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Friday, May 30, 2008

Government revert to type

Citizen's Advice Cymru is very critical this morning of Government proposals to overhaul the houisng benefit system, which they say will create homelessness. They argue that plans to allow housing benefit claims to be backdated by only three months instead of one year will hit some of the most vulnerable in our society:

JJ Costello, head of housing services for charity Shelter Cymru said: “The proposal to reduce the ability to back-claim housing benefit from 12 months to three represents a scandalous clash in government policy.

“The ability to backdate benefit is a key tool in preventing the homelessness of some of the most vulnerable in our communities.

“People with mental and physical ill-health, older people and young people, with no experience of the benefits system, can struggle to meet the strict claiming requirements and often, only after seeking advice, realise that they have an entitlement.

“This proposal was made, and dropped, back in 2000 and we can see no justifiable reason to risk increasing debt and homelessness in this way.”

Citizens Advice Cymru said the proposed cuts were “completely at odds” with government efforts to prevent homelessness.

This is very concerning indeed and certainly something that the Welsh Assembly Government should be making representations on.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Song for Europe

Despite Bob Piper's protestations this is actually nothing like a Liberal Democrat Conference! It is though enough to turn me into a Euro sceptic.

Another station cat

Following on from Jonathan Calder's piece about Tama the nine-year-old tortoiseshell cat who sits by the entrance of Kishi station in Japan in a railway uniform cap, posing for photos for tourists, a Guardian letter writer reveals that we have our own homegrown version.

Peter Argent tells us that Romsey station has an almost identical station cat that chases mice off the line, gets trains away on time and organises the booking office staff. Sadly, First Great Western have yet to issue the appropriate uniform. Give the cat a cap I say.

Sounds like a job for Sandra Gidley.

Cash crisis

At least one blogger has already commented with glee on the financial crisis facing the Labour Party:

The party has five weeks to find £7.45m to pay off loans to banks and wealthy donors recruited by Lord Levy, Tony Blair's former chief fundraiser, or become insolvent. A further £6.2m will have to be repaid by Christmas - making £13.65m in all. The sum amounts to two-thirds of the party's annual income from donations.

The figures are a conservative estimate as they do not include interest that will also have to be paid. A Labour source said that although the total debt was listed as £17.8m on the Electoral Commission website, the true level, with interest, was nearer to £24m.

Am I the only one to think that this sort of crisis is bad for democracy? It is right that parties need to live within their means but the demands of modern campaigning make that all but impossible. The dependence on loans and donations from rich individuals and companies is a threat to the process of government.

We desperately need new rules and regulations that restricts party political spending to realistic levels, prevents parties becoming dependent on largesse and the suspicion that surrounds such generosity and which separates elected politicians from the whole process. In return the state should offer a suitable amount of funding for an approved range of work, which will help to guarantee plurality and level the playing field for those political parties who are able to secure a certain level of political support.

Hanging on the telephone

This morning's Western Mail reports that the DVLA is among 30 organisations named and shamed by a leading consumer watchdog for making money from customers through premium-rate helplines. Apparently, the DVLA made £3.4m from its 0870 number in the last financial year.

There are a great many things that can be said about this news and no doubt they will be said clearly and loudly by a host of people. None of this should detract from the hard work and commitment of the staff, who are not responsible for this policy and its implications.

What strikes me however is that despite ripping off their customers in this way, the chance of a phone call to the DVLA ending in a conversation with a real person is actually very remote.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

When the heavens opened

From the Guardian Hay diary:

The Bishop of New Hampshire, Gene Robinson, is waiting in line for a shuttle bus to the festival. The rain is pounding. The gorgeous, purple episcopal robes are whipping about like a flag in the breeze. "Can't you do something about this?" asks a fellow queuer, gesturing at the scowling skies. "I'm in sales, not management," bats back Robinson in a flash.

The old ones are always the best.

The case for a referendum strengthens

According to today's Western Mail a study carried out by Aberystwyth University professors Richard Wyn Jones and Roger Scully has suggested that a parliament is the favoured constitutional option for Tory, Labour and Plaid voters. Their findings give fresh hope that a referendum on strengthening the Assembly’s powers could be won:

The researchers asked voters to chose independence, a parliament, the existing Assembly or no devolution as their preferred constitutional arrangement.

They found 44% of Labour supporters backing a parliament, with 30% wanting the Assembly as it is, and 13% preferring no devolution at all. A small number said they backed independence.

Of Plaid supporters, 25% preferred independence, 48% a Parliament and 15% the status quo. Liberal Democrats divided 38-38 on a Parliament or an Assembly, with 12% wanting independence.

But the Conservatives’ responses are the ones that will raise eyebrows. In the party that campaigned against devolution in 1979 and 1997 there is now 39% backing for a law-making parliament, 26% prefer the current Assembly arrangements while 27% favour no devolution at all.

The importance of this research is that it shows that despite the narrow referendum win in 1998, devolution has now become accepted by the vast majority of people in Wales. Not only do a majority of Tory voters now want to either keep the status quo or improve on it but also 76% of Liberal Democrat voters take the same view. The latter category voted 3-2 against devolution in 1998.

It is evident that a referendum can be won if only Labour and Plaid would stop dragging their heels in meaningless commissions and get on with it.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Taking politics out of politics

As a slogan, taking the NHS out of politics is alluringly attractive. After all, who trusts politicians to run anything these days? However, the reality is much more complex than that. I do not think that Dr Layla Jader does herself or her profession any credit by raising it in the way that she has.

Of course as a politician I may be expected to say that but Dr. Jader's own solution speaks for my argument. She wants to set up an NHS Board for Wales, which would be independent of direct government control, but it would be accountable to the National Assembly through a health scrutiny committee. Elected representatives from the four main political parties in Wales would sit on the board, alongside expert representatives from NHS professional groups, including doctors, nurses, professionals allied to medicine and health service managers.

So already, we have the national equivalent of a Local Health Board with politicians as its members, being scrutinised by politicians and which would implement government policy. Hardly a politics-free environment.

Dr. Jader's problem is that the health service secures the biggest slice of public sector funding. Its performance affects the lives of all of us without exception and we need to know that it is accountable for the way that it performs and that promises of reform given at elections are deliverable. That is the reason why the NHS can never be politics-free.

What we can do is to set doctors and clinicians free to make choices about the allocation of local resources on the basis of medical priorities, providing that they are acting within an overall national framework, are working efficiently and effectively and are conscious of and accountable to local priorities. We do not need an elaborate and unworkable structure to deliver that but we do need a greater level of sensitivity on the part of health professionals and administrators to the genuine concerns of their patients and the populace at large.

Maybe that is what Dr. Jader is aiming for. If so then she needs to drop the catchy slogans and sit down with all the stakeholders to discuss how we achieve her policy aims without disrupting the service too much and without setting up yet another unworkable reorganisation.

Monday, May 26, 2008


Having spent the last two days at the Hay Festival without a mobile phone signal I can completely sympathise with the point being made in this morning's Western Mail that phones in the UK should be enabled to “roam” between networks, automatically switching to the strongest signal.

It was not that I was cut off from the outside world that irked, I could live with that, it was that I was unable to contact others at the festival to arrange to meet up and had to rely on chance meetings and pre-arranged venues.

Still, at least it did not matter if I forgot to turn my phone off at an event.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


I did not attend the Cherie Blair talk in Hay yesterday but if this account is anything to go by it was quite lively. I am particularly intriqued by this part of the report:

He was, she also claimed, still an idealist. 'Am I the only person in the world who thinks my husband is a socialist?' she asked the audience.

Answers on a postcard please.

Simultaneous Display

Posts have been scarce this weekend as I am up and down to the Hay Festival. Yesterday I very much enjoyed watching Nobel Economist, Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes discuss their book, The True Cost of the War in Iraq, which they place at about 3 Trillion Dollars and Julian Barnes discussing his memoir, Nothing to be Frightened about.

The highlight of the day had to be Gore Vidal however who, at the age of 82 retains all the wit and sharpness for which he is renowned. He is backing Obama in the Presidential election and has very little time for George W. Bush.

The final event I attended was a discussion on The American Election with Jonathan Freedland, Matthew D’Ancona, Sarfraz Manzoor, Jonathan Sauven, and Kirsty Williams AM. It was an interesting debate, though I am still unsure why I paid to hear Kirsty speak when I can listen to her for free most days in the chamber or just by popping next door into her office.

Today is the big event when I take part as one of twenty people in playing a simultaneous chess display against Boris Spassky. One of the 20 players will be Ian MacNab, who is based at the Rothera Research Station in Antarctica. Another player is the comedian, Dom Joly.

The event is at 6pm in Booth's Bookshop in Lion Street (The photograph is courtesy of the South Wales Evening Post). Sponsorship is stalled at £829 although a number of people have promised money but not yet paid up. All proceeds are going to Childline. If you wish to contribute do so here. I will be pleased if I last ten moves.

Update: I actually lasted 23 moves before resigning in a lost position. It was fun.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Comment of the day

On the blog of Paul Flynn MP:

'Tamsin Dunwoody did a little better than Labour’s 24% rating in the opinion polls promised. She got 31%.'

Friday, May 23, 2008

Post of the week

Absolutely classic post from Alwyn ap Huw, well worth wider circulation.

I was also amused by a line in a later post too in which Alwyn states:

My great grandmother was an "industrial accident", a child born to a prostitute.

Annual Report

The Western Mail's Chief Reporter, Martin Shipton has published his verdict on the first year of Wales' Labour Plaid Cymru Coalition Government. It is a fair and interesting analysis:

Much of the One Wales agreement, in fact, seems deliberately vague when it comes to specific, practical commitments.

A typical phrase is “working towards”: “working towards reforming NHS Trusts”; “working towards eliminating the use of private sector hospitals [by the NHS] by 2011”, a commitment that some would see as mere ideological posturing, with the get-out that a failure to achieve the aspiration does not represent a broken promise.

From the point of view of the Welsh Liberal Democrats I was disappointed in the fact that Martin continues to insist on placing the blame for the failure of the Rainbow Coalition on the tied vote in the party's executive and in particular on Kirsty Williams. This is a myth that is often trotted out. In fact the Rainbow Coalition was still a real possibility right up until Plaid Cymru walked away from it. Martin puts forward a view that if the Welsh Liberal Democrat Executive had taken place in Cardiff rather than Llandrindod Wells then the outcome would have been different. I disagree.

It is worth noting that when the Executive convened that night there was a clear majority in favour of the Rainbow Coalition. Arguments against were muted and resigned to what was seen as an inevitable acceptance of the deal. By the time it came to a vote the mood had changed and some of those who had been initially in favour had changed their mind.

Although I did not have a vote it is my view that the reason for this change was because those advocating the deal had failed to make their case in any convincing way. They pitched their argument in terms of the party winning power rather than on the merits of the policies in the agreement. By the end of the meeting some members were doubtful whether the programme was deliverable. They believed that the deal was more about certain individuals gaining Ministerial positions rather than what the party could do for the benefit of Wales.

In the circumstances I think it is fair to say that if the Rainbow Coalition died at that Executive meeting then it was not its opponents who killed it but those who were advocating it for what were perceived as the wrong reasons.

What price free speech?

Anybody who thought that the Welsh Labour Party has changed in the face of its recent drubbing at the polls need only look at this morning's Daily Post to learn that they are still the same old arrogant demagogues.

Former Labour Minister, Alun Pugh now works for the Snowdonia Society in which capacity he is campaigning against plans to expand an airport. He has called for a a judicial review over Welsh Assembly-backed proposals to open up the airfield at Llanbedr, Gwynedd for commercial use, creating between 40 and 50 jobs.

This is contrary to the views of the Dwyfor/Meirionnydd constituency Labour party who have now called for Alun Pugh to be thrown out of the party. So much for free speech.

Another Government u-turn

Welsh Education Minister, Jane Hutt is making a bit of a meal out of her role, particularly on the Foundation Phase.

She started off by arguing that she had allocated enough money for the scheme only to be forced to back down and put in another £5 million. When schools, teachers, local Councils and opposition politicians pointed out that this was still not enough she tried to hold the line. Then she attempted to pass the blame onto local authorities who, she said had failed to provide the necessary statistics. Now she is being forced to scale back the scheme to fit the resources she has allocated to it. This is not so much a flagship scheme as a lifeboat for the One Wales Government.
This debacle gives me no pleasure whatsoever. This is a vitally important educational initiative that could greatly benefit all children. They deserve to have it in place with the appropriate resources at the earliest possible moment. In failing to achieve this the Labour Plaid Cymru Government has let down these children. What is worse is that they have failed to acknowledge their own responsibility for this failure. Today's Western Mail gives the government's excuses short shrift:

How Ministers have found themselves in this position is baffling. Given how long the idea has been in preparation, and its central place in WAG’s overall policy programme, one would have expected all the potential pitfalls to have been worked out well in advance. It seems that has not been the case.

The Foundation Phase is a good idea, one borrowed from Scandinavia but one that will, eventually, give Welsh education its own distinct flavour. Concentrating as it does on play, rather than formalised classroom teaching, it has the potential to revolutionise learning.

But questions again have to be asked about the ability of our politicians to deliver what they promise, particularly Ms Hutt, no stranger to disasters in public services.

It doesn’t do the Assembly Government much credit either to try to blame local authorities for not providing enough data for the difficulties. As we have noted before, Labour in Cardiff Bay used to make great play of its “partnership” with (until May 1) largely Labour-run local authorities. If Ms Hutt is right that County Halls were, in fact, being deliberately obstructive, then that Labour campaigning slogan is destined for the bin too.

It’s an odd argument to make, this blaming of the problem on a lack of statistical data. The Assembly Government has a statistics directorate under its nose in Cathays Park, and a foundation phase pupil, given a few minutes on Google, could find data on how many children of what age live in each of the 22 councils. The brighter ones could probably work out the funding levels needed.

What those pupils, or their parents, will not do is put up with continued bickering and in-fighting. This is an issue that needs to be resolved quickly; if there will be more money in future Budgets, Ms Hutt and Ministerial colleagues should come out and say so clearly. Otherwise this risks being another good idea that Wales has failed to drag off the drawing board.

The Minister has dug herself into a hole on this issue. She now needs to find a way out.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Killing the Cheeky Girls - The movie

Is this going to be the top-rated film of the summer? Yes, it is real. The Cheeky Girls have been on tour around Europe filming their answer to 'The French Connection'.

The press release tells us all: Billionaire actor director Alki David, 47th on the Times UK Rich List, performs extreme human experiment in a threesome with The Cheeky Girls , to create the most outrageous reality movie of all time!

Dubbed by the Star, Express and Independent Newspapers as the all-time wildest in reality pop culture, Alki David and The Cheeky Girls pull off the most the outrageous reality movie ever!

The setup: Ten people cross Europe in a tour bus on the pretence of making a music video. Four are actors. Six have no idea that they are about to be terrorized and tortured for your viewing pleasure.

Herded like lambs to slaughter, aboard the double deck tour bus, the six, wannabe holiday reps soon discover that they are accomplices in a smuggling ring trafficking drugs and illegal porn across the continent.

Believing this incredible setup all he way, there are two killings en route, a disappearance and eventually everyone ends up in a Greek Jail interrogated for the murder of The Cheeky Girls!

More details, but not a lot, are here. Somebody sent me the link, honest!

Déjà vu

I have the Assembly Finance Committee scrutiny of the Foundation Phase on in the background as I work, making use of the excellent Senedd TV facility on the website.

Having slanted their questions to the WLGA to imply that the underfunding of this valuable scheme is all the fault of local Councils, who allegedly did not meet the Minister's data needs, Labour members are now expressing outrage about the 'funding fog', which supposedly prevents much needed cash reaching schools.

If Labour are going to use this as an excuse they will also have to answer the question as to why the Education Minister has not tackled this issue earlier. This is especially so in light of the very comprehensive recommendations of the Committee on School Funding in the last Assembly, most of which appear to have been ignored.

By the way, if you are interested in this subject I very much recommend that you watch the archive video of this meeting. It really is compelling viewing.

The cost of staying warm

A new report by Energywatch confirms what we have long suspected, that consumers of electricity in South Wales are paying more for their power than anybody else in the UK. Their research shows that South Walians pay 5% more for electricity than consumers in north Wales and 10% more than those in England and Scotland, adding an additional £19 million to the profits of these big power companies.

Putting these figures into context, 270,000 Welsh households are now classed as fuel-poor, up from 130,000 in 2004, whilst we still languish at the bottom of the league in terms of GVA. Even with the massive increase in prices in recent years it is difficult to see how any of these companies can justify such regional variations in their pricing structure.


It is not so long ago that Tory shadow justice minister, Nick Herbert backed the call for "a new offence of reckless mishandling of personal data" and described the loss of data CDs by HM Revenue and Customs as suggesting "a cavalier attitude to the handling of personal information by government agencies".

Will he now be calling for those responsible for e-mailing the names, addresses, telephone numbers and intentions of 8,000 voters in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election to a radio station in the Isle of Man to be prosecuted?

As the e-mail came from the Conservatives I will not be holding my breath in anticipation.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Exposing the contradictions at the heart of the Welsh Tories

Betsan Powys started it off with her gentle reminder that the Conservative Spokesperson on Health might be out of line with the previous commitments of his Assembly Group Leader. By the time that this same spokesperson had arrived in the BBC Good Evening Wales radio studio last night his fate was sealed.

As one comment on Betsan's blog stated "Thought Felicity (R.Wales) gave Jonathan ample chance to explain himself as a caring, sharing Tory, now tacking rightwards (look out David Davis!)...and then let him hang himself over the lack (of) any logic in his position. Firmly and Politely. He sounded VERY flustered. Tough on fluster etc."

In short, the Assembly Health Minister announced yesterday that, contrary to the position over the border, failed asylum seekers will be entitled to health care in Wales. She described her position as a humanitarian approach and I agree. The Tories however, were not so sure:

Conservative health spokesman Jonathan Morgan said the NHS should be there in emergency cases, and primary care should also be available "to a point where someone falls ill". But he said Tories were "firmly against the policy of allowing 'health tourism' to flourish." He added: "Those who are not supposed to be in this country should not be entitled to the benefits that citizenship of Great Britain affords, including elective treatment and surgery."

This position seemed to contradict the actions of the Welsh Conservative Leader in April 2007. Then all four party leaders signed up to support the 'We'll keep a welcome" campaign. Pledge number 3 stated that in Government the parties would 'provide fair and equal access to services.' The background briefing included the line: "In signing our pledge cards, candidates commit to giving asylum seekers whose claims have been refused exemption from charges for treatment by the National Health Service Trusts." Oops!

Felicity Evans on Good Evening Wales tied Jonathan Evans up in knots as to whether he was contradicting this pledge or not. Opposition for opposition's sake is all very well but you do have to get your story straight.

Strong feelings

I had a meeting with a headteacher from Neath Port Talbot this morning to discuss the funding of the Foundation Phase for 3 to 7 year olds. When the phone rang to say that my constituent had arrived my office was informed that she had brought another nine headteachers with her. Following a frantic phone call to arrange a suitably sized room the meeting was able to go ahead. It was most illuminating.

Feelings on this issue are running very high. The heads told me that despite the extra five million pounds put into this scheme by the Education Minister they still face a significant shorftfall if they are to implement it. The pilot schemes clearly indicated that a teacher pupil ratio of 1 to 8 is necessary and yet schools only have half the funding necessary to deliver this.

This affects schools all over Wales. The extra money that has been found is to ensure that those schools which piloted this scheme remain fully-funded. Unfortunately, that does not help the vast majority of schools who will not be able to afford to deliver the same staffing levels. The Minister has effectively created a two tier education system for this age group. She needs to reconsider her position and find more money to deliver this very good scheme.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

On the train to Crewe

Matt Withers picks up on Lembit Öpik's frustration with the train service between London and Crewe, which produced this memorable Early Day Motion:

EDM 1612



Opik, Lembit

That this House is appalled by the unreliable performance of the 12.44 Virgin Train service on 19th May from Crewe to London; condemns the failure of Virgin staff to warn customers of a potential delay prior to the departure of the train, rejects the notion that a signal failure exonerates them from responsibility to their customers; notes that this train was packed with hon. Members, Ministers and at least one Cabinet Minister; and believes that whoever wins the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, they won't have been assisted by Virgin Trains.

Big Brother is back

No not the television show, though I understand that we are shortly to have another series of that too, but the rather the Orwellian tendencies of the Government.

This time it is a proposal by civil servants that a database be set up of electronic information holding details of every phone call and e-mail sent in the UK. The worrying thing is that I can just see Ministers agreeing to it on the rather flimsy pretext that it is necessary to fight terrorism. I cannot think of a single one who might veto the idea as the barking mad proposal it really is and who would send the relevant civil servant scuttling back to the dark recesses of Whitehall, never to emerge again.

Already the great and the good are lining up against the suggestion. The Information Commission, an independent authority set up to protect personal information, has said that the database "may well be a step too far". They highlighted the risk of data being lost, traded or stolen:

Assistant information commissioner Jonathan Bamford said: "We are not aware of any justification for the state to hold every UK citizen's phone and internet records. We have real doubts that such a measure can be justified, or is proportionate or desirable.

"Defeating crime and terrorism is of the utmost importance, but we are not aware of any pressing need to justify the government itself holding this sort of data."

To be fair the shadow home secretary, David Davis is against it too as of course is our very own Chris Huhne. He said ministers had "taken leave of their senses if they think that this proposal is compatible with a free country and a free people". He is right.

More pressure on the One Wales' Agreement?

Unrest amongst Labour activists about working with Plaid Cymru has come to a head in this morning's Western Mail in which a number accuse the nationalists of ganging up on Wales' premier party following the local council elections a few weeks ago.

Their beef is that the rapprochement reached in the Assembly does not appear to have been reproduced in the vast majority of Welsh local authorities where voters, for whatever reason, sent Labour away with a flea in their ear on 1 May.

The paper records that in Cardiff, Plaid has entered a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, while in Swansea the single remaining Plaid councillor has joined an anti-Labour coalition. In Wrexham and Ynys Môn, Plaid has linked up with Liberal Democrats and Tories. Only in Conwy, where Plaid is taking the lead, is there a coalition involving both the parties of government at Cardiff Bay.

Closer reading of the article reveals a distinct lack of Labour activists who are actually prepared to be named. On this basis it most probably would not be wise for opposition parties to dust off the rainbow coalition agreement again just yet.

I am sure that AMs in both Labour and Plaid understand the terms of their Assembly deal very well, even if Plaid do play fast and loose with it and push it to its limits far more frequently than we ever did when we were in coalition government in the Assembly between 2000 and 2003.

Bevan and Thatcher in the Senedd

These are the artworks that are causing so much controversy at the moment. The portraits of Margaret Thatcher and Aneurin Bevan have been erected in the Senedd so as to provoke debate. When I first saw it I thought that the Aneurin Bevan portrait looked a bit like Max Boyce. Now, I am not so sure.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Behind the Cheeky Girls

From the Spin Doctor column in yesterday's Wales on Sunday:

GOSH! Have we really got this far into the column without a mention of Lembit Opik, Montgomeryshire MP and fiance of one-half of a chart-averse novelty pop act?

Well, fear not, because TV viewers are about to get a glimpse into the couple’s domestic arrangements: the pair have signed up for a fly-on-the-wall documentary, Living with. . . the Cheeky Girls. The show, say digital channel Living, “will see them followed by cameras in their homes and private lives”. No doubt this will see Lembit making a guest appearance or two and frankly we can’t wait. Nick Clegg may feel differently.

Oh good! I can't wait.

The knives are out

Facing a crucial week Gordon Brown will find no relief from reading The Independent, who tell us that backbench MPs are planning to oust him if he fails to turn around the fortunes of the labour Party.

A number of MPs want to put Charles Clarke up as a stalking horse against the Prime Minister but the newspaper reckons that this is unlikely to succeed. Instead there is a move to drown Mr. Brown under a a "tidal wave" of statements from MPs that he has lost their confidence because the public have turned against him.

Meanwhile. former Welsh Secretary Peter Hain has published a perceptive pamphlet, which argues that Labour are no longer relevant to the aspirations of the majority of their constituents. He says: "It is not possible to form a Labour government by winning key marginal seats where aspirational voters predominate unless the core voters there actually turn out for the party ... The 'New Labour Ultra' assumption that core voters have nowhere else to go is plain wrong: they are staying at home, or voting for minority parties including, sadly, the BNP."

Mr. Hain's pamphlet is mostly about Wales but it has a resonance across the border as well. It is worth quoting a significant passage, taken from his article for the Western Mail:

Although child poverty, low pay and job insecurity are still big problems for too many, for the great bulk of our citizens the old problems of just surviving are not the issue anymore. Their concerns are more the quality of their lives, the character of their environment, anti social behaviour and crime. Even under the difficult economic circumstances of a global credit crunch, fears of Welsh voters now centre more on mortgages and house prices than unemployment as in the past.

Incontrovertibly, Labour has transformed Wales for the better. But we are no longer benefiting politically, because we have not transformed ourselves. Welsh Labour has been acting in office and working locally as if the “old Wales” still exists – when it has been mutating into “new Wales” under our very guidance in government.

People now rightly expect to have, not just any job, but a decent job with chance to progress; not just any school for their children but a high achieving one; not just low hospital waiting times but high quality personalised care; not just a roof over their heads but affordable housing to buy; not just more police but better neighbourhood policing. And they are right to demand this of Welsh Labour.

Central to this group of voters are modern, personalised public services. They don’t and can’t afford to opt out like the wealthy. But they need those services to be adaptable and fit around their family and work lives, including wraparound child-care.

It is a message to all parties, not just Labour. That is especially so if we are to halt the increases in the BNP's vote in recent times.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Another bonfire needed

Our friends, the Taxpayers Alliance have just produced another report entitled 'The unseen Government of the UK'. As the Sunday Times records this concludes that the cost of Britain’s “hidden state” of unelected public bodies has soared to more than £100 billion a year.

This is not necessarily a bad thing provided that Government is able to demonstrate that the money is being well-spent to provide essential public services, that the way it is being spent is transparent and that there is a clear line of accountability, which accomodates proper scrutiny by MPs. Alas, the Taxpayers Alliance report casts doubt on all of these aims.

For example they tell us that while £85m is given to the 126 staff of the Carbon Trust to advise businesses and government bodies on becoming low carbon, £22m is handed over to Envirowise to do almost exactly the same thing. There is also a third body, the Energy Saving Trust, which advises homeowners on reducing their carbon footprint. With 142 staff, it costs £43.2m.

In addition, the Food Standards Agency extols the health benefits of a low-fat diet and yet millions are being spent on food promotion bodies that implore the public to eat more sausages and chips.

We have been through this debate already in Wales. The so-called 'Bonfire of the Quangos' finally materialised when Rhodri Morgan took a decision and subsumed them into government. However, many of the promised savings did not materialise, government departments suddenly became overwhelmed with surplus staff they did not know what to do with and the ability of Assembly Committee's to properly scrutinise the actions of the newly merged departments turned out to be much less than when they were stand-alone bodies with an unelected board.

That does not mean that the UK Government should not try to get greater efficiencies and accountability out of its own Quango state, just that it should take note of the Welsh experience in doing so.

Rise of the shredder

The rise of increased transparency in public life does not suit everybody as is evident from this item in the Sunday Times. The paper tells us that some of Tony Blair’s expenses claims, which the High Court last week ruled should be disclosed to the public, have been shredded. The documents, itemising Blair’s claims for household expenses during a year of his premiership, were destroyed in the midst of a legal battle over whether they should be published.

As is pointed out it is a criminal offence to destroy documents to prevent their disclosure under freedom of information laws, but Westminster officials say they were unaware that the files were the subject of a legal challenge. They insist they were destroyed by mistake.

There is another issue here as well of course. My understanding, which may well be wrong, is that the Inland Revenue requires that documentation relating to expenses are kept for a proscribed period of time before the record-keeper is allowed to dispose of them. Was this taken into account in the decision to shred these documents?

Liberal Democrat MP, Norman Baker is absolutely right when he says that it is very convenient that some of Tony Blair’s expenses have been shredded. He adds: "This is either incompetence or obstruction of the Freedom of Information Act and should be properly investigated.”

While we are at it, we could do with an proper explanation as to how the Commons authorities are able to justify the expenditure of £150,000 of public money in preventing this disclosure in the first place. There really does need to be better accountability here.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Funding shadows

The Times reports that eleven Tory shadow cabinet ministers have benefited from secret and previously unregistered donations from wealthy backers. The cash was channelled from Tory headquarters and, in at least two cases the funding was from figures involved directly in the minister's policy areas:

The office of Grant Shapps, the Tory housing spokesman, is funded by donations from a number of mortgage brokers and Andrew Lansley, the Shadow Health Secretary, was bankrolled by a healthcare firm, the documents showed. Theresa Villiers, who has the transport brief but was previously Shadow Treasury Chief Secretary, benefited from donations by a number of investment bankers.

The question now is not why the donations were not declared but what influence these donors had on Tory policy making and the direction of a future Tory Government? One of the reasons why procedures were introduced for declaring such contributions was precisely so that the public are able to pass judgement on such matters. The Conservatives now need to make a full disclosure for the purposes of transparency and accountability.

Friday, May 16, 2008


Whilst we continue to be embroiled in the very artificial, one blog row over the regulation of publicly funded Assembly Member websites, a new factor has now appeared that may give some AMs more cause for thought.

The Guardian reveals that the House of Commons Speaker, Michael Martin, has lost a high court battle to prevent the disclosure of the details of second-home expenses claimed by 14 prominent MPs.

The Assembly Commission has already been preparing its own more detailed disclosure of AMs' expense claims but was awaiting on the outcome of this appeal before proceeding. It now seems likely that we may have to publish the address of any second home used by an AM in Cardiff funded by the taxpayer.

There is still some work to do on this and we have been told that there will be a consultation with AMs on both the nature and the detail of the disclosure before publication proceeds. Personally, I believe that it is right that we do allow the public to have this information.

U-turns in Westminster

The Guardian indicates how the mood has changed in Westminster following the humbling of Gordon Brown over the doubling of the 10p tax rate.

They tell us that the Prime Minister has sanctioned a last-ditch move to secure a deal over the proposed increase in the period of detention without charge to 42 days after deciding he would rather compromise with Labour's rebels than risk a further loss of authority by being defeated on the issue.

Meanwhile, there is further controversy over the Government's ID cards programme. An official report has warned that the government's plans for ID cards may put poorer people at greater risk of fraud, and that ministers are failing to coordinate implementation of the 10-year programme. The Independent Scheme Assurance Panel has told Ministers that people with a "rich biographical record" will have better protection when the cards are introduced by the target date of 2017. They say:

"The integrity of the scheme and trust in it are essential, yet it will never be free of errors (for example, the biometric matching services will always return some matching errors). Public trust in the scheme will be dependent on the protections within the scheme from misuse of personal data, and the diligence with which mistakes are corrected."

Poorer people could be at particular risk of having their identity stolen because their cards could be their only form of ID, unlike holders of credit cards. "Identity verification is a process and should not be dependent upon any one piece of data (biographic or biometric) alone. It is already difficult successfully to pretend to be someone who has a 'rich' biographical record - provided the verifying organisation does adequate checks. Care must be taken that confidentiality and integrity are supported by proper processes and policies are not over-dependent on technology."

Gordon Brown is discovering that it doesn't just rain when things are going wrong, it pours down.


Thursday, May 15, 2008

Westminster shows Wales how to legislate

If the Welsh Government's Deputy Housing Minister is not red-faced with embarrassment this week then she should be.

She fought tooth and nail during Committee hearings into her proposed Legislative Competence Order to give the Assembly the power to suspend the right to buy, to prevent it being widened out into a more meaningful bid for powers over affordable housing.

As soon as the LCO got to Westminster, UK Government Ministers overruled her and changed the order. This must be the first instance of MPs giving the Assembly more powers than they asked for.

And what party does the Deputy Minister belong to? Plaid Cymru of course.

Welsh Liberal Democrats in charge

The BBC report that 13 of the 22 Welsh Councils are being run by a coalition which involves Welsh Liberal Democrat Councillors. Three of these Councils are led by the Welsh Liberal Democrats. In Swansea, Wrexham and Cardiff the party strengthened its position.

In actual fact the BBC may have underestimated our strength. On their list of Councils they have failed to account for the fact that Powys is run by a board, which includes three Welsh Liberal Democrats. On the assumption that we will be involved in the administration of one of Gwynedd, Torfaen or both then this means that we are likely to end up with control or influence on 14 or 15 Welsh Councils.

The situation as it stands at present is as follows (with thanks to the BBC):

Blaenau Gwent: Independent led, with People's Voice and Liberal Democrats
Bridgend: Labour led, with three Ind
Caerphilly: Plaid Cymru led minority, with two Ind
Cardiff: Lib Dem led, with Plaid
Carmarthen: Ind led, with Lab and Lib Dem
Ceredigion: Ind led, with Lib Dem and Lab
Conwy: Plaid led, with Ind, Lab and Lib Dem
Denbighshire: Ind led, with Plaid, Lab and Lib Dem
Flintshire: Ind led, with Lib Dem and Conservatives
Gwynedd: Plaid led board - details TBC
Merthyr: Ind led board, with Lab and Lib Dem
Monmouth: Cons
Neath Port Talbot: Lab
Newport: TBC - possibly Cons led with Lib Dems
Pembrokeshire: Ind
Powys: Ind led board with Lib Dems and Tories
Rhondda Cynon Taf: Lab
Swansea: Lib Dem led with Ind and Plaid
Torfaen: NOC - details TBC
Vale of Glamorgan: Cons
Wrexham: Lib Dem led board, with Ind, Cons and Plaid
Ynys Mon: Ind led, with Plaid, Lib Dem and Cons

That 10p fudge

A bit late I know but hey, this is not a news site. Chancellor Darling's supplementary budget may well have taken the sting out of the doubling of the 10p tax rate for many but it has still left 1.1 million low-paid taxpayers worse off. It also smacks of desperation, something that the Government could still be punished for in next week's Crewe and Nantwich by-election.

It is little wonder that former Labour Assembly Member and by-election candidate, Tamsin Dunwoody, is in a state of uncertainty as to whether Gordon Brown is an asset or not. All the evidence is that he is liability, even putting his jinx on Glasgow Rangers in last night's UEFA Cup final.

So what are the facts about the Chancellor's rescue package? Well, whilst Liberal Democrats welcome the Government’s belated conversion to lifting the low paid out of tax, Alistair Darling chose to play down several of the effects of his announcement:

1. Even after today’s announcement, 1.1 million people earning between just over £6,500 and £12,800 will still lose out under Labour’s doubling of the 10p rate.

2. Of the 1.1 million people losing under Labour’s current plans, some will still lose up to £100 per year.

3. Of the £2.7bn spent on increasing the personal allowance, only around £630m – less than a quarter – will actually go to the 5.3 million people who lost out under the 10p rate, making it an extremely poorly targeted policy.

4. This additional spending will mean that net government borrowing for this year will rise to £45.7bn, a 6% increase from what was predicted two months ago and a 50% increase from what was estimated just one year ago.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Ieuan Air revisited

The old jokes are always the best. The Welsh Tories have reached into the book of faded political insults to make a perfectly valid point about the heavily subsidised airlink between Cardiff and Ynys Mon.

They said that the airlink should be renamed 'Ieuan air' because the deputy first minister is the "chief beneficiary". Plaid Cymru leader Ieuan Wyn Jones has revealed that he has used the service 42 times since its launch a year ago. Staff in his private office have used the service eight times whilst staff in his assembly government department have taken the flights on 68 occasions.

The point that the subsidy would be better used paying for more sustainable public transport is one that the Welsh Liberal Democrats have made on a number of occasions.

Freedom of speech

The Assembly chamber and the Welsh blogosphere yesterday was littered with toys thrown out of various Assembly Member's prams in response to the guidance issued by the Assembly Commission on the use of publicly websites.

It might have benefited many of those members if, instead of resorting to kneejerk reactions they had actually sat down with officials and worked out what the guidance means and how much latitude it allows them. I believe that they may well have been pleasantly surprised. It may even have saved Leighton Andrews the trouble of taking legal advice as to whether his human rights have been infringed by the guidance.

This guidance is not about censorship of course, it is about the proper use of public money. There are already rules in place on the use of Assembly resources, including what can be sent out in the post, what can be put in paid-for adverts and what restrictions apply to the use of equipment and offices. The website guidance falls within that genre. It is in line with the guidance that applies to MPs and to local Councillors who use a Council-funded site.

Personally, I pay the costs of my website out of my own pocket. The use of blogspot is free. If AMs want to be free of restriction, no matter how limited, then they can follow suit.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Moving on

The Daily Post reports that BNP North Wales organiser John Oddy and party members Paul Harley and Susan Harley who were elected unopposed to Bay of Colwyn Town Council this month have now resigned from the party:

Haulage worker Mr Harley, 62, from Penrhyn Bay, who was elected to the Dinerth ward, said: “When I joined the party I did believe that the party had changed from its former image.

“I felt the same after attending meetings where racist views were not expressed but in the past few weeks I have found out more about the party and I am not happy with what I have found out.

“I have always maintained that I was not racist, but individuals that hold racist views remain.

“My mind was made up before the attack on the house, myself and my wife did not want to be portrayed as racist, which we are not. We only wanted to represent the community.”

The trio offered to stand down from their seats on Colwyn Bay council but their offer was turned down and they will now stand as independents.

Keeping things in proportion

Interesting editorial in the Western Mail this morning highlighting the plethora of coalitions that are forming in local Councils all over Wales:

Here is a huge irony in the fact that, despite Welsh Labour’s massive opposition to the introduction of proportional representation (PR) in local government, coalition politics is now predominant in Wales.

Since the council elections earlier this month, just four of our 22 local authorities are controlled by single parties – Neath Port Talbot, Rhondda Cynon Taf, Monmouthshire and Vale of Glamorgan. Elsewhere, political groups – if they exist at all – have been forced to negotiate with others before new arrangements for running councils can be agreed. In every case, of course, the outcome has followed a “first past the post” election.

There are two ways of viewing what has happened. One is that the longstanding Liberal Democrat (and going back further, Liberal) argument that “fair” (that is, proportional) outcomes can only be achieved by introducing a PR voting system has been blown out of the water. Alternatively, it could be argued that one of the strongest objections to PR – that it would lead to no overall control – is itself redundant.

Of course, achieving a position where there is no overall control does not necessarily stem from a situation where a party’s seats are proportionate to its overall vote. And, as results from the past amply demonstrate, “first past the post” elections can end in a big majority for a party that, in terms of its proportion of the votes, it has not deserved.

Nevertheless, those who savour such things from a psephological point of view can be well pleased with this month’s results, which so defied conventional wisdom.

I will be bringing my legislative competence order to the Assembly on 11 June, in which I will be seeking powers for the Assembly to be able to change the electoral arrangements of local Councils. We will see whether the outcome of this month's elections has helped to persuade AMs to support it or not.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Another own goal from Labour

As if things could not get any worse for Labour, Peter Hain went onto the Politics Show yesterday to defend the Prime Minister. He told viewers that Wales Labour were not listening to voters and that they needed to change the way they campaign:

He criticised some in the Welsh party for blaming their council election losses on problems at a UK level.

He admitted the 10p tax issue had been "toxic", but said his party was not keeping pace with the "incredibly fast" rate of change across Wales.

The Neath MP said Welsh Labour would continue to suffer defeats unless it became the "party of aspiration".

Far more damaging for Labour however is the revelation that the current round of Post Office closures may not be enough to satisfy the Government. The Western Mail reports that a government minister has maintained that post office closures were necessary because the network continued to lose half-a-million-pounds every day:

Business Minister Pat McFadden said the speed and scale of technological development in the UK were centrally connected to the changes facing the post office network.

Mr McFadden will tell the annual conference of the National Federation of Subpostmasters that all companies and service providers had to adapt to change in an age when people could pay bills, compare prices and bank on-line.

The government has come under heavy criticism for sanctioning 2,500 post office closures and the federation warned over the weekend that another 3,000 branches could close if ministers did not renew a contract for post offices to handle State pensions and benefit payments.

The federation said one-in-four branches which will be left after the current closure programme is completed at the end of the year could shut if the Post Office loses the contract to run the new card account.

The current card account, used by around four million people every week to access pensions and benefits will be replaced next year.

Research for the federation showed that card account transactions accounted for around 12 per cent of subpostmasters' pay.

At this rate Labour's already low opinion poll ratings will plummet still further.

What did the Prime Minister know?

The Western Mail reports on claims by Lord Levy that it was "inconceivable" Gordon Brown did not know about the secret loans which led to the "cash for honours" inquiry:

Lord Levy repeated his assertion that Mr Brown's central role in the 2005 General Election campaign meant he must have been aware that the party was receiving substantial sums in loans which were not declared to the Electoral Commission.

In an interview with Andrew Marr's AM programme on BBC1, he said it was Mr Brown's job to know how the campaign was being funded.

"The returns to the Electoral Commission are showing quite clearly where all the donations are coming from," he said.

"I never met Gordon once during that time, but if you were the leader - and Gordon was leading the campaign - surely you would be sitting discussing what was going on.

"It would be inconceivable that he really didn't know what was going on."

The Prime Minister has always denied that he knew anything of the £14 million lent to the party by wealthy supporters to help bankroll the election campaign - an assertion he repeated last month in the House of Commons.

Watch out Obama!

This year's must-have accessory, a Hillary Clinton nutcracker. Apparently, they are selling like hot cakes in the USA. Buy yours here.

"What’s this about a glass ceiling in the White House? There’s no glass ceiling. Hey, I’ve been in every room!"--George W. Bush

"This is not the kind of squeeze doll I grew up playing with!" --Dick Cheney

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Paddick Diary

Iain Dale draws attention to Brian Paddicks diary in the Mail on Sunday. What a shame that Iain appears to have been reading a different version to the one that is on-line.

Despite the disappointment of not winning and the increasingly uphill slog that faced him, Brian shows that he retained his sense of humour throughout the campaign:

April 2nd Time Out hustings at the University of London students' union. They want 24-hour licensing.

I praise Ken for supporting Time Out's campaign by personal example. Increasingly he turns up for events the worse for wear, then drinks plenty.

We're in the middle of the "Cleggover" storm, after Nick Clegg said he'd had up to 30 lovers. Am asked how many I've slept with. "A lot fewer women than Nick," I say.

13th London Marathon. Afraid of dehydration, I drink too much and have to stop for a loo break after three miles. While others urinate against fences, I cannot risk a Paula Radcliffe moment.

Finish in 4 hours 52 minutes. No feeling of jubilation, just an overwhelming desire to lie down. Wait for media interviews that never come. Do raise £2,000 for charity.

16th A burger company has created a Ken burger (beef and red sauce), a Boris burger (beef with a blue cheese sauce), a Brian burger (spicy chicken) and a Sian burger (vegetarian). While being photographed with my own burger, I eat a Boris.

19th Stonewall hustings at the Southbank. Boris is bullish. Unfortunately he greets me "Brian, you old fruit," and as I start to laugh he quickly backtracks, "I mean old bean."

People do not always appreciate how bizarre some of the experiences you encounter when running for office can be.

Update: The main complaint Brian Paddick appears to have in this article is that the campaign was underfunded. This is quite different to Iain Dale's interpretation that Brian did not get enough support from the party. Peter Dunphy has more details on the reality of raising funds here.

The Welsh Language and the BBC

There has been a fair amount of publicity in the last week for the Heritage Minister's reannouncement on Thursday that 57 new organisations will soon have to adopt a Welsh language scheme in accordance with the 1993 Welsh Language Act.

It took Normal Mouth to point out that this was an almost identical announcment to the one made by the previous Minister for Culture, Welsh Language and Sport on 21 March 2007. It makes one wonder when the government is going to stop announcing it and get on with doing it.

One of the organisations you will not find on the list is the BBC. That is because I believe that the BBC is already subject to the Act and has a Welsh Language Scheme, even if all their employees are not aware of that fact.

A friend of mine who is prone to reading and participating in the BBC's on-line forums recently posted a comment on a thread on the Woman's Hour forum relating to Welsh words. Somebody had asked what readers' favourite Welsh word was, so she posted that hers was 'Gwdihw', a South Walian dialect word for Owl, pronounced something like 'Good-i-hoo' I believe.

She has now received an e-mail to tell her that her post has been removed because it contains a non-English word. You could not make it up.

Labour lose the plot on ID card scheme

The Observer reports that a government-appointed panel of experts is warning that the new ID cards system will be open to fraud by the people running it. Their conclusion undermines Government claims that the scheme will enhance national security. The group has concluded that it will be prone to corruption:

A new report by the Independent Scheme Assurance Panel (Isap), set up to advise the government on the implementation of ID cards, states: 'Based on the likelihood that the scheme will aggregate a lot of valuable data, there is the risk that its trusted administrators will make improper use of this data.' It adds: 'The scheme will be subject to data errors and errors in decisions made.'

The acknowledgements come as the government has admitted it is to contract out the taking of fingerprints and photographs of ID card applicants to the private sector to save money.

The news has alarmed opponents of the scheme, who say this will increase the risk that the data of individuals will be illegally shared with third parties. 'By cutting costs and cutting corners, the Home Office has fundamentally undermined the integrity of the scheme,' said Phil Booth, spokesman for the campaign group, No2ID.

The paper goes on to report that panel has also warned that the ID card initiative is struggling to fulfil its remit:

It states that the scheme lacks a 'robust and transparent operational data governance regime and clear data architecture', suggesting there is confusion over its roll-out. And it goes on to say: 'Though the tender process is supposedly well advanced, requirements for information, communication and technology systems, processes and operations have still to be adequately specified and the rationale for key design decisions is unclear.'


Saturday, May 10, 2008

Back to business

Any thought that the demise of the local elections would make my life less busy was quickly disabused this week as the work continued to pour in unabated.

Included in this work load has been a meeting with the Children's Commissioner and the Welsh Local Government Association about my private members legislation, which reaches the floor of the Senedd on Wednesday.

This legislation seeks to put a duty on local Councils to provide facilities for young people. The intention is to try and fill in the huge gaps in provision that leads to many youngsters hanging around on street corners in the evening because they have nowhere to go.

I was pleased that both the WLGA and the Children's Commissioner were broadly supportive of what I am trying to do, dependent of course on sufficient resources being found to deliver it.

I have also been trying to get a meeting with the Education Minister for the last few weeks to see what the Government's attitude is towards this legislation. It would be nice if they could support it. I have finally secured a slot on 8.45am on Tuesday. This is the day before the debate but it is better than nothing.

I finished the first draft of my speech at about 11pm last night. I will be doing further work on it today and tomorrow before a press conference on Monday.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Forever delayed

When the Assembly Government launched its health strategy, 'Designed for Life' in 2005 the Welsh Liberal Democrat press officer picked up on the long wait for a coherent approach to the NHS in Wales and the Manic Street Preacher theme by rechristening it, Forever Delayed.

Judging by this report from the BBC his press release was not just referring to the tardiness of the Government at that time. It seems that any chance of meeting a number of key targets in the document are 'forever delayed' as well:

BBC Wales' Dragon's Eye programme examined the targets set for the end of March and found that waits for heart surgery are currently 36 weeks, which is around nine months, when they should be three months.

This wait has been reduced from 72 weeks and is due to reach 26 weeks by December 2009.

Another target missed by the Designed for Life plan is that all heart patients should be seen by a consultant within 24 hours.

The assembly government said it was still working towards developing services that would deliver this.

All patients eligible for cancer screening should be offered a screening, according to the plan.

But it was found that although breast and cervical cancer screening programmes are in place and are almost on target, a bowel cancer screening programme is still only in the planning stages.

Bed blocking, which is also known as delayed transfers of care, also continues to be an issue.

According to the assembly government's target, bed blocking should have been reduced to 50% of the figure in September 2003.

This was achieved in 2007 but has begun creeping up to above the 50% mark again.

The test for the One Wales Labour-Plaid Cymru Government now is whether it can turn around this poor performance and start delivering high quality Welsh NHS services for all.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Different meetings

I have just watched the Sharp End interview with Welsh Liberal Democrat leader, Mike German on ITV Wales. He is to step down after the party's October Conference.

The thing is that he told the last Conference and the Group that he would step down as soon as possible after the local elections. If he had done so he could have left on a high after our local government successes last week. The new leader would have been in a position to properly capitalise on our gains with a number of new initiatives centred on a fresh face at the top.

Mike was asked whether it was true that the Assembly Group was unhappy at him hanging on for another six months. He denied that this was the case. I think he must have been in a completely different meeting to the one that I was at.

Undermining the foundations

The Western Mail's article on the failure of the Labour-Plaid Cymru Government to properly fund the Foundation Phase underlines just how much trouble the Government is in.

The Minister has found another £5 million to ensure that the pilot schools do not have to make redundancies but has left other headteachers scratching their head as to how they are going to afford to introduce the scheme. The Welsh Local Government Association, teachers' unions and opposition politicians have united to point out that there is still a £10 million shortfall. All the Minister has succeeded in doing is to create two different classes of schools, those who can afford to deliver the scheme with a 1 to 8 teacher pupil ratio (the pilots) and those who cannot.

Throughout the history of this scheme ministers have stressed that this 1 to 8 ratio is crucial to the Foundation Phase's success. They have given assurances that it will be properly funded and that the workforce planning issues will be addressed. Yet when it came to the crunch and it was time to put their money where their mouth is the Government pulled back.

The Minister now says that the 1 to 8 ratio is not necessary after all. She has watered down the core rationale of the scheme. The losers will be the children. The sheer strength of the outrage shown by the professionals at the Minister's back-tracking indicates that this row is not over yet. The pressure on the Government to provide more money is immense.

Mandelson speaks out

The Guardian tell us that Peter Mandelson has accused Gordon Brown of making a "very big mistake" in scrapping the 10p income tax rate.

The European Union Trade Commissioner said Brown had also breached the party's philosophy that the government should help the neediest in society. He went on to warn the prime minister that he risked losing power unless he identified himself more clearly with the principles that won Blair three general elections.

Meanwhile, the former junior development minister Sally Keeble has warned of an impending split in the party over the 10p tax rate.

The paper tells us that Keeble said that the most significant damage caused by the row "could be the fracturing of New Labour's broad coalition and the risk of leaving Labour pigeonholed again as the party of just the poor."

Of course if they are going to penalise the poor by increasing their tax burden then Labour won't even have that demographic to fall back on.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

A leader adrift

The Times reports that more than half of Labour's supporters believe that Gordon Brown should stand down to make way for a more electable alternative.

Of course this is just one poll and things could easily change tomorrow or next week or even next month. Nevertheless, it cannot be a comfortable position for any leader to lose the support, confidence and even trust of some of their key party members as well as large numbers of their potential voters.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Labour excluded

The BBC tell us that after decades of domination, emerging coalition deals could leave Labour frozen out in all but a few councils in Wales. The report continues:

Despite being the smallest of the main political parties - with just 162 councillors - the Lib Dems' ability to win seats of strategic value could place them in the strongest position of all the parties, in terms of power-sharing in Welsh councils.

Coalition deals are thought to be imminent in both Cardiff and Swansea, while they have already formed part of the new administration in Anglesey.

The party looks set to lead a coalition in Wrexham, and could play a significant role in any anti-Labour alliance in Flintshire.

Having won a handful of seats in Blaenau Gwent, Conwy, Gwynedd and Torfaen, as well as a more significant presence in Merthyr, then their influence could be crucial.

Indeed, their presence could be of even more significance in both Ceredigion and Newport, where it is possible they could play major roles in any deals with their political opponents.

It is a remarkable come-back for the Welsh Liberal Democrats, who many were writing off after last summer. We now need to build on this success.

In the news

The Western Mail tells us that a new report has identified that the BBC’s network news programmes are failing to cover events in Wales:

The corporation set up an inquiry last year following allegations that Wales – and the other devolved UK administrations – were poorly served by its UK network operation, such as flagship news bulletins fronted by Fiona Bruce.

But with a full draft of the review expected to be taken to the editorial standards committee shortly, it is understood to have found the BBC is not providing sufficient coverage of UK events outside England.

I met the authors of this report on behalf of the Assembly Commission when they were taking evidence for it and made it very clear that there is huge dissatisfaction at the lack of understanding of the devolution process by the BBC and other news agencies. I have lost count of the number of times that English-only initiatives are reported as applying to Wales as well. I have now taken to formally complaining whenever I come across an instance of this.

I think that there is a case to argue that such errors are not born out of ignorance or lack of training but just sheer laziness on the part of the journalists concerned.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Time for chess

On Sunday 25th May I will be one of 20 people taking part in a simultaneous chess display against former World Champion, Boris Spassky. The display will take place at 6pm in Booth's bookshop in Hay-on-Wye.

I am keen to take advantage of this occasion to raise some funds for my favoured charity, Childline.
It has been suggested that I seek sponsorship for each move I make but as I am not really that good then that could limit the money I am able to raise. Any sponsorship will be gratefully received. Please offer what you can afford.

Please go to my fundraising page at http://www.justgiving.com/peterblack and complete your details. It should take you no more than a few minutes.

Fighting like cats and dogs

It is the most hotly contested presidential nomination battle for decades and now, according to the Guardian, there is proof that Clinton and Obama really have been fighting like cats and dogs.

The newspaper draws our attention to the way that Americans are plunging their pets into the fray. On the one side we have Cats for Obama on the other there is a Pets for Hillary site.

The report continues by telling us that there is a video on YouTube of a couple of West Highland terriers "howling for Hillary". Though, really, who knows what they're howling for? The indignity of being made to wear caps and Hillary badges? Maybe they're John McCain supporters - he, incidentally, has 22 pets including dogs, turtles and fish.

Obama doesn't have any pets, but that isn't stopping his popularity with them. Also on YouTube is the Pets for Obama video, with dogs "singing" "We're standing for Obama and we're sitting for him too."

The piece concludes: If it came down to the pets' endorsement - and lord knows why it shouldn't - Obama will sail through, having won the ferret vote ("ferrets for Obama" badges are on sale). In the US, ferrets have become a highly politicised group after the then New York mayor Rudy Giuliani banned them from the city in 1999. Best of all, though, is the Obama-supporting llama, who has appeared in numerous parades across Iowa. According to a blog post from Obama HQ, its owner Pat McNally is bringing the woolly camelid to more events "to spread awareness about Barack". Raising awareness through the medium of a llama? It's risky but it might just work.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Brown under new pressure

The Sunday Times reports that the Prime Minister is under pressure to make further concessions in the row over the abolition of the 10p income tax band following Labour's disastrous showing in the local elections:

Cabinet ministers were yesterday engaged in a mass ring-round of panicking backbenchers to shore up Brown’s sinking support.

Many are openly voicing concern that Labour cannot win the next general election while Brown remains in charge.

The prime minister will face further assaults from Labour critics this week as MPs return from the bank-holiday break to take stock of the party’s electoral humiliation.

Frank Field, who led the successful revolt against abolition of the 10p income tax band, which penalised millions of low-paid workers, warned that Labour would now be defeated in this month’s by-election in Crewe and Nantwich unless Brown issued urgent clarification on the tax issue.

Two weeks ago Brown promised he would compensate groups who lost out from the tax changes, but failed to provide details of the new benefits package. The lack of a clear statement left core Labour supporters confused and worried, prompting many to stay at home or vote Tory last Thursday.

Now the Labour rebels are to renew the pressure on tax by putting down a Commons motion on Tuesday calling for Brown urgently to issue details of the compensation package for low earners.

Field, a former welfare minister, said: “I find it incomprehensible that he cannot get a few sentences put together saying,

‘I am going to move every muscle in my body to find ways of making the package as comprehensive as possible and every bit of it will be backdated to April 5’.”

Although many are prepared to let Brown continue in the top job it is likely that unless he puts this controversy to bed quickly and holds on in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election then there could be a serious challenge to his leadership.

Anecdotes of the day

Dennis Healey once got into a shouting match with rebel Labour backbenchers on the floor of the Commons during division; he later recalled, when asked if the exchange involved shouts of bastards and f***er, that “I questioned their parentage when they praised my virility…..”

On Budget day, the briefcase that Lamont waved at photographers contained a bottle of whiskey, while the speech itself was carried in a plastic bag by his then aide, William Hague. “It would have been a major disaster if the box had fallen open,” Hague said later.

The Sunday Times

Bizarre conclusion of the day

From the Sunday Times:

One silver lining is that the highly publicised, and close, contest in London resulted in a sharp rise in turnout, a vindication of directly elected mayors.

Really? Er..no! It is actually a vindication of what some of us have been saying for some time, that if you give voters a real choice and a chance to make a difference then they will come out and vote. You do not need a Mayoral election for that.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Whose agenda?

I know that the media has an agenda to talk the Tories up in these local elections and for once the results may justify that tactic, but I really do wish that journalists could maintain their perspective.

Daisy McAndrew on ITV News last night stood astride a huge computerised graphic illustrating Tory gains. When she moved to Wales she launched into a flurry of hyperbole about how we used to weigh Labour votes here but no longer. It then transpired she was talking about the Vale of Glamorgan where, despite one or two significant majorities for local Labour MP, John Smith, the weighing of Labour votes has never even been talked about in that context.

As if to compound her mistake, Ms. McAndrew then suggested that the five seats the Tories gained in this area was unprecedented, a political earthquake in fact. She hinted that never before had the Conservatives performed so well in this area.

Now that may well be true of the new Unitary Vale of Glamorgan County Borough Council but it certainly is not true of its predecessor. The Vale was a Tory stronghold for decades. Yesterday just saw a large part of it return to type. In fact, it is possible to conclude that for all their hopes for the Parliamentary seat the Conseratives actually under-performed here. Many of the gains were in fact in Penarth, which is in the Cardiff South and Penarth seat held by Alun Michael for Labour.

Tory compares Boris to Mussolini

Today's Guardian quotes a Shadow Tory Minister as comparing Boris Johnson's victory in the London Mayoral election as like 'the March on Rome in 1922'.

The quote is part of this article but the leading Conservative remains anonymous. I think that given the significance of this comparison it is only right that in this instance the journalist concerned names his source. I wonder what David Cameron thinks.

Local Elections Part Two - perspective

There has been a huge amount of media coverage of Labour's disastrous local election results and of the success of the Tories yesterday.

A few months ago it was difficult to see how Labour could do worse than its 2004 nadir, when in the aftermath of the Iraq war they lost 461 seats and eight councils.

The Liberal Democrats did very well out of that Labour disaster and so were always on a tricky wicket this year in defending their gains, never mind seeking fresh progress.

Despite this we have come out of the latest set of elections in good heart and with some substantial achievements.

The projected share of the national vote in these elections are Conservative 44%,
Liberal Democrats 25%, and Labour 24%. The Liberal Democrats retained control of Cambridge, Eastleigh, Liverpool, Rochdale Stockport, Newcastle, Watford, Three Rivers and South Lakeland.

We gained control of Sheffield, St Albans, Hull and Burnley. Following these elections Liberal Democrats are just one seat short of overall control in Oldham (4 gains), Warrington (1 gain) and Cheltenham (3 gains). Liberal Democrats will continue to be the largest party in Cardiff, Sefton, North East Lincolnshire and are now also the largest party in Derby, Exeter, and Wrexham.

Liberal Democrats made 137 gains in these elections four years ago and have now added to those gains. With results in from all 159 councils, the net figures are Conservative +256, Liberal Democrats + 34 and Labour -331.

A very creditable performance.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Local Elections Part One - South Wales West

If truth be told I really am too tired to blog and should instead be tidying up the Committee Room, cutting the grass, doing the shopping and all the other little jobs that have been neglected for the past eight weeks. Nevertheless, I did want to make an early comment on the outstanding results in my region of South Wales West.

Firstly, it is difficult to know what happened in Bridgend. Their website is devoid of information and all I have is rumours and unsubstantiated press reports. I know we lost Coity to an independent, which came as a shock, but we also regained Nottage in Porthcawl from the Tories. All else is shrouded in mystery.

What appears likely is that if we stand still in terms of the number of seats we and the other parties hold in Bridgend, Labour will take charge in coalition with a group of independents. It seems that this deal was arranged sometime ago irrespective of the name-calling that passed between the two groups during the election. This is because the existing Liberal Democrat-led Administration never had an overall majority there but took charge because of the disarray within Labour following their defeat in 2004.

Neath Port Talbot are also tardy in putting results on their website but it is reported that Labour have held on to power. We shall see. The Welsh Liberal Democrats have doubled the number of seats they hold on this council, gaining the second seat in Cimla at last and winning Cadoxton through long-time party stalwart, Frank Little.

Swansea was one of Labour's top targets but they fell back, ending up two seats down, subject to the outcome of a recount this morning. The big losers were Plaid Cymru and the Tories. Plaid won five seats in 2004 but they now only have one. Their Cockett stronghold, where Plaid AM Dai Lloyd was once a Councillor, has been lost to them. Three of the seats in this ward are now held by the Welsh Liberal Democrats. The fourth seat is the subject of a recount. The Welsh Liberal Democrats go into this recount nine votes ahead of Labour.

The Tories too failed to live up to expectations and indeed, bucked the national trend. They regained the Oystermouth seat, which they won in 2004 only to see their Councillor go independent. In truth that is a hold, not a gain. They also held on in Pennard, Mayals and Fairwood, however in Sketty which they had high hopes of wresting from the Welsh Liberal Democrats they face disaster.

In 2004 this ward returned three Welsh Liberal Democrats and two Tories. One of those Conservative Councillors subsequently defected to the independents and then became a Welsh Liberal Democrat. All four of those sitting Welsh Liberal Democrat Councillors appear to have held their seat, a Lib Dem gain from Tory. In the fifth seat our candidate is currently nine votes ahead of the sitting Conservative with a recount due to start shortly. It is possible that not only will the Tories come out of this election one seat down on 2004 but also that any hope they had of holding the balance of power on the Council has gone.

That is because between them (and subject to the recounts delivering) the two coalition partners on Swansea Council now hold between 36 and 38 seats out of 72, a possible overall majority if they agree to renew their partnership and if our party membership endorses such a deal.

Whenever I was asked what would happen in Swansea before the election I said that the Welsh Liberal Democrats would win between 19 and 23 seats but that whether we continued to lead the Council depended on the performance of the Independents and whether a new deal could be struck. Well it looks like we will win between 21 and 23 seats and the Independents have gained four.

I may be tired but I am also quite excited at the challenges that now lie ahead. The people of Swansea have recognised the work that has been done by the Welsh Liberal Democrat Administration in turning the City around. We have doubled recycling rates, invested in public transport measures, re-opened the Leisure Centre that Labour closed, opened a new Central library and brought the first retail development to Swansea for decades. We have improved street cleansing, protected school funding and invested in school buildings. We have done all this whilst keeping Council Tax rises at half the rate they were under Labour.

The challenges that face us now are immense, not least the £150 million plus backlog in school building maintenance. Nevertheless we are up for it and ready to make the difficult decisions that are needed to take Swansea forward again.

The full Swansea results are here.

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