we are going to move to a system whereby the state subsidises political parties we should at least do so in a way that is open and subject to scrutiny.

My final piece concerns the long-defunct relationship between Lembit Öpik and Siân Lloyd. You would think that this was past history by now, but no, we are informed that Siân intends to lift the lid on the whole sorry business. Her 'candid' autobiography, 'Sunshine and Showers' is about to be sent to the publishers and is due out in March next year. These two quotes sum up the situation: “I’ll be telling the truth, and talking about lessons learnt. I’ve always been one for honesty,” she said. An insider said: “This book will bury Lembit.”

I have been harsh on Lembit in the past, as have many others of his colleagues, but for goodness sake Siân, move on. No relationship break-up could possibly be as one-sided as she and her friends paint it. She is happily ensconced with somebody she describes as her 'soulmate and a wonderful partner' and even she admits that she only stayed with Lembit because he had suffered a bereavement. Surely we can be spared another blow-by-blow account in the media, no matter how much money it makes for her. I, for one, am totally bored by the whole thing.

So much for avoiding rants.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

What the Welsh Liberal Democrats are for - the movie!

This is my first attempt at video blogging. The production values are awful (i.e. the lighting and framing is poor) and the editing is crude to say the least. Still, I thought I would unleash it onto the world anyway. It can only get better.


This morning's Western Mail reports that yet another Labour researcher has lost his job over blogging. The paper tells us that Marcus Warner, who worked for Islwyn AM Irene James, was forced to leave after material he posted on a number of blogs was deemed “offensive and inappropriate”. His departure follows that of David Collins, who resigned from his job as a researcher with Vale of Clwyd AM, Ann Jones, after describing Welsh as a “brain-dead language”.

The article is remarkably short of any further details. Fortunately, the Welsh blogosphere has stepped into the breach and given us the full story. Alwyn ap Huw on his blog Miserable Old Fart tells us that Marcus Warner's sacking was not for comments he made but because it was his blog that hosted David Collin's comments in the first place.

Marcus Warner takes up the story on his new blog (entry since deleted):

I was recently dismissed from my job with Ms. James for an 'irretrievable breakdown in trust' which stemmed from essentially me keeping a blog- Keir hardly. I had kept the keir hardly blog as i have a great passion for welsh politics and harbour ambitions of being an elected member in the future. Although i did not declare i was keeping a blog to Ms. James, i never once ever was under the impression contractually or by making an agreement that it was against any code of conduct. The only reason it came to light that i was keeping the blog was because a fellow ex-researcher Dave Collins, left his now infamous 'brain dead' comment on my blog. Ironically, the first thing i did was inform the Labour group office that i had deleted the blog and that indeed it was my blog he had written it on as comments that were being left were offensive. I feel very angry that i have lost my job, and it has left me with a very bleak financial future. Ms James was fully aware that my partner is now 6 months pregnant, and that we had recently just purchased a house which meant our finances were very tight. Her mistreatment of me is unnacceptable and cowardly, and i feel that there is something wrong with the whole premise of researchers being sacked for keeping blogs. To sum up...

I have a very good mind to expose some of the things i learned during my time with Ms James, and i think it is in the public interest quite frankly. Primarily i am angry and upset that my livelihood has been taken away from me in such a callous way and put my family under huge pressure, let alone worrying about whether we lose the house we have just bought.

Although Assembly Members are at liberty to manage their staff as they wish, it is beginning to look as if the thought Police are running rampant within the Labour Group.

Oh and before somebody suggests that I would have done the same, I should say that I have employed a member of staff who got into trouble politically and publicly for a thoughtless, stupid and irresponsible remark on a blog. I did not sack her nor did I require her to resign. She apologised and retracted the remark and we left it at that.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Hanging on the telephone

Sanddef reports on an article in Golwg, which alleges that Labour is turning its back on the Welsh language by making automated monoglot English telephone calls in the Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire constituency:

According to Plaid, these "robo-calls" were monoglot English, even though over a quarter of the constituency's population speak Welsh.

"Labour has been complaining about bilingual train announcements and chose not to be present at the National Eisteddfod," said Helen Mary Jones AM.

"Now, they can't be bothered to translate a message for people in an area with a high percentage of Welsh speakers.

"Obviously they have a lot to learn about the language."

Important as this issue is, perhaps Plaid Cymru would care to look at this ruling by Information Commissioner against the SNP in May 2006. The UK Information Tribunal dismissed an Appeal by the SNP, upholding the view of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) that the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003 apply to political parties making appeals for funds or support.

The Regulations forbid the making of unsolicited marketing live voice calls to numbers registered on the Telephone Preference Service (TPS). They also forbid the making of wholly automated unsolicited marketing calls to any subscriber who has not consented:

Leading up to the 2005 General Election the SNP made a substantial number of automated calls to Scottish households. A recorded message from Sir Sean Connery urging voters to support the SNP was played. Calls were made to voters who had not given their consent. Though the SNP did try to avoid making calls to numbers registered on the TPS, a few voters received calls despite being registered with the TPS.

The Tribunal recognised that the ICO had, since rules on unsolicited marketing were first introduced in 1998, consistently made clear that it considered the promotion of a political party as marketing and had contacted the major political parties to advise them of this on several occasions.

As the SNP continued to make automated calls, and disputed that such calls were subject to the Regulations, the ICO initiated formal enforcement action. This culminated in the serving of an Enforcement Notice. The SNP subsequently appealed the notice.

Commenting on the ruling, Phil Jones, Assistant Commissioner at the ICO, said: “I am pleased that the Tribunal has upheld our view that direct marketing by political parties is subject to the Regulations. It is helpful to have such a clear ruling on this matter which should help to ensure that it is quite clear to political parties that they have to comply with the Regulations. I acknowledge that the SNP tried to avoid making calls to numbers registered on the TPS. However, if their view that promotional calls by political parties are not direct marketing calls had been upheld then neither they, nor any other political party, would have to take account of the rules on unsolicited marketing.”

Political parties can legitimately make unsolicited live voice marketing calls to any number not registered on TPS, unless the subscriber has advised them directly that they do not want such calls.

It sounds like Labour need to be very careful who they telephone.

Naming the day

If anything is going to make the Prime Minister pause this morning, it is the front page of the Guardian. They have a new opinion poll showing an eight point shift of views amongst the electorate that puts Labour and the Tories neck and neck on 38 per cent each. The Liberal Democrats are on 16 per cent.

It looks very much as if Gordon Brown has missed his chance, He should have called a snap election the day after the Labour Conference. Now, not only does he have uncertain public opinion to contend with but he also must factor in issues such as the end of British Summer Time and the possibility that a November poll will disenfranchise as many as one million people. The last thing Gordon needs is a highly motivated Tory core vote coming out to give him a bloody nose in a low turnout election.

As if to punish the Prime Minister's tardiness, there are also early signs that the economy is starting to turn against him. There are indications that house prices are starting to fall, not just here in Wales, but elsewhere as well. Although this is good news for first time buyers, it does hold out the possibility of another negative equity crisis and a big increase in homelessness applications. The Comprehensive Spending Review is rumoured to be very tight, whilst there continues to be talk in Government that the good times for public spending are coming to an end.

Nevertheless, Gordon Brown has allowed himself to be painted into a corner. He may have no choice but to go now. The alternative may well be to batten down the hatches for a full term and go in Autumn 2009 or even in 2010. My virtual bet still, is that a General Election will be called on Tuesday for 8 November.

National Poetry Day

As I was too busy to spend the time to do this yesterday I missed National Poetry Day, however I will make amends today with a poem by Edgar Allan Poe reflecting the day's theme of dreams:


Oh! that my young life were a lasting dream!
My spirit not awakening, till the beam
Of an Eternity should bring the morrow.
Yes! tho' that long dream were of hopeless sorrow,'
Twere better than the cold reality
Of waking life, to him whose heart must be,
And hath been still, upon the lovely earth,
A chaos of deep passion, from his birth.
But should it be- that dream eternally
Continuing- as dreams have been to me
In my young boyhood- should it thus be given,'
Twere folly still to hope for higher Heaven.
For I have revell'd, when the sun was bright
I' the summer sky, in dreams of living light
And loveliness,- have left my very heart
In climes of my imagining, apart
From mine own home, with beings that have been
Of mine own thought- what more could I have seen?'
Twas once- and only once- and the wild hour
From my remembrance shall not pass- some power
Or spell had bound me- 'twas the chilly wind
Came o'er me in the night, and left behind
Its image on my spirit- or the moon
Shone on my slumbers in her lofty noon
Too coldly- or the stars- howe'er it was
That dream was as that night-wind- let it pass.

I have been happy, tho' in a dream.
I have been happy- and I love the theme:
Dreams! in their vivid coloring of life,
As in that fleeting, shadowy, misty strife
Of semblance with reality, which brings
To the delirious eye, more lovely things
Of Paradise and Love- and all our own!
Than young Hope in his sunniest hour hath known.

Edgar Allan Poe

Thursday, October 04, 2007

A renewed promise?

Labour's 2003 Assembly manifesto contained a pledge to make all schools in Wales fit for purpose by 2010. Unfortunately, they made this promise before they knew the full cost of the work required to achieve it. When Pricewaterhouse Coopers produced a report on behalf of the Welsh Local Government Association that identified a £749m gap between the resources required and the funding available, the Labour Government quietly dropped the commitment.

That would have been the last we heard of it except that yesterday in Plenary, the new Education Minister, Jane Hutt, unwittingly ressurrected it:

Kirsty Williams: In 2003, your manifesto also said that all school buildings in Wales would be fit for purpose by 2010. Even the previous Minister for Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills has said that you will not live up to that promise. It simply will not happen. That was your commitment in 2003, and you have failed to deliver on it.

Jane Hutt: I am happy to talk about that target, which is a clear and important target, under which local authorities take responsibility as regards the funding that we are putting in.

Suddenly, it is game on once more. We all appreciate her courage and I, along with many other AMs will be pressing her to give details as to how she will achieve it.

Show us the money

An interesting article in the Western Mail this morning in which Plaid Cymru's financial guru, Eurfyl ap Gwilym, argues that public spending cuts totalling more than £600m could be on the way to Wales if the UK Government ditches plans for big increases in England’s NHS budget.

He may well be right, and certainly all the indications are that the Comprehensive Spending Review will be much tighter than before and not include the sort of increases seen previously. The thing is, though, that we knew all this before the Assembly elections and Plaid Cymru still costed their manifesto on unrealistic assumptions. The implications of that error fed through into the subsequent costing difficulties faced by the authors of both the All Wales Accord and the One Wales document.

A cynic might argue that this latest pronouncement is an attempt to blame the Westminster Labour Government if the CSR leads to key committments being scrapped here in the Assembly. Plaid Cymru would not be able to escape from the charge however, that they should have taken all of this into account before they signed the document. Could Plaid be preparing the ground for some embarrassing u-turns comparable to Labour's own on free personal care for the disabled?

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Winning the lottery

For the second successive time a Welsh Liberal Democrat has won the ballot to introduce a private members' measure in the Assembly. Mike German will be seeking to change the law on school closures. The first and only other ballot was won by Jenny Randerson. She is currently steering through a measure on healthy food.

There are rumours that a Welsh Liberal Democrats was a dead cert to win this second ballot. Surely it cannot be the case that only five AMs submitted a proposal for a measure and that they were all members of my group.

Counting Troops

Liberal Democrat Voice has the lowdown on Gordon Brown's troops-out announcement. Apparently, all is not as it seems:

First it was 2,000 British troops to be withdrawn from Iraq (the figure leaked to the BBC).

Then it was 1,000 (the figure Gordon Brown told the TV cameras earlier today).

Then it was 730 (after it turned out that 270 has already come home).

Then it was 500 (after it came to light that 230 were due to come home anyway under plans announced in July).

And then it was zero (after it turned out the other 500 are currently not in Iraq but in, er…, Germany).

Looking for direction

The editorial in this morning's Western Mail talks a lot of sense about the Government's transport policy announcement that took place in Plenary yesterday. Although Ieuan Wyn Jones made all the right noises on sustainable transport, the details were sparse.

There are matters that need to be welcomed including the use of European funds, the sustainable transport towns initiative, and the investment in railways and coaches, but there were also inconsistencies as well. As Kirsty Williams pointed out the Government remains preoccupied with road building, citing the planned schemes for the M4 and in Flintshire as evidence. The Western Mail takes up the story:

The WAG’s planned widening of the A494 in Flintshire to seven lanes is an illuminating example, because electrifying the parallel railway – which could significantly reduce traffic on the A494 – has just been deferred by the WAG until 2014. Wales has no electric railway, one of the greenest modes of transport, but the WAG is in no hurry to get one.

Meanwhile it is advancing the road scheme. The public inquiry into it drew to a close yesterday.

This is about as far removed from an integrated transport strategy as it’s possible to get. The WAG should have considered these schemes together, potentially reducing or avoiding the road widening work.

Until we get a joined-up approach from the WAG, we are stuck with separate policies for roads, railways and other transport. That way lies more muddle and more growth in carbon emissions from transport.

The overall verdict is that the new Minister has started to turn the government in the right direction but he still needs to do a lot more to convince us of his green credentials.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The humble moustache

A new book on The Decline and Fall of the British Empire by Piers Brendon has revealed the startling role of the moustache in the way that Britain extended its influence during the nineteenth century.

According to The Times, itself a throwback to imperial times, in the 18th and early 19th century, sophisticated Britons wore wigs but spurned facial hair. The exception was the king, George III, whose unshaven appearance was mocked as a sign of his madness. However, by the 1830s the “moustache movement” was in the ascendancy. British officers, copying the impressive moustaches that they encountered on French and Spanish soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars, started the craze, but the real impetus came from India.

Just as British troops in Afghanistan today are encouraged to grow beards to ease their dealings with local tribesmen, so the attitudes of Indian troops under the command of East India Company officers in the first half of the 19th century altered the appearance of the British soldier.

“For the Indian sepoy the moustache was a symbol of virility. They laughed at the unshaven British officers,” Dr Brendon said. In 1854 moustaches were made compulsory for the company’s Bombay regiment. The fashion took Britain by storm as civilians imitated their heroes.

Dr Brendon writes: “During and after the Crimean War, barbers advertised different patterns in their windows such as the ‘Raglan’ and the Cardigan’.” Moustaches were clipped, trimmed and waxed “until they curved like sabres and bristled like bayonets.”

After 1918 moustaches became thinner and humbler as the Empire began to gasp for breath, even as it continued to expand territorially. It had been fatally wounded, Dr Brendon suggests, by the very belief in the freedom that it had preached. After the victory over Germany and Japan in 1945, independence movements across the red-painted sections of the world map, and Britain’s own urgent domestic priorities, meant that the Empire was doomed.

The moustache too was in terminal decline. “It had become a joke thanks to Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx. It had become an international symbol of ‘villainy’ thanks to Hitler’s toothbrush and ‘the huge laughing cockroaches’ under Stalin’s nose,” writes Dr Brendon. In Britain it was also synonymous with the “Colonel Blimps” clinging to an outmoded idea of colonial greatness.

In Eden’s faint moustache Britain’s diminished international status found a fitting symbol. It all but disappeared on TV and, moments before his broadcast on the eve of the fateful occupation of the Suez canal in 1956, his wife had to blacken the bristles with mascara. His successor, Harold MacMillan, was the last British prime minister to furnish his upper lip.

Harold Wilson, the self-styled man of the people, had been clean shaven since the 1940s, Dr Brendon notes. “He obviously believed that the white-hot technological revolution was not to be operated with a moustache.”

Thank goodness for Lord Bonkers, a man whose stature and appearance continues to remind us of those heady days of British world domination.

Monday, October 01, 2007

In the Thick Of It

Now this is a blog by a Tory MP that is well worth reading.

Severn Barrage

The fight to get a barrage built across the Severn estuary took off in earnest today with a report from the Sustainable Development Commission backing the idea, but warning about the excessive costs. In my view the case for this barrage is very finely balanced, but whatever one's view the issue needs to be resolved quickly so that we can move on with the agenda on sustainable energy.

Against the barrage are a range of environmental groups who are concerned at its impact on the ecological infrastructure of the estuary. They are arguing in favour of tidal lagoons, which they say will cause far less environmental damage. There are also question marks over the size of the carbon footprint that will be created by a fifteen year construction project, not to mention the impact it will have on neighbouring communities. Those who are supporting the barrage need to be able to justify the £15 billion investment and an assessment needs to be made as to whether that money can be used differently to secure the same outcome.

In the barrage's favour is its simplicity as an idea. It is a clear way forward, using tested technology that will be guaranteed to produce the desired outcomes. It will create employment and will provide a new and permanent link between both sides of the Severn Estuary. The Wales Office says it could create 40,000 jobs. I heard Peter Hain on the radio this morning arguing that lagoons could prove to be a navigation hazard. We will see.

The detailed feasibility study needs to look at all of these factors and more. It should not delay a decision any longer than is necessary. In the meantime some investment in tidal lagoons so as to demonstrate their efficacy would be welcome. We should start with the proposed lagoon in Swansea Bay. At least then the government could not be accused of putting all its renewable eggs into the wind power basket.

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