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Monday, December 31, 2007

Visitor statistics

Iain Dale makes the claim on his blog that he received 404,000 unique visitors in 2007. There is much discussion on his post about how accurate such figures can be given the problems of tracking IP addresses, but still it is pretty impressive.

I only have a basic extreme tracking analysis, which is open to public view nevertheless. According to that site I had 106,629 unique visitors in 2007. The majority of these people will have visited the site many times and will have been multiple-counted but what the heck, at least somebody is reading these postings.

Happy New Year.

Bottom of the league

According to this morning's Guardian, Britain is languishing at the bottom of the league table when it comes to protecting people's privacy:

The UK is billed as "an endemic surveillance society" alongside Russia, the US, Singapore and China in the survey of 47 countries by Privacy International (PI).

Britain is bottom in Europe because of its cameras, ID card plans and lack of government accountability. Rankings are given for the UK as a whole as well as for its individual nations. "For the first time, Scotland has been given its own ranking score and performed significantly better than England and Wales," says the report.

None of this is particularly surprising given the loss this year of computer discs containing personal and bank details of 25 million UK families claiming child benefit, which highlighted the risks of storing information on huge government database. What is worrying is that the report concludes that the 2007 rankings "show an increasing trend among governments to archive data on the geographic, communications and financial records of all their citizens and residents. This trend leads to the conclusion that all citizens, regardless of legal status, are under suspicion.

"The impact was worst in the US and across the EU as governments boosted surveillance and information gathering in the name of security and protecting borders."

They say that America performed worst among democratic countries in terms of "statutory protections and privacy enforcement". This provides no comfort for Britons given the decision by the UK Government over a year ago to allow the credit card and e-mail accounts of those flying to the USA to be inspected by the US Authorities, effectively exempting them from European data protection legislation.


Sunday, December 30, 2007

Eight for 2008

Jo Anglezarke has tagged me in the latest meme to say what my eight wishes are for 2008. I have been resisting thus far but have finally succumbed:

1. To see the Liberal Democrats sustain poll ratings at least in the mid-twenties throughout the year.
2. To retain control of Swansea, Cardiff, Bridgend and Wrexham in May and make further advances both on those councils and elsewhere in Wales.
3. To see a Democrat become President of the United States (I really am not fussed which of the three front-runners it is).
4. For Swansea City FC to gain automatic promotion as Division One champions.
5. For Brian Paddick to become the first Liberal Democrat Mayor of London
6. For British troops to be pulled out of Iraq.
7. To see Wales win another Grand Slam.
8. To lose some weight.

If I was to have a ninth wish it would be to abolish memes altogether.


Matt Withers notes that Gordon Brown has some very profound things to say in his New Year message about devolution:

In 2008, with firm conviction and resolve, we will make the case for the United Kingdom - standing up for the cause of the Union and against secession, showing people in all parts of the country that for so many of the challenges our country faces - from climate change to terrorism - there are no Wales-only, Scotland-only or England-only solutions.

Matt believes that this bodes ill for the success or otherwise of the Convention being set up to consider the case for more powers for the Welsh Assembly. He could be right but surely it demonstrates a more basic shortcoming on the part of the British Prime Minister, a complete lack of understanding about devolution.

The whole point of the two Government of Wales Acts proposed by a Labour Government containing Gordon Brown is that we can formulate Wales-only solutions. Has Gordon changed his mind? Maybe Rhodri Morgan has the answer.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Plaid face two ways again

With January rapidly approaching, the two faced figure of the Roman God, Janus seems an appropriate place to start in discussing Plaid Cymru's latest faux pas.

On 20th December a Labour Councillor on Neath Port Talbot Council wrote to the South Wales Evening Post regarding that Council's plans to go to a ballot on a proposed housing stock transfer. He stated that the authority was forced into that situation by a Plaid housing minister who insists that they meet the Assembly housing standard by 2012. He pointed out that if the Council does not move to a ballot then they will be penalised financially.

Naturally, this has caused some consternation amongst Plaid Cymru members in Neath. After all their party is opposed to housing stock transfer. As a result a leading member of that party wrote to the Evening Post on 27th December with a remarkable claim:

May I use your letters page to correct an error of fact which you printed in the letter headlined: Plaid is the Guilty Party - Councillor Peter Rees of Cimla (Have Your Say, December 20).I must point out the Minister for Housing is Jane Davidson, a Labour minister, Plaid only having the privilege of holding the deputy housing minister position.

As Councillor Rees points out himself in the comments section of the newspaper's website,
it is Jocelyn Davies A.M. who has responsibility for the Housing portfolio in her position as deputy Housing minister. It was the Deputy Housing Minister, he says, who wrote to the NPTCBC insisting that they call a ballot on the Housing Transfer Policy. Within that letter was the threat of financial penalties if this was not carried out.

This is backed up by an old friend of this blog, Martyn Williams, who says:
While Jane Davidson has overall responsibility for the Department of Environment, Sustainability and Housing within the Welsh Assembly Government, Jocelyn Davies has specific day-to-day responsibility for all housing policy within that department. She answers all questions on housing policy at question time, for example. The full list of her responsibilities is available on the Welsh Assembly Government website. This is also the case with the other deputy ministers with their individual portfolios in social services (Gwenda Thomas), Regeneration (Leighton Andrews) and Skills (John Griffiths).

I have no bone to pick with Jocelyn Davies in this regard. In my view she has made a good start as Deputy Housing Minister and has shown that she is prepared to take tough and pragmatic decisions to try and move the agenda along, particularly with regards to the condition of Council owned housing. However, this has clearly caused a problem for some Plaid Cymru members who continue to believe that they can enjoy the benefits of government without taking responsibility for decisions they do not like.

As I have pointed out before any government operates on the basis of collective responsibility. If the One Wales Government takes a stance that is contrary to Plaid Cymru policy then that party cannot just wash their hands of it and blame Labour. I look forward to Plaid Cymru members supporting their Deputy Minister and campaigning for a 'yes' vote in the forthcoming ballot on stock transfer in Neath Port Talbot.

Friday, December 28, 2007

An ineffective law

The Guardian reports that police investigating possible criminal charges arising from Labour's "donorgate" controversy risk another failed prosecution attempt because of the uncertain state of the law.

They say that following the Crown Prosecution Service's refusal to sanction a prosecution over the higher-profile loans for peerages accusations, the uncertainty may again mean no action is taken when the Metropolitan police file is given to the CPS, probably next month.

Apparently the problem is one of establishing a public interest justification for a prosecution where those involved have all admitted error. The Electoral Commission clearly believe that the law is an ass. They want to be given a more flexible range of powers which would allow them to punish mistakes and other transgressions without having to call in the police. They also want to have the power to interview third parties such as David Abrahams. At present they can only question party officials. Makes sense to me.

It does seem rather perverse to have a law regulating political funding, which is flouted regularly by the party that introduced it and which cannot be enforced in any meaningful way.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Tragedy in Pakistan

I am currently in the Wirral with my family and have not had much time to look at the news. I was shocked therefore when I logged onto my mother's computer to post the previous entry on this blog to see the news that Benazir Bhutto has been assasinated.

This act is a major blow to Pakistan and to democracy everywhere. A courageous woman, who put her life at risk to stand up for what she believed in, has paid the ultimate price.

How this will impact on the region or indeed on World politics has yet to be seen. However, we must all now redouble our efforts to defeat extremists who resort to violence because they are incapable of winning the argument. This is not a cultural issue or even one of east versus west, this is about the future of democracy. It is about the right of the individual to assert him or herself against the power of the state or of any other force that might act to deny that right.

In the meantime, my thoughts are with Benazir Bhutto's family, friends and colleagues.

Participative democracy

The Welsh Assembly is about to launch its own e-petition site with a direct feed into the petitions sub-committee, so I am quite interested in this initiative by Hazel Blears for English Councils to have a legal duty to respond to a petition signed by 250 voters or 1% of the electorate.

Many Councils already have mechanisms in which petitioners can directly address Councillors and get a formal response to their request. That was largely pioneered by Liberal Democrat-run Councils many years ago but there are honourable exceptions in which Labour and even Conservative run authorities have sought to take petitions seriously.

What is being proposed by the Communities and Local Government Minister will have little impact on how these councils operate because they are already at the place she wishes to take them. Petitions can of course be taken up by scrutiny committees now and full-scale investigations launched into their subject matter.

Community activism and participative democracy form part of the liberal consensus that is developing in the UK but its success is varied depending on where one is based. Personally, I think that this is an interesting initiative by a Labour Government obsessed with control freakery. It will be fascinating to see how their Labour colleagues in local government handle it.

Because the Assembly e-petition site links into an already established process for dealing with petitions then it will clear to all those using it what has happened their petition. There is a mechanism for tracking its progress and for reporting back to those submitting it. If only that were true of the 10 Downing Street petition site.

The Guardian tells us that the Downing Street e-petition site has seen millions signing 22,000 different petitions demanding action by central government. The bulk of these petitions are expressions of popular opinion since, unlike the local community call for action proposed by Blears, there is no requirement for government action in response.

Surely the challenge for Labour is to provide the same rights to people petitioning Downing Street as those petitioning their local Council. Otherwise a potentially useful exercise in empowerment will become another cynical exercise in hypocrisy. How about it Hazel?

Food and exercise

We have entered the twilight zone between Christmas and New Year, when some of us go back to work, whilst others take the opportunity to relax with their families. It is also that time of the year when we start to take stock of the damage we have done to our bodies over the last two days. Perhaps a brisk walk might help or is it about time that we joined a gym?

Intuitively, the Western Mail (and no doubt other papers I have not had time to read yet), have the solution, a series of stories on health and well-being. These are not helpful features on diets or exercise though, at least not yet. Instead, there are a number of news stories featuring doctors dictating yet more restrictions to our lives so that they might improve them on our behalf.

First up is Dr Stephen Monaghan, public health director of Cardiff Local Health Board, who has called for a debate about what type of restaurants are granted high street planning permission. he believes that the best way to curb the current obesity epidemic is to stop fast food franchises opening. But why stop there? Could he not also have suggested a law whereby we can only eat what our doctor's prescribe for us or to make it compulsory for a dietician to oversee all produce sold by supermarkets and other shops? I feel a Legislative Competence Order coming on already and it is still recess.

As if to prove that there is a Santa Claus a later article takes an opposite tack to Dr. Monaghan. Dr Colin Waine, from the National Obesity Forum argues that a complete ban on chocolate and sweet foods can be more damaging to children than occasional indulgence. He believes in the power of education and recommends a visit to The Chocolate Factory in Swansea. Here pupils can learn everything from botany to business studies through the medium of chocolate. Now this man is talking my language.

Sales and Marketing manager, Martin Holt, comments: “We cover geography, through where chocolate comes from, and history, in how it was discovered.”

“The science of how it was developed is looked at and the chemistry involved in melting and changing materials.

“For business studies we look at how the product is marketed and we also explain how the cocoa trees grow.

“Teachers can even use the topic for literacy by reading Charlie and The Chocolate Factory.”

Carol Evans, head of business studies at Bishop McGrath Catholic school in Bridgend, has taken GCSE and A-level students to the factory. She admitted that they did enjoy the free samples but said there was a genuine educational benefit too.

“They learned about the seasonality of the product and production,” she said. “Chocolate is in greater demand at different times of the year and they learned how businesses coped with that. A lot of the pupils said they were very focused on the free samples.

“These stuck in their minds and helped them remember what they had learned and how free samples can be used in marketing. What is interesting is that chocolate is actually manufactured in only a very few places.

“It isn’t made from scratch at the factory. They buy it in and mix and mould it. “Some aspects of business studies courses can be a bit dry so chocolate is a good way to interest pupils.”

Meanwhile, the paper also covers the annual Boxing Day swim in coastal towns around Wales. This time it is the story of more than 200 bathers taking part in the traditional 10-minute dip, which is held annually on Boxing Day in the freezing cold waters of the Bristol Channel at Pembrey Park, near Llanelli. What a pity that the paper's photographer could only find a 19 year old girl in a bikini to pose for a picture.

Finally, we are gratified to see that Wales' top doctor is urging all smokers to make giving up their number one New Year's resolution. Dr Tony Jewell’s advice comes as the latest figures reveal that there has been a 20% increase in the number of smokers who sought professional help to quit during 2007. And the paper tells us that a new survey has found that public support for Wales’ smoking ban is continuing to rise, eight months after smoking in all enclosed public places was outlawed. The biggest rise in support, they say, is among smokers, suggesting they have embraced the new legislation.

Although it was always likely that people giving up would be a side-effect of the smoking ban, it was never intended to operate for that purpose. Still it makes the health professionals feel better and providing that we are assisting people who have made up their own minds to kick the habit then I am happy to endorse their efforts.

For me though there was only one Doctor I was paying any attention to this Christmas, that played by David Tennant. Together with 12 million other viewers I was gripped from beginning to end. I think I will watch it again.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Talking about our democracy

There are two articles in today's Western Mail about the devolution project. One offers a useful starting point for debate, the other in my opinion takes us down a blind alley.

Wrexham MP, Ian Lucas is quite right in suggesting that the present devolution settlement plays into the hands of the separatists, although I suspect that we agree for different reasons and each of us envisage a different end-game.

Mr. Lucas suggests that there is a need for further devolution to the English regions to counter-balance that in Wales and Scotland. His preferred mechanism however, is to set up Regional Grand Committees at Westminster so as to improve scrutiny. It is not even administrative devolution and there is certainly no attempt in his vision to improve accountability, and transparency or to promote policy diversity.

Both Mr. Lucas and the Tory MP, David Jones suggest in the article that the North East rejected a previous attempt at regional devolution because they did not want an additional tier of government. That may well be the case, but it could also be that they did not want a particular brand of regional government being thrust upon them, which had extremely limited powers and which would have created just another talking shop. It may be some time before that proposal can be revisited but that is no reason to rule it out if it is done properly and with conviction.

The other question that hangs over Ian Lucas' proposal is what happens to Welsh devolution whilst the English are being pacified. I suspect he wants us to stand still until Labour are ready to move on. Unfortunately, it is not going to be so easy to put that particular genie back in the bottle. A referendum on full law-making powers in my opinion is now an inevitability. It becomes more so, the more Labour and Tory MPs resist the LCO process.

The trick now must be to allow comparative advances in England to match progress in Wales and Scotland, so as to keep some sense of proportion within the asymmetric constitutional settlement that Labour has thoughtlessly created. In my view that is the best way to keep the United Kingdom together. It cannot be done by dangling rotten carrots in front of the English, whilst pulling back on the reins in Wales and Scotland.

The second article that has raised my heckles this morning reports on an extraordinary proposal by Dafydd Wigley. Described by the paper as Plaid Cymru Leader, Mr. Wigley suggests that we need to extend positive discrimination so as to give preference to disabled people when selecting candidates for the Assembly list seats.

One of the reasons why the Assembly has so many female members is because at least two of the four parties opted for a system of positive selection for women back in 1999 when they were choosing their candidates. Although the policy achieved its aim, it is worth noting that the Welsh Liberal Democrats also got 50-50 representation simply by giving able women the chance to compete on level terms with men. However, we have a long way to go in terms of identifying and training women and ethnic minorities if we are to replicate that success at all levels of government and over a long period of time.

What positive discrimination also did was to invite accusations of tokenism and allow some people to question the quality of the successful candidates. Perhaps that is the reason why Mr. Wigley does not also suggest such a policy for ethnic minority candidates. And why pick on the regional lists? Isn't the electoral system discredited enough as it is without using it as an instrument of social change?

In my view we need to question the policy objective of reflecting the make-up of society amongst our elected representatives. Are we sure for example that we have an equal proportion of Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgender people within the Senedd as we do in our communities? Of course not and why should we?

The key here must be in creating opportunities for all people irrespective of their race, gender, sexual orientation and whether they are disabled or not, to be able to compete on equal terms for places in the Assembly. In my view that must involve training, encouragement, mentoring, and support and such facilities should be available for white heterosexual males as much as for one-legged black lesbians, and be offered regardless of party. This an opportunity agenda rather than one for equality. I believe that it is the best way of fostering respect and of allowing people to fulfill their own potential.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas Everybody

Have a good one!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Buffer zone

I was fascinated by the letter from Plaid Cymru AM, Bethan Jenkins, in today's South Wales Evening Post in which she confirms her party's commitment to a 500m buffer zone around any new open cast development so as to protect nearby residents

This is something I have campaigned on in the past as well, and as part of that campaign I signed a statement of opinion on the matter in the Assembly some years ago. Of course now that Plaid Cymru is in government we will all look forward to the introduction of this buffer zone in due course.

In the meantime I was puzzled by Bethan's pledge to raise the matter with the Minister again during Environment questions at the Senedd in the new year. This is because on the 12 December 2007 she actually had a question on the Assembly agenda on opencast mining, an ideal time to raise the need for a buffer zone with the Minister.

When it was time for her question to be asked she was nowhere to be seen, having withdrawn it earlier, even though she was in the chamber both before and after the Minister was scheduled to answer it.

Are there limits to the personal commitment to this issue that Bethan writes about in her letter? Perhaps she can enlighten us.

Favourite Christmas card

Country of our birth

Speaking to the Western Mail this morning Shirley Bassey tells of her natural distress at having her purse stolen by a pickpocket whilst Christmas shopping in London’s Knightsbridge area. Understandably, she has been left confused and resentful as a result of this incident:

“This isn’t England any more – at least it is not the country I remember growing up in. You don’t hear English spoken here. You read about terrible things – not just drugs but all the killings.

“When you live in a safe place like Monte Carlo, you can walk home at any time of the night and you don’t have to worry. I don’t feel at risk there. If I drive myself, I can leave the car doors unlocked, I wouldn’t do that in London.”

Although I have a great deal of sympathy for her regarding the theft of her purse, it is difficult to know what point Dame Shirley is making here regarding her up-bringing. She was, after all, brought up in Wales, not England, in one of the most ethnically-diverse areas of Cardiff. It is likely that she would have heard lots of different languages spoken as a child.

Still, at least in Monto Carlo she will be safe from being mugged and she can ensure that her substantial wealth is not raided by Her Majesty's Customs and Excise at the same time.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Two tribes go to war

The tit-for-tat sleaze-fest that is continuing to develop over individual donations to Labour and the Conservatives is threatening to once more bring politics into disrepute.

After seeking to capitalise on Labour's problems, the Tory leader faced some embarrassment after it emerged that his local party received £7,000 in invalid donations. This now looks like it will escalate into a full blown war as Labour MP Kevan Jones, writes to the Electoral Commission to request more information regarding a £500,000 donation from the son of a controversial Guernsey-based donor.

Like the Standards Board before it, the Commission is in danger of becoming just another big stick to be used by various party apparatchiks to beat each other with. In truth the present rules are largely unworkable, whilst the continuing dependence of political parties on big donors makes further controversy inevitable. There needs to be some cross-party agreement on the way forward soon or even more people will have tuned out from the political process.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

More on LCOs

The Welsh Affairs Committee has finally got around to publishing a report on one of the Assembly Government's bids for extra powers. It is about time. At this rate the referendum will be upon us before we get the chance to exercise any primary law-making powers at all.

I may be repeating myself but I felt that there was more than a little bit of control-freakery in the comments of MPs on the process itself. According to the media the Committee criticised the Assembly Government for publishing its requests for extra power too quickly. They say that this has made it impossible to hold the joint scrutiny sessions of AMs and MPs that was envisaged when the system was set up. Joint scrutiny is apparently seen as a key part of tieing MPs sceptical of devolution into the process.

I would say in response to them that we cannot have our timetable dictated by Westminster. The whole point of this process is to empower the Welsh legislature so as to enable it to deliver better laws for the people of Wales. If MPs cannot keep up then they need to overhaul their own procedures so as to allow them the input they desire.

Shambo Shambles

I wish that I could say that this was £200,000 well-spent but I cannot. It is the equivalent to the annual starting salaries of 9.5 nurses or 9.3 teachers. I know that the government had no choice and that the whole saga was necessary in order to prevent the risk of these animals passing on bovine TB to humans and other animals but still.

As the government spokesperson said: “The decision was not taken lightly and it was a difficult situation for all concerned. TB is, however, a serious health issue amongst cattle in parts of Wales.

“It is also a human health issue as it can be passed on to people as well as animals. The policy of slaughtering animals with the disease is applied to all cattle keepers in Wales and WAG has acted consistently in applying its policy."

I think that the least the Skanda Vale monks can do is to dip into some of the £2 million they have in the bank and recompense the taxpayer for the trouble they caused.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Blog Awards

Ok I am going to have a go at this meme challenge from James Graham to promote the Campaign for Gender Balance blogging awards designed to celebrate and promote women bloggers, both inside and outside the Liberal Democrats. Please go there and nominate somebody.

My problem here is that my knowledge of Liberal Democrat and other blogs is actually quite restricted. As such I am not going to offer a particularly original insight. In looking at this exercise I have found some very good blogs by women that I should be reading regularly and certainly should be linking too. The problem is there is only so much time in any one day and I already spend far too much time on blogs for it to be healthy. So with that caveat, here goes:

THREE Blogs that should be nominated for in the Best Blog by a Woman Lib Dem category, and state why:

My first nomination is Alix Mortimer, witty, insightful, well-written, intelligent, her blog has rapidly become a must-read. Alix is my tip for next year's Liberal Democrat blogger of the year. Meral Ece is a candidate in next year's GLA elections. She writes regularly about issues in her community as well as wider political matters. Finally, I propose Linda Jack, for her passion, her well-argued posts and her basic liberalism, but please Linda change that design.

THREE blog posts that should be nominated for the Best Blog Post By a Woman Lib Dem:

This is far more difficult and I really do not know where to start. However, if I am forced to choose then I would nominate Alix Mortimer's 'Fighting for crystal clear communication since 1979', Meral Ece's 'Labour's plans to 'force' single mothers back to work', and Jo Anglezarke's 'Campaign for flexible internships'.

THREE Blogs that should be nominated for in the Best Blog by a Woman Non-Lib Dem category, and state why:

I am afraid that I am going to introduce a distinctly Welsh flavour here by nominating the excellent Miss Wagstaff, dedicated to holding the One Wales Government to account, the Plaid Cymru AM, Bethan Jenkins, and BBC Wales Political Editor, Betsan Powys.

THREE living women you would like to see blog, and state why. These can be women from any walk of life, not just Lib Dems (although that doesn’t mean they can’t be):

I am going to dodge this a bit. You either have the blogging bug or you don't. There are no doubt many interesting women out there whose views and opinions will add value to the blogosphere but if they are not doing it now then they are unlikely to start. I would be fascinated to read a daily diary from Hazel Blears, Jacqui Smith and Harriet Harman, but somehow I just know that they would make it as bland as possible so as not to upset the Labour spin doctors.

That is it. I hereby tag Duncan Borrowman, Rob Fenwick, Mark Valladares, Jonny Wright and Alex Wilcock to follow suit.

Christmas Message

It is right that the First Minister has declared in his Christmas message that the fight against child poverty is his top priority however words will not be enough. The Assembly Government has a target of halving child poverty by 2010 and eradicating it altogether by 2020.

These are ambitious targets. They are more so when one considers that the recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation annual report has found that the level of childhood poverty in the UK is the same in 2005/06 as it was in 2002/03.

These figures have stark implications. At present, there are 170,000 children living in poverty in Wales. That bald statistic does not even begin to describe the effect upon children’s lives: poor health, educational underachievement, and a growing division between rich and poor in our communities are the real cost we all pay for child poverty.

Experts in the field, such as the Child Poverty Action Group, recommend that Government expands childcare provision, thus allowing parents and carers to get a job more easily. They also want to simplify the benefit system so that people can understand it, and work out what they are entitled to get more easily. There needs to be a legal requirement for public bodies, including the NHS and local councils to make a commitment to tackling child poverty.

My main concern is that the recent budget will cause us to go backwards in this objective. Local Councils deliver a number of services that can assist people in getting themselves out of poverty. Below-inflation revenue support grant increases from the Assembly Government could bring about cuts to those services and a consequent increase in child poverty.

There is also little sign of the Westminster Labour Government taking effective action to deliver on their aim, particularly in the field of benefits, or of working in a cross cutting way with the Assembly Government and others on this issue. Rhodri Morgan has laid out his stall, he has very little time now to deliver.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The most boring meme ever

This must be the time of year when meme's start to breed. People have time on their hands and an opportunity to make us all pay for it. Nevertheless I do not resent Alix Mortimer for tagging me on this particular one, even though it has to be the dullest ever.

The sheer quality of Alix's blog means that she has can be forgiven this once, however she should not do it too often, especially as I am considering nominating her in this more substantial competition which is also doing the rounds as a meme when I get around to doing it.

The challenge is to post a screen print of one's desktop. I have chosen my shiny new laptop as the subject of this challenge and am grateful to Alix for the technical instruction as to how to do it.

I would tag others but frankly I can't be bothered. Sorry, Alix.

Welsh Liberal Democrats appoint new Chief Executive

The Welsh Liberal Democrats have announced that Joanne Foster is to be their new Chief Executive .

Ms Foster, 27, will take over the role early next year and become the first female Chief Executive of any state Liberal Democrat party. She takes over from Stephen Smith, who left earlier in the year.

She said: “This is a challenging role and I am looking forward to getting started. The party is in a period of change at the top, and with a new UK leader taking office, a new President in Wales, and I am delighted to be a part of laying the foundations for a more liberal Wales.

“The party has enormous potential for growth, and has a major role to play in Welsh life. At a time when all the other parties increasingly sound the same, we have an opportunity to break through the consensus, and set ourselves apart as the distinct and forward looking party that we are.”

Mike German, leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, said: “Joanne has a strong record both within the party and in Welsh public life. She is a determined character and has a great way with people. These are the skills we believe are needed to take the party on the next step of its journey.

“The need for liberal ideas has never been greater in Wales. We as a party have to step up to that responsibility. I believe Joanne’s appointment is a foundation stone for success at the 2011 Welsh General Election.”

Ms Foster’s appointment marks a second major change at the top of the Welsh Liberal Democrats in recent weeks. Former Assembly Member Christine Humphreys was elected President on November 30th.


Joanne Foster was born and raised in Bolton, but has lived in Osaka, Japan and Cardiff.
She studied Law at King’s College London, and also attended Poole-Gakuin University, Osaka. A fluent Japanese speaker, she taught English in Japan for two years.

Joanne moved to Cardiff in 2005, working as a caseworker for Peter Black AM, and was promoted to be a researcher in the leader’s office within 9 months. She was the lead Welsh Liberal Democrat negotiator with the Labour Party in the aftermath of the 2007 Welsh General Election.

Currently employed by a leading disability charity as Policy and Assembly officer, Joanne is also Chair of Cardiff Women’s Aid.

She is also learning Welsh though for some reason the press release did not mention that.

God and the man

So what is this new-found obsession of the British media with the individual religious beliefs of our politicians all about? Let us hope that we do not start going down the American path, where every candidate feels the need to outdo the others in the way that they observe their faith and being a devout Muslim is an electoral liability. God is even used to justify decisions made by those in power, although curiously those who profess to have the Almighty as their guide appear to be the ones most out-of-touch with their electorate. The invasion of Iraq is the most obvious example.

In the UK, I blame Tony Blair. Although he famously refused to talk about his faith for fear of being considered a bit of a "nutter", we all knew that he was a very religious man and a lot of his speeches and decisions had that fervour and self-belief about them that can only come from a man who is comfortable with his own destiny. You would never catch our former Prime Minister giving a straight answer to a straight question in the way that the Liberal Democrat leader did yesterday.

I can only think that the interviewer who asked Nick Clegg if he believed in God had run out of questions to ask. In my view Nick should have declined to answer, or said something along the lines of 'my personal life and that of my wife and children are private and have no bearing on my work as a politician. The same applies to my personal religious beliefs. What matters is the sort of country my party and I wish to create, and unless we decide to force people to adopt a particular set of religious beliefs, try to deny them the right to worship as they wish or start to justify our policies as divinely inspired then how I and my colleagues feel about God is immaterial to the wider political debate we are participating in.' Of course when you are put on the spot and asked to provide a one word answer it is not easy to get all that out.

The most sensible pronouncement on all of this Christmas silly-season media interest* comes from the Archbishop of Canterbury. He is quoted in the Guardian as saying: "It matters less to me than to know that they [politicians] are honest and reliable and that what beliefs they have they hold sincerely. "This isn't a country where Christianity is imposed by law ... obviously, I would prefer it if he were a Christian but you know, his integrity is what matters." Way to go, Rowan.

*Non-Liberal Democrat readers need to understand at this point that the modest coverage that this pronouncement got is in fact quite a lot for a Liberal Democrat. As such I feel justified in describing the many column inches Nick Clegg's answer attracted as voluminous.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Tories continue to resist devolution

As I was not at the Health Wellbeing and Local Government Committee on 12 December I have had to await the publication of the transcript of proceedings before posting this. It was well worth it, if only for the hitherto unreported comments by Deputy Social Services Minister, Gwenda Thomas, regarding the further antics of the Tories in Westminster and their continuing attempts to undermine the devolution process.

What Gwenda had to say seemed to come as news to the Conservative Chair, Jonathan Morgan. He did not appear too pleased at the behaviour of his MP colleagues:

The Deputy Minister for Social Services (Gwenda Thomas): It is interesting to see that, during the passage of the Health and Social Care Bill, amendments have been tabled by the Conservatives in Westminster to delete any reference to Ministers in Wales, and to retain responsibility exclusively, in regard to clause 136, with the Secretary of State for Health in England. There might be an issue there for you, Nick, because this deals specifically with residency, and the aim of the amendments is to retain responsibility in England, even for issues that arise in Wales. Therefore, you might want to look at that and you may have an opinion on those amendments, which I hope will be rejected during the passage of that important Bill.

Jonathan Morgan: Thank you for that helpful suggestion, Deputy Minister. While I will not give you my view from the Chair, I will certainly be expressing a view at a later date. Thank you—that is kind of you.

The Tories continue to be the most schizophrenic party when it comes to devolution.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Unreconstructed Tories

In all the fuss about leadership elections today I nearly forgot to mention this little faux pas from Tory MP, John Redwood. Neanderthal is the kindest comment I have heard about the former Welsh Secretary. More considered responses have come from Heather Harvey and Vernon Croaker:

Heather Harvey, manager of Amnesty International's UK Stop Violence Against Women campaign, said: "There's very little difference between rape by a partner and rape by a stranger - both amount to sexual violence and both can leave a woman deeply traumatised. Instead of splitting hairs, Mr Redwood should concentrate on the real issue, the appallingly low conviction rate for rape in Britain."

Vernon Coaker, the Home Office minister, called for Cameron to demand a retraction. "It is just a month since David Cameron said that too many men were committing rape because they think they can get away with it ... if Cameron is truly serious about this issue he should immediately apologise for these remarks and call on John Redwood to issue a retraction."

This is also the man who launched an attack on single mothers on a visit to Cardiff in the 1990s. What is cuddly Dave's position on all this?

Live blogging the leadership

The room where the announcement is to be made about the Liberal Democrat leadership is already packed out and rumours abound that the result is unbearably close. Journalists are speculating that Clegg has won by a sliver. Here in the Assembly people think that there may be less than 2,000 votes in it. We will see.

Paddy Ashdown has just told a journalist off for trying to prise the result out of him. He seemed to quite enjoy it. The journalist just looked uncomfortable.

14.30 - the BBC News 24 reporter has just said that the margin is less than 500 votes. The tension is unbearable.

Lembit is there. The close result shows the calibre of the two candidates he tells us. Whoever wins will have the full support of the party.

Sandra Gidley reminds us that both candidates are grown ups. Thank goodness for that. She says Ming was too cautious and that it was frustrating. The party needs to be bolder. Lembit supports that argument by praising Vince Cable.

Lembit says that Vince had the luxury of being free of having to face an election. "I like that kind of politics" he says!

14.35 - Vince enters the room to sustained applause. No dancing today. He tells us that he has no intention of announcing a military coup. He seems to forget that David Steel once led the Party. We are at our best as a party when we are challenging the establishment with a radical and liberal voice. Highlight of his acting leadership was the dance with Alesha.

Vince admits to voting more than once in the 'Strictly Come Dancing' Semi-Final. The old adage of vote early, vote often has a new meaning for the BBC he says.

The candidates come to the stage. Nick Clegg looks happy.

Total votes cast were 41,465

Nick Clegg: 20988
Chris Huhne: 20477

Gosh that was close.

Chris Huhne says we are still in the game and that we have just elected a leader who will take us onwards. Clegg says that his election marks a new beginning, a renewed ambition to reach out to the millions of people who share our values and do not yet vote for us. We want to change politics and Britain. He and Chris Huhne have been rivals, as of now they are colleagues once again.

He praises Vince for excelling as an economist, a wit and a ballroom dancer. He says Ming Campbell restored stability and professionalism to the party, without which we would not have the bright future that lies ahead of us.

Liberalism is the thread that holds together everything that this nation stands for. Pull out that thread and the fabric will crumble. He appeals for social justice and fairness. Our politics is broken, out of touch with people, out of touch with the modern world. His one ambition is to make Britain the liberal country that he believes people want it to be.

Why have we stopped imagining a better society? Labour and the Conservatives have governed in the same way. The challenge is to provide a liberal alternative to the discredited politics of big government. He wants to spend at least one day a week listening and campaigning outside of Westminster.

This is an unprecedented time of opportunity for liberalism in this country. Liberalism is the creed of our time. Labour and the Conservatives are mutating into each other, united in the defence of a system that has let people down. Liberal Democrats have the courage to imagine a better society. No more business as usual, no more government knows best. This is the beginning of Britain's Liberal future.

Update: David Cornock points out that Nick Clegg has got off to a good start by overcoming the curse of Lembit. It was a close run thing though. It is the first time I have voted for a winning leadership candidate as well.

Open and Transparent

Fundamental reforms to the law are needed to help make the process of awarding peerages more transparent, the Commons Public Administration Committee will say today.

Maybe an election is the mechanism they are looking for.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Nostalgia is not what it used to be

Figures produced by the Liberal Democrats have shown that pensioners now receive less money than they did in 1950.

The figures demonstrate that pensions in 2007 are the equivalent of only 15.9% of the average wage, compared to 18.4% in 1950. That means that we have gone backwards in the way we support people who have already given a lifetime of work to our society.

These figures are a disgrace. We have had a Labour government for ten years, and yet Welsh pensioners are comparatively getting even less than they were under Attlee, at a time when the British economy was still recovering from a cataclysmic war.

With the convoluted Pension Credit failing to reach many pensioners, in my view the Government should immediately restore the link between pensions and earnings as a first step towards providing a decent state pension.

The fact that the last benefits uprating meant that there were over 250 benefit levels to increase is reflective of a system that is far too complicated. The obsession with bureaucracy has made our benefits system a nightmare for those who truly need help. Genuine concerns about data security risk undermining benefit take up even further.

Rather than continually adding further layers of complexity to the system, ministers should undertake radical reform and introduce a Single Working Age Benefit.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Cameron makes his move

They may have a 13% lead in the latest opinion poll but the Tories are still worried about the impact of a new Liberal Democrat leader on their vote. That concern was underlined today with an offer from David Cameron to join forces with whoever emerges as our Leader on Tuesday so as to 'forge a new progressive alliance' to challenge Gordon Brown.

Conservative Home gives the game away when they say that the Tory leader's biggest worry is the Liberal Democrats: 'ConservativeHome has called the LibDems the "bindweed" of British politics. Once LibDems invade political territory they tend to hold it. At the last two sets of local elections the Tories have been winning seats from the LibDems but will that start to change with Ming gone?

Most Tory strategists do not expect the LibDems to be easy opponents with Nick Clegg at the helm (the likely winner when the LibDem ballot result is declared on Tuesday). With Charles Kennedy, Shirley Williams, Ming Campbell, Paddy Ashdown, Vince Cable, David Laws, Chris Huhne, Steve Webb and Julia Goldsworthy all possible members of a Clegg team, it will be a force to be reckoned with. They are all considerable figures able to command media attention.

The LibDems hold so many seats in southern England that the Tories must win in order to command a working majority after the next General Election. Some Tories close to Mr Cameron do not think that it is realistic to expect to win more than ten LibDem seats. In this scenario the Tories have to either make spectacular gains from Labour (no longer an unrealistic possibility) or think about making deals with the LibDems.'

Vince Cable has already rejected these overtures, suggesting that Cameron is living in 'cloud cuckoo land', whilst Chris Huhne has got to the heart of the issue by pointing out that any cooperation would just be skin deep and opportunistic. He told the Observer that 'David Cameron's claims to be pushing the green agenda are just as hollow as Gordon Brown's. In the summer of 2006 we had to break off our attempts to come up with joint policies because the Conservatives were not prepared to talk seriously about green taxes.'

For once the Tory leader's attempt to place himself on the high ground has backfired. He is clearly afraid of a Liberal Democrat upsurge otherwise he would not have made the offer in the first place.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Trivial Pursuits

Tomos Livingstone details some of the trivial matters that have become the basic staple of every political journalist as they struggle to maintain the public's attention:

IT HAD been building up for some time.

Every day, anxious Westminster journalists would question Number 10 spokespeople about Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s plans to arrive unfashionably late in Lisbon, signing the EU Reform Treaty after every other leader had moved on.

“Every day I tell him [the PM] this is the main subject at the Lobby and he reacts with incredulity,” said Mr Brown’s spokesman on Tuesday.

With the document finally signed, on Thursday, you would think things would die down. But no. Yesterday, an eagle-eyed journalist spotted that every EU leader was wearing a smart new EU Treaty lapel badge. Everyone except Mr Brown, that is.

“I have absolutely no idea [why], and even if I did I would have no intention of answering that question,” said Mr Brown’s official spokesman.

“You are taking this rather trivial matter to absurd extremes.”

Little do they know that trivia is what political hacks really do best. Perhaps Downing Street should consult recent history for some examples.

Of course this sort of trivia is also what bloggers do best. We follow with forensic fascination every detail of the disappearance of Humphrey the cat from 10 Downing Street, President Chirac's dislike of British food, Rhodri Morgan's travelling shoes and the infamous motion about which AM should sit where together with its 801 amendments.

Where we are different is that we do not have the same restraints as journalists and every now and again we manage to blow such events out of all proportion. Even more so than the media.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Vince Cable dances with Alesha Dixon

Let us hope that the media does not start expecting all politicians to meet these very high standards.

Hat Tip to Guido Fawkes

SNP walk into planning row

The Liberal Democrats have said that the Scottish government's involvement in Donald Trump's Aberdeenshire golf resort plan "smells of sleaze".

The BBC report that the accusation was made at the same time as Aberdeenshire Council confirmed it had terminated a call with the government's chief planner, because Mr Trump's team was there:

First Minister Alex Salmond said he had followed the rules "to the letter".

The government decided to "call in" the plans for the Menie Estate the same day that its chief planner, Jim McKinnon, held talks with Mr Trump's team, to explain the role of Scottish ministers in planning applications and appeals.

The proposals had been narrowly rejected by Aberdeenshire councillors. During question time at Holyrood, Mr Salmond also came under pressure for meeting with Mr Trump's representatives.

He is forbidden from taking part in the planning process and has insisted that, because the plans fell into his Gordon constituency, he was duty bound to meet people on all sides.

Liberal Democrat leader Nicol Stephen said: "This is a serious situation for the first minister and his government. Every step of the way there is contradiction, concealment and cleverness from his government on this issue. It smells of sleaze."

Mr Salmond told MSPs that he was not present at the discussion between the council and Mr McKinnon, adding: "Its not my responsibility. I am debarred from any decision-making in the planning process. Why on earth would I therefore know the answer to that question since I was not in the room or with the chief planner at the time."

The report continues:

In a statement, the council's chief executive Alan Campbell said he had conducted two phone calls with the chief planner on the afternoon of 4 December.

"The first call was about the procedure which Aberdeenshire Council were likely to adopt at their special meeting. It was in that context that the chief executive was informed by the chief planner that members of the Trump organisation were in the chief planner's room.

The chief executive asked that they leave the room. The discussion then took place."

The council said Mr Campbell received a call from the chief planner several hours later on the issue of ministers calling in the application, adding: "There was no question of the Trump organisation being with the chief planner at that time."

Aberdeenshire Council have now removed the chair of the Planning Committee, whose casting vote ensured that this application was rejected in the first place. In my opinion that is a disgraceful act which will compromise the future independence of the planning process by putting pressure on Councillors to tow a popularist line rather than act according to their own conscience.

A sense of Britishness

Gordon Brown's assertion that he will press ahead with his proposed Bill of Rights without agreeing it with the devolved administrations first is meaningless bravado. It was a piece of political theatre staged for jittery Labour Party members and the English press.

I say that not because I believe that the Prime Minister is being insincere but because it is the case that any piece of new legislation must go through a period of consultation before it is published in its final form. That consultation will include the devolved administrations, who will be asked their views and in particular whether any of the provisions in the proposed bill impacts on their existing powers and the services they fund.

Mr. Brown would be unwise to change that methodology just to make a political point and I do not believe that he will do so.

Separate lives

A Labour leaflet circulating around Swansea West promoting Andrew Davies AM and their Prospective Parliamentary Candidate, Geraint Davies, offers much entertainment. One phrase stands out however, that the Liberal Democrat Council are allegedly 'Out of touch: refusing to act on anti-social behaviour and crime.'

Could the Andrew Davies referred to in the leaflet possibly be related to the one, who in Assembly Plenary on Wednesday, said:

"On a recent visit to Swansea, Vernon Coaker, the Home Office Minister, identified its community safety partnership as a model of good practice in terms of dealing with anti-social behaviour. The local authority, South Wales Police and others are working together to identify ways in which they can deal with this issue, which is most important to our citizens."

Does Andrew Davies have an alter ego?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

How the markets work

With thanks to Simon Titley and Liberal Democrat Voice.

Tribute to Vince

He may have decided not to stand for the leader's job but there can be no doubt that in his role as acting leader, Vince Cable has not just steadied the ship but also made a distinctive and valuable contribution, a point acknowledged by Tomos Livingstone in today's Western Mail:

MEMBERS of Parliament turned up at the House of Commons yesterday to witness a popular leader who has the unanimous support of his party giving his last performance at Prime Minister’s Questions. Yes, we’re all going to miss Vince Cable.

The acting leader of the Liberal Democrats floored Gordon Brown with his “gone from Stalin to Mr Bean” jibe a couple of weeks ago, and has been ahead of the game on the problems at Northern Rock.

He is a ballroom dancer too, a nice counterpoint to Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne’s fight for the party’s leadership, carried out with a distinct lack of glamour, elegance or charisma.
Mr Cable was at it again yesterday, dancing a pirouette around the Prime Minister.

“When you tuck into your Brussels sprouts on your one day off at Christmas, which of the various disasters of the last six months will haunt you most?” Mr Cable asked, using what William Hague used to call the ‘Have you stopped beating your wife, Prime Minister?’ tactic.

“Your indecision over the election, your inaction over Northern Rock or your gross incompetence over the loss of 25m people’s personal data?”

A little-known fact, by the way, is that Gordon Brown can be quite funny when he wants to be.

His reply to Mr Cable was a good one. “Given the history of the Liberal Party it may not be long before you are back in that place again, representing your party.”

But not as good as Mr Cable’s riposte: “Given your own position, you might not be wise to speculate about leadership elections.”

Cheeky monkey. You almost thought he would dance a little cha-cha-cha and laugh at winning that skirmish.

It’s just as well there was an exchange between Mr Cable and Mr Brown because the Cameron-Brown jousts are becoming a little tedious.

Mr Cameron lists Mr Brown’s problems and ends with a soundbite for the TV news – this week’s was “Wasn’t 2007 the year you got found out?”.

Mr Brown ignores everything Mr Cameron says and accuses him of having nothing to say, before listing a range of policy areas where there are “big decisions” to be taken.

Even MPs have tired a little of the routine – which is why the Vince Cable jive has been the surprise hit of the Westminster year.

Whoever becomes leader of the Liberal Democrats next week, we can be certain that Vince Cable will continue to play a high profile and valuable role.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Plaid Cymru MP, Adam Price uses his blog to compare the first meeting of the All-Wales Convention Steering Group of Plaid and Labour MPs and AMs to the 1921 Irish Treaty negotiations between Lloyd George and Arthur Griffith that led directly to the creation of an Independent Irish State.

I am not sure if the Labour members of the steering group will see it in the same way.

End of the road for Nick Bourne?

One of the highlights of the Assembly elections was a stunt pulled by ITV Wales in which they took lifesize cardboard cut out photographs of each of the Assembly group leaders on the road and asked people to post messages and questions on them.

When we arrived at the Politician of the Year Awards last night these four cut outs were standing around the reception area. Although I had long left by then I am told that by the end of the evening there was an attempt to acquire the cut out of Nick Bourne.

Alas in the struggle to recover Nick Bourne's alter ego the head of the cut out was knocked off and is now hanging by a thread. No one is sure whether emergency surgery will be attempted. I am told that at least one AM has apologised to the Tory leader for his part in this little jape, just in case Nick took it personally.

More Awards

Last night I attended the ITV Wales Yearbook Politician of the Year awards at Cardiff City Hall. All of the great and the good were there and the awards themselves hit all the right notes. They were gender balanced, geographically spread and every party was represented amongst the winners.

Ieuan Wyn Jones was the overall winner once more, but the night really belonged to Lord Roberts of Conwy, who was given a Lifetime Achievement Award. He served as a Welsh Office Minister for fifteen and a half years in the Thatcher era and was responsible for all the major advances in Welsh language legislation.

The only bum note of the evening was struck by Peter Hain, who delivered one of the most misjudged keynote speeches I have ever heard from a senior politician. Instead of entering into the spirit of the occasion, Mr. Hain was partisan and personal, attempting to make a series of lame and outdated jokes about each of the winners.

He described the air service to Anglesey as Ieuan Air, to Adam Price MP and Western Mail Chief Reporter, Martin Shipton, as the Laurel and Hardy of Welsh politics and made some allusion to campaigning with one of the winners and his wife, whilst trying to avoid horizontal rain and his compatriot's old girlfriends. He also made a joke at his own expense, telling us that one of the judges had been in charge of fundraising when he had been put on trial for a bank robbery he did not commit as a Young Liberal. There had been no worries about declaring donations in those days he told us.

To be honest it most probably looked better on paper, but by the end of the speech most people there were glad it was over. It was the main talking point once the dinner had finished. I do not know how much of the speech will be televised but if you get the chance watch it or tape it on Thursday night. The programme may also be available on the ITV Wales website in due course along with past Waterfront programmes.

Update: I have been reminded by another shocked on-looker of a joke in which Mr. Hain noted the award of 'AM to watch' by commenting that he had always thought that that was Laura Anne Jones. He also referred to Ieuan Wyn Jones' recent trip to India. He suggested that the Deputy First Minister had brought back some recipes because Helen Mary Jones is partial to a good conspiratorial curry.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


This is all very predictable stuff but what else is there to do? The budget motion this afternoon has 19 tabled amendments, only one makes a suggestion as to an alternative way forward. The Welsh Liberal Democrats have asked that new commitments in the One Wales programme be postponed in order for the Government to focus on core services.

The problem is that the budget is so vague that it is difficult to pin down specific commitments within it and that makes it very hard to be more constructive. It is also the case that this is the Government's budget and it should not be the role of opposition to recast it for them.

As the debate is on a draft budget then it is perfectly legitimate to seek to set a direction of travel rather than specifically amend particular lines of expenditure. I expect the debate to be as partisan and as bad tempered as every other time we have discussed this matter. The real fight however, will be out in local communities and on the doorsteps in the run-up to May's Council elections.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Councillors unlimited

I have just caught up with the recommendations of the 'Independent Councillors Commisssion'. What a load of nonsense. On past form however, the real worry has to be that some of these off-the-wall ideas will be accepted by Government Ministers just so that they can justify the exercise and because they have form in constantly fiddling with local government management and organisation.

When this report lands on Hazel Blears' desk she would be well-advised to treat it with extreme caution. Labour should have learnt by now that sometimes it is better to leave things alone rather than implement ill-thought out and misguided reforms. This is one of those times.

So what is being proposed? Well firstly, they want to pay Councillors more and offer a pay-off to those who lose their seats. That would be very difficult to defend in the present financial climate. Such a scheme would need to be justified in terms of extra workload and responsibility, yet the Government is intent on concentrating power in fewer hands and emasculating the freedom of local Councils to act differently.

Secondly, they want to introduce a national framework for allowances for councillors with minimum levels according to size and type of authority but with powers for Local Authority Standards Committees to suspend and claw back part of the basic allowance when councillors measurably fail to fulfil their role description. It sounds good but where do the voters figure in this? Surely they are the ones who determine the job description of their elected representatives. How can this be divorced from the political process? We have already seen the standards framework being used to persecute individual Councillors for petty political reasons, what is to say this mechanism will not be used in the same way?

Thirdly, the Commission want to introduce incentives to vote in local elections such as offering entry to a free lottery. Talk of dumbing down. If they really want to improve the engagement between local Councils and their electors then they need to actually empower people, give them a greater say in the decision-making process in their own area and ensure that when they vote the outcome reflects how they have collectively cast their ballot.

Fourthly, they want to set up a dedicated fund from public money for political parties to spend at local level for projects to improve the recruitment, training and selection of candidates linked to enhancing diversity of local councillors. If you are going to publicly fund political parties then say so, don't hide it behind fancy schemes.

They also want public service broadcasters to fulfil their remit to facilitate civic understanding, including better coverage of local government and to introduce changes to the "far-reaching" restrictions that prevent council employees standing as councillors or engaging in political activity. If you want better to educate people then you have to do it yourself. That is not the role of broadcasters and other media. They are there to give people the news, to entertain and to make a profit. Trying to change that by giving them a remit smacks just a little of manipulation.

As for changing the rules on political restriction, I would need to see the details. However, they are there for a reason and that is to protect the impartiality of officers who give advice to Councillors. Fiddle with that at your peril.

Finally, there is the big one, term limits on Councillors. Why just Councillors? Why not MPs as well? Could it be that Parliament would not tolerate such a reform? It is for the voters to determine when a Councillor has gone on too long, not some artificially imposed rule that has no regard to the individual circumstances of the community or individual concerned.

There is also the nonsense of abolishing by-elections. How can you argue on one hand that you want Councils to engage with voters and then on the other deny them a say in who represents them. Again the test must be whether such a reform would be considered acceptable for Parliament. I think not. It is bizarre and anti-democratic. It should not even be given the time of day.

Of course out of 61 recommendations there must be some that make sense. I would support lowering the voting age to 16 for example. I would also support promoting the role of councillors and the enhanced skills they bring to workplaces to employers and compensation for small businesses whose employees have to be absent from work for councillor duties. However, I am afraid that the commonsense ideas will be lost amongst the headline grabbing batty ones.

Normally, one would rely on Ministers to sort the wheat from the chaff. My fear however is that they and their civil servants have demonstrated again and again that they do not understand how local democracy works and that they believe they can use Councils as a testing ground for some really silly proposals. When that happens it is local services that suffer, along with the confidence of the electorate in their Councillors and their Council. That is a sure-fire way to damage our democracy. Surely it is time that we said enough is enough.

No vote campaign gets underway?

Today's Western Mail asks whether a embryonic 'No' vote campaign is being put together by Labour activists in their valley strongholds in preparation for the anticipated referendum on full law-making powers for the Welsh Assembly.

Their evidence is a leaflet being distributed in the Islwyn constituency, which claims that more powers will mean another 20 Assembly members in addition to the present 60.

Plaid Cymru have demanded that the local MP, Don Touhig and AM, Irene James, distance themselves from the effort, but so far there appears to be no movement in that direction from either of them.

Despite all this bluster by the nationalists they really cannot be that surprised about this development. It was inevitable that opponents of more powers would start to organise at some time. What is astonishing is that some Plaid Cymru activists seem to believe that the One Wales agreement allows them to dictate to their Labour allies how to conduct their internal affairs.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Christmas cheer

An alternative view of a well-known Christmas story.

Oh, Jonathan!

From the Wales on Sunday:

A political row erupted over Henson’s train shame last night after the Shadow Health Minister stepped in to defend the star.

Jonathan Morgan – who has spoken out against binge-drinking in the past – said it was the player’s “own business what he gets up to”.

Hard drinking was part of the culture of the Welsh game, he said.

Mr Morgan said: “Of course, it does set a bad example but no more than anybody else in the public eye.

“We can’t escape the fact it can have an effect on young people that he’s caused that level of destruction. But it’s very easy to condemn people like that.

“If you look at the tradition of rugby in Wales there’s a very strong drinking culture in Welsh rugby. You can’t blame him for falling into that particular trap.

“It’s based on the fact you went out on a Saturday and played, then went out afterwards and got completely legless. Other countries see it in a far more athletic way than we do and maybe that’s the thing we should be addressing.”

Rugby players were no worse than politicians when it came to binge-drinking, he said.

“We all know politicians have a habit of drinking quite a lot and I know quite a few of them, not that I’ve ever been in a position such as Gavin Henson.”

But his comments appeared to fly in the face of an outspoken attack on Labour in August when he attacked its policy on binge-drinking.

Then, he said: “Binge drinking and alcohol-related crime has spiralled out of control under Labour.

“People must also take responsibility for their own actions and the impact it has on others.”

Tell it to the train passengers, Jonathan.

Plain English

From the Observer:

Tony Palmer, who has won more than 40 awards including Baftas, Emmys and, uniquely, the Prix Italia twice, criticised the director-general after the BBC turned down a documentary of his. The film, about English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, has been produced by Five instead.

Palmer said he received an extraordinary rejection letter from a BBC commissioning editor explaining that, 'having looked at our own activity via the lens of find, play & share', it had been decided the film did not fit with 'the new vision for [BBC] Vision'.

Bizarrely, Palmer said, the letter concluded: 'But good luck with the project, and do let me know if Mr. V. Williams has an important premiere in the future as this findability might allow us to reconsider.' Vaughan Williams died in 1958.

Give those people a plain English award.

Spending priorities

Labour Government spending priorities came into sharp focus last night when the Prime Minister and his Chancellor blocked a £725m rescue package for 125,000 workers who lost pension rights when their employers went bust or wound up their schemes.

It seems that Labour are able to find £25 billion to bail out Northern Rock bank, a loan that is increasing by £3 billion a week, without any guarantees that the taxpayer will get its money back, but when it comes to stumping up £725m to allow the 125,000 workers to enjoy the same rights as people who are protected by the more generous 2005 Pension Protection Fund they back off.

What makes the decision even more mean-spirited is the estimate by Works and Pensions Secretary, Peter Hain, that the government could escape with paying out only £350m over 60 years if it does not buy annuities.

Merry Christmas to you too, Mr. Brown.


I always look forward to Matt Withers' Spin Doctor column in the Wales on Sunday. His coruscating wit is often the most readable part of that paper.

This week he has highlighted an unfortunate stray apostrophe on a Mike German press release. Matt writes:

“IT’S a poor government that can’t get it’s (sic) own plans right,” said Lib Dem leader Mike German last week in a press release regarding the Assembly Government’s proposed plans for school transport legislation.

Yep. And it’s a poor party leader that can’t get elementary punctuation right. ITS own plans, Mike. Back to school, by transport of your own choice.

My favourite Mike German typo relates to a press release he put out at the end of November. Writing about Council plans to demolish the swimming baths in Blaenavon, the missive started as follows:

'Following the news that Torfaen Council are moving closer to demolition, local AM Mike German has issued an urgent call to save Blaenavon swimming poo.'

I am surprised Matt missed that one.

Saturday, December 08, 2007


I have just been catching up with this week's Waterfront programme on ITV Wales. I was intriqued by two items.

Firstly, there was David Cameron, who was quite emphatic that Tory policy is made by the Shadow Cabinet and him. What do they hold conferences for then? The Tory leader also put some clear blue water between himself and the Conservative Assembly Group by opposing the devolution of further primary law-making powers to Wales.

Secondly, there was a discussion about the respective expenditure of Labour and Plaid Cymru during the Assembly elections. We were solemnly informed that both parties had exceeded £250,000 by spending huge sums on precisely the sort of things that voters say they do not like, leaflets and phone canvassing. Well, how do these journalists expect us to get our message across in a cost effective way then?

Voters may find being contacted by politicians in this way a nuisance but they also complain when we don't do it. Journalists should leave the campaigning to us and we will let them get on with producing their TV programmes.

The next decade is ours

Martin Kettle will be the toast of Liberal Democrats everywhere this morning following his astute and insightful Guardian column.

Mr. Kettle argues that we are at a 'tipping point' in British politics. This was the year, he says, that was supposed to revitalise Labour but as it comes to a close, the government's standing is as low as it ever was under Blair. 'In one recent poll Labour's support was down to 27%, worse than even at the 1983 general election. Brown has the whole thing to do all over again - and popularity is harder to win the second time around. With economic uncertainty beginning to bear down on the government, the commonsense conclusion has to be that Labour's era of ascendancy is now drawing to a close.

This is not to say that Labour is incapable of either mounting some sort of recovery in the spring or sustaining it. Even the most confident Tories recognise that it will be hard to sustain the assault on the Brown government at the level of intensity of the past two months. Similarly, there is no iron law that says governments cannot renew themselves even when they have been in office for many years. But where is the evidence that it is happening? Most of the evidence points in the opposite direction.'

He argues that, shorn of its ideological base, Labour will find it much more difficult to recover from an election defeat than it did in 1979. In contrast and partly because of Labour's difficulties, he believes that the next decade could be one of fresh opportunities - and maybe also false dawns - for the liberal tradition in British politics:

This may seem a cavalier claim to make at a time when the Liberal Democrats are struggling in the mid-teens of public support and when the party is subjecting a less than wholly galvanised public to a second leadership election in less than two years. Nevertheless, if Labour really is now facing defeat, the way may be opening not just for a stronger than expected Lib Dem performance in the next election but even, during the coming decade, for its long-sought breakthrough at the expense of the two larger parties.

He concludes: 'Ten years ago, Blair's strategy and broad appeal held out the prospect of a new Labour party that could unite and speak for both the social justice and the liberal traditions in British progressive life. It did not happen. Instead, Labour consciously chose to spurn the liberal tradition, not just over civil liberties, but over issues stretching from foreign policy to the hunting ban.

The next 10 years will be full of temptations and dilemmas for that broad centrist majority of British voters who want to combine economic efficiency with social justice, individual liberty and internationalism. All three parties will be striving to speak for them. In the face of Labour's record and the Conservatives' history, though, this ought to be the Liberal Democrat decade. Alex Salmond has shown how an outsider party can capture the agenda in Scotland. The next phase of British politics depends on whether Clegg or Huhne can give the Lib Dems a similarly ruthless sense of mission and achievement.'

The ultimate question

OK, it may be a little late to point this out, but if 42 really is the answer then what is the question? Has anybody asked the mice?

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Friday, December 07, 2007

Another case of the wrong data in the wrong postbag

This sort of carelessness amongst Government departments is starting to become endemic. These are not victimless mistakes either. The sort of data that has been wrongly sent out to 1,215 drivers is precisely what is required to enable identity theft.

It may have been human error but the impression being given is that across all government departments there are systemic faults that need correcting urgently.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

BBC Wales' Politician of the Year Awards

At least one person is unhappy at the outcome of BBC Wales' AM PM Politician of the Year Awards.

I was shortlisted for Communicator of the Year, an award I won last year. This year the clear and deserved winner of that title was Adam Price MP. The full list of winners is here.

By the book

It was inevitable I suppose that Carwyn Jones' textbook would be mentioned when he answered questions as Counsel General yesterday and so it came to pass. The book by the way for those of you who are curious is "Constitutional and Administrative Law" by Bradley and Ewing.

First up was Eleanor Burnham who asked: 'Having been tickled by your textbook, Counsel General, I wonder whether it tells you how to prioritise your advice on the constitutional custard through which we are all swimming, as was referred to by my colleague, Paul. Does it also tell you how the Westminster Government can facilitate the progress of legislative competence Orders so that we can bring about some constructive Measures that are made in Wales?'

Carwyn made it clear that he was willing to share his knowledge but not it seems when it comes to answering the questions: 'I bring many books into this Chamber, and they are all law books. I would be willing to share with anyone in the Chamber Judicial Remedies in Public Law, or Human Rights Law and Practice, or any book that enables me to provide the advice to my colleagues that they would expect.'

Jenny Randerson followed up with, 'I am sure that your constitutional textbook will refer to the tradition that Member proposed legislation, in general, be regarded as being non-party political. Do you agree that that is a good tradition that we should continue here, and that we should not encourage voting along party-political lines in relation to Member proposed legislation at the first stage of its introduction?'

And then there was Mick Bates:
'Does your textbook have a chapter on ambition? There are currently eight Bills before Parliament that contain no framework powers for Wales, and, therefore, I put it to you that you have missed an opportunity. Would you agree that your Government is being far too timid in putting forward bids for Welsh legislation via the direct route, and that it will ultimately lead to a pile-up of legislation that disappoints the aspirations of the Members in this Chamber and of this country?'

I did ask Carwyn afterwards to what extent he needs to rely on his own knowledge to do the job and how much he can rely on his advisors. After all, as Darren Millar pointed out, t
he number of legal advisers employed by the Welsh Assembly Government has increased by more than 130 per cent over the past four years. The answer I got was that as Counsel General he needs to be able to interpret the advice he gets and relay it in plain English to his colleagues. So that is fair enough then. I expect him to bring a lot more books to the chamber in the future.


We are well used to some millionaires and multinational corporations exploiting loopholes so as to avoid paying tax, indeed there is a whole industry built around the facilitation of such aims. Her Majesty's Revenue, Customs and Excise has even joined in such practices by selling its offices to an off-shore company and then leasing them back. However, this article in the Guardian is the first sign of a similar attempt by political parties to exploit so-called loopholes in the Political Parties Elections and Referendum Act.

They report that Labour officials helped lawyers acting for David Abrahams to draw up complex covenants that allowed him to pay up to £650,000 indirectly to the party. They say that the arrangement, which was set up four years ago, was regarded as a "loophole" that allowed Abrahams to lawfully pay the money and remain unidentified:

Sources close to the party say the officials are said to have taken legal advice from Labour solicitors and sought approval from other senior party members. Lord Triesman, who was general secretary at the time, has categorically denied that he had any knowledge of the agreement.

Under the arrangement, Abrahams is said to have covenanted the money to his close associates and fellow company directors Janet Kidd, Ray Ruddick and McCarthy, the solicitor.

They then used the cash to donate to the Labour party in their own names. It is understood that Labour officials were well aware that the arrangement exploited what they believed was a loophole in Labour's recently passed legislation, the 2000 Political Parties Act, so as not to reveal Abrahams' identity.

In the words of a Labour insider, the two officials were then "given the job of shepherding the cash", aware that the arrangement was technically legal, even though it went against the spirit of the legislation which is to ensure transparency for all donations to political parties.

The article goes on to say that 'according to sources, the reason for the covenant or bond was to ensure that Abrahams' associates only used the money paid to them for the purpose that he intended.

He also wanted to ensure that neither he nor his associates would have to pay tax on what were technically personal gifts to his associates. Abrahams' office said it would not comment on the disclosures.'

If this is true then it must surely make things worse for the Labour Party. Accepting illegal donations is one thing, but to have allegedly acted so as to exploit a possible loophole in a law of their own making is quite another.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

What are ID cards for?

The Guardian has more on the evidence of the information commissioner, Richard Thomas, to the House of Commons justice select committee yesterday and in particular his views on ID cards:

He claimed the government remained confused about the role of identity cards, and accused ministers of putting too much faith in the value of information sharing.

Richard Thomas said: "Any massive collection of information like the identity card carries risk ... We still have some uncertainties about what the primary purpose of the identity card is ... Is it to improve policing, to fight terrorism, to improve public services, to avoid identity theft? I think there is a lot of thinking still to be done on its primary purpose."

He added: "Keeping this massive database with records of every time the card is swiped through a terminal is distinctly unattractive and would increase the risks."

He also questioned whether information on ID cards needed to be kept indefinitely. He disclosed that a stream of organisations in the public and private sectors had come to his office "on a confessional basis" in recent weeks to reveal that they had problems with losing data.

It seems that it is not just the government who are confused as to what ID cards are for.


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