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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Going negative

I caught the Wales Labour Party political broadcast on BBC2 last night. I was just finishing off some work when it came on so I paused to watch it.

In many ways it was predictable stuff but I believe that it also marked a new low in negative campaigning. If Labour are to be believed the Welsh Liberal Democrats have emptied all the local prisons in an effort to find candidates. Utter tosh, but it was insulting to the electorate and failed to recognise the huge amount of good work being carried out by Welsh Liberal Democrat Councils as well as those run by other parties in tackling crime and anti-social behaviour.

I would be very disappointed indeed if these sort of negative attack ads are to become part of the political culture here as they have in America. They devalue the political process and put people off voting. By all means parties should campaign on their own record and that of their opponents but they should not rely on lies and gross distortions for ammunition.

I had rather hoped that at a national level at least the Labour Party might have more dignity and respect for the process. It appears that I was wrong.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Misleading and unwarranted

Today's Western Mail reports that Liberal Democrat-led Swansea Council is defending its social services staff over what it calls unwarranted attacks in election leaflets.

The council’s cabinet member for social services Wendy Fitzgerald is particularly concerned at claims the department has gone from being the best to “the worst” in Wales. She said it was deplorable social services in Swansea were being used as a “political football”.

Wendy is in fact not a Welsh Liberal Democrat but an independent Councillor. Nevertheless, her assessment of Labour's stance on this issue is right. She said: “There are some very worrying statements appearing in Labour and Conservative leaflets and one of the most alarming is the claim that social services in Swansea have gone from being the best in Wales to the worst. Nothing could be further from the truth. There have indeed been some problems in specific areas of children’s services and these are being robustly addressed.

“In adult services, however, we remain among the better performing councils in Wales.

“Thus, to denigrate an entire department that operates under considerable pressure, where staff morale is often fragile, specifically for election gain, is deplorable.

“It’s astounding that the Labour Party still seem to assume that they are the only party interested in the most vulnerable people in society and are arrogant enough to suggest that the consequence of their losing control of the council in 2004 has been a decline in social services.”

These criticisms have also been repeated in the chamber here in the Assembly by Labour AMs who, like their colleagues in Swansea, seem to have no compunction about exaggerating the situation so as to gain political advantage from the tragic death of a child. Mistakes were made and not just by the Council but Swansea's Social Services remains in good health and amongst one of the best in Wales.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Two faced

Plaid Cymru has been criticised for facing two ways over an aerospace exhibition which was previously criticised by the party as a showcase for arms dealers but is now being praised by party leader Ieuan Wyn Jones.

The Aerolink Wales exhibition at Glamorgan cricket’s headquarters in Cardiff involved major players in the aerospace industry, including Airbus UK and BAE Systems. It was organised by Aerospace Wales Forum (AWF) which is part-funded by the Welsh Assembly Government:

Plaid leader Ieuan Wyn Jones, who is Deputy First Minister and Minister for the Economy and Transport, welcomed the event, saying: “The aerospace industry plays a vital role in the Welsh economy with more than 180 companies employing more than 25,000 people. Aerolink Wales attracts global companies and provides a superb networking opportunity with the one-to-one business meetings providing an unrivalled opportunity to meet key buyers from these companies.”

But when the same event took place in the same location two years ago, it was strongly criticised by local Plaid councillor Gwenllian Lansdown.

Ms Lansdown, who is now Plaid’s chief executive, said at the time: “Even if there are no legal powers to stop this event taking place, at least we can raise our objections. I’m appalled this took place in Riverside.”

This is becoming a bit of a problem for Plaid Cymru. They are in danger of sending out a mixed message on economic development issues at a time when a large part of the Welsh economy is dependent on jobs associated with the military.

The development of a military training academy at St. Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan is a case in point. Despite being welcomed by Plaid's leadership in the Assembly there is still significant dissent within the party as to whether it should be coming here at all. Plaid Cymru's Vice-President and sole MEP, Jill Evans has been in the forefront in criticising the project.

According to this report she recently joined Assembly Member, Leanne Wood in a protest march, which called for the scheme to be abandoned. Although the two politicians are perfectly entitled to express their point of view, this lack of discipline and inconsistency within Plaid surely militates against them becoming a serious party of government.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The fixer speaks

I am currently looking through the programme for the Hay Festival at the end of May to see which events I want to buy tickets for. The on-line booking facility is not yet available so it looks like I may have to rely on snail-mail.

One talk that is looking more and more enticing takes place at 11.30am on Sunday 1st June. The entrance fee of £6 is looking increasingly like good value for money to listen to Lord Levy talk to John Harris about his political career and his memoir 'A Question of Honour'.

All of the Sunday papers are full of tales from the memoir this morning best summed up by the Observer headline, 'Revenge of the No. 10 fixer':

The peer reveals he was once asked by Downing Street staff to confront the Prime Minister over concerns about 'long massages' he was receiving from his wife's style guru, Carole Caplin. The woman once described by spin doctor Alastair Campbell as 'trouble in a designer dress' had already begun creating tabloid headlines.

In his memoirs, A Question of Honour, Levy writes that an unnamed aide had become concerned about media reports concerning Caplin: 'The concern was not just about Cherie. The main worry was Tony - specifically, gossip within Number 10 concerning visits Carole was making to Chequers to give an increasingly stressed Prime Minister long massages.'

He had been uncomfortable about doing it but told Blair there was a risk Carole might become 'not just an issue for Cherie but for you'. He added: 'Tony went bright red. I never raised the matter again, and nor did he. But he got the message.'

Nor was it the only time Levy appears to have been called on for a delicate task. The book reveals how Cherie Blair asked him to help resolve her problem with Anji Hunter, his old friend and gatekeeper, whom she disliked and wanted out. When an exasperated Hunter wrote herself a new job description and hinted she would leave if she did not get her way, according to Levy Cherie got her own back by insisting that Hunter move out of her office to make way for Cherie's staff and by banning Hunter from going on visits with Blair.

In a furious note, Cherie apparently wrote: 'Your attempt to force a change in your terms has only hardened my hostility to you. I will not allow either myself or the PM to be held to ransom in this manner.' She concluded by insisting that Hunter's contact with herself should be 'kept to a minimum'.

On the political side Lord Levy claims that Tony Blair does not believe Gordon Brown is capable of beating David Cameron and winning the next election. To be fair this is not really new. Most of us suspected this and it was one reason why Blair hung on for so long in the hope of finding a viable alternative to succeed him.

Levy continues by stating that Brown had been 'indecisive' and was 'not honest' about the reasons he failed to hold an election last autumn. His book also claims Brown knew about the controversial secret loans from Labour donors at the heart of the 'cash for honours' allegations - but blames Blair for the decision to start taking loans from donors, saying that he himself had been strongly against it. Levy also reveals that Blair decided which donors got peerages.

Blair looks to have been right in his analysis of Gordon's weaknesses as a potential party leader, though the predicted Tory victory at the next General Election is still far from certain. Indeed, unless Cameron starts finding some substance to back up the glossy image then he might find his opinion poll leads evapaorating away as the election date gets closer.

All-in-all, an hour at Hay-on-Wye does not look long enough to do this book and its revelations justice.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Meeting the people?

The Western Mail draws the contrast between the respective visits of David Cameron and Gordon Brown to Wales yesterday. Whereas David Cameron, and Nick Clegg before him, went out to meet ordinary voters and to discuss their concerns, the Prime Minister was closeted away in Swansea University's Life Science Centre and avoided any such contact.

I suppose it is just as well. There is palpable anger and genuine disappointment on the doorsteps at the performance of this government and in particular their targeting of some of the poorest people in our society through the doubling of the 10p tax rate. About 195,000 people in Wales only pay the 10p tax rate. Their income tax rate has doubled overnight.

How this plays out in the local elections on Thursday has yet to be seen. Recent Labour literature is starting to stress local issues and asking people to ignore the national picture. I get the impression though that many Labour voters will either stay at home or vote for another candidate, if they believe that person can win.

As this happened in 2004 as well for different reasons, it is possible that the outcome will not be much different for Labour. On the other hand, with opposition parties better entrenched in those seats they won four years ago, it is possible that they will have the resources to go after others. Under that scenario Labour could well perform badly again and lose more ground.

Friday, April 25, 2008


I have just spent the morning delivering leaflets in a semi-rural area of Swansea. Whilst in full flow I was stopped by one resident who informed me that the BNP had been there the day before.

Apparently, they arrived amongst the small group of houses in two cars and with a motorcycle outrider. They drove from house to house and a woman leapt out to deliver a leaflet at each. In the meantime the motorcyclist and the drivers of both cars kept an eye out for any trouble.

My informant was appalled. He felt their methods were intimidatory. One thing is certain, it was not the most environmentally friendly way of getting a message across.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Eurfyl does it again

They really cannot shut him up can they? Plaid Cymru's economic adviser and Lords wannabe, Eurfyl ap Gwilym is in the Western Mail again, this time criticising the priorities of the One Wales Government.

Dr ap Gwilym is disappointed at the relatively low spends in Wales on transport and scientific research:

“These are policy areas where extra spending could have a significant impact on our prosperity. Our spending on research and development is very low in comparison with England and Scot- land, and transport is also under- funded in comparison with elsewhere in the UK. Improving the transport infrastructure is vital to improving the economy.”

Dr ap Gwilym said a further consequence of the decision to spend such a high proportion of the Assembly Government’s budget on economic development was that other major areas like health and education were seeing their share of public expenditure in Wales decline. Health spending in Wales went down from 107 in 2002/3 to 103 in 2007-08, and education from 109 to 102.

These seem like fair criticisms to me, though we do have to remember that Wales has traditionally spent more on using grants to attract new businesses here. Nevertheless it does seem like a bit of an own goal. After all the Minister in charge of all these budgets is the Plaid Cymru leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones.

Tory hypocrisy

I have searched long and hard through the now-abandoned Rainbow Coalition document for any mention of the scrapping of ministerial cars. In the light of this article you might have thought that the Tories would have insisted on it. Alas it is not there.

It is a fact that chauffeur-driven cars were available to Conservative Ministers when they were in power. I can well-remember scenes of protesters banging on the roof and shouting abuse as Tory Ministers were driven to safety (and often back to England) at Eisteddfods and many other events.

Darren Millar describes the current administration as “champagne socialists” as if this particular drink was reserved only to the monied classes, which his party has traditionally represented. One rule for the Tories, another rule for the rest.

I do not want to defend the cost of ministerial cars. It is right that we apply proper scrutiny to such matters. But do we really have to be treated to the spectacle of so much Tory hypocrisy at the same time?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Plaid defend Gordon Brown

A rather bizarre experience in the Assembly Plenary meeting this afternoon when the Plaid Cymru Leader and Deputy First Minister got on his feet to defend the Westminister Labour Government and Gordon Brown's decision to double the 10p income tax rate.

Who would have thought that they could lose their soul so early on in the One Wales Government?

Amnesty launches new 'waterboarding' film

Amnesty International has today launched a hard-hitting new film about “waterboarding”, the practice of torturing prisoners by partially drowning them.

Amnesty’s film, called “Stuff Of Life”, is set to be one of the strongest campaign films ever seen by cinema-goers when the film is shown from early May. What adds to the Stuff Of Life's “shock value” is that it is effectively “disguised” as a bottled water or vodka advert, filmed in the “glossy” style usually seen in luxury consumer goods advertising.

The short film, can be viewed online here and will be seen on some 50 UK cinema screens from 9 May, portrays a torture technique that is currently the subject of intense controversy in the United States, where CIA officials have recently admitted that their operatives have waterboarded “war on terror” prisoners in secret interrogations.

The waterboarding admissions, alongside revelations that videotapes of CIA interrogations have been destroyed, have fuelled intense debate about US treatment of prisoners in fighting terrorism. However, despite growing concern about waterboarding and other abusive practices, US President George Bush recently vetoed a bill that would have outlawed such so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Funding a higher purpose

The scale of the Welsh Labour-Plaid Cymru Government's failure to support our Higher Education Institutions was laid bare yesterday with the publication of a report by the Higher Education Fundng Council for Wales that has revealed that the Higher Education funding gap between England and Wales has widened by a massive 50%.

The investment gap has increased from an alarming £40million in 2004/05 to a huge £61 million for 2005/06.

Commenting on the figures, Kirsty Williams, Welsh Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Education said: “While the Plaid Labour Government play around with free laptops and free car parking our Higher Education institutions and the future of our knowledge-based economy is being hung out to dry.“China, with its stringent education system and work ethic, is fast showing that 'knowledge' is a key asset in setting the course for sturdy and vigorous economic development. The importance of the 'knowledge economy' is only set to grow, so why is the Plaid-Labour Government failing to invest in its future?"

It seems that the Minister has been sitting on this information since last Autumn and her continued denial of any gap simply adds insult to injury particularly when it is estimated that the gap is continuing its upward trend. HEFCW are predicting that the gap will get even bigger next year.

The increasing funding gap is making it harder and harder for Wales to compete with England in the quality of education delivery. This is nothing to do with the high quality of our institutions, lecturers, researchers and students but simply because our Welsh Government is not investing in the sector.

Criminal Record

The Welsh Liberal Democrats hit back yesterday at the misinformation put out by Labour about our record on crime. Welsh Liberal Democrat leader, Mike German, said that Labour is guilty of “trying to look tough on crime” without tackling the causes of crime:

More than six out of 10 of all adult offenders (65%) are also convicted again within two years of release, he said, adding that more than half of all offenders do not have the skills required to enter the vast majority of jobs and that only one in five was able to fill out an applications form. Mr German said that while the number of people “being banged up” had increased, so had the fear of crime.

He also condemned that “things like stones being thrown at car windows, litter, dogs being left free to roam in places where they are a danger to children, has got greater”.

Calling for an increase in community policing, he also demanded new thinking about drugs.

Insisting that the current policy isn’t working, he said: “I think we need to distinguish between those who are selling drugs and those who are using drugs. We come down like a ton of bricks on people who are selling drugs – we just need to be ruthless. We can’t do anything else. But I think you have to look very carefully at each individual user of drugs to see whether or not they could be helped to get out of that drug habit.”

The party claims 70% of prisoners suffer from two or more mental health disorders. It wants more drug treatment facilities and mental health beds.

The party is also demanding a nationwide roll-out of the 101 non-emergency telephone service used to report antisocial behaviour.

Labour's reaction was not just predictable but almost hysterical. Welsh Office Minister Huw Irranca Davies accused Welsh Liberal Democrats of 'letting criminals run free', an assertion that is rhetorical nonsense and untrue in fact. Let us be blunt it is not local councils who run the open prison in Usk, where prisoners often escape and run free. It is the Labour Government, of which Mr. Irranca Davies is a member.

Mr. Davies alleges that Liberal Democrats voted against 'Labour’s tough legislation to crack down on antisocial behaviour in our neighbourhoods', an assertion which is misleading. It is true that we opposed curfews for young people, but we have supported every other measure laid by the Government including Anti Social Behaviour Orders. In fact a number of Liberal Democrat Councils, including Cardiff have since supported curfews in some communities. At least we are prepared to admit that we might have been wrong on that particular issue.

The Welsh Liberal Democrat record in Councils we lead stands comparision with any Labour-run Council. In Wrexham, the Welsh Liberal Democrat-led coalition has invested in 56 PCSOs to work across the borough, including a specialist anti-social behaviour team. This has resulted in impressive reductions in crime figures.

In Cardiff, the Welsh Liberal Democrats, along with South Wales Police, have invested money to save the successful 101 non-emergency number after Labour announced plans to axe it. The number takes 500 calls a day and has had a demonstrable effect in freeing-up police time.

Even Labour have admitted what a great job we are doing in Swansea. Labour Minister Andrew Davies said recently: “On a recent visit to Swansea, Vernon Coaker, the Home Office Minister, identified its community safety partnership as a model of good practice in terms of dealing with anti-social behaviour. The local authority, South Wales Police and others are working together to identify ways in which they can deal with this issue, which is most important to our citizens.”

Welsh Liberal Democrats in Bridgend have piloted the first ‘No Cold Calling Zone’ in the borough in Llys Faen. The scheme aims to protect vulnerable residents from bogus calls and allows them to develop the confidence to deal with uninvited callers.

There is a lot more. Considering Labour has been in power for eleven years and have signally failed to deal with this issue themselves, then Mr Irranca Davies really does protest too much.

Another engagement

According to the BBC, Lembit Opik has got engaged to his Cheeky Girl girlfirend, Gabriela Irimia.

Personally, I won't believe it until I read it in Hello magazine complete with full photo spread.

Update: A closer reading of the article reveals that it has appeared in Hello.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The guru speaks

At last, some commonsense from Plaid Cymru economics guru, Eurfyl ap Gwilym. Plaid's Lords-wannabe believes that the Welsh Government will find it difficult to sustain costly policies such as free prescriptions in the face of a fixed budget and without having the powers to vary taxes or to borrow money. He also believes Wales is lagging behind England in capital projects for the NHS and education because of the failure to find an alternative to the Private Finance Initiative:

“One of the Assembly Government’s early acts was to abolish prescription charges across the board at an estimated annual cost of £30m. Now £30m is quite a modest sum when compared with the Assembly’s annual budget of £14bn. Yet, because the Welsh government has no tax-raising or borrowing powers, there was no question of the cost of this policy being paid for through increased taxation or additional borrowing. Given these constraints the question arises as to whether or not this was the best use of the £30m of taxpayers’ money. Should we be subsidising middle-income people or should we spend the money elsewhere to support those with greater needs?

“Another example of the pressures that the present devolution arrangement places on government is university tuition fees. In England universities are now allowed to charge tuition fees of up to £3,125 per student per year. Many leading universities are calling for a sharp rise or removal of this ceiling. Student-paid tuition fees are becoming a significant... source of funding for English universities. However, top-up fees are not levied on Welsh students. This means that either universities have to be compensated by the Assembly Government for this loss of income or they will suffer under-funding.”

It is estimated that the funding gap between Welsh and English universities is £50m a year.

Dr ap Gwilym concludes: “... Are too many politicians in Wales unwilling to differentiate between polices which might make sense in the case of a government which has taxation and borrowing powers, but which do not in our situation where we have discretion over spending but none over taxation and borrowing? Now that the rapid growth in public expenditure is at an end, it is time for members of the National Assembly to face up to some of the realities of devolution.”

Clearly, Dr ap Gwilym is using this article to make the case for greater law-making and fiscal powers for the Welsh Assembly but in doing so he presents a very cogent criticism of the present Labour-Plaid Cymru One Wales Government that in its programme of government, has presented us with a series of unaffordable gimmicks, many of which will take funding away from core services. This includes free prescriptions, which Dr. ap Gwilym believes is unaffordable under the present funding regime, though I place top-up fees in a different category and believe that there are clear advantages of persisting with this policy irrespective of the financial problems it poses.

How responsible is it for Plaid Cymru to continue to pursue this agenda when even their chief financial advisor believe that they are steering for the rocks?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Another nail

Now the Trade Unions have joined in the criticism of Gordon Brown and his policy abolishing the 10p tax rate. In today's Observer TUC top man, Brendan Barber, accuses the Prime Minister of being lured by the 'siren voices' of those campaigning for the super-rich and the corporate elite. Harsh words and ones that could do real damage in the run-up to the local government elections on 1 May.

Even the Foreign Secretary is joining in, though he uses far more diplomatic language. Writing in today's News of the World David Miliband says that Labour is now the 'political underdog' and that the Prime Minister has to 'see the world through the eyes of voters'.

As if Labour did not have enough problems a poll in the Sunday Mirror today gives the Tories a 10 point lead on 40 per cent, while the Liberal Democrats have gained two points at 19 per cent. The local government elections could prove to be really interesting.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Hanging on the telephone

Matt Withers has the lowdown on what happened after former Welsh Office Minister, Rod Richards, was arrested outside his home after an altercation with Conservative canvassers:

As any keen student of TV crime dramas will know, once you're arrested you only get to make one phone call.

Who did former Welsh Conservative leader Rod Richards opt for when he was arrested following a fracas outside his Cardiff home last night? A loved one? His solicitor? Or, er, a journalist to let the press know exactly what had just happened to him...?

Those boots are made for walking

It has been a mixed week for jobs in this part of Wales, what with the bad news of redundancies at 3Ms and Trostre.

On the bright side there is the 1,200 plus jobs at Amazon's new 'fulfillment centre' in Jersey Marine. Welcome as these jobs are they cannot compensate those who face losing a well-paid manufacturing job elsewhere.

The Amazon building is huge. It covers 800,000 square feet. A comment on the South Wales Evening Post site drew my attention to the job adverts which underlined this fact.

Applicants are being warned that they maybe required to walk up to 12 miles per day within the centre whilst wearing safety boots. The Amazon workers will certainly be fit.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Golden hello

Oh, dear! Just when you thought that the previous Welsh Labour Government's policy of paying older Councillors to stand down in 2004 could not lose any more credibility, somebody comes along to prove us wrong.

The Western Mail reports that Eunydd Thomas, who left his Carmarthenshire County Council ward after receiving a so-called “golden goodbye” of at least £16,000 from the Welsh Assembly Government in 2004, is now canvassing for re-election, claiming “great demand” for him to return to the post.

The Welsh Government have admitted there is no legal reason he can not do so, despite saying four years ago that only councillors who had “no intention” of ever standing as councillors again could apply for the money.

This latest revelation comes on top of the news that the impact of the golden goodbyes in lowering the average age of Councillors in Wales was zero. In fact the average age went up a bit. The whole scheme was misconceived and a waste of £1.6 million of public money. Isn't it about time that the First Minister admitted this?

A story of indecisiveness

The Prime Minister's very own brand of indecisiveness is spreading to the rest of his government. A perfect example is Angela Smith, the Labour MP for Sheffield Hillsborough and Private Parliamentary Secretary to Yvette Cooper.

Ms. Smith sat through Gordon Brown's last budget in March 2007 and even praised it publicly, describing it as "good for Sheffield, good for the country and good for ordinary working families.” She then deliberated for a year on the most controversial measure in that budget, the abolition of the 10p tax rate, before voting for it in the budget resolutions last month. In fact she was part of the Treasury team that introduced this measure.

Yesterday, she indicated that she intended to quit the Government because of the impact the abolition of the 10p tax rate would have on poorer working families. The Guardian now tells us that she has changed her mind. Like the Prime Minister she appears to be frozen in the full beam glare of public opinion.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Dirty Tricks

This morning's Western Mail reports that the former Secretary of State for Wales and Neath MP, Peter Hain, is claiming to be the subject of a dirty tricks campaign to discredit him and his campaign team.

The paper tells us that in recent weeks, the text of damaging e-mails purporting to have been sent by members of Mr Hain’s campaign team have been circulated. Some have been sent to the Western Mail while others have gone to Guido Fawkes. They say that it now appears that many of the e-mails have been faked:

The RSPCA has this week investigated the content of some of the e-mails which falsely suggests that one of its employees in Wales was using its premises to campaign for Mr Hain.

They were identified as fakes because they purported to come from an e-mail address which included the domain name @rspca.co.uk.

A check with the charity’s IT department confirmed that the employee concerned could not have sent e-mails from such an address. The domain name included in the charity’s e-mail addresses is @rspca.org.uk.

One of the fake e-mails relating to the RSPCA also suggests that former Cardiff council leader Russell Goodway – who played no part in Mr Hain’s deputy leadership campaign – had offered to allow campaign workers to use his office “after hours”.

Other faked e-mail material purports to show another Cardiff member of Mr Hain’s campaign team attacking Rhodri Morgan and Assembly Cabinet Minister Andrew Davies for their “treachery” in failing to support the former Welsh Secretary in his bid for Labour’s deputy leadership.

The supposed recipient of most of the damaging e-mails, public affairs consultant Andrew Stallard, said he did not recognise their content at all.

This is not the first time that Mr. Hain has been the victim of dirty tricks of course, though it is unlikely that the South African secret police were involved in this particular campaign against him.

In his comments to the Western Mail, Mr. Hain says that "Someone has persistently been sending material designed to discredit me to the right wing Guido Fawkes website. Some of the material has also been sent to the Western Mail. In the main it has been fabricated.

“My campaign failed and as a result of this scapegoating and these dirty tricks, I have lost my Cabinet job. The whole thing is a surreal nightmare and I don’t know what is behind it."

He has every right to be annoyed, but the Electoral Commission may well disagree on the reasons he gives as to why he was forced to resign from the Cabinet.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Double Top

I am feeling a bit apprehensive at the moment because I have just won the ballot for private member's legislation. However, it is not just a measure I am tasked with producing but a Legislative Competence Order as well. It seems that I have won both ballots!

My LCO will seek to take powers for the Assembly to change the electoral arrangements of local Councils. This would enable a future Government to bring in proportional representation for local elections.

My Measure will put a duty on local government to provide facilities for young people. It seems to me that we spend enough time criticising a minority of youngsters for anti-social behaviour but we do not ever provide a place for them to go and work off their energy constructively at night.

We will see if I am able to convince other Assembly Members to support me in these proposals.

Is Dr. Who welsh enough?

The Western Mail carries an interesting article today in which Merthyr Tydfil-born actor Richard Harrington alleges that Doctor Who “doesn’t reflect Wales”. Mr. Harrington alleges that “The show could have been made in Birmingham and it would not have looked any different.”

On this issue I agree with Dr. Who producer, Julie Gardner who says that, “Doctor Who has made a significant impact on broadcasting, the creative industries and the wider arts in Wales.
“Through its huge success it has put both Cardiff and Wales on a global map."

“It uses local talent both on screen and behind-the-scenes, with the majority of the production team consisting of Welsh people."

“Torchwood’s impact has also been considerable. It is filmed in Cardiff, using mainly Welsh actors and is a very obviously Welsh production. These two productions have raised the profile and credibility of Wales as a world class location for producing world class programmes."

“They are developing local talent and supporting local services. The benefits they have brought to Wales should not be underestimated.”

BBC Wales also produces Ashes to Ashes which is filmed entirely in London, in contrast to Dr. Who, which uses Welsh locations. Elsewhere in the paper, Deputy First Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones asks for more. He wants BBC Wales to produce more programmes for the network.

It is hard to disagree with him but perhaps he is better directing his fire at ITV Wales first. The only production they have put on for the ITV network so far is H.G. Wells' 'The History of Mr. Polly'.

Free for all?

It appears that the number of people registered with GPs in Wales amounts to three million, a whole 100,000 more than those resident here. Is this the lure of free prescriptions encouraging the English to cross the border in search of a doctor? The Western Mail clearly thinks that may be the case.

On the other hand those who support free prescriptions dismiss the suggestion of health tourism and say that the disparity is down to students and people looking for work. Personally, I don't think that explanation is credible. There may well be a perfectly credible reason for the disparity between registrations and population but we have not heard it yet.

It sounds like more work is needed to get to the truth behind this statistic and that we need an in-depth and independent report on the free prescription policy if we are to fully understand it's impact on NHS drug bills, doctor's time and the health service. We might also seek to find out if this policy really has meant better take up of medicines by the sick as is claimed.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Assembly Quiz Part Five

The next 20 questions from the quiz put together by John Jenkins from the BMA. We are past the halfway stage now and on the home straight. Part Four is here. Answers will be put in the comments later.

81. Who said: ‘I read I was toast while I was eating my toast’?

82. Which AM was welcomed by First Minister Rhodri Morgan as the new member of Parliament for……?

83. To whom was First Minister Rhodri Morgan referring when he said: ‘ You live even closer to me, coming from Michelston le Pit; you have sown barley next to my house’?

84. Who described sitting in Gordon Brown’s seat on a train as ‘a pleasure and a privilege’?

85. Who said: ‘I say to this Assembly and to the people that I am not the boss. They, the people are the boss’?

86. Which AM was described by Rhodri Morgan as a ‘retread’?

87. Which AM was postmistress of a post office?

88. Who said: ‘You make me blush Presiding Officer’?

89. Who referred to Rhodri Morgan as ‘a colleague and a comrade’?

90. Which AM claimed to be an avid reader of the ‘Morning Star’ newspaper?

91. To whom was Andrew Davies referring when he said: ‘When he referred to the great Edwardian edifices in our capital, I was not sure at one stage whether he was referring to himself’?

92. Which AM quoted from a song by Welsh language pop group Edward H Dafis during a debate (we will come together, we will come together in harmony)?

93. Who was described by Nick Bourne as rising ‘off her seat like our first moonshot, with all the grace and thrust that she always has’?

94. Who described himself as ‘an anglo-Welshman who is rather incompetently learing Welsh’?

95. Which AM’s wife speaks Irish?

96. Who described the ‘One Wales’ document on the partnership between Labour and Plaid Cymru as ‘a gripping and compelling read’?

97. What has Rhodri Glyn Thomas and Ian Paisley got in common?

98. Who referred to the residents of Japan as ‘Japs’?

99. Who is the Counsel General?

100. Who said: “I do watch my weight, although I am not in WeightWatchers.”


I had the privilege this morning of launching some very important initiatives being taken by the Assembly Commission to open up our decision-making processes through new technoloogy.

The two flag ships of this programme are the e-petition site which is now live and can be found on the Assembly website and Senedd.tv which is currently being beta-tested and will be available more widely in May.

If you want to help beta-test this site then contact the Assembly Commission here and ask for the relevant password. You will then be able to watch our proceedings live on your computer in equivalent quality to the BBC i-player. You will also be able to access a searchable archive.

Other developments we will be advancing through the website are on-line forums and instant polls, currently centred on the Heath Committee's investigation into presumed consent for organ donation.

We are also running an on-line poll for “Welsh Idol”, the Assembly’s Quest to find the nation’s favourite person will also be launched. During February, suggestions for an Idol were made by visitors to the Senedd and a shortlist of the most popular ten names (including Ray Gravell, Katherine Jenkins, James Hook, Hywel Dda and Joe Calzaghe) was announced on St David’s Day. Voting will continue until August when the Welsh Idol will be announced during the National Eisteddfod in Cardiff.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The 42-day dilemma

As if Gordon Brown did not have enough problems with his backbenchers today's Guardian reports that even his cabinet is split over the need to force through new laws to extend the maximum detention of suspected terror suspects from 28 to 42 days without charge. An embarrassing defeat is looming.

Gordon is beginning to look even more accident-prone than John Major.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Shuffling deckchairs

Well this is sensible isn't it? Do I detect a certain amount of frustration and a feeling of powerlessness amongst Welsh Assembly Ministers? Perhaps they do not have enough to do that they have to start interfering with local government as well. Maybe, they just do not understand that local democracy means making decisions locally and Councils being accountable to local people for their decisions.

Either way, the last thing that local government needs is another reorganisation to distract them from delivering services. If they are struggling to meet the Welsh Government's targets now then see what happens when you impose organisational change on Councils with the inevitable five year-plus settling down period that follows. Frankly, if all this Government has to offer is to reorganise at the first sign of trouble then it has hit the rocks.

In the midst of all this the most intersting comments come from Professor Steve Martin of Cardiff Business School. He said that a reduction would not be as effective as different-sized councils need to offer different services:

"Simply to reorganise and have a number of larger councils is to miss the problems that we need to address in local councils. So its not a radical enough solution, if you want," Prof Martin said. "The optimum size for delivering education is a very different sized council to the one that maybe is the best size for delivering waste management. So really what we need is a service-by-service solution.

"In some cases we will want several councils to cooperate together, to work in partnership perhaps to deliver a waste management service," he added. "In others you'd want even smaller councils than we've got now, maybe operating at a neighbourhood or a very local level."

Alas, that too amounts to a reorganisation. We have to ask what happened to the much-vaunted Beecham review and its vision of everybody working together to deliver services at the optimum level. It does not seem so long ago that it was being promoted as the best thing since sliced bread. Maybe the current local government Minister needs to re-read it. It could go some way to meeting Steve Martin's vision too.

Will a dead badger become the new symbol of devolution in Wales?

On Friday I was circulated the copy of a stock letter to be sent out by Welsh Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians with regards to the Labour-Plaid Cymru's proposed attempt to control bovine TB by culling badgers.

The letter stressed that, 'the Welsh Liberal Democrats support an integrated approach to tackling TB which involves the identification, containment and eradication of this disease, with the long term aim of eradicating Bovine TB through the use of vaccines. In light of this I welcome the commitment by the Welsh Assembly Government to pursue a programme for the eradication of TB in Wales.'

It then goes on to set out a number of reasons why the author of that letter believes that a cull is necessary concluding:

While thousands of cattle are killed each year due to TB, the control of badgers has so far remained unchecked and the spread of this disease is currently rising at a rate of 18% per annum. An integrated approach is therefore crucial to facilitate the eventual eradication of this devastating disease. The Assembly Government programme will commence with a one-off test of all herds in Wales to identify and remove all infected cattle. This will take place in line with the establishment of a single pilot area which has been identified as a TB hotspot for a targeted cull of badgers.

I understand that culling wild animals is a deeply emotive topic, however I do not see that my support for this programme compromises my passion for the environment or for Welsh wildlife. Over 23,000 cattle were slaughtered last year across the UK due to TB and infected badgers suffer a slow and painful death due to the insidious and chronic inflammatory nature of this disease. My compassion for our environment must also be balanced with my compassion for people and for farmers in Wales who have suffered deeply when the disease has touched them.

Let us be clear on this and I am going to shout it just to make sure people hear me, IT IS NOT THE POLICY OF THE WELSH LIBERAL DEMOCRATS TO SUPPORT A CULL OF BADGERS SO AS TO PREVENT THE SPREAD OF BOVINE TB. That is because we have not debated it, we have not voted on it and because such a policy is utter nonsense. I will not be using this stock letter.

Up until now I have let those who have been advocating such a policy have their say without publicly seeking to contradict them. I have done so because I believed that they were letting off steam, representing the views of a significant minority of their constituents but that no rational government would take them seriously and give into their demands. I realise now that this was a mistake and although I expressed my dissent privately I regret not opposing their view publicly as well.

On Tuesday we will be voting on an incredible proposal put forward by the Rural Affairs Minister that there should be a trial cull of badgers in an area of Wales yet to be determined so as to evidence its effect on bovine TB. I will be voting against that motion.

My reasons for doing so are many but chiefly it is because such a trial is contrary to the weight of the scientific evidence, which suggests that its impact will be limited at best and that it will make things worse in other areas of Wales. The Badger Trust have produced a useful document on this which can be found here.

They say that Northern Ireland had a similar rate of bovine TB to Wales just four years ago, but has virtually halved it without killing a single badger. In contrast, over the same period, the Republic of Ireland has exterminated thousands of badgers and failed to dent its massive bovine TB problem, even though badgers are now virtually extinct in livestock areas.

The Independent Scientific Group in England carried out a ten year study, which included trials of badger culling. They concluded that culling could make no meaningful contribution to bovine TB control. Their research has been published in international, peer-reviewed journals and the authors had analysed in detail, every possible culling option before reaching their conclusion.

The Badger Trust say that 'the Randomised Badger Culling Trial in England took ten years, cost at least £50 million, was statistically robust and provides every possible piece of scientific evidence that might be obtained by killing badgers. Killing badgers in Wales will make no contribution to the body of scientific knowledge that already exists. Indeed, the (Assembly) Sub-Committee did not even bother to state what questions it thought more badger killing might answer.'

A word on terminology here. The dictionary definition of cull indicates that it refers to killing animals so as to reduce or limit their number. In this case what is being proposed is not a cull at all but a mass extermination of a protected species across a designated area, forcing badgers into other areas even though they do not tend to roam about much by nature, and as such causing any disease in those animals to spread to the 'non-cull area'.

The Badger Trust say that the current high incidence of bovine TB in Wales can largely be attributed to the lack of controls when farmers restocked after the last foot and mouth outbreak. They say that bovine TB had actually stabilised in 2000, prior to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease a year later. Since then, the number of reactors has fluctuated dramatically but increased steadily:

After foot and mouth disease, bovine TB went through the roof. The increase of 144% between 2001 and 2002 is immense. But in 2001 foot and mouth restrictions greatly reduced the number of TB tests, so the colossal increase of 177% between 2000 and 2002 is more accurate. This increase occurred because the Government caved into farming union pressure and allowed farmers to move untested cattle all over the country. This spectacularly stupid concession has cost tax payers millions in compensation payments to farmers who bought the disease onto their own farms. The NFU claimed the decision by the Government as a 'victory’. Badger populations did not increase by 177% at that time. Nor did they increase by 19% between 2006 and 2007.

We are now faced with a proposal from the One Wales Government that has been cobbled together so as to appease the farming lobby by trying to show that the politicians are doing something, even if that is ineffective. And yet as the Badger Trust point out there are examples of good practice elsewhere that may have a significant impact on this disease and ironically it is set out in the Rural Affairs Sub Committee's own report as well:

Northern Ireland has virtually halved its TB problem through better testing and monitoring of the disease:

• ‘The ability of farmers, vets and officials to access the information on individual animals in real time appears to have contributed greatly to identifying the type and location of the disease quickly and putting in measures to prevent its spread.’

• ‘The evidence we heard from Northern Ireland led us to the opinion that a regime of annual testing, funded by the government could significantly contribute to the control of TB.’

• ‘We also believe that, as in Northern Ireland, there have to be stringent controls to ensure that the annual testing regime is adhered to throughout the industry.’

There is a lot more but I want to conclude by returning to the Welsh Liberal Democrats' own 'stock letter'. That letter says that the Welsh Liberal Democrats support an integrated approach to tackling TB which involves the identification, containment and eradication of this disease, with the long term aim of eradicating Bovine TB through the use of vaccines.

That is at least a sensible way forward. Let us not ruin that approach by succumbing to the pressure of rural lobby groups. Let us reject as a way forward the barbaric destruction of protected wildlife against all the evidence in the hope of winning a few votes from beseiged farmers. We are in danger of bringing devolution into disrepute unless we vote against the motion on Tuesday.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

One Lord-a-leaping

I meant to comment on this yesterday but the demands of the local election campaign on top of my normal duties has severely restricted my time. As it is I have 1,600 leaflets to deliver before Doctor Who starts tonight so I cannot linger here long.

Plaid Cymru's wait to bolster their presence in the House of Lords looks like it may carry on for quite some time. The Western Mail speculated on the reason yesterday morning but one could not help coming away from the piece thinking that it was a bit presumptuous of the Nationalists to elect three nominees after all this time of poo-pooing the institution and then expect instant elevation from a grateful UK Government.

One suggestion is that Labour is unhappy that Plaid organised an internal party election for its nominees because it shows up Labour’s own process for nominating new peers as undemocratic. That is clearly nonsense as the Liberal Democrats have been organising internal elections for their nominees for almost a decade now.

There is of course a solid logic behind the need for more Plaid Cymru peers and I would not want to take that away from them. They have resisted the temptation for years on principle. So why should everybody else suddenly be expected to fall in behind their Damoscene conversion? It is almost worth keeping them waiting a bit longer just to hear more of Elfyn Llwyd's indignant complaining about the injustice of it all.

Mr. Llwyd told the Western Mail that, “I don’t know what more can be done about this – it’s very frustrating. I put in the CVs of our nominees many weeks ago, but after three meetings with the Government Chief Whip we are still no further forward. What has become clear is that the block is coming directly from the Prime Minister’s office.”

For goodness sake, you are bound to get your peers, but you cannot seriously expect the Prime Minister to make a special effort just for Plaid Cymru. There have been no working peers created since 2005. The reason for that is unknown but I would guess that the Government do not believe there is a need for additional members of the House of Lords at the moment, especially when they are considering much needed reforms that might bring some democracy to the Upper House for the first time ever.

Whatever happens, the next time Gordon Brown creates more peers he should include at least one of Plaid Cymru's nominees. But in the meantime could we please have a bit more dignity and a little less moaning.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Whose licence fee?

Today's Western Mail reports on the findings of communications regulator Ofcom, that licence fee funds may be needed to secure ITV Wales’ future as a public service broadcaster. Putting aside the fact that ITV Wales is not a public service broadcaster but a profit making company, it is nevertheless an intriquing idea.

I am no fan of the licence fee but at present I do not have an alternative which would secure the future of public sector broadcasting. It seems to me that the American model of wholly commercial companies competing through producing programmes which appeal to the lowest common denominator is not the way forward.

It is only subscription channels such as HBO that manage to raise their programming above the mediocre and in that particular case produce a very high quality product. I suspect though that the British audience is not large enough to sustain such a company here.

I believe that there is merit in allowing the BBC to raise more funds commercially, whilst using the licence fee to fund programmes produced in the public interest irrespective of the channel concerned. In that instance it may well be legitimate to use licence fee money to help ITV Wales sustain a rival Welsh news service to the BBC, so as to ensure that we have choice and competition. I would expect the quality of ITV Wales' news service to improve however as part of such a deal.

Surely though, Ofcom have a role in insisting that a strong regional news service is a condition of any licence to broadcast, forcing commercial companies to put more resources into this aspect of their work. They already do that in insisting on a national evening news programme from ITV so there is no reason why that remit should not be extended to the regions.

The Assembly has just set up a Broadcasting Committee to look at this and many other subjects. I am a member of it and the first meeting is Monday. I have an open mind and I am keen to listen to the evidence so as to learn more about this sector. Feel free to contribute in the comments.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Party pooper

At one point in yesterday's Plenary proceedings, the Presiding Officer paused before reading out a statement about the first Legislative Competence Order to receive Royal Assent. An adjacent AM whispered to me; "This is where we all clap." I did not join in and nor did a number of others.

This is not because I was displeased. On the contrary, the Assembly has clearly taken an historic step forward, whilst the LCO in question is both worthy and necessary, even if in itself it will not change anything. We need to pass measures to do that. My reluctance to cheer was due to my disquiet at the slow pace of reform.

One year, one LCO approved. Unless things pick up and gather pace quickly we are going to be facing the voters in three years time with little to show for our efforts. And let us be clear, it is not through lack of trying on the part of AMs or even MPs that we find ourselves in this situation. The process we have been lumbered with is cumbersome, virtually unworkable and not fit for purpose. It has been designed to slow down the process of devolution, not assist it.

There is something to be said for small gains and solid progress. However, what we are faced with is the legislative equivalent of a circular three legged egg and spoon race. We are spending time scrutinising why we should acquire additional powers in specific and limited areas, when we should be drafting real laws that change people's lives for the better.

If there is to be a referendum that transforms us into a Scottish-style Parliament then we need to get on with it. With May 2011 looming large, we are running out of time to do this during the current session. In the meantime the UK Government is throwing us small pieces of meat at irregular intervals in the hope of keeping us acquiescent. It is no way to treat a legislature.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Are our Councillors too old?

A BBC Wales survey has found that all the efforts of the Labour Assembly Government in 2003-2004 to weed out the old men and women from local Government has been in vain. In particular they claim that the statistic that the average age of councillors has risen from 61.3 to 61.7, is an indication that Labour's 'Golden Goodbye' scheme, which expended £1.6 million of public money on pay-offs to long-serving Councillors if they stood down last time, was a failure.

In actual fact, 'golden goodbyes' were adopted by just eight of Wales' 22 Councils and even in those Councils such as Swansea where the average age subsequently went down, this came about only because older Labour Councillors lost their seat to younger candidates of other parties. We said at the time that this scheme was a waste of public money and I stick by that judgement.

There is no doubt that all of our Councils could be more representative in terms of age-profile, gender and ethnicity. Ultimately, that can only be achieved through the efforts of the various parties and the co-operation of the electorate. The sort of scoial engineering being attempted by 'golden goodbyes' was not only misdirected but it was also misconceived.

As part of the mix it is necessary for every Council to have older, more experienced Councillors as well as young turks. It is no more correct to discriminate against a Councillor because he or she is old than it is if they are gay, of a disagreeable gender or of a particular ethnic group. The key determinant for voters must be if the candidates presented to them can do the job.

I do not blame the BBC for re-opening this particular issue in the way that they have. After all they are only doing their job of scrutinising the effectiveness of a particular Government policy. I just hope that the Welsh Government has learnt from all this that throwing money at an ideological nicety is not a good use of public resources.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Future data

The Daily Post leads today on the shocking figures released by the Government that 600 North Wales children were added to the DNA database in just three months. They tell us that youngsters aged between 10 and 17 accounted for around one in four new additions to the database.

The figures also show that the rate North Wales police officers took samples from under 18s was above the national average. Officials can hold under-18s’ genetic fingerprints indefinitely, even if they are released without charge.

Jenny Willott is absolutely right to claim that this practise is leading to the mass criminalisation of children. She said: “These shocking figures demonstrate just how many children are being dragged into the criminal justice system by the Government.

“There is something horribly Big Brotherish about a society that is adding over 5,000 kids a month nationally to a DNA database when they’re not even old enough to get a National Insurance Number.

“People who have never been charged or convicted with any offence should have their DNA removed from the database. It is completely unacceptable for the Government to hold the DNA of innocent people on record forever.”

Assembly Quiz Part Four

It is the first day of term so here is the next 20 questions from the quiz put together by John Jenkins from the BMA. Part Three is here, answers are in the comments.

61. Which AM once tried to brown chips with coffee?

62. Which AM describes herself as part Welsh, part Irish?

63. Which AM played on the wing for Cardiff Medics?

64. Which AM spent a day working on a hill farm during the lambing season to get a taste of life as a farmer?

65. Whose grandfather worked at Cammell Laird’s shipyard and was involved in the building of HMS Thetis which was launched and sank immediately on 1 June 1930 – a torpedo tube having been left open.

66. Name the new AMs who won their seats in the May 2007 election.

67. Who worked so late in the Assembly one night, his car was locked in the car park?

68. Which AM is a keen viola player?

69. Which AM was described by the Western Mail as a ‘political anorak’?

70. Which AM has a red dragon tattooed on a thigh?

71. Who likes to be called Oscar?

72. Which AM was once a driving instructor?

73. Name the Plaid Cymru AMs who disagreed with going into coalition with the Welsh Conservatives.

74. Which seat has the biggest majority?

75. Which seat has the lowest majority?

76. Which constituency had the biggest turn-out in the election?

77. Which constituency saw the biggest swing from Labour?

78. What part did a fax machine play in the setting up of the third Assembly?

79. What did the newly elected First Minister have to do before he was paid?

80. Name the father and daughter who stood in the Assembly election?

Monday, April 07, 2008

Those revolting Labour MPs

Yes, I know but I could not resist the headline. The serious point though is by what strange twist of fate have we managed to reach the point where the Conservatives are arguing for a more progressive tax system, whilst a Labour Government, yes a Labour Government, has introduced tax changes that penalise the lower paid members of our society?

The Guardian reports that David Cameron is to lead a campaign to overturn the government's decision to abolish the 10p starting rate of tax. So far so opportunistic:

At a news conference, the Conservative leader accused the government of "hitting some of Britain's poorest families" with the tax changes, which come into effect this week. He claimed that ministers were "kicking people when they're down".

The Tories have produced a leaflet saying how much workers could lose from the abolition of the 10p rate and they intend to make this a major issue in their campaign for next month's local elections.

They will be telling us next that they have a coherent tax policy. In fact what the Tories actually have is a rolling bandwagon. Still, they do know how to twist the knife and judging by the reaction of some Labour MPs the brothers and sisters are in some considerable pain over this budget change.

Frank Field is not an MP to hide his feelings. He said today that the tax changes "strike at the very essence of what the Labour party is still about: that's protecting the lowest paid". He told Sky News that as well as taking money from the poor, the abolition of the 10p rate was reducing incentives to work. "It's a double hammer-blow."

The main question is why it took both the Conservatives and Labour twelve months to spot this faux pas by Gordon Brown and to try and do something about it. Maybe they should have been paying more attention to Sir Menzies Campbell when he spoke in the House of Commons after last year's budget after all.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Burying the bad news

Rob from The West Wales Kite has drawn my attention to this article in Thursday's Independent, which reports that the Government has the publication of its annual poverty statistics until after the local elections next month:

The figures, normally issued in March, will be disclosed on 2 May, the day after local authority elections in England and Wales, The Independent can reveal. Many results, including the contest for London Mayor, will not be announced until 2 May and they are likely to dominate media coverage, swamping the poverty figures.

Independent experts expect the statistics to show Labour is in danger of missing its flagship target of halving child poverty by 2010 and abolish it by 2020.

The Chancellor Alistair Darling announced plans to lift a further 250,000 children out of the poverty net in last month's Budget, on top of the 600,000 taken out since 1997 but forecasters predict it will not be enough get Labour back on track.

Somehow the excuse being peddled by the Department of Work and Pensions that they want to make 'absolutely sure the statistics are completely reliable and correct', just does not cut it. This is especially so when research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests the figures will show child poverty and inequality are rising, while disposable incomes are falling. It believes the increases in benefits and tax credits in the 2006-07 financial year were not generous, leading to falls or very small rises for couples with children and lone parents.

The paper tells us that in a report for Help the Aged, the IFS forecast a rise in pensioner poverty in 2006-07, mostly because the level of winter fuel allowances in 2005 was not repeated in 2006.

It is also likely that 5.3 million low paid families will lose up to £446 a year under Gordon Brown's decision in his final Budget last year to abolish the 10p lower rate of income tax. That takes effect this week. One in five families will be affected, even when tax credits are taken into account.

The paper confirms that the IFS estimates the losers will include 2.2 million single working people with no children; 1.2 million two-earner couples with no children; 700,000 two-earner couples with children; 500,000 non-workers; 400,000 one-earner couples without children and 300,000 women aged 60-64.

Who says that spin is dead under Gordon Brown?

Saturday, April 05, 2008

The China Question

I have never been a fan of allowing the Olympics to be staged in China. When they lost out the first time I cheered. When they were awarded the games this time I was disappointed.

Many argued that if we wanted China to behave responsibly towards their citizens then we needed to trust them with international responsibilities. Alas, that is not how it has worked out. It seems that you can lead a old communist to water but you cannot make them drink.

The news in today's Guardian that police have turned automatic weapons on crowds during protests in Sichuan province, killing up to eight Tibetans, is just the latest in a series of outrages. We cannot tolerate this much longer and surely it is time that Britain demonstrated its outrage in a more tangible way.

That is why I am one hundred per cent behind Nick Clegg's call for Gordon Brown to pull out of the ceremony to welcome the Olympic torch to London this weekend. I also agree with him that the Prime Minister cannot attend the Beijing Games 'in good conscience', unless and until the Chinese Government takes steps to 'honour the spirit of the Olympics' in its conduct from Tibet to Darfur.

This is not about involving sportsmen and women in politics, it is about politicians acting in accordance to their stated principles. It is about sending a message to the Chinese that we will not tolerate their behaviour nor will they be welcome within the international community whilst they persist with these human rights abuses.

The Baglan dilemma

In the middle of the Labour stronghold of Aberavon, spread along the slopes of a rather steep hill and washing up against the M4 is the community of Baglan. It has been a long time since this ward was represented by Labour. At a local government level it is a ratepayer stronghold. In UK General and Welsh Assembly elections some of its boxes have been known to produce majorities for the Tories or the Liberal Democrats.

Today however, the voters of Baglan will be waking up to find that they are represented by two Labour Councillors. I am told that at the last minute, Juliet Hopkins and Peter Richards, first elected for the Ratepayer Neath Port Talbot group in the Baglan Ward in 2004, switched their allegiance to Labour.

Because Labour did not put up any candidates in this ward, because the other parties have traditionally given the ratepayers a clear run in this area and because the ratepayers themselves did not expect this defection and had not made any contingency for it then two Labour candidates and one ratepayer candidate have been elected unopposed. The people of Baglan have had no say in it whatsoever. I am sure that they will not be happy.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Taking water with it

Is this the swiftest u-turn ever? Probably not. Yesterday, licensing minister Gerry Sutcliffe told an industry magazine that licensees were "right to be upset" by Alistair Darling's announcement that he will raise the duty by the rate of inflation plus 2% every year until 2012. He then proceeded to encourage landlords to galvanise themselves into a coherent force and focus on how other lobby groups have forced his government to back down on controversial tax rises.

Today, he was telling the media that "My comments do not accurately reflect my views." C'est la vie. However, Mr. Sutcliffe's intervention does underline one of Gordon Brown's problems, his failure to assert authority over his party and to win respect in his own right. That was illustrated again when a group of normally loyal backbenchers tabled an early day motion criticising the impact of the abolition of the 10p tax band. OK, it took them a year to wake up to this problem but their revolt is another sign of the rumblings within the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Ever since his wobbles in the autumn Gordon Brown has struggled to establish himself as a credible Prime Minister. He has all the experience and there is no denying his achievements as Chancellor of the Exchequer, but he has not yet demonstrated that he has the cojones to lead the Country. That is clearly reflected on the doorsteps as voter after voter tells me that they do not like Brown and that they cannot vote Labour this time. As a result backbenchers and even Ministers feel able to dissent at the edges, picking off issues on which they can express their disquiet.

What Gordon Brown has to do to pull himself out of this spiral I cannot say. However, until he is able to demonstrate the leadership qualities needed to be Prime Minister by taking a few personal risks then he will continue to have problems with his backbenches.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Church in Wales reject women bishops

The Western Mail reports that senior clerics with the Church in Wales have rejected a controversial Bill which would have allowed women to be ordained as bishops.

The 140-strong Governing Body narrowly rejected the Bill which would have seen the creation of female bishops in the principality for the first time.

A vote saw the Bill defeated by just three after a day of heated debate on the subject.

As I was saying only yesterday, which century are we living in again?

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Vince and the queen

So what century are we living in exactly? OK, so Vince Cable should have known that he could not discuss the monarch but really, what sort of democracy prevents its elected representatives from mentioning the head of state in Parliament without 'prior permission'?

The BBC tell us that 'according to Erskine May, the guide to parliamentary practice, "the irregular use of the Queen's name to influence a decision of the House is unconstitutional in principle and inconsistent with the independence of Parliament".

It adds: "Any attempt to use her name in debate to influence the judgement of Parliament is immediately checked and censured."

It says MPs have been reprimanded "or even sent to the Tower" for treasonable or seditious language "or disrespectful use of Her Majesty's name".

Are we living in the reign of Elizabeth II or Elizabeth I? Vince is absolutely right when he describes these procedures as 'ridiculous'. Still it is just as well that Leanne Wood is not a member of the House of Commons. If she had referred to 'Mrs Windsor' in the Palace of Westminster she would still be incarcerated in the Tower in leg irons.


An initiative to offer free health checks to the over-40s in England will not be replicated in Wales, we have been told, because according to the Welsh Assembly Government screening is already provided for people at high risk of chronic diseases. Really?

I am not aware of any publicity for such a scheme or even how it might be accessed. I suspect that I am not alone in that ignorance. Perhaps the Welsh Government can explain how widespread this provision is, where it is advertised and who is eligible to use it. Maybe they can also explain how one secures an appointment with a GP in the first place because in many places it is almost impossible to get a consultation.

It seems to me that the English scheme offers far more value in health terms and in promoting a preventative health agenda than many of the free schemes available here. If I had the choice of spending public money on free health checks or on free parking and universal free prescriptions, the health checks would win out every time.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

BNP candidate shows his true colours

The Evening Standard reports that a senior BNP leader with a strong chance of winning a seat in the London Assembly next month has written that rape is a "myth" and that "some women are like gongs - they need to be struck regularly."

The paper explains: Nick Eriksen, the BNP's London organiser and the second-highest candidate on its list for the Assembly, is the author of "Sir John Bull," a notorious far-Right blog which has regularly advocated hatred and abuse against women. The disclosure will be a serious blow to the BNP's hopes of London electoral success.

On 24 August 2005, Mr Eriksen wrote: "I've never understood why so many men have allowed themselves to be brainwashed by the feminazi myth machine into believing that rape is such a serious crime ... Rape is simply sex. Women enjoy sex, so rape cannot be such a terrible physical ordeal.

"To suggest that rape, when conducted without violence, is a serious crime is like suggesting that forcefeeding a woman chocolate cake is a heinous offence. A woman would be more inconvenienced by having her handbag snatched.

"The demonisation of rape is all part of the feminazi desire to obtain power and mastery over men. Men who go along with the rape myth are either morons or traitors."

On 5 November 2005, in an item entitled "Give her a slap!," Mr Eriksen approvingly quoted Noel Coward as saying: "Some women are like gongs - they need to be struck regularly." On 8 November, he claimed that "the vast majority of domestic [assaults] are initiated by the woman." Mr Eriksen also wrote on 24 November 2005 that mothers "should never go out to work" and described career women as "unnatural and vile... it is a strange kind of woman who would want to invest [her] energies into her job rather than into a man."

Words fail me.

A sticky question

In many ways the publication of a report by a Committee of the House of Lords on the economic impact of immigration could not have come at a worse time. There is already speculation that the BNP may make a breakthrough onto the GLA, and whatever its merits or demerits, the general thrust of this report can only offer succour to that party.

Why that should be is complex but essentially boils down to the fact that none of the mainstream parties are really addressing the issues involved. Despite the fact that they are separate, the subjects of immigration and asylum are intermingled in many people's mind and the truth is drowning in a sea of misinformation and myth.

Talking to even the most liberal constituents on the doorsteps we hear stories about people coming to this country and being given homes, cars and benefits for nothing. The Internet is awash with semi-racist jokes making the same point, whilst ethnic minorities suffer abuse on the streets and even in their own homes. There is a strong undercurrent of Islamophobia in all of this which is not even acknowledged by most politicians.

There are of course a host of facts and figures to refute all of these allegations and a solid economic argument about the benefit of immigration, irrespective of what the noble committee of Lords might have to say on the subject. However, not only is nobody making this case on a consistent basis, week-in, week-out, but it is being undermined by other factors, not least the number of illegal immigrants who disappear into the system never to be seen again and the various scandals about prisoners who should have been deported at the end of their sentence but who instead, are living at large in Britain.

The Government do pay lip service to the problem and try to appear tough but all they succeed in doing it seems to me is to reinforce the feeling amongst many people that there is a problem. There is no public acknowledgement at the highest levels of government of what people are thinking on this subject nor any attempt to engage them in discussion on it.

Liberal Democrats have attempted a more radical approach by at least admitting that there is a problem and offering solutions to it. Nick Clegg, then Shadow Home Secretary, argued that the time has come to make the liberal case for a successfully managed immigration system. He said:

“Government incompetence has led to an immigration system on the brink of meltdown, yet ministers prefer to avoid debate over the true scale of the problem.

“We cannot continue to ignore the issue of the hundreds of thousands of people living illegally in this country. To do so does nothing to solve the problem and merely helps those traffickers who currently exploit the system.”

The Liberal Democrat Conference voted for a policy that proposed:

1. A National Border Force, bringing together the present border control functions of HM Revenue Customs, the Immigration Nationality Directorate and police guarding ports and airports.

2. The reintroduction of exit checks at all ports.

3. The Government to work closely with the European Union on immigration, especially in tackling people-trafficking and immigration crime, and shared asylum policy.

4. The Foreign Office to prioritise the improvement of visa services at UK consulates around the world, introduce a full complaints procedure and review the restrictions on rights of appeal for visa nationals.

5. The development of an earned route to citizenship, beginning with a two-year work permit, for irregular migrants who have been in the UK for 10 years, subject to:
a) A public interest test.
b) A long-term commitment to the UK.
c) A clean criminal record.
d) The payment of a charge, waived for those who have completed a set number of hours of service in the community or volunteering.
e) An English language and civics test, or proof that the applicant is undergoing a course of education in these subjects.

6. A full review of social housing allocations policies to establish best practice, so that those who have waited a long time for a home or home transfer are treated fairly, and a major programme of building social housing to tackle housing shortages for all those in need.

7. Increased fees to businesses for work permits, charged as a percentage of starting salary for those receiving the permit, with additional revenue used to fund skills training for the domestic workforce in shortage areas.

8. Extension of language lessons especially for asylum seekers, refugees and recent migrants, with out-reach programmes in some communities to identify those who would benefit.

9. Reform of the Life in the UK test to empower new arrivals to engage fully in society at every level, with a less detailed version of the test for those applying for long-term visas, and for Indefinite Leave to Remain, and ‘welcome packs’ with information about life, and culture, in the UK, for all long-stay arrivals.

10. Twinning arrangements between schools with different ethnic or social mixes of pupils, so children can mix across ethnic and religious boundaries in some classes.

11. Full ratification of the Council of Europe convention on people trafficking.

12. Transfer of responsibility for migration statistics to the Office of National Statistics, which will itself be reformed under current legislation to make it more independent of government.

This is a humane and liberal approach, which could make a difference. It would certainly send a signal that government is addressing people's concerns. However, since the change over in the Home Affairs Team things seem to have gone very quiet on this subject. Is it not time that the Liberal Democrats at least, started to promote their solutions to this issue?

That day again

Suddenly, I am wary about believing anything I read in the papers.

Did Nick Clegg really tell GQ magazine that he has slept with as many as 30 women and considers himself a competent lover or are the media pulling our leg?

Is Carrie Bradshaw really leaving the realm of fiction to attend the Guardian Hay Festival alongside Aleksandr Isaevich Solzenitsyn?

Does Iain Dale really expect us to believe that the Centre For Um is very influential in LibDem circles?

And did somebody really complain that a recent Barclaycard advert on TV was anti-Welsh because of a throwaway quip about somebody's German-sounding name? Oh, wait that last one must be true as I am quoted in the article. Or am I?

April Fool's day is here again and it is no laughing matter. Many of us are scouring the papers determined not to be caught out, hoping that we do not embarrass ourselves with our work colleagues by quoting as fact some prank that everybody else has seen through straight away.

I don't have time to even start to take in all the pranks that adorn the media today so I am not going to try. But really Nick, if you were not winding us up then maybe you could be a bit more discreet the next time you talk to a magazine journalist. I don't mind your candour, in fact it is quite refreshing, but all you are doing is playing into the media's obsession with trivia rather than real news.

Oh well, there goes any popularity I had in the Leaders' office.

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