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Thursday, January 31, 2008

More Plaid u-turns?

Alwyn Ap Huw suggests that Elfyn Llwyd's reluctance to support a referendum on full-law making powers for the Assembly in 2011 is not so much a u-turn as a bend in the road. Well it is a pretty sharp bend, almost 180 degrees in fact.

The future of devolution

The new Secretary of State for Wales told us yesterday that cutting the number of Welsh MPs to reflect the post-devolution age would be “bonkers”. It is a point of view I suppose and certainly one that will continue to secure Mr.Murphy the support of other Welsh Labour MPs.

However, how realistic is such a stance in a future Wales which has a law-making Parliament of equal stature to that of Scotland's? Why do we need so many politicians when AMs will be able to pass domestic laws currently debated and voted on by MPs?

In Scotland it was accepted that the role of their MPs had been changed significantly by the creation of a Scottish Parliament and as a result they cut the number of politicians they send to Westminster. It is my view that we will have to make a similar choice.

If we are to go into a referendum campaign asking the people of Wales to approve full-law making powers for the Welsh Assembly then we will need an answer to the question of what will happen to our present MPs. It will not be good enough to pretend that we can maintain some form of status quo when Scotland has taken another route. To attempt to do so will undermine the credibility of any 'yes' campaign.

Paul Murphy can give reassurances to his colleagues for now but there will come a time when he has to face up to the reality of further devolution, then we will see who is on which side.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The green agenda

In his blog today Adam Price MP says that "The beauty of being-in-government is that ideas can become reality, and that reality in turn reshapes our ideas." He is not wrong. Since entering government Plaid Cymru have changed their mind on a number of key policies, voting against them in Plenary.

Those u-turns, on local income tax, nuclear power, proportional voting for local government and ID cards, have not come about because these policies are impractical but because of a sense of misplaced loyalty to their Labour partners.

In seeking to understand Plaid Cymru's latest dilemma we need to remember some of their history. Ever since Cynog Dafis took Ceredigion in partnership with the Greens, the nationalists have sought to portray themselves as a pro-environment party. Unfortunately, that image has not survived their first brush with power.

As Transport Minister, Plaid Cymru's leader is supporting plans to turn the A494 in North Wales into an effective motorway, he is promoting the M4 extension around Newport through the Gwent levels and five SSSIs and he also personally supports nuclear power. Now the Western Mail has highlighted another failure on the part of the Assembly's sustainability agenda, the lack of support for local bus services.

They tell us that bus passengers face service cuts and higher fares because the Welsh Government is adding 10% to fuel bills. Two Pembrokeshire services have already been axed while fares in North-East Wales have twice increased by 8% in three months. The problem is that fuel duty is increasing by 4p per litre, spread over two stages – last October and in April this year. English bus operators were compensated for the 2p rise last autumn, but the Welsh Government decided to withhold the rebate that is payable to public transport operators to offset this tax in Wales. The paper outlines some of the consequences of this action:

Stagecoach in South Wales, which operates across Gwent and the Valleys, said the first 2p rise would add £175,000 to its fuel bill over a year.

Swansea-based First Cymru said the rise would cost it more than £190,000, which would double with April’s rise.

“It will cost operators millions of pounds, if you add up across Wales,” said Justin Davies, First Cymru’s managing director.

His company would have to raise fares or withdraw services.

“At a time when we’re trying to promote public transport and I think the WAG is trying to produce a transport policy, it seems to be perverse to be tipping over in the opposite direction.”

The WAG’s fuel-price increase could hit rural areas especially. Richards Brothers, which operates 65 buses in Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion, has already withdrawn local services and will look for other potential savings.

“We’ve cut back two journeys in the evening in Fishguard, because of the rising costs,” said partner Malcolm Richards.

Lewis y Llan, which provides council-funded buses across rural Anglesey, could surrender contracts and cancel services.

Managing director Tony Lewis, whose fuel bill stands to rise by £7,000 a year, said, “We worked out a price and our profit margin for the contracts. We expected the fuel duty to be constant.”

Gareth Davies of Wrexham- based GHA Coaches said, “In the past the rebate has gone up automatically, and 2p on a litre makes a lot of difference.

“The only way to claw that back is to put the fares up, which is a last resort because it can scare passengers away. We’ve had to put them up twice in the last three months, by 8% each time, just for the diesel costs.

“The more the fares go up, the more the average fare goes up and the more the WAG have to pay out on the free passes.

“Passengers are the ones who will lose out. They will pay more and services could be cut.”
John Gould, managing director of Stagecoach in South Wales, said the situation was unprecedented. “This is why operators haven’t anticipated the extra cost. We may have to bring forward our September fares rise.”

What makes the decision even more perverse is the fact that the Welsh Government themselves will take a hit, paying more for pensioners’ free travel under a formula based on average bus fares. These are not the actions of a green minister.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Listening on the telephone

Interesting piece in The Times today regarding proposals to allow material gained from phone taps to be used as evidence in the courts. They tell us that in his annual report, Sir Paul Kennedy, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, highlights how the fight against terrorism has been aided by the interception of communications:

But he said he believed that any change in the law allowing evidence from phone taps to be produced in court would be “heavily outweighed” by the disadvantages.

“I have been impressed during my first nine months in office by how interception has contributed to a number of striking successes,” he said, but added: “At present, I am firmly of the opinion that the benefits of any change in the law are heavily outweighed by the disadvantages and with one exception, everyone to whom I have spoken seems to be of the same opinion.”

It will be interesting to see what impact this judgement has on consideration of the Counter Terrorism Bill and proposals to extend detention without charge to 42 days.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Family Affairs

Fair play, the Tories have found a solution to student debt. Just one problem, it is only available to a small number of people and the loophole has just be closed off.


The Government's intentions with regards to ID cards were called into question yesterday when the Sunday People reported on a leaked document that young drivers are to be forced to have an ID card when they apply for their first licence:

The secret document from the Identity and Passport Service is headed: "Options analysis - outcome."

It says: "Various forms of coercion, such as designation of the application process for identity documents issued by UK ministers (eg passports) are an option to stimulate applications in a manageable way.

"There are advantages to designation of documents associated with particular target groups, eg young people who may be applying for their first driving licence." The report says "universal compulsion should not be used unless absolutely necessary" because of the ID controversy.

As Shami Chakrabarti, director of the human rights group Liberty, says in this morning's Guardian: "So much for a voluntary scheme ... compulsion is the ultimate ambition of this scheme and it can be achieved by stealth without the need for further parliamentary debate."


Sunday, January 27, 2008

On the interweb

As previously reported I took part in an e-government conference in the Welsh Assembly a few weeks ago, where I outlined some of the political initiatives being taken by myself and others on the internet in an effort to involve more people and to communicate more effectively.

Like other politicians I am on Facebook and try to use it partly as a political site, posting speeches, articles and blog entries as well as details of how to contact me and links to surgery times, but also as a social networking site. For example I have recently resurrected my long past chess career by playing on-line with Facebook friends. However, I doubt if I will ever have the application or the time to hit the heights of 1979 again, occasionally playing board six in Swansea University's West Wales Championship winning side.

The best example I have found of the effective use of Facebook is by a Liberal Democrat Councillor in Swansea. Councillor Peter May represents Uplands on the local Council, which has a very high concentration of student residents. This has led to the usual complaints about the loss of family homes to HMOs, noise nuisance, indiscriminate parking, rubbish being left out on the wrong day and overgrown gardens etc.

Peter has responded to this by systematically inviting as many of his constituents he can find to be his Facebook friend. He has set up a Facebook group entitled 'Students living out in Brynmill and Uplands' and he has recruited to date, 339 members for that group. Members receive regular messages giving them advance warning of refuse and recycling collections, offering to get them green recycling bags and kitchen waste bins, giving them the mobile phone numbers of the local police officers and offering assistance with clearing up the gardens in the houses they live in so that they might enjoy them in the better weather. With any luck this approach will have an impact in improving the quality of life for all who live in those communities.

Meanwhile Facebook group of the week has to be this one from Canada. 'Adorable kittens for Electoral Reform' seeks to use the 'aawww' factor to win converts to its cause. They tell us that:

Time is running out to make the case for Mixed Member Proportional (Meow Meow Purr) in Ontario. Here are a few strategies leading up to Wednesday's referendum day:

1. Mark your territory. Display a Vote for MMP sign. Wear an MMP button. If you can't get an official one, make your own.

2. Rub up against peoples' legs. Or, if you're not comfortable doing that, just talk to everyone you know about the pressing need for electoral reform. It's OK to talk about it over Thanksgiving dinner, or while you "carve the bird".

3. Scratch people who are spreading lies about MMP. The opponents of MMP know that people will support it if they understand it. So, they're telling lots of lies about how it will work to try to confuse voters. It's time to bare your claws in letters-to-the editor and radio call-in shows. You don't necessarily have to draw blood, but let them know that you aren't happy with their misinformation campaign.

4. Use your cuteness. Invite everyone on your Friends List to join this group. We need to use every ounce of cuteness that we have in the cause of electoral reform.

It has 702 members and 50 photos of cats.

Taking a pay cut

Conservative Home reports that most Tory candidates expect to see their income fall if they are elected to Parliament. Seventy Two prospective Conservative MPs answered their survey on the financial consequences of entering the Commons and of being a candidate and 55% of them said they would lose money if they won. My heart bleeds.

More interestingly, when asked if they plan to pursue other financial interests if they became an MP, 21% said yes and 29% had not yet made up their mind. Perhaps these candidates should tell their prospective constituents of their intention not to represent them full time if they become an MP.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Oops, not another one?

Guido Fawkes draws our attention to a news report on Sky that alleges that Alan Johnson accepted cash for his Deputy Leadership campaign through a proxy. The Guardian website has more here.

A comment on Guido Fawkes' site suggests that "Gordon Brown should call all of the candidates into a room and say: You have 48 hours to admit any mistakes you've made, and to make a clean breast of it. If you do that, you may - may - survive - in your job. If anything comes to light afterwards, even so much as £10, you will be fired and I will start wheels in motion for you to be deselected as an MP."

Reading the details it seems that the Alan Johnson situation is nowhere near as drastic as that which faced Peter Hain, however goodness only knows what other allegations will emerge. It does not look good for the Brown government.

Where now for party funding?

Tomos Livingstone tells us in today's Western Mail that party funding is unfinished business, and that if the Hain affair has one consequence it should be to force the parties back around the table to hammer out a better deal on reforming campaign finance. Alas, his otherwise insightful column offers little by way of solutions.

Tomos is right that the Electoral Commission needs some other means of administering a reprimand to scatter-brained but not corrupt MPs, however that does not solve the immediate problem of how to divorce politics and the decision-making process from those who fund it, if indeed that is what we want to do.

The ideal of course is mass membership parties paid for by subscriptions, but those days are long gone. As a result all political parties are forced to cast around for big donors, many of whom want something in return for their largesse, even if it is just the opportunity to have a drink with the party leader. Regardless of whether that assumption is true or not it is still the public perception and that leads to the creation of a downward spiral of mistrust, alienation, declining memberships and the search for more donors.

In recent years state support for political parties has increased quite substantially, but all of that money is specifically targeted at areas such as Parliamentary support or policy making. When it comes to campaigning the strain on finances is huge as ever-more expensive techniques are invented and pursued. As a result, everybody is casting around for cash.

A cap on donations may be one way forward if a level playing field can be created, but as with all rules ways will be found around them. Such a measure does nothing to help smaller parties compete either and could well entrench existing political battle lines at a time when the electorate is moving away from them.

It seems to me that if we are to dispel the idea that influence is being bought once-and-for-all then we need to force parties to reduce their expenditure on campaigning through stricter spending limits, draconian restrictions on donations and increased state funding for all. That may produce a more level contest but will it be acceptable to voters?

The demon drink

It is likely that the current vilification of Ken Livingstone, and in particular the suggestion that he has a drink problem, is part of a general smear campaign designed to derail his mayoral campaign, however his excuses do give rise to further questions.

In this Guardian article, Mr. Livingstone says that he was drinking whisky at 10am during a GLA scrutiny session, so as to help him 'fend off a cold'. Would this excuse be considered acceptable if an ordinary GLA employee was caught drinking whisky at 10am whilst in the office?

Just thought I would ask.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Caption Competition

The Government were determined to get their own way over MPs' pay.

Fantasy politics?

The Presiding Officer has gone on the offensive today to defend the mechanisms contained within the Government of Wales Act and to rubbish those who say that the process of accumulating new powers is not fit for purpose and is not working:

Lord Elis-Thomas denied that a crisis broke out this week when the Assembly Government agreed to redraft legislation concerning vulnerable children at the request of London. It will make it clear it will not use new powers in this area to seek a smacking ban.

Speaking in his Assembly office, the Presiding Officer said debate between Cardiff and London formed a key part of the law-making process and should not come as a surprise.

He said, “The assumption that because there is a discussion democracy isn’t working is, to me, turning the truth on its head. Because there is discussion, because there is debate, it shows we are growing in influence as law-makers here. And what I want us to be are happy and progressive law-makers, not looking over our shoulder saying, ‘Oh, they’re not going to let us do it.’

He condemned this response as “a kind of infantile view of politics and constitutions”, saying, “It’s growing-up time.”

His particular frustration is targeted at commentators convinced the system by which Cardiff Bay can request new powers from Westminster is failing.

“For goodness sake, the system has been at it for three months,” he said. “We’re not going to get another Government of Wales Act – we’ve had two already. How are we going to win a referendum – assuming that is the intention of these people who say we need to have more powers and the system isn’t working? In my book, the way we get there is by showing we are capable of legislating.

Despite this it is difficult not to draw the conclusion that the expectations of pro-devolutionists are being thwarted by the Act. The new Secretary of State for Wales has just contradicted the PO by saying on the radio that recent 'negotiations' have taken place during a "rocky period", whilst a look back through the newspaper clippings reveal that even Dafydd Elis-Thomas' own expectations of the process have not been met.

He told the Western Mail on 21 November 2006 that the Assembly will be putting forward 18 pieces of new legislation in the first year of its new incarnation. In fact we have managed five legislative competence orders and one measure, none of which have yet completed their passage to full approval, a testament to the extraordinarily lengthy and difficult process set down by the Act. Is it any wonder that people are getting frustrated?

The Act may be working to some people's expectations but that does not disguise the fact that it was a compromise to stifle internal dissent within the Labour Party and that as such it was designed to allow Parliament to set its own pace in advancing the devolution process. The full Parliament envisaged by the vast majority of Assembly Members is dependent on the good will of the Government and of MPs who are currently seeking to restrict our room for manoeuvre on the few modest proposals we have put forward so far.

We may be growing in influence as law-makers but that progress is painfully slow and there is no sign soon that it will pick up any pace whatsoever. My problem is not only that the Government of Wales Act is acting as a brake on our expectations but also that the Presiding Officer has scaled back his own ambitions in response.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

When crystal balls fail

Conservative Assembly Member, Mark Isherwood started off his contribution to the debate on Welsh GVA yesterday by declaring emphatically that Gordon Brown's career as a serious politician was over. A few minutes later he suggested that Rhodri Morgan was also finished as a serious politician. Curiously there was no mention of Peter Hain.

Planning for the Welsh language

The BBC report this morning that Ceredigion County Council have criticised for granting planning applications from Welsh speakers despite advice to reject them:

It came after Ceredigion councillors approved three applications against the advice of planners which were later rejected by the assembly government.

The assembly government's planning inspector said it was "discriminatory" to grant plans on a language basis.

But one planning committee member said it was trying to protect communities.

The incident came to light when one of the three approved applications was called in by the assembly government.

In a subsequent report, planning inspector Ian Osborne said it would be "discriminatory" to grant permission solely on the grounds the applicant was a Welsh speaker.

"Whilst the planning system should take account of the needs and interest of the Welsh language, the fact that the applicant is a local, Welsh-speaking person active in the community does not outweigh the environmental harm," said Mr Osborne.

"Moreover it would be discriminatory to grant permission solely or largely on the grounds that the applicant is Welsh-speaking."

Ceredigion Council's senior planning officer Aled Richards has warned the council's planning committee that it could lose its planning powers if it continued to take decisions that breached regulations.

"We have to take this very seriously," he added.

"What's happening is that time and time again we refer to the fact that the applicant is a local Welsh speaker. We have to look at the application, not the applicant."

But Cllr Lyndon Lloyd who sits on the planning committee said he disagreed with Mr Osborne's comments.

"We have assembly government ministers saying there should be policies in rural areas that rely on positive discretion, and then we have comments from Mr Osborne that seem so rigid," he explained.

"All we're trying to do is stand up for our young people and our communities. There seems to be a lack of awareness of that in Cardiff from the assembly's officials."

Although the treatment of these applications by Councillors appears to be rather perverse there may well be issues that Ministers wish to look at. After all in the past Plaid Cymru have made the linking of planning to the Welsh language a key issue in their campaigning. No doubt their ministers will now want to consider whether they want to revise planning policy guidance to meet the objectives of those Councillors who supported these applications.

Interestingly, the One Wales document is silent on this issue.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Will the shoe fit?

As a Liberal Democrat I have some difficulties with school uniforms. Instinctively, I am drawn to the argument that they suppress individuality by imposing uniformity. However, I also recognise their role in levelling the playing field for many kids whose family could not hope to compete with better off children in the oneupmanship that dominates young people's fashion nowadays.

It is widely acknowledged for example that a child who is not wearing the latest designer labels may well be bullied by his or her peers. It may be best therefore to remove such conflicts from the school playground by requiring a common approach to dress for all pupils in a particular school.

The one thing I am clear on is that this should not be a matter for central government. It should be up to individual schools to decide their own policies taking into account local circumstances and obvious human right issues such as the wearing of necessary religious symbols. That is why I share the concerns of some teaching unions about recent guidance published by the Welsh Assembly Government on school uniforms and specifically the failure of commonsense that seems to have afflicted those who drew it up:

New guidance saying pupils should be allowed to wear trainers to school will encourage bullying and cost parents a fortune, head teachers and pupils warned yesterday.

The Welsh Assembly Government said in new guidance to schools that cheap trainers are better for feet than cut-price shoes and that they encourage young people to be active.

But young people favour fashionable, designer brands and bargain trainers are no better than cheap shoes, critics said.

Anna Brychan, director of the National Association of Head Teachers Cymru, said trainers were often used as a status symbol and teenagers warned that they might be bullied for wearing “the wrong” trainers.

The Welsh Government's attempt to micro-manage this policy from the centre could make things worse and actually increase school bullying.

The World turned upside down (Part Two)

There was a certain irony involved this morning as I listened to a Conservative MP argue on the radio that the Police should be given the right to strike.

They should not need it of course especially if the Government honoured its agreements and paid them their full recommended pay increase.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Smacking ban

In many ways the UK government's decision that new law-making powers for the assembly government to protect vulnerable children should not extend to a complete smacking ban was predictable. They have long made it clear that they consider this matter to be a criminal justice matter and that they believe there is no support for it amongst voters in England and Wales.

Although UK Labour Ministers cannot do much about Scotland, whose Parliament has responsibility for criminal justice anyway, and which has a well-established separate legal system, I suspect that they believe that any weakening on their part with regards to Wales will lead to more devolution than they are prepared to countenance, whilst at the same time undermining their position in England.

That this has become a sticking point was made abundantly clear by the First Minister who said on Sunday that if we want to have the ability to have a measure in the future which will enable us to remove the so-called reasonable chastisement defence against common assault charges - parent to child or parental guardian to child, then the UK Government will not let us have the LCO at all. He has therefore accepted that we need to re-write the legislative order.

Betsan Powys reports on her blog that the responsible Deputy Minister takes a different view. Gwenda Thomas has written to the Chair of the Vulnerable Children and Child Poverty Legislative Competence Order Committee in support of WAG's right to ban slapping:

"You will be aware of recent press reports about the UK government's view that the law regarding physical punishment of children could not be within the Assembly's legislative competence because it relates to criminal law, which is not devolved, and therefore would not primarily relate to any of the fields currently in Schedule 5 of the Government of Wales Act 2006.

The Welsh Assembly Government does not accept this argument. In our view, a power for the Assembly to legislate so as to protect children from harm caused by parents or people with parental responsibilty physically punishing them could relate to an appropriately worded matter in the social welfare field - a field which is in Schedule 5. There is an important distinction between criminal justice in general - which is not devolved - and criminal sanctions, which may or may not be devolved. It is not necessary that the Assembly should have legislative competence in respect of the criminal law generally in order to make provision changing an aspect of the criminal law."

This is of course far more complicated than a straight forward power struggle between two governments. Some may argue that the Assembly should be given the latitude to legislate on all matters within its competence no matter how inconvenient that is for UK Government Ministers. I support that view but in this case, and not withstanding Gwenda's arguments, it seems clear that this does involve a criminal justice matter and that any attempt by us to legislate on it would be pre-empting a discussion we still need to have.

I would like to see the devolution of policing and some related criminal justice matters to Wales but there is no agreement on that issue at any level, least of all in the Government of Wales Act, which was supposed to be Labour's last word on the matter. Perhaps this is one way that the constitutional convention can make itself useful. We have been wondering what it was for. If it can broker deals on grey areas such as this then we might all be spared these arguments in the future.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Looking after our teeth

When Wrexham Labour AM, Lesley Griffiths raised the possibility of adding fluroide to our water in the chamber last week it was a bit of a bolt from the blue. I think everybody had assumed that this issue had been quietly sidelined.

In this morning's Western Mail she expands on that intervention calling for a national debate on the issue. She says: "I believe the scientific case has been made and fluoridation is one important tool that can be used in the prevention of tooth decay among children.

“In my own constituency of Wrexham, for example, research by the British Dental Association disclosed that decayed, missing or filled teeth among five-year-olds was higher than in most other parts of the UK."

That is not an argument for fluoridation, it is an argument for a radical overhaul of our dental services and the public health education that should be attached to them. I cannot better what I wrote on this subject on 1 April 2005:

We are all fond of instant solutions these days and often we will embrace a particular course of action because it seems painless, easy to achieve and most efficacious in every way. The reality is very different, because every action, particularly in the field of medicine, has a reaction.

In large enough doses fluoride is a poison. I read an article sometime ago that argued that fluoride affects the thyroid gland, causing teeth to grow more slowly. This therefore, also delays tooth decay. The author asserted that the real cause of cavities in teeth is the over-consumption of sugar in foods and drinks.

The average person consumes 150 pounds of sugar each year, that is the equivalent of approximately seventy five one kilogram bags or 33 tablespoons each day. Action to reduce the amount of sugar in processed food could have a dramatic effect on tooth decay without adding any unwanted substance to people's diet, but nobody seems to be advocating that.

The author of this article continued by asserting that fluroide suppresses the immune system and affects enzymes, disrupting many body functions. Fluoride poisoning can be seen through headaches, skin rashes, nausea, joint pains, mouth ulcers and allergic type reactions. In the long term it can lead to glaucoma, diabetes, kidney failure, arthritis, osteoporosis, cancer and heart attacks. Infant mortality is increased and I.Q. is impaired. He asserted that the old, the young and the ill are most at risk

Adding fluoride to our water supply is an infringement of our civil liberties. I do not believe that it is the business of government to create a “nanny state”. I believe that people should be able to choose their own lifestyles and the form of medication they receive, not have it administered against their will through their taps.

More data is lost

In the Welsh Liberal Democrat debate on ID cards last week the Labour Social Justice Minister made a curious statement in responding to our points on the issue. He said:

When I saw the topic of this debate, I wondered whether we were going to see something new or different from the Liberal Democrats. Had anything happened since the last time we discussed this matter in 2005 to suggest either that the overall political situation, or that of the Welsh Assembly Government had changed? So far in the contributions, I do not think that the case has been made to justify any requirement to hold this debate because of a change in circumstances. Clearly, the debate covered the many contentious issues surrounding the introduction of ID cards: their effect on terrorism, crime, fraud and identity theft and how effective a mechanism they would be to tackle those particular ills in society, as well as addressing the cost-effectiveness and proportionality of the proposals. However, we have been through all this before, and while it is legitimate to revisit these matters, I did not see a new or novel element being brought to the debate.

As I pointed out at the time what has changed is a substantial loss of public confidence in the project following a period of a few months in which more sensitive government data has gone missing than has ever been admitted to previously. Two items in the newspapers today and yesterday add to that narrative.

Firstly, there is the report in yesterday's Wales on Sunday reporting that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has asked a courier firm to explain how hundreds of documents bearing people’s personal details were found by a motorist scattered in the road. The papers, which were found on Thursday morning on a roundabout and road near Exeter Airport, included incapacity benefit files, others relating to pensions and Jobseeker’s Allowance, bank statements, passport documents and copies of passports.

The second incident is the theft of a Ministry of Defence laptop computer holding the personal details of 600,000 Royal Navy, Royal Marine and RAF recruits, and of other people wanting to join the services. The Guardian tells us that there is concern about the potential threat to the individuals, including Muslims who may have inquired about careers in the military. This has led the MoD to contact the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, Jtac.

The MoD has also contacted the banks of 3,500 individuals whose accounts were listed on the missing database and could now be open to fraud. Data on the computer also included passport details, national insurance numbers, drivers' licence details, family details, doctors' addresses and NHS numbers, the MoD said. The information commissioner, Richard Thomas, has said that he is concerned about the sensitivity of some of the data on the computer, particularly as it related to military personnel.

Can any Government really be entrusted with a National database of the sort envisaged to back up this ID card project? The Government's track record on keeping data safe is bad enough but when one considers the ability of Government departments to ensure that the information they hold on individuals is accurate and up-to-date as well, then the answer to that question has to be a resounding 'no'.


Two-faced Plaid

Plaid Cymru MP, Adam Price, really cannot help himself. Writing in today's Western Mail on the Peter Hain affair, he just had to get in some snide remarks about the Liberal Democrats. Almost as an aside he refers to his spat with Lembit Öpik on Radio Wales last week in which words were exchanged on Plaid Cymru's own problems with the misuse of public money.

Mr. Price suggests that a difference of opinion between Lembit and his frontbench colleague, David Laws over what should happen to Mr. Hain is another example of 'why the Liberal Democrats have earned a reputation for facing both ways on almost every issue.'

What he does not mention is that the Plaid Cymru Party Leader in the Welsh Assembly, Ieuan Wyn Jones, has taken a similar view to Lembit, that the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner's inquiry must be allowed to run its course before we pass judgement on the Welsh Secretary. That is a contrary view to Adam Price.

Is this difference of opinion another example of Plaid Cymru facing both ways on almost every issue? Or is it just an honest difference of opinion between two party colleagues?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Peter's Friends

Writing in this morning's Wales on Sunday, Matt Withers provides a cut-out-and-keep guide to the men who made Peter Hain's Deputy Leadership bid possible. They are:

Neville Allport, the chief executive of finance company Picture Financial Services, which received a glowing endorsement from Mr. Hain in August 2005 for creating 200 jobs. This endorsement is now on their website and appears to be an integral part of their marketing strategy. The company offers to lend people up to 125 per cent of the value of their home (less their outstanding mortgage), something that many other lenders will not consider because of the risk involved. Matt draws attention to a press release put out by Mr. Hain's Work and Pensions Department on 9th January warning that "more than half of people in the UK (55 per cent) spend more than they can afford and are struggling."

Bill Bottriell, is Britain's 798th richest man with an estimated value of £85m. He founded the IT recruitment company, SThree. Matt tells us that Mr. Bottriell still owns nearly 10 per cent of the company, which pays six-figure bonuses to senior staff. Mr. Hain made headlines last year by describing such bonuses as "grotesque" and suggesting that they fuel envy and crime. He received £5,000 from Mr. Bottriell.

Mike Cuddy, is the managing director of the Cuddy Group, a firm Mr. Hain paid tribute to last year after he presented it with a minor health and safety award. Matt tells us that Mr. Cuddy, who spent much of last year locked in a lengthy and costly legal battle with Neath RFC Chairman, Geraint hawkes, gave Mr. Hain a £10,000 donation.

Patrick Head gave £2,000 to the Hain campaign. He was co-founder of the Williams Formula One team and remained technical director for over 25 years.

Isaac Kaye gave £14,600 to Mr. Hain. He is the former Chairman of Norton Healthcare, which was investigated by police looking into an alleged £400m price-rigging of pharmaceuticals sold to the NHS. Two years ago the company made an out-of-court settlement of £13.5m to the NHS after being implicated in a cartel with six other firms. He converted to Blairism after supporting South Africa's Afrikaner-led National Party, a history that appears at odds with Mr. Hain's own anti-apartheid past. Matt tells us that Mr. Kaye was caught up in a 'gifts for influence' scandal in South Africa during the early 1980s, amid claims that doctors were being rewarded with everything from cars and TVs to swimming pool equipment and chandeliers for prescribing drugs made by his firm. He denied any wrong-doing saying that the presents were not an inducement but an appreciation.

Steve Morgan is a Welsh lobbyist who gave £5,000 of his own money to Mr. Hain via the Progressive Policies Forum think-tank. He was brought in by Mr. Hain to run his campaign.

Willie Nagel is a former Conservative supporter who had made large donations in John Major's constituency. Matt tells us that it later emerged that he had tried to interest the Prime Minister in an unmanned aircraft developed by Israel despite the fact there was an embargo on Israeli equipment at the time. He was one of the benefactors of the Progressive Policies Forum, giving a £5,000 donation and a £35,000 interest-free loan.

Elsewhere in the paper Matt reports the praise that Mr. Hain received for his work in helping bring the Ryder Cup to Wales. He tells us about lobbyists, TM Communications who include amongst their clients Newport Networks, a company set up by billionaire Sir Terry Matthews, whose Celtic Manor Resort will be hosting the Ryder Cup. TM donated £1,500 to Mr. Hain's campaign for Labour's deputy leadership.

Despite all this there is very little new in the weekend press on the Peter Hain donations affair, suggesting that he can rest a little easier for now. Well, until the Commons' Standards' Commissioner reports anyway.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

A question of competence

Everybody has had a lot of fun over Gordon Brown's judgement that Peter Hain was 'incompetent' over his failure to register more than £100,000 of donations to his failed deputy leadership campaign, however this morning's Guardian reports on failures on a bigger and far more serious scale.

They tell us that a National Audit Office report to be published next week will say that the Department of Work and Pensions has failed to tackle benefit fraud and errors which are costing taxpayers more than £2.5bn a year.

The report looks at the effectiveness of the ministry's anti-fraud advertising, investigation procedures, data matching with national insurance contributions, national benefit fraud hotline, and prosecutions.

It will highlight the failure to recover millions of pounds from claimants who have fraudulently got benefits or have been paid too much money by mistake. The one glimmer of hope is that recorded fraud appears to be beginning to drop.

In the normal cause of events such a report would be news for a few days before being buried in a Public Accounts Committee investigation. However coming on top of the Secretary of State's current troubles it has turned into yet another stick to beat him with in the hope of forcing his resignation.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Protesting the war

With thanks to Liberal Democrat Voice for drawing this to my attention. This is Tim Ireland's response to the Labour Government’s consultation document on Sections 132 to 138 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005… via YouTube. It is very well done.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Another Plaid u-turn

Plaid Cymru abandoned yet another of their policies yesterday as they continued their love-in with New Labour. They have previously reversed their position on a local income tax and fair voting for local government.

Yesterday Plaid voted against a motion which called on the UK Government to drop plans for compulsory ID cards. They also helped to vote down a motion that noted the incompetence of the UK Government in ensuring the security of individuals’ personal data.

Although I accept that being in a coalition government can limit the room for manoeurve for a political party, I had not realised that the One Wales agreement stretched to encompass Westminster matters. Do the three Plaid Cymru MPs know that they are supposed to toe the UK Labour Government line on such matters.

The votes took place on a Welsh Liberal Democrat motion that called on the Welsh Government not to allow ID cards to be used as a requirement for access to public services in Wales which are within the remit of the Assembly. That motion was passed with unanimous support. My speech on the issue is here.


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Őpik on Hain

Lembit has an article in today's Western Mail justifying his stance yesterday that attacks on Peter Hain are 'a blatant act of foolhardy opportunism'. Although our former Welsh Party leader has some valid points, I cannot help feeling that it is not the best use of an opportunity to contribute 1,000 words to a national newspaper by a Liberal Democrat.

Lembit quite rightly says that we should not prejudge the case against Mr. Hain until the Electoral Commission (and or the Police) and the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner have had an opportunity to conclude their inquiry. He is right, we should not be undermining that process.

Lembit also quite rightly points to the hypocrisy of some of those calling for Peter Hain's head. For example every single Plaid Cymru MP had to pay back to the taxpayer a four-figure sum after it was established that they had used public money for party political purposes. Yet they are the most vocal in calling for the Secretary of State for Wales to resign. There are similar issues regarding the Conservative Party as well. Both may argue that they were following advice but they are not permitting ignorance or inefficiency to be used as an excuse by Peter Hain.

Interestingly, Plaid Cymru are not singing from the same song sheet on this issue. As Vaughan Roderick reports on his blog Ieuan Wyn Jones told the press yesterday that we should await the outcome of investigations into Mr. Hain before judging him. Essentially, the same position that Lembit has adopted.

Despite all of this even Lembit must acknowledge that there is a political perspective that goes beyond the rules of natural justice. For some reason politicians are exempt from such considerations and no matter how hard one tries to change that, the media and the public at large will not play ball.

In this instance there are genuine questions for Mr. Hain to answer about why he used a third party 'think tank' to channel contributions to his campaign and also about the political pedigree of some of the donors. Isn't he even a little bit embarrassed that he received money from somebody who used to support the pro-apartheid National Party in South Africa?

David Cornock on his blog has highlighted a statement made by Mr. Hain in the House of Commons in June 2003 in which he said:

"It is of the greatest importance that the conduct of Members of the House meets, and is seen to meet, the high standards expected by the Wicks committee, and also by our constituents. Lapses, however rare, are very damaging to public confidence in the House and in our parliamentary democracy. If lapses occur, and are not seen to be tackled with sufficient rigour, the effect is many times worse. Our system for regulating standards of conduct must be transparent, fair and effective."

Hain cannot escape public scrutiny for standards that he, himself has set.

The odds are that Peter Hain will survive for now because Gordon Brown cannot afford to lose him, simply because of the knock-on effect a resignation will have on other members of his government whose financial affairs are under question. The two inquiries are quite convenient for him therefore. If Peter Hain is exonerated then he will stay, if he is found guilty of some misdemeanor then there will be an additional factor, which does not apply to the others, that can be used to justify his departure.

In the meantime, no matter how opportunistic it may appear, I can see no harm in keeping the pressure on Mr. Hain and the government on this matter. It is called effective scrutiny and it is what opposition politicians are there to do.

Whose DNA?

Welsh Liberal Democrat MP, Jenny Willott is to be commended for securing three pages of the Western Mail this morning on government DNA policy, including page one. She has also managed to do this without once mentioning the Cheeky Girls.

Jenny is rightly concerned at the fact that one in 10 people in Wales are on the national DNA database after a huge surge in the number of samples taken by the police. Many of the 264,420 on the database are innocent and have never been charged with any offence, but their sample is kept for life. Disturbingly more than 7,155 samples have been taken from under-16 year olds. The annual number of samples taken by Welsh police forces was twice as high in 2006-07 as it was a decade ago.

There is no doubt that advances in DNA technology has helped clear up many crimes and nobody would want to get in the way of that. However, the accumulation of so many profiles is superfluous to this process. The Government has not even made a case as to why they need to retain the information once it has been used for the purpose it was collected for.

Liberty has expressed serious concerns about the scope for errors in the use of the DNA database and possible future abuses of the data. The paper tells us that there is growing concern at the aggressive way in which DNA is collected, especially from people who have committed no crime whatsoever, and the lack of a common approach to requests by innocent members of the public who wish to have their data removed from the computer.

They quote the case of pensioner, Geoffrey Orchard who was told by Dyfed Powys Police that his details would remain on the DNA database, even though the 75 year old received an apology from the force after he was wrongly arrested.

A Libery spokesperson tells the paper that "A smaller, more manageable DNA database of those convicted of serious sexual and violent offences would be a speedier crime-fighting tool and cost less to our purses and our privacy.”

It is difficult to disagree.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


The Assembly Commission hosted an excellent event with NIACE Dysgu Cymru and OFCOM Cymru as part of the Wales Media Literacy Network yesterday afternoon. A good write-up of the event is here.

Big Brother

Those who might still think that a National identity database is a good idea, despite the Government's inability to keep secure the data it already holds, may be given cause to think again by this article.

The Times reports that the FBI is enlisting British law enforcement agencies to set up an international database containing the biometric details of thousands of people. The paper says that the programme, known as Server in the Sky, could result in an unprecedented transatlantic exchange of personal information. Biometric measurements, irises or palm prints as well as fingerprints could be exchanged.

It is one thing having such information on a UK database but to then make it available internationally could pose a number of substantial dangers to individual privacy and safety, not least when the data being held is inaccurate. Let us hope that the Government do not respond to requests for information by posting an unencrypted data disc to the FBI.

Monday, January 14, 2008


Over at BBC Wales, Betsan Powys reveals that today's second meeting of the Establishing Committee of the All-Wales Convention in Cardiff could get interesting.

She tells us that the rumour doing the rounds is that Labour and Plaid Cymru members of the committee have come to radically different conclusions about their remit:

Labour members, I'm told, view the Convention as a neutral body. It may be aimed at paving the way for a 'yes' vote but it's essentially an evidence gathering body, not a campaigning one. Plaid on the other hand see its role as making the case for more powers, a campaigning body to build consensus, not just measure it.

Labour seem to want a smaller Convention, run by an executive. Plaid a more ambitious body, a 'rolling Convention' where the establishing committee would lead the work of a large number of smaller groups right across Wales.

This is hardly going to presage the unravelling of the One Wales' Government but it is certainly a significant test.


The fact that the Government has commited £50 billion of our money to shoring up Northern Rock in an effort to protect their own reputation for economic competence is a scandal. This is especially so because of the additional public cash that has had to be pored into this bank as Ministers resisted calls for its temporary nationalisation.

It now transpires that the Chancellor of the Exchequer may well have conceded the case for the nationalisation of Northern Rock and is in the process of identifying a suitable person to lead it. Ron Sandler, a City heavyweight who was once head of Lloyd’s of London, has been lined up as provisional executive chairman to run the organisation for the Government if it becomes necessary.

Liberal Democrat Shadow Chancellor, Vince Cable, who led calls for the temporary nationalisation of this institution, must be feeling vindicated this morning, even if the government dragged its feet for far too long before conceding that he was right. It is the only course of action left that might protect the taxpayer's interest. The Chancellor should not delay any longer before acting.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Supreme ruler of the universe?

Sunday is becoming a very bad day for my blood pressure especially when I open the paper to find articles like this. The Observer tells us that yesterday Tony Blair launched his campaign to become the first fully-fledged President of the European Union.

My first reaction was who is standing against him and where do I sign up to campaign to prevent this disaster. I had started to draw up canvassing schedules and plan out leaflets in my head. A letter-writing campaign to the papers, followed by a big push on postal voters and a slick telephone canvassing operation must be on the cards I thought. Surely, there is a liberal alternative I can vote for.

Alas, it turns out I do not have a vote, nor do millions of my fellow citizens in Britain or anywhere else in Europe for that matter. It seems that the new-look President will be appointed by EU leaders without any reference to us at all. What a travesty.

I wholeheartedly support my party's position of holding a referendum on Britain's continuing membership of the EU rather than on the proxy issue of its constitution, but even Gordon Brown must realise that appointing Tony Blair as European President will make such a plebiscite very challenging indeed. If we are to remain in the European Union then we need to make it more accountable and democratic, not less.

When columnists lose it

It is my own fault for even reading these columns I suppose but I take the view that if I am going to spend 85p for the Wales on Sunday then I should make the effort to peruse it comprehensively. Thus I stumbled across Angharad Mair's piece this morning.

Now Ms. Mair has a bee in her bonnet about Richard Brunstrom and I perfectly respect her right to vigorously disagree with him on drugs policy. In this respect she is reflecting the views of a large number of her readers. However, I consider her latest rant on speeding to be just downright irresponsible. She writes:

And on the subject of Richard Brunstrom, I am currently being hounded as part of his zero tolerance policy towards drivers.

It’s been a long saga, but having been caught doing 36mph through a 30mph zone one quiet evening last summer, the police have been working hard to ensure that I pay up.

Wouldn’t it be better if they spent more time and money pursuing drug pushers or criminals or burglars or hooligans or thieves or violent people instead of law abiding citizens like myself who crawled just a tiny bit too fast through one of North Wales’ villages. It’s no wonder our country is in such a mess because the police will do everything but tackle the really difficult issues.

My heart bleeds, but let us face it, Ms. Mair broke the law and as such she should accept her punishment and pay up without complaint. What irks me most though, is her supposition that driving at 36mph in a 30mph zone through a quiet North Wales village is somehow acceptable behaviour. It is not.

Contact with a pedestrian at this speed would almost certainly be fatal. The village in question no doubt contains children and old people, all of whom would be particularly at risk from speeding motorists and may be intimidated at the prospect of crossing the road in the face of on-coming traffic. Speeding vehicles also create noise that disturbs householders.

Ms. Mair may well be right that drug pushers, criminals, burglars, hooligans, thieves and violent people should be a police priority and I am sure that North Wales police, which has one of the best clear-up rates in the country, is targeting them as well. But the Police have a responsibility to catch all law-breakers and to enforce the law. Dealing with speeding motorists in quiet country villages is part of their job too. That task also protects lives and helps to preserve people's way of life.

Rant over.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

A chink of light?

Is this a chink of light in an otherwise dire government approach to constitutional issues? The Telegraph reports that Harriet Harman has suggested that the voting age could be lowered to 16 to encourage young people to get involved in politics:

"My concern is that there's a generation of young people who are never going to get into the voting habit," she said. "We've got citizenship classes going on in schools... If people come straight out of the citizenship class into the polling station then there's continuity and that might be an opportunity for them to get the habit of voting."

Miss Harman, who is one of the Cabinet ministers responsible for constitutional reform, gives the clearest sign yet that the Government is seriously considering allowing 16-year-olds to vote.

"There's a democratic imperative to increase turnout because democracy lacks legitimacy if there's a dwindling number of people participating in it," she said.

This is just one of many reforms that need to be introduced and at least she is talking about young people going to polling booths rather than texting their vote in. That has to be a good sign too.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Crisis deepens for Hain

The BBC are reporting that two men who gave money to a think tank were not told it would be used to fund Peter Hain's Labour deputy leadership bid:

Diamond dealer Willie Nagel and another man, who did not want to be named, gave and loaned a total of more than £35,000 to the Progressive Policy Forum (PPF).

Both say they had no objection to the money being used to fund the Welsh Secretary's campaign but were not told.

Mr Hain says all PPF donors were asked whether funds could be transferred.

A source has told the BBC Mr Nagel said he "was not surprised" and "not unhappy" that the money had ended up being used for Mr Hain's campaign.

And in a statement issued through his solicitor, Mr Nagel said he had known Mr Hain, who is also work and pensions secretary, since 2000 and "respected" his work.

The existence of the Progressive Policy Forum is another controversial part of this affair. The BBC tell us that six of the donations were made by individuals through this virtually unknown think tank, which has a registered address at a London solicitor's offices.

They say that it was set up in December 2006, three months after the launch of Mr Hain's campaign, and counts John Underwood, who was closely involved in financing the Hain campaign, as a trustee. The PPF does not appear to have issued any reports or research nor is there any trace of a website.

It is not illegal to use a third party to donate money, provided the original source of the donation is registered. It cannot be helpful though if, within hours of Mr. Hain saying that donors to the think tank had consented to the onward transmission of their money, two of them deny any knowledge of such a transaction.

Funding gap

This morning's Western Mail reports that the number of students gaining postgraduate qualifications leapt by 13% last year – the highest rise in the UK. But the Wales lags behind the rest of the UK for the number of first and upper second class degrees awarded:

Last summer 11% of students obtained first class honours for their first degree at Welsh universities compared to 16% in Scotland, 13% in Northern Ireland and 12% in England.

A total of 45% in Wales received upper second honours compared to 52% in both Scotland and Northern Ireland and 47% in England.

A leading academic is blaming a lack of funding for the discrepancy. Professor Martin A Kayman, head of the school of English, communications and philosophy at Cardiff University, told the paper that external marking means that degree standards should be the same across the UK:

“Higher education in Wales is under-funded compared to elsewhere in the UK. Staff and students are of excellent quality.

“The only variable I can see, given the external examining system, is that we are relatively under-resourced,” he said.

Professor Kayman said this funding gap meant richer universities elsewhere in the UK might have lower student-staff ratios, better equipment, books, laboratories and learning environments.

The latest estimate I have seen is that there is a £41m funding gap in higher education between Wales and England, whilst we are lagging behind Scotland to the tune of £93m a year. The Labour-Plaid Cymru Government refuse to acknowledge this in the One Wales document nor do they propose to do anything about it in their budget. Are we now starting to reap the consequences of this short-sightedness?

It is also worth noting that while Wales and Scotland reported a rise in first-year enrolments at universities, numbers fell in England and Northern Ireland where tuition fees of up to £3,000 are paid:

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said, “It is hardly surprising that the number of enrolments at universities where top-up fees are being charged has fallen, or that enrolments have increased at institutions in countries not charging them.

“Anyone who really believes that charging more for degrees is the way to encourage students to apply to university is living in a dream world."



Tempting as it is to rush to judgement and demand Peter Hain's resignation over the sheer scale of his error regarding £103,156 of undeclared donations, one has to admit that Labour MP, Paul Flynn was right in counselling caution on Radio Wales this morning.

Mr. Flynn said that it is up to the Electoral Commission to determine the scale of the offence and what punishment is appropriate and that we should not seek to prejudge that. There may well be sanctions available to the House of Commons authorities as well not to mention the damage to Mr. Hain's reputation as a result of his poor judgement. Criticism questioning his ability to manage two government departments when he cannot keep his own Deputy Leadership campaign in order is valid and will hurt him.

It is also the case that for time being the politics of the situation are in Hain's favour. Gordon Brown will not want to see him resign or to sack him for fear of starting a landslide of such departures amongst other senior Labour politicians who are having similar problems. I may be wrong but I believe that the day of reckoning will come in the next reshuffle rather than in the next few weeks.

N.B. As I was in a rush this morning and inadvertently pressed publish on a half-finished entry then it should be noted that this post has been updated

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Things go from bad to worse for Hain

This morning's Guardian reveals that Peter Hain may well have in excess of £100,000 in undeclared donations still to report to the Electoral Commission. The paper understands that there are almost 20 donations that his team failed to declare, in breach of the rules for party political elections.

This means that Hain spent around £200,000 on his fifth-placed Deputy Leadership campaign, well in excess of the other candidates and twice as much as the successful Harriet Harman.

It is difficult to understand how such an oversight could have occurred. The scale of the non-declaration suggests not so much chaos within the Hain campaign as organisational meltdown. The Guardian though has another explanation:

His critics will suggest that he was reluctant to give details of some of the donations because he did not want to reveal that his left-leaning campaign was dependent on business support. He will also be asked whether some of the donors thought their identities would be kept private.

Hain will reveal the names of all the undisclosed donors to the commission, but the GMB union believes that it donated between £15,000 and £20,000 of the unrecorded cash.

Nearly half the donations appear to relate to the period after the closure of the campaign and half to the period after Steve Morgan, a lobbyist, was brought in by Hain to run the operation in a switch of tactics in the summer.

Hain and his supporters accept he is legally responsible for reporting donations to his campaign, but other people on his team were charged with sending details of cheques to the commission.

There is no evidence that Hain sought to break the law and he has already admitted "deeply regrettable" administrative failings.

David Cornock yesterday caught up with Phil Taylor, who ran Hain's campaign before leaving following disagreements with Steve Morgan. Mr. Taylor was very clear as to who is to blame for the problem:

"What I think is very sad is that I know Peter incredibly well. I've worked for him for a number of years and consider him to be a friend and the Peter I know would have had nothing to do with any of this. He is one of the most straightest, honest, decent men that I have ever met and I just cannot understand what went on in that campaign but I can only assumed that decisions were taken by his campaign manager that he knew nothing about because the Peter that I know would never in a million years have ever accepted any donation and not declared it and not followed the rules and in that sense when Peter says there was chaos, that must absolutely be true. That chaos has to be the responsibility of the person running the campaign and that was Steve Morgan."

As far as Peter Hain's career is concerned the next few days could be crucial.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Dealing with personal debt

The level of personal debt in this country is a matter of great concern. A report from financial consultants Grant Thornton last year suggested that collectively we owe the grand total of £1,335bn, which is £5bn more than the economy is worth.

There is a clear case for the government to take action to prevent credit mis-selling by the High Street banks and financial institutions so as to ensure that people are not suckered into deals they cannot afford.

My main concern though is the impact on younger people. Rising house prices are forcing them to borrow ever-larger multiples of their salaries to buy a home, graduates are starting jobs with five-figure debts from tuition fees and living expenses, and yet the banks continue to target them with offers of massive lines of credit. Credit card debt alone is £126bn.

The banks have a huge responsibility in this area, and some are not living up to it. Because they make far more money from borrowers than from savers and investors, it's clearly in their interest to get young people to borrow as soon as they can.

The other part of the market that causes concern is those companies who offer loans so as to enable people to consolidate their debt. In principle this is a good thing providing that those who take up this option are disciplined in how they manage their finances, however they should be wary of over-committing themselves especially when they are using their home as security for the loan.

It is for that reason that I have a problem with organisations who advertise generous lines of credit. Like Guido Fawkes I believe that over-zealous gearing is financially irresponsible. Guido Fawkes highlights the case of Picture Financial Services whose website offers loans of 'up to 125% of the value of your home, something that traditional lenders won't consider', and for good reason.

What is the Government's response to such offers? Well, they provide personal endorsements. The Picture Financial Services website contains a prominent testimonial from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions praising the company for its success.

Questions must be asked as to whether it is appropriate for a government minister to offer such testimonials, particularly one who is responsible for the whole apparatus of state support to the less-well off in our society. It seems that the Government's response to our growing personal debt burden is to shrug their shoulders and turn the other way

Brown tries to reassure on ID cards

Despite his planned comeback having been derailed slightly by Peter Hain's problems, the Prime Minister has moved today to try and reassure us all that ID cards are not some evil big brother device.

The BBC report that he has suggested that ID cards may not become compulsory for all Britons:

Anyone getting a passport from 2010 will have to get a card, and ministers had said they would be compulsory for all if Labour won the next election.

But, in an apparent softening of that line, Mr Brown described compulsion only as an "option" which is "open".

In reality though there is little difference between this statement and the position of Tony Blair:

The current scheme will see anyone applying for a passport having to give their biometric details for a national identity register, although it will be possible to opt-out of getting a card until January 2010.

The decision not to make getting ID cards compulsory immediately for all, came as a result of Parliamentary opposition to the scheme.

Instead, in February 2006, MPs voted to back a government compromise requiring new legislation before it becomes compulsory for all citizens to get an ID card.

The then prime minister Tony Blair said the government had "won the argument" on ID cards and legislation introducing them would be a "major plank" of Labour's next general election manifesto.

And the Home Office's website says that the National Identity Scheme "will eventually become compulsory... this means that all UK residents over 16 will need to have an ID card".

But, asked at his monthly Downing Street media conference if ID cards had to be compulsory for all citizens in order to be effective, he replied: "That's the option we have left ourselves open to but we haven't legislated for it."

Former Home Secretary David Blunkett, who introduced the initial identity card scheme, is quoted as saying that Mr Brown's words are "in line" with the compromise struck with MPs. But he added: "In my opinion, without it being mandatory, there is little point in doing it."

Phil Booth, of anti-ID card campaign group No2ID, agreed that the scheme could not operate as the government intended without being compulsory. He said there needed to be a "fundamental U-turn" and said the comments might have been a case of Mr Brown softening his language to appease Labour MPs who were against the cards' introduction.

In other words there is no change to the Government's intent to eventually have everybody carry an ID card irrespective of their personal wishes. Whatever happened to Gordon Brown's spin-free government?


Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A consummate professional

Listening to Mr. Hain's campaign chair speaking from New Hampshire where he is working for Hillary Clinton on Radio Wales this morning, got me thinking. Who in fact is Steve Morgan?

Well according to this website he is Morgan Allen Moore’s Chairman and Director of Public Affairs. Apparently, he has a strong background in marketing and public relations. We are told that he has been responsible for grassroots campaigns that have changed legislation in the UK and European Union.

The piece goes on to explain that Mr. Morgan has had 20 years experience working in and around Westminster and has strong links to New Labour:

He is a regular contributor to both the BBC and the Independent Media Networks on domestic and political issues. As well as working in the UK, Western Europe and the USA he has taught marketing techniques in Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Slovakia and Romania.

It is certainly the case that everytime there are elections in America, Radio Wales gets on the phone to Mr. Morgan for his views. His biography reports that in 2000 he was the International Media Co-ordinator for Vice President Al Gore's Presidential Campaign and played a similar role for Senator John Kerry's bid for the US Presidency.

We know too, that he also ran Peter Hain's campaign for the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party. An impressive résumé, but which winning election campaigns has he worked on?

Hain struggles for closure

What is Peter Hain up to? Five weeks after it first came to light that he had failed to register a £5,000 deputy leadership campaign donation, due to an "administrative error", the issue has not been resolved and in fact is beginning to grow out of his control.

Political guru, Steve Morgan, who was called in to manage the Hain Deputy Leadership bid halfway through, told Radio Wales this morning that he found the campaign to be in a state of 'chaos'. He said that every donation that crossed his desk up to when he closed the office at the beginning of June had been sent onto the Electoral Commission.

However, today's Guardian reports that Mr. Hain has personally decided to audit the accounts after discovering that no donations had been declared after May 4 last year - six weeks before the result was announced.

They say that such is the scale of the under-reporting that some political sources believe Hain's political future rests on his being able to show that he is the innocent victim of chaos within his election organisation, and that there has been no deliberate attempt to conceal the sources of the donations. That fits in very well with the way that Steve Morgan is characterising the campaign team.

The Guardian go on to say that Mr. Hain had been urged by close colleagues to make a full disclosure before Christmas, reflecting tensions within the team over the conduct of the campaign:

The commission has told the Guardian that it intends to investigate the failure to declare the money and could impose a fine on Hain for making an inaccurate declaration of the donations at the end of July, or for late reporting of the money. Under electoral law he is personally responsible for submitting correct accounts - unlike in parliamentary elections, where the agent is the responsible figure.

Hain volunteered that he had made omissions in his declared donations to the Electoral Commission in the wake of the David Abrahams donor scandal last month. Although he did not take any money from any of the proxies for Abrahams, he discovered that he had not declared one £5,000 donation from Jon Mendelsohn, now Gordon Brown's chief fundraiser.

On December 3 he reported a wider failure to the commission, but did not disclose either the names of all the donors or the sums involved.

However, the Guardian understands that the scale of undisclosed donations runs to tens of thousands of pounds, and that Hain far outspent his rivals during the course of the deputy leadership contest.

His published donations already show that he spent £82,000 on his campaign, but it is likely that the total is well in excess of £100,000 - more than double the amount raised by the successful candidate, Harriet Harman.

It is understood that most of the undeclared donations are from City or business people but last night it was revealed that a £10,000 donation in cash and kind from the GMB union, whose members voted to support his campaign, was also not made public. This is in addition to a £5,000 undeclared donation from Mendelsohn, and £1,300 from a fundraising dinner in Cardiff.

These alone take his total donations to £98,300. Sources say that donations from City and business will take the figure much higher.

Mr. Hain has let it be known that he will be making a full declaration by the middle of January. He will need to ensure that it is comprehensive otherwise things may well get difficult. His Tory shadow, Chris Grayling was already asking this morning how the Secretary of State for Works, Pensions and Wales can run two Government departments when he could not manage his own Deputy Leadership campaign. Such questions may well get more persistent if the issue is not killed off quickly.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Who to vote for?

From the No Geek is an Island blog comes a quiz that helps you pinpoint which presidential candidate is best matched to your views. My top pick should be Dennis Kucinich but of those with a realistic chance then it seems Barack Obama is my man. Just a bit of fun, my results are below:

83% Dennis Kucinich
82% Mike Gravel
79% Joe Biden
79% Barack Obama
77% Chris Dodd
75% John Edwards
74% Hillary Clinton
71% Bill Richardson
41% Rudy Giuliani
34% John McCain
32% Ron Paul
27% Mitt Romney
26% Mike Huckabee
15% Tom Tancredo
15% Fred Thompson

2008 Presidential Candidate Matching Quiz

Government play blame game on power price rises

Obviously stung by the media backlash against disproportionate price increases for gas and electricity, the Chancellor of the Exchequer is now seeking an urgent meeting with Sir John Mogg, chair of the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority, and Alistair Buchanan, chief executive of Ofgem, the regulator for the industry, to ask whether the rises are justified by the recent increase in oil and gas prices. This is despite the fact that energy minister, Malcolm Wicks, indicated just 24 hours earlier that ministers were unlikely to intervene.

Mr. Darling appears to have been spurred into action by a decision by npower, the fourth largest supplier, to raise some tariffs by as much as 27%. The Guardian reports that Ministers know there is a time lag before electricity and gas companies have to pay higher prices for oil and gas because of long-term contracts setting a particular price, and are suspicious about the need for rises exceeding 20%.

Although it is always nice to see Ministers seeking to intervene in these sort of matters on behalf of some of the most vulnerable people in our society, there is a nagging suspicion that they are just going through the motions in an effort to shift blame. However, it is going to be very difficult to do this when they themselves, appear equally culpable for rising fuel prices.

That is because, as the Guardian also reports, consumers may face higher electricity bills to cover the future decommissioning costs of a new generation of nuclear power stations to be announced this week by the same Government. The paper tells us that Ministers have met several electricity firms known to be interested in building up to 10 new stations and they are understood to have demanded long term commitments to guarantee their investments - expected to be about £10bn a station.

It is understood that plans have been agreed for the government to collect a fee from the companies for each unit of electricity used in British homes to build up a fund to meet decommissioning costs. It is expected this extra fee will be passed on to consumers in the form of higher bills.

In addition it is believed that if the proposed fund does not meet the full decommissioning costs then the taxpayer will have to cough up, effectively meaning that we will all be paying twice for the Government's folly, once through our electricity bill, the second to the taxman. Taxpayers will also foot the bill of nearly £1bn to compensate the community eventually chosen to host the permanent nuclear waste repository, as well as the cost of security at potential sites, the transport of waste and the extra cost of any required increase in the size of transmission lines for the national grid.

Those who complain that alternative energy sources such as wind farms receive unfair public subsidy should take note. What they get will pale into insignificance by comparison to the package on offer to the nuclear industry.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Mapping political views

Over on Facebook everybody is completing the Political Compass application. Unfortunately, it appears very much designed for an American political market and as such it is difficult to relate to the British situation. The red dot is where I sit on the compass:

Economic Left/Right: -5.62
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -6.05
James Graham has drawn our attention to another test put together by the late Chris Lightfoot, which better reflects our circumstances. My results are below:

Left/Right: -5.9240 (-0.3566)
Pragmatism: +0.2284 (+0.0137)

There is a fuller explanation here. Take the test yourself here.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Telephone blues

This morning's Western Mail is quite right to highlight the shocking mobile phone coverage we get around Wales. It is only to be hoped that the mobile phone companies will now do something about it.

However, this will involve the erection of a significant number of new mobile phone masts, an act which in itself will involve some controversy. This could be interesting. On which side of the fence will the Western Mail sit when things start to heat up?

Fuelling poverty

News that energy provider Npower will be raising electricity prices by 12.7% and gas prices by 17.2% is not unexpected but is outrageous nevertheless.

Npower is the UK’s fourth largest energy provider and has four million customers. The price rises will take effect from today. The company claims it has been forced to increase prices because of the soaring cost of wholesale energy. It is estimated that 240,000 welsh households currently live in fuel poverty, meaning that 10% or more of their income is spent on heating their housing adequately. The average annual fuel bill of a Welsh household is already £1000 per year.

This price rise could add as much as £170 per household per year for the average consumer. While I am aware the cost to the provider has risen, it does not seem believable that prices have risen to such a high level. Last year the company made a profit of £383 million. When changes in the market happen in this way, the entire cost should not be passed on to the consumer. It is certainly the case that when the price of raw materials fall, as they did some months ago, prices remained the same and savings were not passed on. Shareholders must not be valued above the most vulnerable in our society.

This news strengthens the case for the introduction of ‘social fuel’ tariffs. At the moment some of the poorest in our communities pay the most for their fuel because of higher priced pre-payment gas and electric meters. Npower and other providers must ensure that the effect of these prices rises is minimised on those who are already paying the most for their fuel. Social tariffs would mean those who are most in need of support are those who are most supported.

These rises can only add further to the number of people in fuel poverty and directly threaten the lives of the elderly and infirm who are struggling to pay their fuel bills. There must surely now be a case for government to introduce some form of regulation of gas and electricity prices.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Revisiting Tryweryn

Fascinating article in this morning's Western Mail by Rory Francis suggesting that the impact of Labour's Planning Reform Bill on Wales could be comparable to the flooding of Cwm Tryweryn in Meirionnydd, drowning the village of Capel Celyn so as to provide water for the City of Liverpool.

That event was particularly emotive and galvanised nationalist sentiment for decades afterwards. Every Welsh MP bar one voted against the bill but it still went through. The recent apology by Liverpool City Council made national headlines in Wales for days. It was an apology that was not accepted by everybody, though it seemed to bring closure to many.

Rory points out that the Planning Reform Bill has had little publicity in Wales so far, largely because people have not sussed that it will affect us:

In England, the document proposes sweeping changes which would make it easier and quicker for the Government to push through developments like roads, airports and power stations, denying local people and local authorities the right to oppose them in principle at public inquiry. A number of the major environmental NGOs have come together to oppose the proposals, dubbing them a “planning disaster”.

As a spokesperson for Friends of the Earth put it, “You won’t be able to object to a new nuclear power station in your community, but you might be consulted on what colour the gate is.”

In Wales, though, there has been much less discussion about the proposals, which is surprising as they reopen old wounds of the flooding of Cwm Tryweryn.

But the White Paper’s proposals would not just signal a return to those days, but to something even less democratic. It proposes that applications for all energy projects over 50MW, including dams for hydro-electric power, nuclear power stations, LNG terminals and pipelines, wind farms and tidal barrages, should be determined not by elected politicians at all, but by a panel of two or three unelected members of the planning commission, only one of whom would necessarily have any connection with Wales.

According to the Woodland Trust’s own figures, electricity, wind power and gas projects are the second most common development threats to irreplaceable ancient woodland, with no less than 113 areas of ancient woodland currently under threat from such projects around the UK.

How could organisations like the Woodland Trust work to save these woods, if the Government had put an unelected planning commission in place to approve these applications, making clear that there was effectively a presumption in favour of the developments concerned?

Indeed, the panel that would make decisions on the energy development would be under no obligation to make its decisions in line with the Welsh Assembly’s plans and policies, such as the environmental strategy and the spatial plan, both of which have been argued and consulted over at some length, throughout Wales and at Cardiff Bay.

What’s more, if the Assembly or the Assembly Government fundamentally disagrees with one of the planning commission’s decisions, they will have no right to “call it in”.

This bill is not just contrary to the devolution process, but it could effectively put the Welsh Assembly on a collision course with Westminster, particularly if it is used to push through new nuclear power plants for Wales. We have already seen Westminster pass plans for large wind farm developments in Mid Wales and a large wood burning power plant in Port Talbot against vociferous local opposition. The Planning Reform Bill will make such incidents more commonplace.

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