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Monday, March 31, 2008

Out of touch?

A junior minister has gone on record as saying that Gordon Brown’s Government was losing touch with voters’ concerns and risked defeat at the next general election:

Ivan Lewis, a Health Minister with an impeccable record of loyalty, told the News of the World that the Government needed to show people that it was on their side.

He said that voters grew angry “when they feel the Government is losing touch with what fairness means to the majority who work hard, play by the rules and are feeling squeezed by rising bills and rising council tax”.

He called for a string of populist policy measures, including minimum ten-year prison terms for possession of a gun or knife and immediate deportation for illegal immigrants.

Although collective responsibility indicates that Mr. Lewis should be hauled over the coals for speaking out so far there has been little or no reaction from the government. Presumably, they have calculated that allowing some dissent mitigates against the image of Gordon Brown as a control freak. They will also be quietly pleased at the criticism as it gives the impression that the government is listening to people's concerns after all, even if they do not act upon it.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Paying the bill

As if consumers have not suffered enough, press reports today indicate that energy bills are set to rise yet again before the year is out. We already have a situation where Welsh householders pay on average 10 per cent more for power than their counterparts in England. Many are already being hit hard by rising food, transport and petrol costs amid widespread concern over the economy.

Now we learn that we could be paying an extra £100 a year on top of the £140 increase that has come in since last December, at around the same time that we are putting our heating back on in the autumn. That is a second 10% increase in 12 months. Only those who pay through Direct Debit or on-line will be able to cushion the blow.

Unfortunately, the most vulnerable in our society, who are already officially classed as fuel poor are the least likely to save money in this way. Many will not have bank accounts. My fear is that pensioners and other less well-off people will switch heating off rather then risk going into debt to pay huge fuel bills.

Now is the time to review social tariffs, put in place more realistic winter fuel payments and roll out smart meters so as to lesson the impact of bigger bills. If the government does not intervene then winter related deaths will rise and many of our poorest citizens will face an uncertain year.

Heathrow and the case of the missing luggage

The BBC are now reporting that there are 15,000 bags stranded at Heathrow Airport Terminal Five. A total of 208 flights were cancelled during the Terminals first three days. Has anybody told the Guinness Book of Records? I think they need to open a new category especially for this fiasco, starting with 'biggest private sector cock-up'.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Day off

I am having a day off today so as to go to the Laugharne Weekend where I have tickets for Richard James and Roger McGough. Blogging will be light.

Mislaid in Britain

Cutting headline in the New York Times on Thursday.

Referring to the farce currently running at Heathrow's new terminal building and to the Prime Minister's failure to show up to the beginning of the Queen’s royal banquet on Wednesday night, the paper trumpeted: 'Mislaid in Britain: Luggage and the Prime Minister'.

Sounds like a good election slogan for one of the opposition parties.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Who is protecting our health workers?

I have not had much time to refer to the current controversy over the protection of Welsh health workers until now. However, having reviewed all the reports and taken in the snippets of interviews I caught on Radio Wales, I have to say that I agree with Alun Michael, Baroness Ilora Finlay and a number of other commentators. It cannot be right that NHS workers in Wales have any less protection than those in England.

Health Minister, Edwina Hart, may well be correct when she says that the important thing is to have practical and effective measures in place to protect staff and I hope that she will have proposals to implement very soon. However, whatever her working party comes up with should surely be additional and complementary to the extra legal protection on offer.

I can see no logical reason why the Welsh Assembly Government might want to opt out of these criminal justice measures. It really does look like they were more concerned about making a point about devolution rather looking after the interests of the staff.

Labour again!

Welsh Labour leader, Rhodri Morgan, trundled down the M4 to the Liberty Stadium in Swansea yesterday to launch his party's local election campaign. Presumably, Labour chose the Liberty Stadium because they want to be associated with successful football and rugby teams. It will not do them much good.

As Plaid Cymru's Helen Mary Jones said: "Even for the Labour Party this campaign has come up with a surprising lack of new ideas; voters can only expect more of the same from this party which has obviously run out of steam as anyone who has a Labour council is aware.” It seems that Labour's one trick is to focus on anti-social behaviour and crime, something that at Westminster they have been in charge of tackling since 1997 with little success.

Rhodri Morgan's refrain that he is fed up with marauding gangs on the street corner, "we want kids to have something much better to do", is not just familiar, it is tired and repetitive. Labour have been in government for eleven years, why have they not sorted it? Why are the Welsh Assembly Government not investing in new facilities for young people in our communities? The answer is that there is no black and white solution to this problem and whilst Labour continue to pretend that there is then they are doing us all a disservice.

Welsh Liberal Democrat local government spokesperson Jenny Randerson summed up the immediate issue when she said, “Labour’s stance on crime and antisocial behaviour is a joke. This is the party that axed funding for the popular and successful 101 non-emergency number scheme, when it should have been extended to all of Wales.

“They cut the funding in Whitehall and refused to support it in the Assembly. The 101 number continues in Cardiff, because the Welsh Liberal Democrat-led council has put their money where their mouth is and invested in tackling antisocial behaviour.”

What was most astonishing however was Rhodri Morgan's attack on Swansea's new Leisure Centre. He described it as Wales’ equivalent of the Montreal Olympics, an allusion to the £32 million cost. This from a First Minister who has authorised huge sums of public money bidding for the Ryder Cup, the City of Culture and the Commonwealth Games, all of which we supported but which would impact on the public purse.

Of course if Labour incompetence had not closed the Leisure Centre in the first place then we would not have had to rebuild it. Labour's legacy to Swansea will continue to be a burden on all taxpayers for many more years. They left the City with the £32 million bill for the Leisure Centre, with having to find £150 million for crumbling schools, £600,000 for dangerous street lamps, a declining City Centre, a multi-million pound bill to renovate/repair City Centre car parks, a £35 million bill for crumbling roads and pavements, a multi-million bill to re-open the Tir John tip, a £30 million bill to repair the Guildhall and a pensions fund deficit for Council workers of £4 million a year. It is a credit to the present Administration that they have made such major strides in sorting out this mess.

What is more, in 2003 Labour set out a long-term financial plan for Swansea Council which meant that we needed to find £12 million worth of savings by this year. They then proceeded to refer to this as our financial black hole. Well, Rhodri Morgan will be pleased to learn that Swansea Council under Welsh Liberal Democrat leadership found all those savings and have balanced the books for each of our four budgets. We have done so without major cuts in services and whilst keeping average Council tax rises at 3.8%. That compares with an average of 8.66% under Labour.

It is no wonder that on the doorsteps here people are telling us that they do not want Labour back in. Will Rhodri Morgan listen? I think not.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Drugs and democracy

The Neath Guardian reports that a Councillor who once passed a lit cannabis spliff around a council meeting is standing down after 21 years of dedicated service.

Lynne Siegers, who represents Blaenhondden Community Council's Cilfrew ward recalled an occasion around 15 years ago when police visits to Council meetings were more regular and graphically informative:

'She said: "Back in the days when we met at the civic centre, a councillor asked the policeman at the meeting, 'What is cannabis?'

He said he'd bring some along - and he did.

"He lit it and we were passing a spliff around. If anyone had ever come in at that meeting they would've wondered what it was."

How things change.

Getting onto the housing market

This morning's Western Mail covers my press release from yesterday on the decision by the Assembly Government to axe the Homebuy scheme for first time buyers. There is no doubt that there were flaws in this scheme but, rather than abandon it altogether, the Minister could have reformed it and turned it into a Wales-wide key-workers housing programme.

The news of this u-turn by the Labour-Plaid Administration came in a letter from Jocelyn Davies AM, Deputy Minister for Housing, in response to my question on the 12th March on the future of the Homebuy scheme. The letter states that the government have made no Social Housing Grant allocations for Homebuy for the year 2008/09 and beyond, although homes built to rent by housing associations could be sold to applicants on Homebuy terms.

Homebuy was upgraded in 2000 when I was Deputy Minister for Housing and was designed to help first time home buyers in rural areas by providing a fifty per cent share in the cost of purchasing a home. The state’s share would be protected by a mortgage and re-claimed when the owner sold the property.

There was a very real possibility that this scheme could have been transformed into a key workers housing programme for both urban and rural areas, with its own budget and proper accountability and transparency. Public sector workers such as teachers and nurses would then have been able to use it to buy and own their own homes at affordable prices. This decision is a missed opportunity.

I am also disturbed that the Government is now limiting Homebuy to properties which have been built for rent. Even with built-in safeguards giving a housing association first refusal on buying back the property, this will reduce the number of affordable rented homes available for the 80,000 plus households on housing waiting lists in Wales.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Under sniper fire

Today's Guardian reports that Hillary Clinton has had to admit that she exaggerated her claim of coming under sniper fire during a visit to Bosnia in the 1990s, after video footage showed the then first lady walking calmly from her plane.

The row centres on remarks she made during a campaign stop in Washington DC last week. Keen to talk up her experience, she spoke vividly of what seemed a harrowing and dangerous trip she made in March 1996 to Tuzla airport in Bosnia.

"I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base."

If the measure of foreign policy experience relies on being subject to sniper fire then I think I will give it a miss.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Lost images

The latest Labour leaflet for the Uplands ward of Swansea crosses my desk. It is an A2 leaflet folded once, thick with text and bizarre claims. At the bottom of the front page there is the standard attack on the Liberal Democrats on law and order issues including the assertion that the Welsh Liberal Democrat-led Swansea Council has failed to take effective action to reduce anti-social behaviour.

Sadly for Labour this suggestion appears to be at odds with the views of Home Office Minister, Vernon Coaker, who on a recent visit identified the City's community safety partnership as a model of good practice in terms of dealing with anti-social behaviour and praised the Council for its partnership work in this respect.

This particular piece is in the name of Geraint Davies, the former Labour MP for Croydon Central, who lost his seat at the last election and is now earmarked as Alan Williams' successor as MP for Swansea West. Alas, Mr. Davies appears to be a bit disorientated by his move down the M4 as the photograph of him alongside two female police officers, which illustrates the story, proves. Closer examination reveals that the officers concerned are wearing the uniform of the Croydon constabulary rather than that of South Wales Police.

Is this what Mr. Davies means when he calls for more Community Police Officers in Uplands? Is he proposing that we borrow some from the Greater London area?

Who is watching?

This article on Comment is Free by Zoe Margolis highlights the latest developments that threaten our internet privacy. In particular the fact that the UK's three biggest internet service providers - BT, Virgin Media and TalkTalk, who between them have more than 10 million customers - have recently signed a deal with Phorm to categorise all of our web-surfing habits in order to target online ads at us:

The essence of the Phorm scheme is straightforward. It will have equipment at ISPs that will track your activities on port 80 (used for the web) - though not to secure websites. With each site you visit it will capture the URL (and, for a search engine, the search terms too) plus enough of the header data from the page to "categorise" it into one of a number of areas. Anything longer than a three-digit number is thrown away. Your IP address is not captured, but a cookie with a unique number is set on your browser when you start using it, which persists into the future.

The data about what websites you tend to visit is then categorised to generate a profile. When you then visit a page whose adverts are sourced from the Open internet Exchange - set up by Phorm - your browser will see adverts targeted to your profile. (Adult, gambling, political, drugs and smoking-related adverts are not allowed.) Your browsing history is not retained; instead the profile for the cookie is refined as it "sees" more of your browsing. Sites that join OIX are told they will get a better per-click payment than with other services.

Although Phorm has not been launched yet it has been tested in secret by BT, as one user discovered. Zoe Margolis points out that, while Phorm might look innocuous now, its use in the future may be more about gathering personal web viewing data, for legal or other purposes, rather than for targeted advertising.

Holding MPs to account

The Liberal Democrats have launched a new website designed to focus attention on those MPs who voted to take us to war in Iraq.

Called Hold your MP to account, the site points out that Britain only invaded Iraq because MPs voted for it. Asked on 18th March 2003 to support Tony Blair’s motion for military action against Iraq, Labour and Conservative MPs lined up to vote “aye”.

Both the Conservative and Labour frontbenches in the House of Commons supported the war. The Conservatives even argued that the Government wasn’t being tough enough.

Five years on, over 170 British servicemen and women have been killed in Iraq, along with hundreds on thousands of Iraqi civilians. British taxpayers have poured £6.5 billion into the conflict, and the Conservatives are trying to rewrite history.

It’s time to hold the politicians who took us to war to account.

Monday, March 24, 2008

New blog on the block

The Bevan Foundation have started their own blog. Read it here.

Grasping at straws

I read over the weekend that Labour Ministers were starting to regret not supporting electoral reform when they were flying high in the polls and had a three figure majority. The implication was that if they tried to grasp that particular nettle now that they trail behind the Tories and look like a government in disarray then it would look like a last desperate throw of the dice by a fading political power. Well, they have done it anyway.

Today's Guardian reports that a significant overhaul of electoral legislation to give voters a second vote, open polling stations at weekends and make it compulsory to participate is being proposed by the government to increase turnout and improve the legitimacy of the Commons.

Unfortunately, their preferred solution of the alternative vote is the bare minimum that they can introduce and it is not very proportional at all. In fact, as the paper reports, it is possible under this system for the Tories to gain an overall Commons majority with a smaller share of the vote than under first past the post.

Personally, I welcome any moves towards a fairer voting system but I am not prepared to believe it until I see it. There is so much stuff being spun out of Downing Street at the moment in the hope of capturing the public's imagination, that I believe that cynicism should be the order of the day.

Any change to the voting system needs to be based on principle, not party advantage otherwise it will not gain public acceptance. There is no indication in this piece that New Brown Labour even understands that pre-condition. They still have a long way to go to convince us of their sincerity on this reform.

As for compulsory voting, well, don't get me started. If we have to force people to the polls by threatening them with prosecution and fines then we have failed as a democracy. We should be in the business of persuading people, not coercing them.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Protecting our communities

Today's Wales on Sunday contains an interesting article on the Matthew Taylor Review into affordable housing. Although the review covers just England, Community Housing Cymru has felt the need to give evidence to it because of the impact that its recommendations may have on Wales.

Chief Executive, Nick Bennett believes that restrictions on second home ownership imposed on England could send investors across the border into rural Wales. He is particularly concerned with proposals that would require local Councils to give planning permission for a second home in England. He is worried that if such a requirement does not apply here then, as a result of the proposed cut in capital gains tax on second homes, there will be a clear incentive for monied outsiders to outbid locals on properties in Powys, Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire, Gwynedd and so on.

Nick may well be right, however I find it inconceivable that the Welsh Government will sit back and watch planning restrictions be imposed on English second homes and not follow suit in Wales.

I have to say that I found Adam Price's rhetoric on this subject to be massively over-the-top. His warning of “a knock-on effect with second home housing refugees massing at the border, deprived of their inalienable right to have a weekend home in the Cotswolds or the Lake District, seeking recompense in Wales” is unnecessarily emotive and inflammatory. It is true that some Welsh communities have been particularly badly hit by this phenomena, but that sort of language does nothing to address the situation at all and, in fact, adds to existing tensions and resentments.

What we are all waiting for is a response from the Welsh Government and sure enough Plaid Cymru's Deputy Housing Minister Jocelyn Davies tells the paper that the Assembly Government is looking at a number of policies “to ensure there are enough affordable homes for young people in Wales to be able to stay in their local communities and ensure that they not only survive but thrive”. That hardly inspires confidence.

It seems that the issue of affordable housing has been shuffled off for now into another review along with many other difficult policies. Effective policy tools such as Homebuy have been put on hold, whilst the affordable housing legislative competence order deals only with the right to buy and fails to give the Assembly the wider legislative powers it needs to deal with this issue, especially in the field of planning but also in areas such as the reform of tenure, homelessness legislation, land supply, dealing with empty homes and so on. Plaid Cymru talk the talk but we have yet to see any meaningful action.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Old school

Today's Guardian letters' page contains some interesting ripostes to John Harris' article alleging that Cameron's Tories were appropriating the anti-Thatcher music of the 1980s for themselves, which I blogged about here.

Martin Daulby of New Mills, Derbyshire points out that Paul Weller sent his kids to private school, made pro-Tory noises in the early days of the Jam, both in interviews and lyrically - "Whatever happened to the great empire?" etc - and, rather than going underground, actually resides in swish St John's Wood.

It is left to Darren John Maughan of Bromley, Kent though to point out the ultimate irony, that Bruce Foxton, Jam bassist and vocalist, turned the Eton Rifles on the Slough locals in 1997. His son entered Eton College as a new pupil.

All of this rather misses the point of course, that it was what the music represented that mattered not the behaviour of those who owned it. Still, it is an interesting diversion on a Saturday morning.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Spinning friction

There have been a lot of pieces in the Welsh media recently about supposed friction between Plaid Cymru and Labour, centring chiefly on the proposed referendum and the reluctance of most Labour MPs and some of their AMs to commit to a pre-2011 date. With local elections coming up Plaid strategists are keen to differentiate themselves from their government allies so as to keep their grass roots happy and to woo potential Labour-switchers.

Normal Mouth makes a very valid point in his latest Golwg article when he concludes that the Party of Wales' spinners have done a good job in creating the illusion of conflict so as to maintain their distinctiveness, whilst at the same time bedding down in government. Whether his conclusion that the One Wales government is stronger than ever holds up to scrutiny or not only time will tell. What is clear is that the game goes on, as is illustrated by this morning's Western Mail.

If the paper is to be believed members of First Minister Rhodri Morgan’s team are trying to undermine Deputy First Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones:

One allegation is that the Plaid Cymru leader’s diary is being overloaded with engagements, so he is left with no time to think.

Another is that Deputy Regeneration Minister Leighton Andrews, the Labour AM for Rhondda, is letting it be known that although his responsibilities come within Mr Jones’s Economy and Transport portfolio, he does not regard the Plaid leader as his line manager.

Instead, Mr Andrews is said to be insisting on a direct report- ing line to the First Minister.

The allegations, which are strongly denied by the Assembly Government, come in the wake of tensions between Labour and Plaid over when a “Yes” campaign for the next devolution referendum should be set up.

A political source, who did not wish to be identified, told us, “Some members of the Civil Service believe that Ieuan Wyn Jones is being deliberately overloaded with diary engagements. There are days when he is working from 8am until 10pm. According to what is being said, the intention is to tie him down so much that he does not have time to think.

“As Deputy Regeneration Minister, Leighton Andrews is within Ieuan Wyn Jones’ Department of Economy and Transport. Yet civil servants say Leighton is making it clear that Ieuan is not his line manager, but that so far as he is concerned he reports directly to the First Minister.

“It seems there could be a subtle game going on, with an attempt to make sure Ieuan gets bogged down in a top-heavy schedule of engagements while having little time to reflect.”

Some Plaid strategists believe there is a 20% chance that those elements within Welsh Labour who would like to tear up the One Wales agreement and do a deal with the Liberal Democrats instead will succeed.

The crucial time will come with next year’s Welsh Labour leadership election to choose a successor to Mr Morgan.

Interesting as all of this is, one cannot help but feel that there is a certain amount of exaggeration and artificiality in these allegations. Nothing suits Plaid spin doctors more than to portray their ministers as being undermined by their Labour counterparts. Such a story fits very neatly within the narrative they are trying to spin. It also makes it easier for them to try and distance themselves from unpopular decisions in the future.

Unfortunately, for them it is not very convincing. The One Wales Government is a joint venture and both partners are in it for better and for worse. How that government performs will reflect on Plaid as well as Labour. They ain't getting away with it that easily.

Lib Dems secure government ewe-turn on Darby & Joan

I try not to use this site to reproduce press releases. It would become far too tedious. However, I am going to make an exception for this one, purely because I enjoyed it so much and also because it shows the sort of work that we AMs get drawn into. I didn't write the press release by the way, it was produced by the Welsh Liberal Democrats' Head of Media, Gareth Price.

Welsh Liberal Democrats have earned an Easter reprieve for two pet sheep in Bridgend who were facing eviction from their government-owned grazing land.

Darby and Joan’s owner Caroline Callow, had received warning that the land in Coity was required for development and the sheep would be taken away. But councillor Jacqui Radford and AM Peter Black stepped in and have ensured that tomorrow will be a Good Friday for Darby and Joan.

Peter Black said: "These hand reared sheep are well-loved pets, and their owner was deeply concerned that they would be taken away. I’m delighted that we were able to work with the Minister for Economic Development to secure a six month extension for Darby and Joan. I am often critical of this government for being woolly minded, and giving sheepish responses, but on this occasion, the Minister has come up trumps."

Councillor Jackie Radford added: "This is fabulous news. Darby and Joan have become part of the community in Coity. Villagers were very supportive of them staying. I’m delighted that the Minister has given them permission to stay on the site. Caroline wants to keep her pets near to her home, and they can all now look forward to a summer together."

Peter Black and Jackie Radford have been in correspondence with Ms Callow, neighbours and government officials since the end of January to secure this result.

Oh, and yes, that is Darby (top) and Joan in the photo.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Hot water

Oops, it seems former Tory AM and fellow blogger, Glyn Davies, is in a bit of bother over some comments he made about Paul McCartney's lawyer, Fiona Shackleton.

Referring to the point when Heather Mills emptied a jug of water over Ms. Shackleton he claims that this gave the lawyer 'a wanton and rather fetching appearance', suggested that she considers adopting the wet look on a regular basis and offered the view that she might even try wearing a T-shirt as well.

Glyn takes a fairly contrite view of the whole affair on his blog, suggesting that this sort of public scrutiny is the price he must pay if he is to continue to pursue his career in politics. He is right that we all have to be careful what we post on our blogs but honestly, haven't the BBC got any real news to report?

On Post Offices

I am waiting to see the full list of MPs who voted to save the Post Office network last night so that I can ascertain whether any of the seven MPs in my region were among them. Only one of these now hold a government post so it will be interesting to see how the other six responded to the challenge. I will then be able to contrast their actions in the Commons with their reaction to proposals to close local Post Office branches in their constituency, due to be published for this area in June.

The challenge facing Post Offices are immense. The post office network lost more than £200 million in 2006/7, and there are four million fewer customer visits every week compared with 2 years ago. Rural and urban deprived post offices have been hit hard by the decline in Government business. Revenue from Government transactions fell by £168 million in 2005/6.

Yet any attempt to pretend that the present closure programme is led by commercial considerations was undermined recently by the Assembly Minister responsible for working with the UK Government on Post Offices. In Plenary on 6th February the Social Justice Minister, Brian Gibbons, tried to explain why Post Offices closures are being deferred until after May 1st. In doing so he clearly acknowledged that it is a Labour government directed closure programme:

Brian Gibbons: The decision in relation to the May election was not news to me. I have been aware of that for some time. The implication is that there is a purdah period, or the equivalent of it, around the local government elections. The judgment was that that could be a factor in the elections. However, I have been aware of that for some time.

The fact is that our local Post Offices are a social and community asset. Even in very urban areas they form an important lifeline for some of the most vulnerable people in our society. That is why they are being subsidised by national government and that is why the proper response of government should be to invest in them to make them more sustainable rather than cull them.

The Labour Government have directed the closure of 2,500 Post across the UK this year. This will involve hundreds being closed in Wales on top of the 150 closed in 2004. This will leave a UK post office network of approximately 11,700 post offices once the closure programme is finished.

A total of 4, 00 Post Office branches have been closed since Labour came to power in 1997. This is in addition to the 3,500 Post Office branches that were closed under the last Conservative Government.

The Government announced in March 2006 the phasing out of the Post Office Card Account (POCA) on which many pensioners rely to receive their state pension and on which thousands of branches depend to keep them in business. On 14 December, in the face of huge criticism of this decision, led by the Liberal Democrats, the Government backed down and announced a replacement for POCA.

The Government has directly or indirectly overseen the Post Office losing TV licences, vehicle excise duty and passport authentication work. In March 2006 the government policy of avoiding "unnecessary" branch closures was ended.

The Liberal Democrats, at Spring 2006 conference, agreed a policy to separate the Post Office from the Royal Mail Group and free the network from Royal Mail controls that limited the business of branches whilst raising £2 billion for investment in branches from the sale of shares in Royal Mail. We are the only party that has put forward costed proposals for retaining and investing in post offices. The Liberal Democrats launched a petition in 2006 calling for the Post Office Card Account to be retained and branches to be saved from closure.

This is a campaign that will not go away. It will be the focus for much of our work in the lead up to the May elections and the subsequent General Election. MPs who want to be on the right side of that fight will need to have shown some consistency in the way that they vote in the House of Commons compared with what they say locally. We will be watching to see how many of them can manage that.

Update: All seven South Wales West Labour MPs voted against the motion on Post Offices. It will be interesting now to see what their reaction will be when the Post Office announce closures in their constituencies in June. Full voting details are here.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Threat to democracy

The Times reports on the words of Judge Richard Mawrey, QC yesterday when he said that postal voting on demand was “lethal to the democratic process”. Mr. Mawrey believes that the current system makes “wholesale electoral fraud both easy and profitable” and accused politicians of failing to act after past scandals. He urged sweeping reforms to electoral law dealing with corruption:

His comments came as he found a Conservative councillor guilty of vote rigging by using postal ballots in the names of hundreds of “ghost voters” fraudulently added to the electoral register. Eshaq Khan was stripped of his council seat in Slough, Berkshire, and banned from holding office for five years after being found guilty of corrupt practices.

The case highlighted how new checks designed to stamp out the misuse of postal ballots were by-passed by Khan’s team within a year of their introduction, enabling him to gain a marginal seat from Labour last year.

Mr Mawrey, in his judgment on the Slough case, concluded: “There is no reason to suppose that this is an isolated incident. Roll-stuffing [packing the electoral roll with fictitious voters] is childishly simple to commit and very difficult to detect. To ignore the probability that it is widespread, particularly in local elections, is a policy that even an ostrich would despise.”

The case is an embarrassment to David Cameron as the most serious case of vote rigging involving a Conservative candidate. But Mr Mawrey criticised all Britain’s main political parties for failing to introduce adequate checks after widespread electoral abuse involving postal ballots was discovered during local elections at Birmingham in 2004.

To be fair there have been individuals from all parties involved in these cases. There is a lot to be said for removing temptation. The Electoral Commission's solution of individual registration is certainly worth exploring as we have to strike a balance between helping people to vote and ensuring that the system is secure.

The one other lesson that I think that the Government do need to draw from this affair is that there are no easy solutions to increasing turnout. Giving people greater opportunities to vote is important but such an approach contains dangers for the electoral process itself.

If we are to encourage people to go to the ballot box in bigger numbers then it is up to politicians to motivate them by offering a real choice and by ensuring that we minimise wasted votes. The outcome of an election must reflect the way that people voted and should empower voters rather than disenfranchise them for another four years.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Re-writing music history

John Harris writes in today's Guardian about how the Tories are trying to claim the music of anti-Thatcher bands of the 1980s for themselves. He starts by recalling events from January this year when David Cameron visited Salford:

On January 10 this year, David Cameron was in the north-west, visiting a youth project in Salford, Greater Manchester. On the face of it, the trip chimed with his passion for "social enterprise", but as Cameron well knew, his destination was a local holy-of-holies: Salford Lads Club, the local Victorian landmark where the Smiths were photographed in 1986 for the inside cover of their finest album, The Queen Is Dead. In PR terms, the visit was thus a "twofer": a chance for Cameron not only to push the new compassionate Toryism, but to once again yak on about one of his supposedly favourite rock groups and thus remind us that the Conservative party is now groovier than anyone could have imagined.

The plan was for him to have his photo taken in front of the building à la the Smiths, but the local Labour party got wind of the script, and dispatched a pack of activists to foil him. Their placards featured such slogans as "Salford Lads not Eton snobs" and "Oi Dave - Eton Toffs' club is 300 miles that way", and they would not be moved, so Cameron went home without his snap.

The photo-opportunity was more than a moment of nostalgia on Cameron's part however:

In the two and a bit years since he became Conservative leader - in fact, since he crash-landed in frontline politics circa 2004 - Cameron has taken a leaf out of the Tony Blair manual, and underlined his iconoclastic approach to politics by going on and on about the music he likes. The names he has dropped have included the Nevadan indie-rockers the Killers ("very good and quite energetic"), the Georgia-born songstress Katie Melua ("cheesy", but also "brilliant"), and the snore-inducing sub-Coldplay troupe Snow Patrol ("excellent"). The iPod bought for him in 2005 by his wife Samantha apparently includes music by Johnny Cash, U2, the reggae maestros Sly and Robbie, and the rotund guitar-pop quartet the Magic Numbers. When he was on Desert Island Discs in June 2006, his selections included tunes by Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd.

Most of the above names are either avowedly apolitical, bereft of any substantial content or in thrall to the Bono school of messianic non-politics, but some of the music Cameron affects to like sits in a rather more awkward place. He praises the Smiths for their "brilliant" lyrics; while he was at Eton, he says the music of the Jam "meant a lot"; his initial shortlist for Desert Island Discs included Kirsty MacColl's version of A New England, written by Billy Bragg. At one time or another, all of them were leaders of a subculture that pitted a good deal of British rock music against the party Cameron now leads, but he swats away that incongruity with the same blithe confidence he has used to remarket the Tories as zealous environmentalists and friends of the poor. "I don't see why the left should be the only ones allowed to listen to protest songs," he says, and that seems to be that.

As Paul Weller asks, which part doesn't Cameron get?

Another blow to the target culture

An article in today's Guardian highlights yet another set of targets the government are on course to miss, this time on carbon emissions.

The paper tells us that the government is in danger of losing credibility on climate change because more than half of all its departments are failing to reduce their carbon emissions enough to reach levels that the nation as a whole is expected to meet:

Apart from the Ministry of Defence, which significantly reduced its emissions in 2005/6 following a part privatisation, central government now emits 22% more than it did in 1999, according to the sustainable development commission.

The independent watchdog group says it is increasingly concerned about government car use. The giant fleet emits 1.5% more than it did in 2005/6 and there is little likelihood that the self-imposed 15% reduction target will be met by 2010. Moreover, for all the rhetoric about energy saving the government's own energy efficiency levels have worsened by 3.3% since 1999 if the MoD figure is excluded, says the commission. "Unless government takes serious action to cut its own carbon dioxide emissions it will lack credibility in its challenge to society to do the same."

But in other areas the government is making progress. More than 23% of all government electricity comes from renewables and 35% of all its waste is recycled, a significant improvement on last year.

The commission, which describes itself as government's "critical friend", says the intention of making central government carbon neutral by 2012 is "extremely difficult to achieve" without major "offsetting" of emissions by purchasing credits, which "should only be implemented once all possible reductions have been achieved", says the report. It recommends that each department urgently reduces its annual energy budget and only uses air travel when there is no alternative.

All of this just serves to underline my belief that government target setting can often degenerate into displacement activity for actual action. The progress that has been made is welcome but one does not get the sense that Ministers have fully signed up to the sort of changes that will be necessary if they are to meet their aims.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Oakeshott Bill may be blocked

Today's Guardian is reporting that Labour and the Tories will join forces to block a Bill being introduced by Liberal Democrat peer, Matthew Oakeshott, which would have tightened tax laws to make sure that only full British taxpayers resident in the UK could sit in Parliament's upper house.

Under the bill, peers would have to be "resident, and ordinarily resident and domiciled, in the UK and no other country for tax purposes". One of the first victims of the measure could be the multimillionaire Tory donor Lord Ashcroft, who has business interests in Belize and who has not spelled out his tax status, though the Conservatives deny that this would be the case.

Whether there is now a way forward on this matter has yet to be seen. The Conservatives have indicated that they may support a Bill introduced by Labour backbencher Gordon Prentice, which they consider to be "less draconian", whilst the Government, despite saying that they support the intentions behind the Oakeshott Bill, are arguing that it is not their place to back non-government legislation such as this.

It is funny how the establishment closes ranks at times like these, isn't it?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Targeting the children

I am more than happy to join other civil libertarians in condemning the latest half-baked idea to come out of Scotland Yard, namely that primary school children should be eligible for the DNA database if they exhibit behaviour indicating they may become criminals in later life.

Liberty Director, Shami Chakrabarti, has denounced the plan to target youngsters: 'Whichever bright spark at Acpo thought this one up should go back to the business of policing or the pastime of science fiction novels,' she said. 'The British public is highly respectful of the police and open even to eccentric debate, but playing politics with our innocent kids is a step too far.'

Chris Davis, of the National Primary Headteachers' Association, said most teachers and parents would find the suggestion an 'anathema' and potentially very dangerous. 'It could be seen as a step towards a police state,' he said. 'It is condemning them at a very young age to something they have not yet done. They may have the potential to do something, but we all have the potential to do things. To label children at that stage and put them on a register is going too far.'

Davis admitted that most teachers could identify children who 'had the potential to have a more challenging adult life', but said it was the job of teachers to support them.

What causes me the greatest sadness though is the assumption behind the proposal that children are not entitled to a second chance. One mistake, one moment of aberrant behaviour and they are on a police database for life. What sort of society is that?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Patti Smith in Laugharne

Why have I not heard about this before? The Laugharne weekend is on from 28th to 30th March and includes in its line-up, Richard James, formerly of Gorky's Zygotic Mynki, Lionel Shriver, Will Self and Patti Smith doing a show in the Millennium Hall and the Boathouse..

The programme also boasts the cast of Twin Towns reading the script. Will Rhys Ifans be there and will he be bringing Sienna Miller back to Laugharne with him?

Naturally, Patti Smith is sold out but there is still a lot of other events worth attending and it is just an hour's drive from Swansea.

Watch out Hay-on-Wye, West Wales has arrived!

Poverty of delivery

Just when you thought that we had a government which was committed to tackling poverty, they have to step in and dash all of our hopes.

The Times reports that the reality of recent budgets is that, far from helping low paid workers, they will be worse off. This is not really news, it was predicted this time last year by the Liberal Democrats in the budget debate itself, but the figures are sobering nevertheless.

The paper tells us that more than 1.8 million low-paid workers face losing 60p more for every extra £1 they earn as a result of tax changes that come into effect next month. They say that the scrapping of the 10p starting rate of income tax and the clawing back of tax credits from those earning more than £6,420 will actually deepen the poverty gap.

Figures included in this week’s Budget show that the numbers now subject to tax rates equivalent to 60 per cent or more will exceed 1.8 million in the coming year, compared with 760,000 a decade ago. According to former Transport Secretary, Stephen Byers, poorly paid people are facing a reduction in their income of over 60 per cent — higher than millionaires who are paying 40 per cent income tax.

The Government has unveiled a number of schemes, which it says will help to lift people out of poverty, but whilst the tax and benefits system is stacked against them, the chances are that they will have only minimal impact.

Friday, March 14, 2008

We are what we eat

All this fuss over a few frozen potatoes. Who would have thought that Delia Smith could generate such high emotions? The Times has an explanation of sorts:

No, this howl of outrage is about more than the meat content of tinned mince. It reflects how food has been turned into a moral issue by those who seriously believe that we are what we eat. Thus the way to prove your wholesome character is through conspicuous consumption of the “right” foods. The flipside of such snobbery is that cheap or processed food is seen as the mark of cheap people, morally as well as nutritionally deficient. This heats up an old prejudice. In The Intellectuals and the Masses, John Carey notes how the likes of T.S. Eliot, H.G. Wells, John Betjeman and George Orwell railed against the “soulless” tinned food of the masses. These elitist prejudices are fashionable once more, expressed in the language of eco-ethics.

To these critics, Delia's real heresy is to shun the politics of food and insist that the only proof of the pudding - such as her chocolate cake made with frozen mash - is still in the eating. Her missing ingredient is the self-raising righteousness of chefs who tell us to research and make friends with our food.

Delia may simply be offering a practical alternative to those food-porn recipes that few will cook. But she also reminds us of a wider truth about how our society - especially the female half - has advanced by reducing the effort we put into the basics of existence. As another old favourite of mine, Karl Marx, put it, “Economy of time, to this all economy ultimately reduces itself.” Or as Delia said in Monday's show, she likes quick, easy recipes “because there are other things in life apart from eating - although eating is pretty good”.

Bigotry and ignorance

A report in today's Telegraph indicates that tolerance and enlightenment still remain alien concepts to some senior members of the Catholic Church:

A senior Roman Catholic bishop has accused homosexual campaigners of a "huge and well-orchestrated conspiracy" against Christian values.

The Rt Rev Joseph Devine, Bishop of Motherwell, 70, said during a lecture in Glasgow that homosexual rights organisations aligned themselves with minority groups and attended Holocaust memorial services to project an image of "people under persecution".

The bishop, who is president of the Catholic Education Commission in Scotland, added that he would "not tolerate" a child trying to come to terms with his or her homosexuality. Homosexual rights campaigners said he was "deluded".

As Cynical Dragon points out homosexuals are represented at Holocaust Memorial Day because Hitler slaughtered gays as well as Jews and gypsies. If this is representative of the teachings of the Catholic Education Commission in Scotland then maybe they should review which century they think they are in, and I am speaking here as somebody who was brought up a Catholic.

Race against time

The announcement yesterday that the All-Wales Convention will not report until late in 2009 has led to inevitable accusations that the Labour Party are seeking to kick the whole referendum issue into the long grass:

Pro-devolutionists immediately warned that the timing of the report would seriously hamper any plans for a referendum within the current Assembly term.

Liberal Democrat leader Mike German warned supporters of a successful referendum they were in a race against time.

He said, “Labour are trying to delay and delay and delay and meanwhile keep Plaid Cymru dangling on a string.”

He expects a General Election to be called in 2010 and fears the competition between the parties will prevent a successful campaign for a Yes vote.

Conservative Assembly leader Nick Bourne – a supporter of further devolution – said, “It is increasingly clear the Labour-Plaid coalition’s aim of a vote before May 2011 is not going to be achieved.”

Mr German believes that if a successful vote is to be held the foundations for a Yes campaign must be laid now.

He said, “The timetable – with the convention set to report by Christmas 2009 – makes it clear to me that we must start a Yes campaign as soon as possible. If we wait until the Convention is over, we could have less than a year to put the case for greater powers.”

I think that we are all familiar with Labour's coalition-building tactics by now, pushing controversial deal-breaking issues onto commissions and conventions so as to stay in government, and then quietly shelving the outcome. They did it with PR for local government and with the Richard Commission, I suspect they plan to do the same with the All-Wales Convention.

Those Plaid Cymru members who believe that this Convention is the first step on the road to nirvana need to think again. It is already clear from the timetable that Labour hope to push the whole issue back until after the next Assembly elections when they will be looking for a fresh deal from a less demanding partner. Their problem will be that all the parties will be wise to their tactics by then and they will not find us such a push-over again.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Golwg and the FA Cup

I suppose I should be flattered that the Welsh Language magazine, Golwg cannot resist referring to me in their gossip column, but I really wish they would get their facts right.

This week they suggest that I had to be pushed and cajoled into signing a Statement of Opinion tabled by my colleague, Jenny Randerson, congratulating Cardiff City Football Club on their success in reaching the FA Cup semi-finals. On the contrary, as the record shows, I signed it at the first opportunity and had no problem doing so.

Despite supporting the Swans, I am more than happy to celebrate the success of any Welsh club. The quid quo pro of course is that when I table a Statement of Opinion congratulating Swansea City Football Club on becoming Coca Cola Football League One champions, then Jenny Randerson will be expected to sign that.

Burnham Wood comes to Dunsinane

Peter Hain is in the news again, warning that the One Wales Government needs to shape up by ploughing more investment into private companies or risk losing out to India and China. He has told BBC Wales that the Welsh government has given too much priority to spending money on public services:

Mr Hain said ministers have tended in the past to focus most of their effort and investment on the public services and schemes like free prescriptions and breakfasts.

He said: "I was happy about free prescriptions and the latest decision about free hospital parking. Everybody likes that. None of us likes paying these charges.

"But is this the priority for the future is the question that I'm putting.

"We've got to make a really hard choice, focussing our spending on skills, on infrastructure, on technology, on research and development."

He added that he was worried for the future if his warning were not heeded.

He said: "I do not think Wales can compete with China and India in the future, let alone with Eastern Europe today unless we have the best skills, unless we have a growing private sector which is able to compete on the world stage.

"If we don't get that, then Wales will limp along and we won't build on the success we've had in the last 11 years.

"We'll limp along and eventually lose out so it's as big an issue as that for me."

The former Welsh Secretary clearly fancies himself in an elder statesman role, however if he carries on in this vein Rhodri Morgan may consider that he is more akin to Banquo at the feast.

A growing rift?

There is a case for taking stories about rifts in the One Wales Government with a large pinch of salt. After all it is in the interests of both sides to play up differences now and again and to take a particularly macho stance so as to keep their more sceptical supporters on board and to give them some room for manoeuvre in their campaigning.

I am not therefore taking this latest spat between Plaid Cymru and Labour over the referendum on full law-making powers for the Assembly very seriously. Nevertheless it does cast a light on the tensions between the two partners, not least over whether the referendum will take place before 2011 and how we will build cross-party support for a 'yes' vote.

We are still waiting to see what the All Wales Convention is for and how it will help to make the case for a full Welsh Parliament built on the Scottish model. My view is that unless it is a cross-party campaign then it is not worth having. We can sample public opinion all we like but our role should surely be one of leadership and that means getting out there and making the case in an effective way.

Labour would also do well to heed Adam Price's words. He said: "If anyone thinks the Labour Party can walk away from an agreement it has signed up to, they are not living in the real political world.” The referendum is clearly more important to the Nationalists than any of the real improvements they can bring to people's lives in government.

As the coalition founders on the rocks of undeliverable promises, Welsh Labour conservatism and financial stringency this plebiscite will become more important to Plaid. It will be the only possible gain from their decision to ditch the rainbow and sign up to yet another four years of Labour Government. If they are not able to deliver on that either then Plaid's first foray into Government will be seen to be a failure. No wonder Adam Price is annoyed.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What is in a name?

As if they did not have enough political correctness to complain about in the UK, today's Daily Mirror runs a story about the French banning a number of English words from everyday usage. Amongst the words on the banned list are 'fast food, takeaway food, low-cost airline, blog and Wi-Fi':

The 65-page list, on a government website launched this week, singles out more that 500 English words and gives the recommended native Gallic alternative.

Sports commentators are asked to avoid "coach" and "corner" and instead say "entraineur" and "coup de pied de coin".

A spokesman said: "French is a living language rich enough to speak for itself without the need for hundreds of English expressions."

Officials are appalled by the English "invasion" watering down their culture.

And new technology has further stoked fears they are under siege.

They urge their countrymen to stop saying "email" and "podcast" and to start calling them "courriel" and "diffusion pour baladeur".

The spokesman said: "The word derived from the brand iPod. Its usage in French is causing confusion." It is the latest move by the nation's panicky heritage guardians, who have also tried to cut down the broadcasting of English rock songs and Hollywood films.

In itself this is an interesting story but what makes it disturbing is that within the Ministry of Culture there actually exists a group of language enforcers, known as the General Commission for Terminology, guided by the Academie Francaise.

I take it that they do not have Kafaesque language monitors on every street corner taking notes and throwing transgressors into the Bastille, but it sounds like they would like to. Will we now have a similar list for the Welsh language?

Rape crisis centres

The New Statesman has launched a campaign to help secure proper funding for Rape Crisis. In their article they reveal that the number of Rape Crisis-affiliated centres in England and Wales has nearly halved from 68 to 38 since 1984.

They write that the British Crime Survey suggests there are more than 300,000 rapes and serious sexual assaults each year. Most are not reported. One in four women have experience rape or attempted rape. One in seven women have been coerced into sex. Yet conviction rates have plummeted from 33% in the 1970s to around 5% now. Rape Crisis have provided help for countless victims of sexual violence many of whom only come forward years after being attacked.

Sign the petition supporting this campaign here.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Getting real on child poverty

The new Welsh Children's Commissioner this morning, echoed views expressed on this blog, and questioned whether the target to cut child poverty in half by 2010 can be achieved. He went further by describing the target as a "red herring" and "unrealistic". He said that the UK and Welsh governments should explain now how they planned to end child poverty by 2020.

In many ways Keith Towler has highlighted the main weakness of the target culture that has overwhelmed government since 1997. Targets are set far into the future so as to give the impression that Ministers are doing something, without inviting too much scrutiny, and then they are quiety forgotten about until it is too late.

In this case the fight against child poverty in Wales is stalling because of a lack of joined up and long term thinking by Labour’s Westminster and Welsh Governments. There are still around 140,000 children in Wales living in poverty and recent figures show that the numbers are increasing. If you take into account the costs of housing, the Government will miss its child poverty targets by a wide margin.

The Child Poverty Strategy has helped the easiest-to-reach families through the tax credit and benefit system but there is an emerging hardcore of parents who are far harder to help, especially lone parents, disabled parents and some ethnic minority families.

Getting parents into sustainable employment is a very important part of the solution. But jobs need to be secure and long term because parents going in and out of work can cause more damage to the child. We need to target more education funding at pupils from underprivileged backgrounds and improve the provision of quality childcare in the most deprived areas in Wales.

In the longer-term, the Government needs to look at how to support better those who simply cannot work, as well as a more flexible and tailored approach to other parents, if it is to live up to its pledge to eradicate child poverty. It also needs to put its money where its mouth is and reform the benefits system so as remove the disincentives that currently exist to stop some parents going back to work.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Assembly Quiz Part Three

A further 20 questions from the quiz put together by John Jenkins from the BMA. Parts one and two are here and here. There are 160 questions in all so this one will run and run. Answers are in the comments.

41. Who was described by the Western Mail: ‘Has matured into more than the megaphone politician she used to be’?

42. Whilst out canvassing, which AM walked up a newly laid concrete drive which was still wet?

43. When asked what would be the first law he would pass if he ran Wales said: “Genetic breeding of parrots so that they could live wild in Wales”?

44. Which former AM grew the biggest onions in the world in 1975?

45. Which AM is a collector of first-edition James Bond books?

46. Whose ambition is to open a vineyard?

47. Which AM strongly supported a campaign for the right to die at home?

48. Whose favourite pop group in the 1970s was the Jam?

49. Which AM said: “I’d rather go to prison than carry a Big Brother ID card”?

50. Who was described by the Western Mail as ‘a feisty AM good at local campaigning’?

51. Which AM holds a pilots licence and comes from a family of aviators?

52. Whose mother’s first cousin is Llew Smith MP?

53. If he could write his own epitaph, he decided on: ‘He saw, he listened, he delivered’?

54. Whose favourite film is ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’?

55. Which AM passed her driving test after being elected to the Assembly?

56. Which AM’s old school was also the alma mater of Harold Wilson?

57. Which AM was accused of trying to alter his home address to add value to his property?

58. Who joined a political party because his daughter was invited a complete a placement in the office of an AM – and enjoyed it?

59. Who had her first kiss in the Celynen Collieries Institute and Memorial Hall?

60. Who said: “I’m a committed socialist and I believe in working for Wales to become an independent socialist republic”?

Our terms for Government

Unlike Jonny Wright I did not read Nick Clegg's speech as a rejection of coalition government. As the Guardian report makes clear, what Nick was doing was defining our terms and for once it will not be small policy gains that determine our future but a fundamental restructuring of the process of government itself.

As it happens I do not accept the premise that because we are in favour of proportional representation then we must automatically be ready to enter any coalition going. Our overriding priority must be what is good for the Country and if we cannot get a deal on that basis then we must be prepared to walk away. There are other models of government under a PR system apart from coalitions including majority government, minority governments and less formal assurance pacts.

Nick Clegg's insistence that in the event of a hung Parliament he will only form an administration with another party committed to a "new constitutional settlement" involving wholesale reform of the governance of Britain is absolutely right in my view. The present constitution is broken and does not serve us well. Proper reform will benefit the whole country and change the way that we do business.

The chances that there will be a hung Parliament remains remote. However, Nick is right to get this out of the way now so that we can concentrate on our own agenda. We now have a leader capable of attracting the public's attention. We should make use of that advantage to define the Liberal Britain we want to build.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Homes for all

Today's debate on housing shares a common factor with many motions that come to Liberal Democrat Federal Conference, it makes an attempt to acknowledge and take account of the devolution settlement but does not quite make it.

The motion is starred as applying to England only but in fact two proposals, one to create a level playing field for Council tenants by giving them an alternative to stock transfer and the second, suggesting changes to the way that Housing Revenue Accounts are administered, impact on Treasury policy and thus would apply across the whole of the UK.

What is unusual about the motion is that unlike the vast majority of those that now appear at Conference it reads as an uncosted wish list, and a very expensive one at that. The proposal to build 1.3 million new affordable homes across England is very worthy and may well be affordable. However, if at the same time we are to use public money to remove various injustices in the housing subsidy given to local Councils, pay off any debt they may have built up over the years in building and repairing Council housing and change Housing benefit rules so as to put Council's on an equal footing with Housing Associations, then things start to get very expensive indeed.

These last proposals are not set out in the motion but they are a direct consequence of creating a level playing field and creating a fourth option for tenants. They are all very worthy goals but can we afford them?

My view is that we need to prioritise. Stock Transfer puts social housing in the third sector but still heavily regulated by Government and it also enables the improvement of tenants' homes without a significant cost to the public purse. If, by doing that, we can then use what limited resources we have to provide affordable homes to those struggling to get on the housing ladder, then shouldn't that be our priority? It is up to Conference of course, but really, on housing as with everything else, we do need to recognise economic reality.

Welsh blog wins Lib Dem award

The Liberal Democrat Campaign for Gender Balance awards for women bloggers came to a head in an award ceremony last night. Two Welsh bloggers had been shortlisted for best blog by a non-Liberal Democrat woman. They were Betsan Powys and Bethan Jenkins. The results are here.

As you can see Betsan Powys won a well-deserved award in a competition presided over by a number of distinguished judges. There is a certificate, which I will be passing onto her in due course.

Update: I have now had the list of judges. They were:

Saturday, March 08, 2008

More on Europe

Martin Kettle has a thoughtful and insightful piece in the Guardian this morning that is worth quoting. Talking about the three line whip ordering Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain on the vote to decide whether there should be a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, he says that Nick Clegg had no choice. The Liberal Democrat leader was between a rock and a hard place:

'No party can ever be satisfied with a shambles. Yet while acknowledging the damage, it is important also not to exaggerate it. The Lib Dems will recover. Nick Clegg's fledgling leadership is not at risk. Indeed Wednesday night's abstention and pro-referendum rebellion was probably the least worst option for the party. The free vote that some of Clegg's critics advocate on the Lisbon treaty referendum would have seen half of the party in the pro-referendum lobby and the other half, including Clegg himself, in the anti. The derision that would have greeted that damaging spectacle would easily have eclipsed the derision provoked by the abstention. And anyway, Europe isn't a free-vote issue.'

He goes on to discuss the British attitude to Europe:

'....the fundamental problem has always been the vicious circle of fear and ignorance driven by the anti-European press.

In theory it ought not to be impossible to replace this vicious circle with a virtuous one. There was an arresting illustration of this in a Europe-wide survey about attitudes to the European parliament released in Brussels this week. Like most attitude surveys conducted in the EU, this one found that the British are not just the most sceptical on many European issues but also the most ignorant. No other nation knows less and trusts less. No other nation underestimates its clout more (we are the polar opposite of Italy, which massively exaggerates its influence). But our scepticism and our ignorance are two sides of the same euro coin.

Nevertheless the survey showed that the British have an agenda for Europe. Along with the peoples of most other European nations, the British are keen for European institutions to stand up for human rights and sexual equality as the union's prime values. Is this not striking? We want to promote human rights and equality yet we face a permanent propaganda campaign against the Human Rights Act, against the European courts and, in the context of the now defunct EU constitution, against the charter of rights and freedoms - all of which have been relentlessly portrayed as threats to British ways and values rather than the embodiment of them that they really are.

The same survey also revealed that British public opinion has important policies it wants the European Union to pursue. The top priorities for the EU, according to the voters, are to combat terrorism and climate change. Putting such policy priorities into effect would presumably require coordination in judicial and policing systems, in the case of terrorism, as well as a common approach in the international arena to deal with both terrorism and climate change. Yet the anti-European case in the Lisbon treaty debates is dedicated to preventing precisely those possibilities. So far this conspiracy against the public will has carried all before it.

Maybe it is time the Liberal Democrats started to make the case for Europe and how it can actually benefit us more stridently.

Pay and things

I do not really want to get into a debate about the alleged 8.3% pay rise for Assembly Members, largely because there are fixed views on both sides of the argument and I do not believe that anything I say will convince anybody, but also because I am reluctant to become the unofficial spokesperson for everybody else. However, I think that it is right that I state the facts.

An independent Commission was asked to review Assembly Members' salaries in light of the additional powers and responsibilities we have taken on as a result of the Government of Wales Act 2006. They noted that in Northern Ireland MLAs receive 84% of an MP's salary, whilst Scottish MSPs are on 86%. In contrast AMs receive 76.5% of the money paid to an MP.

Having considered all the evidence they recommended that AMs pay be restructured so as to reflect the new position. As the chair of that independent review said: "the principal reason for recommending the rise was that AMs were doing a new kind of job since the Government of Wales Act 2006. They are having to look at primary legislation for the first time. That shows that Welsh assembly members are doing a bigger job with increased responsibility and complexity, more committees."

I accept that the timing may not be the best but we are not responsible for public pay policy. This change has been on the cards for some time. Personally, I have supported the position that the recommendations of independent review panels for professions such as the Police and nurses should be met in full and I would not want to make an exception here.

What is interesting in all this is the position of Plaid Cymru, if they can be said to have one. Nick Bourne is absolutely right to accuse the six refuseniks of political opportunism but even if we were to accept that they are genuine in their outrage it is becoming increasingly clear that they are not speaking for the whole of their group. The media have portrayed this row as the nationalists taking a principled stand but in reality the majority of Plaid AMs have been quiet on this issue and nine of them look like they may take the increase. They seem to be in a bit of disarray.

It is ironic too that as the party who believe most strongly in a full law-making independent Parliament, Plaid appear to be the least prepared to accept the consequences of that in terms of the cost to the taxpayer. Instead they seem content that AMs are remunerated on a lesser basis than members of other UK legislatures, effectively a Parliament on the cheap.

Paying politicians is always a controversial issue. It has not been helped by recent scandals around expense claims at Westminster. However, we are more robust in the way that we monitor expenses in Cardiff Bay and intend to take a harder line still. All AMs work a 70 hour week and deal with complex legislation and difficult political matters.

We cannot switch off our job once we have entered the sanctuary of our own home. We are often working late into the evening and most weekends. It is also a job wrought with uncertainty. We are effectively on a short-term contract, subject to the will of the electorate.

We have responsibility for ensuring that government works smoothly and spend many hours dealing with the problems and issues raised with us by our constituents. It is a job I enjoy very much and I accept that I am privileged to have the opportunity to do it. However, as with any other profession there must be a rate for the job and that rate must be set by people independent of those doing it. That is what happened this week.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Oop North!

Apologies for falling back on the old bloggers phrase, 'blogging will be light for the next few days', however it really is going to be busy over the weekend.

The Queen of course, is coming to open Swansea Leisure Centre for the second time today. She first opened it in 1977 but it was closed in 2004 as a result of a failure to maintain it properly. Thanks to significant investment by a new Welsh Liberal Democrat led-administration we now have a brand spanking-new centre to rival anything on offer anywhere else in Europe.

Once I have left all the celebrations I will be on the road to Liverpool for the Federal Liberal Democrat Spring Conference. I will have my laptop with me but cannot guarantee how much time I will have to blog.

Update: I have just re-read the etiquette guide for the royal visit. At the end is a list of 'prohibited items'. These include knives, scissors, firearms or component parts, explosives or component parts, pyrotechnics, thermos flasks, any liquids, unusual electrical items and all items not clearly identifiable. Well, yes!

Pouring fuel on the fire

The Daily Telegraph reports that motorists could be paying £5 a gallon for petrol within weeks if the Chancellor implements the 2.35 pence a litre rise fuel duty in the Budget. We are told that the Treasury has enjoyed a £4 billion windfall over the past 12 months, largely thanks to the extra tax it has been able to raise in Petroleum Revenue Duty from the North Sea and VAT which rises along with the cost of oil.

Despite this the volume of traffic on our roads continues to grow as does daily traffic congestion. Perhaps some of this extra revenue should be spent on beefing up public transport alternatives so that people have a real choice in their method of travel.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Challenging expectations

When I was doing my A-levels my teacher gave me some good advice which I have brought with me into my working life - always challenge the assumptions behind a question. As Liberal Democrats we are constantly challenging the so-called political consensus, that is what we do. In these circumstances, when faced with a straight yes-no choice on a bogus question, a principled abstention is not just possible but it is a requirement.

It is for that reason that I thought that Nick Clegg was absolutely right to order his MPs to abstain on the issue of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty last night. I would also defend the right of individual MPs to defy that order and troop through the lobbies to promote a contrary view. The other liberal tradition of acting according to individual conscience is one that I value very highly.

Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians are not party ciphers, they are first and foremost representatives acting on behalf of their constituents. The party bond comes in the liberal principles we hold in common as opposed to the collective actions that other parties insist on to measure the loyalty of their representatives. In the vast majority of occasions that leads us to act and vote together instinctively and that is how it should be.

If the Lisbon Treaty is 95% of the constitution on which all the parties based their pledge of a referendum then the current set-up minus Lisbon is 90% of that constitution. Those now calling for a referendum on Lisbon are using it as a means to undermine the European project. They are instinctively anti-European but do not want to put the real question in front of the British electorate of whether we should stay in or get out because they know that it is an argument they cannot win.

When Gordon Brown accused Nick Clegg yesterday of wanting to re-open a debate he believed to be settled in the 1970s, he could not have been more wrong. Since that referendum in 1976 the European Union has changed beyond all recognition. The institution we are faced with today is being shaped by geo-political pressures outside its control and as a result it needs to modernise to reflect those changes.

To focus on just one part of that change is to lose perspective and presents the danger of leaving us with an institution that is not fit for purpose. At the same time we need to recognise that there is a lot wrong with the European Union that needs to change. We cannot have that debate around just the latest in a long line of treaties, we need to decide on the more fundamental issue of whether we wish to be part of this process or not and in doing so recognise the reality of the interdependent world we now live in.

The use of language

I reported a few days ago on desperate Labour politicians taking one sentence out of context on a Liberal Democrat blog about Llandudno so as to grab a few headlines.

Will they be so quick I wonder to jump on the words of the leader of Conwy Council who, on Radio Wales a short time ago, described the communities around the Dolgarrog Aluminium plant as an "area of real depravity"?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Shattering the myths

Genewatch UK have published their rebuttal to ten myths, which they say have grown up around a National DNA database.

In the e-mail they send to me they explain that "In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but not in Scotland, people's DNA, fingerprints and police records are now kept permanently, even if they are never convicted of an offence. DNA is taken on arrest for any recordable offence, without consent, from the age of ten. Recent high profile cases, and new figures on the numbers of prosecutions resulting from DNA matches on the Database, have been used to argue that DNA should be retained permanently from unconvicted people. However, neither the figures - which show a higher DNA detection rate in Scotland - nor the cases - which do not rely on indefinite retention of DNA from the unconvicted - support this view."

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Llandudno revisited

A lot of excitement in the north this morning as the Labour Council Group leader on Conwy Council takes a swipe at my colleague and fellow blogger, Stephanie Ashley, for her account of the Conference weekend in Llandudno.

Steph has apparently committed the sin of talking about Llandudno as a place where English people retire to, which is a fact. Except that she used rather less prosaic language. I thought that her response to the controversy was spot-on:

But she insisted: “No offence was intended to the people of Llandudno and I’m sure few will over-react like the council leader.

“It was a light-hearted remark about a town which impressed me.

“Llandudno is a great place to have a conference. No wonder people think it is a great place to retire to. I’m flattered Ronnie Hughes has made reading my blog such a priority.”

The whole tenor of her blog entry was one of being impressed with the town and its facilities. I suppose that when there are local elections in the offing and the possibility of a headline this does not matter too much to the local Labour Party.

Free Parking

The announcement by the Welsh Assembly Government that they are scrapping parking charges in Welsh hospitals has caused quite stir, and that is just within the Labour Party.

The English Health Minister, Ben Bradshaw has hit out at the decision, saying that it does not make sense to spend NHS money on "subsidising" car parks. In return the Welsh Health Minister has accused him of "sour grapes".

Mr. Bradshaw did not stop there however. He went on to say: "In Wales, you have to wait much longer for your operation, you have to wait much longer in A&E [accident and emergency]. You're not going to enjoy the extended GP opening hours that patients in England are soon going to be enjoying. Those are the priorities that we think the English patients are more interested in, rather than subsidising anyone who wants to park in a hospital car park for free." A quite astonishing attack on the One Wales Government's priorities, and very much in line with Peter Hain's attack in the House of Commons last week, when the former Secretary of State argued for tough spending decisions in Wales with a moratorium on handouts and a bigger private sector.

The Welsh NHS Confederation has said the reforms will "inevitably" put pressure on NHS trusts, which collect more than £5m in car parking revenue. And it is certainly true that the One Wales Government is delivering this on the cheap. It will add to the financial pressure felt by many trusts around Wales. If the Government were going to do it the least they could do was to replace the lost income.

Welsh Liberal Democrat Health Spokesperson, Jenny Randerson has picked up on this theme by accusing the Welsh Government of "ill-considered popularism" and arguing that free parking risks a situation where the most vulnerable will not be able to access vital health services:

She said: "The principle of free parking is fine, I’m all in favour of free parking for those in greatest need, but I have serious doubts about the way this has been done.

"The way the Minster has introduced this will effectively work as a fine for all Trusts that have long term arrangements in place. That money will have to be taken out of front line care, as the government has not announced that it will be giving any extra.

The government has addressed one unfairness, but is in danger of creating another. At a stroke of the pen, the minister has removed a powerful incentive for hospital staff and patients to use public transport or car share. The reality is that car parking will be much more heavily used. There is a real danger that staff will fill up all the best parking spots first thing in the morning, meaning that the frail and vulnerable have to walk much further to enter the hospital.

"The Minister has given us all free parking – but the unintended consequences of this mean that many of us will find that there is no parking at all. In urban locations, with Trusts no longer receiving an income from parking, there will be no incentive to police the car park, and abuse could be rife. What’s to stop commuters and people who work in the area making the most of the free parking?

"The Minister’s ill-considered populism will come back to haunt her."

Welsh Liberal Democrats pledged during the Assembly election in 2007 that they would review parking charges at hospitals as one of their first acts in government.

Mrs Randerson added: "I agree that there is considerable unfairness in the way parking charges vary across Wales. But we have to be pragmatic. I would have preferred a system where those who have to make multiple visits, those on benefits and those visiting the long term sick can get their parking charges refunded."

I can think of one example where this may happen, Singleton Hospital in Swansea. This facility is situated next door to the University and in an area where there is particular pressure on parking spaces. There is a real possibility that the Hospital car park will fill up with cars belonging to students and staff, leaving precious few spaces for NHS staff, patients and relatives.

I support the general principle of free parking in hospitals but I agree with Jenny that the way the Government has gone about this is all wrong. It is not right to take much needed income out of the NHS without replacing it, no matter how small a proportion it is of their total expenditure, nor should the Government remove mechanisms by which Trusts are able to regulate and police the use of their car park. A simple device of refunding fees to certain categories of patient at reception could get around that one.

Will the devolution project founder on such lack of imagination? I hope not, but then I am not really sure what the current Welsh government are about? We seem to be lurching from freebie to freebie without any clear sense of direction or purpose. Ministers no longer trust people and communities to find their own solutions to problems, instead they impose them upon us. Our schools, hospitals and universities are crumbling around us whilst money is squirrelled away in reserves or spent on 'special projects'. Meanwhile, the Government's handling of the economy and much-needed European convergence funding looks ham-fisted and lacks coherence. Who would have thought that a government could so dramatically lose its way so early in its term?

Monday, March 03, 2008

Setting targets

This morning's Western Mail reports on the conclusion of the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee that the Government is set to miss its target of halving the number of children living in poverty by around one million unless more resources are made available and further reforms are made to the benefits system.

In particular the Committee expressed concern that the Jobseekers Allowance regime was too inflexible to cope with the "complexity" of many lone parents lives, particularly those with disabled children.

Some of us have been arguing for some time that the 2010 target was unrealistic simply because the Government is not working in a joined-up enough way to achieve it, if it can be achieved at all. The big imponderables in this calculation are fuel and housing costs, which are largely outside the control of government and which can impact severely on a person's ability to make ends meet.

It is right that Government continues to make tackling poverty one if its key aims, however in doing so they must invest in improving opportunity for our poorest children, particularly in education, as well as making the transition from benefits to work as easy as possible for their parents. That includes benefit reform but it also involves investment in childcare, better public transport, training and skills.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

42 may not be the answer after all

I have just picked this up from yesterday's Guardian. They are reporting that there is a very real possibilty of a government defeat on plans to detain terror suspects without charge for up to 42 days.

A survey by the paper has found that as many as a third of the party's 205 backbench MPs could rebel against the government. A lot of credit for the possible loss of this proposal is being given to Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, who is engaged on what is being dubbed the "war of the tea rooms", a series of debates with Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, held before Labour MPs.

Whether the change in the law goes through or not appears to hinge on the votes of opposition parties such as the Democratic Unionists.

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