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Monday, June 30, 2008

More Wimbledon

Two sets down. a tie break in the third set and he still won by three sets to two.

Surely, Andy Murray must have inherited Henman's mantle now.

Health benefits of the smoking ban

This morning's Western Mail tells us that the number of patients suffering a heart attack in Wales has fallen dramatically following the ban on smoking. They say that there was a 12.5% fall in the number of patients admitted to hospital with a heart attack between October and December last year, compared to the same period in 2006, before the ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces was introduced in Wales. Some NHS trusts have seen the number of heart attacks fall by up to 40% in the same period.

This reflects the experience elsewhere. Hospital admissions for heart attacks in Scotland and Ireland fell by 17% and 14% respectively in the year after their bans were introduced in 2006 and 2004.

This is undoubtedly good news but we should be clear that the main motivation for introducing the ban was not to take charge of people's health for them but to protect non-smokers from the effects of second-hand smoke. Still it is nice to get that bonus.

Wimbledon Special Part Two - whatever happened to Evonne Goolagong?

I am largely relying on Wikipedia again for this entry but Evonne Goolagong was definitely a Wimbledon star from my youth if only because her name is so memorable.

She was a former World No. 1 Australian tennis player and one of the world's leading players in the 1970s and early 1980s, when she won 14 titles: seven in singles (four Australian Open, two Wimbledon and one French Open), six in women's doubles, and one in mixed doubles.

She was the first Australian Aboriginal woman to achieve international fame in sport and the first Aboriginal person to do so in any sport other than football or boxing. In 1971, she was named Australian of the Year and the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year.

She married British Tennis player Roger Cawley in 1975. Her final Grand Slam title came at Wimbledon in 1980 when she was a 29-year-old mother and surprised the tennis world by beating Tracy Austin in a semifinal and Chris Evert in the final. She was the first mother in 66 years to win the Wimbledon singles title, the previous one being English woman Dorothea Lambert-Chambers in 1914.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Have Plaid Cymru missed the boat?

This morning's Wales on Sunday reports the possibility that none of Plaid Cymru's three candidates for the House of Lords may be nominated for the ermine this side of a general election, if at all.

It is believed that the Prime Minister has no intention of creating any new peers ahead of the long-anticipated reform of the Lords. Plans are due to be announced in the next few weeks with a referendum to be held on the various options at the same time as the general election.

Dafydd Wigley supports the reform of the second chamber but is frustrated at the fact that nobody has told him what is going on. Similar frustration has been expressed by a number of Plaid Cymru AMs I have discussed the issue with. Sanddef however has characterised the delay as a snub. He believes that Gordon Brown is showing his contempt for Wales.

It is worth asking as to when Plaid Cymru became synonymous with Wales, but that would be accepting Sanddef's basic premise that the nationalists are entitled to these seats in the Lords which is of course nonsense under the present system. The actual problem is that for years Plaid have refused to participate in the process, it is only now that they have relented and they have very good reasons for doing so. However, their timing stinks and they are paying the price.

I know of no other nominees for a place in the House of Lords who believe that they should have it as of right. Nor would they sulk so obviously in public that they have to wait for information or for preferment. The process is badly flawed and needs to be scrapped in favour of a really democratic one but in the meantime you have to go with the flow.

If Gordon Brown has decided not to create any more peers for now then it is just hard cheese for Plaid's nominees. I doubt if any thought of their plight even crossed his mind, and why should it have?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The much anticipated Dr. Who

Well I am in shock. I did not expect there to be a new Dr. Who so soon, though it was good to see present day Cardiff actually playing itself in tonight's episode. I had always wondered what the water tower was for, now we know. It is a giant transmitter.

The BBC has been enormously successful in keeping the lid on the departure of David Tennant as Dr. Who, even to the extent that the Director General himself told the Assembly's Broadcasting Committee on 16 June that one of the reasons why the BBC were producing just four specials in 2009 was because Tennant will be playing Hamlet and will not be able to give the same time to the part as previously. Maybe, he had not been told either.

Sanddef draws our attention to an article in The Sun which speculates that David Tennant will be replaced by James Nesbitt. So having had a Scottish Dr. Who we will now get the Northern Irish version. Would it not be a good idea to cast a Welshman in the role? Perhaps Rhys Ifans or Matthew Rhys?

Cultural desert?

I am beginning to wonder if I need to take some time out of politics to catch up on my reading and improve my cultural hinterland.

I was looking through the South Wales Evening Post earlier today and came upon the page containing photos of readers' pets. At the bottom was a picture of two kittens called Romulus and Remus.

Naturally, I immediately assumed that they were named after the Romulan homeworld and its moon as featured in Star Trek. My wife however pointed out that it was possible that they may well have been given their names in commemoration of the mythical founders of the City of Rome.

Irrespective of who was right there are clear signs in my thought processes and their conclusion of a lack of a classical education.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Great Lyricists

The Guardian's latest series of booklets featuring 'Great Lyricists' took an interesting turn this morning when it added Alex Turner to the pantheon of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Turner is, of course, the lead singer and songwriter with the Arctic Monkeys. There was no sign though of the lyrics to 'Fake tales of San Francisco' or 'Mardy Bum'.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Voting patterns

A statement on Government plans to collect people's history on-line prompted a number of anecdotal contributions from members yesterday but none more memorable than that from David Melding:

David Melding: This sounds like a splendid initiative and I look forward to being able to access the information on the internet. This reminds me slightly of Huw Lewis’s call a few years ago for a people’s history museum. We seem to have a virtual concept now of this. I am sure that that is fitting for the modern world. I remember that, after hearing Huw waxing so lyrically about the museum in Manchester, I actually went there. Alun Davies will be pleased to hear that it was full of trade union banners, but there was also a large section on association football—I know that people laugh at me when I use that term—to show the great growth in spectator sport and how that transformed the leisure experiences of so many people.

After touring this museum—and I recommend that people go there—I went to the café. There were not many people there, as it was a Tuesday, I think, but when I sat down, a group of curators came along who were planning an exhibition on universal suffrage. I overheard their discussion, for which I apologise, and heard one saying to the other, ‘Of course, we will need a special section in this exhibition on universal suffrage to explain the paradox of why so many working men went to vote Conservative as soon as they had the vote’. [Laughter.] Therefore, I hope that you envisage tackling fundamental challenges about how varied our social experience is.

Wimbledon Special - whatever happened to Ilie Năstase?

Far to busy to watch Wimbledon properly I am catching the odd news report in a state of puzzlement as I try to work out who all these strange tennis players are. I have of course heard of Andy Murray, Roger Federer and a few other of the participants but otherwise I am out of my depth and left thinking of the Wimbledon of my youth when Jimmy Connor, Bjorn Borg, Arthur Ashe, John McEnroe and Ilie Năstase were amongst some of the stars.

Wikipedia tells us that Ilie Năstase was the World number one male tennis player World No. 1 in 1973 according to the Association of Tennis Professionals computer rankings, which placed him first from 23 August 1973 to 2 June 1974. He won the US Open in 1972 and the French Open in 1973 and was the singles runner up in Wimbledon in 1972 and 1976.

In men's doubles, he won Wimbledon in 1973 (with Jimmy Connors), the French Open in 1970 (with Ion Ţiriac), and the U.S. Open in 1975 (with Jimmy Connors). Năstase won the Masters tournament four times, in 1971, 1972, 1973 and 1975. Only Pete Sampras and Ivan Lendl won more titles there. Năstase was the first professional sports figure to sign an endorsement contract with Nike in 1972.

His reputation for gamesmanship resulted in the nickname "Nasty" after several incidents where his temperament got the better of him. For one year, other players scorned him in locker rooms and did not speak to him. In his recent book, Nastase claimed that he slept with around 2,500 women. After hearing this, his wife said that she was happy to have conquered such a man.

He has recently been President of the Romanian Tennis Federation. A quick google seach reveals that in 2002 he was still courting publicity, responding to a report that three Romanian ex-Olympic champion gymnasts were to pose nude for a Japanese magazine by offering to do so himself at the age of 56 - "They are entitled to do whatever they want with their bodies. Personally I have nothing against it. I'm waiting for offers", he is quoted as saying.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


From yesterday's First Minister's Question Time:

Lesley Griffiths: The administrative and structural arrangements that underpin devolution in the UK, namely the memorandum of understanding, the Joint Ministerial Committee and the concordats, are all necessary to make the various devolution settlements that we have in the UK function properly. However, from a Welsh perspective, some of those arrangements do not reflect the current settlement in Wales. For example, the memorandum of understanding was written in 2001, and consequently does not refer to the Government of Wales Act 2006. Do you agree that for all the constituent parts of the UK, at Executive level and within our respective legislatures, to fully understand, recognise and fulfil our respective roles, it is essential that these administrative arrangements are kept up to date? When the JMC meets in London tomorrow, will you consider asking for a review and modernisation of those arrangements to ensure that devolution works more effectively and efficiently for the people of Wales?

The First Minister: As with all of these constitutional issues, it is important to ensure that what is of interest to the political classes—the chattering classes, the people who are Ministers, First Ministers and Deputy First Ministers—and what is of interest to ordinary people are brought together. We will probably not go into those areas of discussion tomorrow, but we will be trying to think how to make the JMC machinery work in the interests of ordinary people the length and breadth of the United Kingdom.

Did Rhodri Morgan call his own backbencher an anorak?

The price to be paid

No doubt The Times has its own agenda but its claim that the Trade Unions are to demand new rights as the price for keeping the Labour Party's finances above water does need some consideration.

Amongst the proposed changes we are told they want to see in the Labour manifesto are a repeal of the ban on secondary strike action and the ability to get their members opinion by e-mail or phone rather than the more traditional postal ballot. The GMB union want the upper earnings limit on national insurance to be abolished, which it hopes will redistribute tax. The report also says that they intend to press the Government to look at the way the oil market operates, in the belief that oil companies are exploiting London’s light-touch regulation in a way that harms its members:

Other demands likely to be made by the unions, according to Tribune magazine, include: mandatory company audits to ensure equal pay between men and women, a policy supported by Harriet Harman before she became deputy leader; new rules to protect the jobs of workers whose companies are bought out by private equity firms; reform of the minimum wage, with some unions keen to see the end of age-based banding; a greater commitment to producing more goods and services within Britain, without breaking EU law.

All of this of course may already be on the table for those constructing the Labour manifesto. The Times says that Gordon Brown is receptive to many of the ideas but he will not want to be seen to be held for ransom by the unions, nor will he want to let the voting public think that large donors, even if they are Trade Unions rather then rich individuals, can buy influence in this way.

True or not, this story just underlines again the need for the reform of the way that political parties are financed.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A bid for more powers?

In a sign that the Welsh Assembly Government may be bidding for more powers the Deputy Housing Minister has just told the Plenary meeting that the 'credit crunch will not last forever'.

Well thank goodness for that. Perhaps she can now advise the Chancellor of the Exchequer on how to bring it to an end, or are we going to have to sit it out and let it take its course?

Whatever the reality the impact on the Assembly's housing policies could be quite severe. The target is to build 6,500 affordable homes by 2011 but faced with a tight budget settlement the amount of cash available to the Government is not sufficient even if it is always underspent. Perhaps that will change.

The result of this is that the government will be relying on planning agreements that lead to affordable homes being built by private developers as part of a larger development. Their problem is that if the number of housing units being built declines then so will the potential for new affordable homes and the 6,500 target will become even more unachievable. No wonder the Minister wants to see an end to the credit crunch as soon as possible.

In Westminster

Busy day yesterday as I joined other members of the Broadcasting Committee on a train to London where we had an informal meeting with the Welsh Affairs Select Committee.

We actually started off our meetings by hosting a working lunch (well sandwiches anyway) with the Scottish Broadcasting Committee. There we discovered that we have been reaching much the same conclusions about the state of British Broadcasting and its inadequate treatment of the nations and regions of the UK.

The Welsh Affairs Select Committee were very positive and helpful. They are already carrying out a number of pieces of work that dovetail into our investigation and were keen to make use of our evidence and consider our conclusions as part of their enquiries. It was a really good example of both institutions working well together for the public good.

As we left we spotted the Assembly's Deputy Housing Minister, Jocelyn Davies, waiting to give evidence on her Legislative Competence Order on Affordable Housing. She looked quite nervous but I understand that she acquited herself well, notwithstanding the fact that the LCO still does not go far enough.

I got back to Cardiff at 9.30pm fairly exhausted. I wonder what condition those members who stayed behind for a few drinks before catching a later train will be in this morning. I honestly cannot do that sort of stuff anymore. I really am getting old (and boring).

Monday, June 23, 2008

A question of money

This morning's Western Mail reports that more than £34m of the money allocated to local health boards to pay for drugs over the last two year was unspent. They say that there are fears that this unspent money – the result of buying cheaper, non-branded drugs – could have been used to offset LHB debts:

More than half of Wales’ 22 LHBs made savings on their prescribing budgets, despite a steady increase in demand for prescription medicines.

The figures, compiled for the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry Cymru, come amid ongoing concern that some patients are being denied the latest, most effective medicines.

In the latest example of a postcode lottery, patients with wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD) are struggling to secure funding for treatment.

Eileen Younghusband, from Sully, in the Vale of Glamorgan, has been told she will not receive Lucentis for her condition – despite the drug being available in nearby Neath Port Talbot and other parts of Wales.

Despite new treatments being approved by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, Royal National Institute for the Blind Cymru said the criteria for treatment varies across Wales.

In some areas patients have to go blind in one eye before they can receive treatment for the other eye.

Welsh Liberal Democrat Health Spokesperson, Jenny Randerson, believes that if the LHBs had kept all of this money for drugs then much-needed treatments would not be denied to patients. She has a point, however I am not so sure that she has pinpointed the problem correctly.

After all, only a few years ago the Assembly's Health Committee was urging doctors to proscribe more generic drugs precisely to secure these sort of savings. Concerns have also been expressed about the level of debt being carried by Local Health Boards. Who can blame them for using savings to offset that debt in the face of unrelenting pressure from the Assembly Government to keep within budget?

The problem is not that LHBs have failed to ringfence drug budgets but that there is not enough money in the system. That is not to say that any government can afford to keep throwing money at the health service, they cannot. There will never be enough money to pay for everything that health professionals want.

However, there is a case to say that the Minister should be providing targeted resources for specialist drugs such as Lucentis so as to ensure that it is universally available across Wales. It is the least she can do to reward the LHBs for managing their finances so efficiently.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

What, more money?

A report in Friday's Guardian reveals that yet more public money may be needed to bail out the London Olympics, on top of the £9.3 billion already pledged. Apparently, the impact of the credit crunch and the sliding domestic housing market has left the Olympic village short of cash to the tune of tens of millions of pounds:

The chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority, John Armitt told the Guardian: "The government at the end of the day will have to come in and support the village [financially] - that is understood. But negotiations are going on at the moment to try and minimise the degree to which further government funding to support the village is required."

Armitt's admission came as the National Audit Office (NAO) warned that the existing deal with Lend Lease, the contractor charged with building the £1bn village, could collapse entirely. The village is the single most expensive element of the Olympic Park construction project, but plans for a public-private partnership between Lend Lease and the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) have been undermined by problems in the banking market, which have made securing loans more difficult.

The ODA had agreed to put in £550m of public money, with the remaining £450m made up of equity from Lend Lease and private-sector financing. Lend Lease has encountered serious difficulty in raising the funds however, and is seeking a new deal to reduce its exposure.

In addition the projected cost of the main venues has risen by £106m since November last year, and is now £1.277bn. Is there no end to the leeching of public money by this project? The total cost is already approaching the annual budget of the Welsh Assembly. It would not be so bad if there were a Barnett consequential for Wales. Instead we are seeing vital sports and arts projects here starved of money so as to subsidise this London event.

Lazy journalism

It never ceases to amaze me how lazy some journalists can be when they have a column to fill and a deadline looming. There is a good example in this morning's Wales on Sunday in which the Spin Doctor column refers directly to a blog entry from Miserable Old Fart.

Alwyn ap Huw referred to a near-faux pas by Eleanor Burnham during First Minister's Question Time last Tuesday. During this session Eleanor got carried away on her pet subject of Wales' transport system and very nearly demanded that Rhodri Morgan get his 'arse in gear'. The point is though, that although it was fairly obvious what she was going to say, she stopped herself and produced instead a more parliamentary imperative. This is recorded in the record of proceedings:

The electrification of the railway from Crewe to Holyhead could well be within your sights, as could getting freight onto rail. Do you not agree, First Minister, that you lack vision, and that it is about time that you got your act together?

The Spin Doctor column however prefers to believe that Alwyn ap Huw's version of events is correct and alleges that the official record has been sanitised to spare Eleanor's blushes. It is a shame that he or she did not check.

Perhaps the journalist concerned would like to visit the Welsh Assembly's website and review the incident as I have just done on Senedd TV. The link is here. Go to the search facility and look for the Plenary meeting on 17 June. The relevant part is 45 minutes in. Enjoy!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Jelly wrestling etc

The Guardian also reports:

A notorious end-of-term Cambridge University garden party may be banned after a jelly-wrestling contest turned sour. One of the competitors, classics student Nadia Witkowski, 23, became violent after she was booed at the end of the Suicide Sunday party bout. Witnesses said she was involved in a row with another woman dressed as a butterfly and with stewards when they tried to restrain her. The police cautioned Witkowski, who was dressed in a bikini, for common assault. She refused to comment. A Cambridge University spokesman said the party may not be held next year.

You could not make it up.

The end of jargon?

The Guardian reports that the Local Government Association has ordered Councils to outlaw the use of 100 jargon words. They have circulated a list of "non-words" that public bodies should try to avoid, including coterminosity, empowerment, multidisciplinary, place shaping and sustainable communities:

The association, representing councils in England, said the words were particularly tiresome when combined into phrases such as "predictors of beaconicity" - the title of a recent 38-page paper from the Department for Communities and Local Government.

The association's chairman, Sir Simon Milton, said: "The public sector cannot, must not and should not hide behind impenetrable jargon and phrases. Why do we have to have 'coterminous, stakeholder engagement' when we could just 'talk to people' instead?" The banned list also includes cross-cutting, joined-up, outcomes, revenue streams, synergies, top-down and transformational.

Lucky this only applies in England otherwise the Welsh Assembly Government would have to re-write all of their strategy documents.

Kung Fu and Bisqwuits

Leaving the Wales premiere of 'Edge of Love' last night we were intriqued to see adverts for a new film called 'Kung Fu Panda'.

Clearly, it will not have the literary merits of last night's offering but there may well be 'bisqwuits'.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Caligula's horse

Methinks that Iain Dale protests just a little bit too much in his Daily Telegraph column this morning.

Mr. Dale believes that Jack Straw's proposals to limit the amount of money a candidate can spend in a constituency prior to an election is a blatant piece of gerrymandering and is designed to provide a built-in advantage to the sitting MP and his or hers £10,000 per annum communications allowance.

Personally, I believe that the communications allowance is an abuse of public money, not because it subsidises political activity but because it does so in a partial and unfair manner. If we are going to have public funding of political parties then let us at least do it in a transparent, fair and accountable manner and in a way that ensures a level playing field in each constituency.

However, Jack Straw's proposals on political funding are the worst of all worlds. Not only does he not tackle the real issue of large donors effectively buying influence but even the changes he makes are ineffectual. The reality is that anybody who wishes to flout these regulations just needs to avoid calling themselves a candidate until the very last minute. In effect Mr. Straw has reverted to the rules as they existed before the last change in the law on this issue.

The problem Iain is not that Jack Straw has sought to penalise opposition parties but that he has dodged the issue of reform altogether.

Unwanted attention?

BBC Wales reports that David T.C. Davies, the Tory MP for Monmouth not the one who has resigned so as to tie David Cameron into opposition to 42 days detention without charge, is suffering unwanted attention due to the similarity of the two MPs' name.

I can quite understand that David may be getting frustrated at the mix-up, but I have never known him to class any sort of attention as 'unwanted'.

Plots in the Senedd

BBC's Dragon's Eye last night told of an alleged plot amongst Labour AMs to get rid of the Presiding Officer. Alwyn Ap Huw refers to a similar item on Newyddion on S4C. Both programmes reported that Labour AMs are to seek guidance on the best way to remove Dafydd Elis Thomas from the role.

I was aware that the Labour Group did discuss this issue on Tuesday but understood that there was no majority to take action as yet. In fact Dragon's Eye tells us that the PO was being protected by Rhodri Morgan, who sees only problems for his Administration in removing the current incumbent. Equally, the Plaid Cymru group have offered Dafydd Elis Thomas their full support in his present role.

Dafydd had upset a number of AMs by his less than diplomatic e-mail urging a boycott of the Israeli Ambassador's Assembly visit on Tuesday. However, this latest development is more of a shot across the POs bows than a serious attempt to oust him.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

'Dinosaur' at No. 10

It has been a busy week so I am a bit behind with some of these posts but I did not want to miss commenting on Jonathan Freedland's column in yesterday's Guardian. It is an insightful analysis of what we have all been thinking about Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister:

I find myself in sympathy with those who admired Brown through his 10 long years as chancellor and who keenly awaited his premiership, and yet now conclude that they got Brown wrong - that, on the current evidence, he is simply not up to the job.

At its most basic, he seems to lack the skills of a man who would lead a 21st-century nation. "He came in like an Oxford don, with a study full of files and papers on the floor," laments one minister, who now regrets listening to the Brownites who persuaded him to back their man a year ago. "He's a dinosaur," the minister adds, lamenting Brown's failure to delegate, his dithering, his days that start - or end - at 4am.

The most obvious skill gap is in communication. Brown always delivered a speech like an automatic weapon, but his admirers preferred not to notice. They imagined that the wittier, thoughtful man they knew in private would somehow reveal himself to the public once he became prime minister (even if he had never broken surface before).

That has not happened. Brown still reads, rather than delivers a speech, his head down. He does not seem able to deliver three or four plain, human sentences that anyone could understand. The result is an empathy gap: he does not seem able to show any to the electorate and so they don't feel any for him.

None of this should have come as a surprise: the lack of presentational skills was visible a year ago. But plenty of us thought it might not matter. We reckoned Brown could make a virtue of his lack of glitz, offering himself as a figure of rocklike solidity in a fast and often fake world: "Not flash, just Gordon."

That approach could have worked. But it was fatally undermined by Brown himself. Having held back for those first three, sunny months, he fell into tricksiness and political game-playing. So he rubbished the Tories' proposed cut in inheritance tax, then copied it. He popped up in Baghdad during the Conservative party conference, promising troop withdrawals from Iraq. The effect was to show that Brown was as much of a calculating schemer as anyone else in his trade - he just wasn't very skilful or subtle at it. Not flash, just a politician.

All this came to a head of course with last autumn's phantom election. Besides the machinations clearly designed to give him a poll lead, the uncertainty created a new part of the Brown persona: that he was indecisive.

Freedland goes on to say that it was not the indecisiveness over the General Election that undermined Brown, but his awful presentation of his decision and the run-up to it. He tried to triangulate like Blair but did not have the skills or the aptitude for it. He has retreated into a sort of 'cautious Blairism' and has failed to grasp the agenda with the sort of decisiveness and radicalism that was called for if he was to make his mark. Ultimately, he has been let down by his own lack of courage, the very flaw that prevented him challenging Blair for the leadership in the first place and which is now undermining his premiership.

It is a damning judgement, but Freedland has not abandoned hope. If only his closest colleagues can prevail upon Brown to be himself, to take the opportunities that are available to him and to take risks, then all may be well. Unfortunately, this 'let Bartlett be Bartlett' approach may not work. The fly-in-the-ointment is Brown himself. Does he have the qualities needed to break the mould he has created for himself? In short, is he Prime Ministerial material or just a very good Chancellor of the Exchequer?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Changing religions

The Cynical Dragon draws attention to the fact that some media outlets believe that they have an easy answer as to why the Presiding Officer was so outraged at the visit of the Israeli Ambassador to the Assembly next week.

Israeli National News for example (since corrected) reports thus:

Dafydd Elis-Thomas, the Muslim speaker of the Welsh Assembly, said he will boycott a meeting with Ron Prosor, the Israeli Ambassador to Britain. He explained that Israel has failed "to meet its international obligations to the Palestinian people)

"Prosor said he is not changing his plans for the meeting that was initiated by another Muslim assembly member. "The voices calling for a boycott of such discussion are missing an opportunity to encourage mutual understanding and are clearly acting in a non-constructive way," said Prosor, who last week wrote in a British newspaper that Britain has become a "hotbed for radical anti-Israeli views

JTA reports in similar terms:

The Muslim speaker of the Welsh Assembly says he will boycott a meeting with Israel's ambassador to Britain.

Dafydd Elis-Thomas cited Israel's "failure to meet its international obligations to the Palestinian people" as his reason.

A fellow Muslim Assembly member invited Elis-Thomas, a former lawmaker in Britain's Parliament and a member of the upper House of Lords, to take part in a meeting with Ambassador Ron Prosor later this month in Cardiff.

Dafydd Elis Thomas is of course a prominent member of the Church in Wales.

Plaid's dilemma

One of the great imponderables of the One Wales Government has always been how Plaid Cymru as a party will react to having to make difficult decisions. This is especially so on issues like the NHS where they have always taken an oppositionist and opportunistic stance.

Plaid Cymru Chair and wannabe AM for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, John Dixon, provides part of the answer in his latest blog post. In essence he concludes that the Labour-Plaid Cymru proposals for re-organising the health service are a pile of dirt and not worth the paper they are written on.

I may have lost a bit in the translation there but I think that a detailed read of John Dixon's analysis amounts to something close to that view. No doubt Plaid Cymru Ministers will be taking note.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The wrong button

In the chamber today First Minister, Rhodri Morgan confessed that he pressed the wrong button, when he voted for my proposal to give the Assembly more powers to determine voting arrangements for local councils in Wales. He also said that Education Minister, Jane Hutt had done the same thing.

Mr Morgan told AMs: “I didn’t intend to vote for the measure (sic). I had a computer malfunction. I apologise, I voted the wrong way.” The only malfunction the First Minister had last week was in the use of his fingers. To blame his error on a computer is pretty lame even by his standards.

However, Rhodri Morgan’s claim that he intended to vote against the LCO has wider implications. It means that every Labour AM intended to vote en bloc to reject more powers. What other institution in the world votes not to take powers available to it?

It seems that Labour have abandoned devolution at the exact point we should be going further and faster to make a positive difference to life in Wales. They seem to believe that uniquely, the people of Wales cannot be trusted to decide how to elect their own councils.

If Labour AMs intend to argue that Wales should have more powers in a future referendum, rejecting more powers as the opportunity arises seems a funny way of going about it

Let them eat cake

There was some discussion on the radio this morning that Amsterdam's famed cannabis cafés could be on the way out as the Netherlands moves to introduce a smoking ban next month.

This news report confirms that the coffee shops will be affected:

“Coffee shops will be treated in the same manner as other catering businesses. They will be smoke-free,” Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende told NOS television.

“It would have been wrong to move towards a smoke-free catering industry and then make an exception for coffee shops. People would not have understood that.”

“Employees should not have to work in an environment were they are constantly exposed to the harmful effects of smoking,” Balkenende said after the cabinet’s decision on Friday.

It has been suggested that customers will still be able to smoke cannabis providing that they do not add tobacco to it. Alternatively, there may well be an increase in the sale of exotic cakes.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Getting on-line

The new-look Western Mail website carries an interesting article about the use of the internet by politicians in America. The piece carries a familiar message, that the internet is one of a campaign’s most powerful weapons and Welsh politicians ignore it at their peril.

To an extent they are right, but I think we also need to recognise that UK politicians are working in a different context to their American counterparts. The level of internet penetration is not so great, nor is our culture so advanced that people conduct their daily business on-line to the same extent. I do not believe for example that we have the potential to raise money on-line in the same way as Obama has done.

One of the big differences is that American politics is far more personality-based. British political parties are more closed to new ideas, new members and new donors and often treat the latter with suspicion. That should not be an obstacle to on-line fundraising but it does lead to a greater reluctance from potential donors to give. There is not so much of the feel of a crusade here as there is around Obama and often donor's feel that they should get something for themselves in return for their contribution. They are not as content to settle for the wider political goals of the campaign they are helping.

Having said all that there is a lot more all politicians can do on-line and Leighton Andrews is right when he says that the web is a useful additional tool to communicate with voters and to promote our own constituencies. There is an audience out there who we might not reach otherwise and we should make the effort to try.

I have written an article for the Institute of Welsh Affairs magazine 'Agenda' on politicians and the internet. When it is published I will link on this blog to an on-line version.

Update: Mark Pack has an interesting and insightful counter-view on the Total Politics website.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Pressure grows on Tory to stand down

As I predicted here, the logic of Alun Cairn's position in accepting that his comments on Italians amounts to a resigning issue with regards to his Assembly posts but not his parliamentary candidature in the Vale of Glamorgan, is under challenge.

Two Labour MPs have now called for Mr. Cairns to stand down as a PPC, whilst Tory Central Office has suspended him as a candidate "pending an investigation by the party chairman".

Alun's problem with regards to this particular investigation is that he has effectively pre-empted its conclusion by resigning as Tory Education Spokesperson and Chair of the Assembly's Finance Committee.

Even with the best will in the world it is difficult to see how the Tory Chairman can come to any other conclusion than that Alun's candidature in a key marginal is as sensitive if not more so than his Assembly posts.

The power and the glory

This may well be last week's news but Matt Withers poses a very pertinent question in this morning's Wales on Sunday about Wednesday's debate on my bid to give the Assembly the power to determine how local Councils are elected:

The long-term aim of Peter Black, the Liberal Democrat AM who put forward the proposal, was for the Assembly to get power to change the voting system for council elections – and then bring in the party’s beloved proportional representation (PR), giving them a better chance of success.

But Labour members, long suspicious of PR, voted it down, with a couple of notable exceptions (the First Minister among them). Fair enough, you might say, they don’t agree with the system.

But this wasn’t a vote on changing the system. It was a vote on giving the Assembly the power to change the system. Labour AMs’ action is no different than the Tories’ attempts to block some housing powers being devolved to the Assembly because they’re scared of them being used to put a block on the right to buy council houses.

In both cases, the argument is the same: we don’t think we in Wales can be trusted with such powers. Best to leave it with the MPs in Westminster.

And some people in Cardiff Bay still hold out hope of a full parliament for Wales.

It is worth pointing out that the Welsh Liberal Democrats did so well in last months Welsh Council elections that PR would actually have disadvantaged us. But we should not let Matt's snide aside distract us from the main point, which is that Labour have once again shown their lack of commitment to the devolution process.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Government maintain secrecy - shock!

This morning's Western Mail reports that the UK Government’s Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has threatened to cut off all discussions about the possible transfer of powers over energy policy, unless complete secrecy is maintained.

Officials in the Assembly's Environment Department explain: “BERR has made it very clear from the outset that as energy is a sensitive sector and the development of policy in connection with the transfer functions in that sector would necessitate wider consideration of the wider policy in that sector, they would consider it detrimental to the sector in its future development if information were released about policy development before that policy formulation was complete.

“It was evident from early meetings, in respect of the transfer of functions, that they considered that if any information was going to be released prior to the completion of development of the policy, they would be extremely reluctant to disclose information to the Welsh Assembly Government or to enter into discussions with the Welsh Assembly Government."

It added: “The disclosure of information in this context appears highly likely to damage the relationship with BERR in the light of the concerns which they have expressed from a very early stage, in discussions about the transfer of functions, and may result in the breakdown of the relationship, thus compromising the effectiveness of the devolution settlement and the formulation of policy in relation to its future direction, insofar as that policy falls within the ambit of BERR’s responsibilities. Negotiations with BERR over potential transfer of functions are clearly sensitive.”

So, in other words, if the Welsh Government tries to conduct this negotiation in public then it could create a highly disruptive atmosphere, lead to misunderstandings, outside interference and a breakdown in trust. In other news the Pope has announced that he is a Catholic, whilst bears have started their daily pilgrimage to the woods.

Voting power

So just how many people of Italian descent live in the Vale of Glamorgan exactly? I am sure that the Tory PPC in this highly marginal seat will be anxious to find out.

Update: Alun Cairns has resigned as Tory Education Spokesperson in the Assembly and as Chair of the Assembly's Finance Committee. Bizarely, he appears to be hanging onto his role as Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for the Vale of Glamorgan. Surely, that is quite a sensitive position and from a Tory point of view, the one most likely to be impacted by his remarks. After all he will be canvassing the support of the Vale's Italian community in a year or two.

How did the Conservatives determine what Alun's forfeit would be? Did he opt to resign from the posts he could most afford to lose, so as to hold onto the one he wanted the most? How can his position as PPC be sustainable now that he has acknowledged that his remarks are a resigning matter?

I am just asking.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The jury is out on Davis (and Clegg)

From where I am sitting David Davis' decision to resign and fight a by-election on the issue of civil liberties still looks sustainable. It is becoming increasingly unlikely that Labour will now put up a candidate, prefering instead to pass the baton to that other well-known liberal, Kelvin McKenzie, former editor of the Sun and one of the brains behind topless darts on L!VE TV.

In these circumstances, and discounting the intervention of the odd beauty queen and Monster Raving Loony, the idea of focussing the contest entirely on the role of an ever-burgeoning state may well just come off. As ever though it is a matter of timing.

Mike Smithson over on politicalbetting
poses the questions 'Isn't the news agenda going to just move on? Will we still remember the cause on polling day?' He has a valid point. David Davis' gamble and that of Nick Clegg in supporting him relies on the by-election taking place before the media and the public tire of the 42-day controversy and start debating other issues instead, such as the price of petrol and the tanker drivers strike, which started today.

I am not too sure that the good people of Haltemprice & Howden will want to talk about the niceties of detention without trial when they are stranded at home because of a petrol shortage. Nor am I convinced that the media will humour David Davis for long when there are so many other pressing issues to report on first.

In many ways this 'personal' decision by the former Shadow Home Secretary has all the hallmarks of a disaster for the Conservative Party. It ties them into his agenda at a time when they need to move on if they are to sustain their lead over Gordon Brown. It is little wonder that senior Tories look so uncomfortable when discussing it whilst Labour cabinet members are waundering around with a permanent smirk on their face. Tony McNulty on Question Time last night looked like he had just won the lottery. It is the first time in months that I have seen a Government Minister enjoy himself so much on a serious current affairs programme.

The by-election and the media circus that will inevitably follow it offers a useful breathing space for Labour in which they can re-group. Important as David Davis' cause is, it is not a vote winner. Nevertheless, Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats look like they are in a win-win situation.

The Liberal Democrats have done the principled thing and stood aside, thus allowing the by-election to be fought on civil liberties, a key one for us. And even though in doing so we have ceded that agenda temporarily to David Davis, the fact that it is not a mainstream Tory issue and that Davis is acting in a 'personal' capacity without the full backing and endorsement of his leadership means that it will be there for us to pick up again after the by-election is over.

We have also won respect from many commentators and members of the public for taking the decisive step of standing aside so early on, thus allowing the by-election to take place on these terms. If the Tories lose support as a result of their own divisions on this issue and due to taking their eye off the ball on other domestic matters then we will be well situated to take advantage.

The only downside is if the by-election is delayed for too long. I cannot see why that should happen but if it does then all the momentum behind Davis' bold move will have been lost and the Liberal Democrats will look increasingly foolish for so eagerly agreeing not to field a candidate. In that sense the jury is still out as to what we should make about this whole affair and what its impact will be on the relative standing of the main parties once the votes have been counted and the result declared. It is a principled gamble but how the electorate will react once they have had time to digest and consider it is still an unknown factor.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

More on principles

Much anger in the Black household last night as we discovered that our Labour MP had voted in favour of the 42 day pre-charge detention period. Siân James had been one of those rebel MPs who had previously voted against the 90 day detention period and she took a fair bit of flack in the local media for her decision.

Tonight's South Wales Evening Post
reports that she was having doubts right up to the last minute and that it was only a last minute interview with Gordon Brown that led to her walking through the lobby on the side of the Government:

Earlier in the day, Mrs James told the Post that she had been put in a "difficult predicament" as she struggled to make up her mind whether to oppose the Government's plans, which she described as "intrinsically wrong."

Mrs James said she was "greatly saddened" that she had been put in such a "difficult predicament" by the Government and did not want her vote to be interpreted as her verdict on the beleaguered Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

"The choice appears to be between voting to save civil liberties or to save Gordon Brown," Mrs James said.

"I have always been a huge supporter of Gordon Brown and was even one of the first MPs to nominate Gordon for the leadership of the party, so that support for him is there and I know that he is a good leader.

"That's why it is such a difficult predicament that the Government has put me in.

"What I hope the people of Swansea East will understand is that I will vote in the way I believe is best in the circumstances overall."

So in the end she had to choose between opposing a measure which she believed was 'intrinsically wrong' but has the support of over sixty per cent of the electorate or a Prime Minister who can only command 25% of the popular vote in the latest opinion polls. How nice to see that it was principle that won out in the end.

Another world

I have come to the conclusion that I have slipped into a parallel universe. This is an alternative world where Tory MPs resign to fight by-elections on matters of high principle and the Liberal Democrats decide not to contest the election because they agree with him.

Perhaps a better solution would be if David Davis fought the by-election as a Liberal Democrat. At least then we might be able to restore some balance to my political world.

Relying on the BBC

The conclusions of the Professor Anthony King review of the BBC's network news coverage was no surprise to those of us who live in Wales. He reported that the BBC's news and current affairs coverage did not reflect the transformation that has taken place in Welsh politics and national life:

Researchers from Cardiff University identified 136 stories on the BBC pan-UK network that dealt with education and health – all 136 dealt with England alone. None dealt with education or health in one of the devolved nations.

The Cardiff University research found that for every one story located in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales there are around eight from England – excluding coverage of Westminster and Downing Street.

Its analysis of four weeks of reporting found that 19% of stories involving devolution were vague and confusing, and sometimes inaccurate.

Prof King’s assessment describes as “striking” the BBC’s failure to report Welsh stories on UK-wide news.

He states: “Almost none of the BBC’s 2007 election coverage dealt with Wales in any way, and of 37 BBC stories that dealt with devolved matters during the four October to November weeks analysed by the Cardiff team, only one related to Wales.

“That story related to the potential banning in Wales of the use of electric dog collars.”

Just 2% of stories on BBC television news were based in Wales. Welsh stories accounted for just 1.9% of radio items and 0.7% on online articles.

The irony is that the BBC still produces a quality news service, it is just that it is lazy in the way that the current devolution settlement is accounted for. The worst example was the recent Question Time, filmed in Cardiff in which the presenter cut short a discussion that involved the Welsh Assembly on the grounds that it might confuse viewers in England.

I wrote to Mark Thomson, the Director General to complain about this edition of Question Time and had a fairly self-serving response back trying to justify the insult. I have written back but Mr. Thomson may find it less easy to get away with such unacceptable behaviour on the part of his broadcasters when he appears before the Assembly's Broadcasting Committee on Monday.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Fighting for more powers

My attempt to get powers for the Assembly to determine the electoral arrangements for local Councils in Wales failed by just three votes. Four Plaid Cymru members and one Welsh Liberal Democrat were missing for entirely legitimate reasons but the main reason we failed was that a number of Labour AMs, who are normally in favour of electoral reform voted against, even though they had a free vote.

Voting was 18 for, 8 abstentions and 21 against. My speech is here.

Update: Congratulations to First Minister, Rhodri Morgan and Education Minister, Jane Hutt who both voted for the LCO. The voting record is here.

International Relations

I was rather bemused yesterday to hear Rhodri Morgan finally capitulate to Plaid Cymru's ridiculous demand for a Welsh seat in the United Nations by agreeing to to see if there were any precedents that might allow Wales to have its own ambassador at the General Assembly.

However, Plaid Cymru's success in winning over Labour to the idea of an international role for the Welsh Assembly was shortlived as the unity of their own members dissolved in the face of a controversial invitation.

South Wales East Plaid Cymru AM, Mohammed Ashgar circulated an e-mail to all members asking them to a reception with His Excellency Ron Prosor, Ambassador of the State of Israel on Tuesday 24 June.

This elicited an immediate response from the Presiding Officer to the effect that he is unwilling to accept the invitation to meet the Ambassador, because of his objection to the failure of the State of Israel to meet its international obligations to the Palestinian People of the Holy Lands. Both Bethan Jenkins, who posed the question to the First Minister and Leanne Woods concurred. As this e-mail correspondence appears to have made it into the public domain overnight I feel justified in giving details of it here.

The irony of course is that those who have argued so strongly for Wales to have an international role are now assiduously erecting barriers around any input we might have. You cannot credibly go to the United Nations and only agree to talk to some people and not others. What would be the point?

Cardiff Council Leader, Rodney Berman has it right. He said: "If AMs have concerns, as I do myself, about polices followed by the Israeli Government then surely it’s better to use this event to talk about those concerns rather than to put up barriers which can only promote further misunderstanding."

I was not planning to go to the reception but now I think I might.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Beauty contest

David Cornock draws our attention to this piece in today's Daily Telegraph:

After the candidacy of Miss Great Britain, Gemma Garrett, in Crewe and Nantwich, there’ll be a double dose of glamour at the Henley by-election.

The new Miss Great Britain Party is taking the bizarre step of fielding two beauty queens as rival candidates: a blonde, Amanda Harrington, and a brunette, Louise Cole.

“Our attractive candidates will stand out in a contest where every one of the major parties has chosen a man,” opines party leader Robert de Keyser.

If ex-Henley MPs Michael Heseltine and Boris Johnson are anything to go by, the blonde starts with a distinct advantage.

Can it be true that there is now in existence a 'Miss Great Britain Party' whose sole purpose is to field beauty queens in by-elections? What is more it is led by a man!!

Changing the system

Things have suddenly got very interesting in the Welsh Assembly. Tomorrow I am bringing forward private member's legislation which, if passed would give us the power to change the way we elect local Councillors.

My favoured system is the single transferable vote method of election but that is a debate for another time. Tomorrow I am just seeking to get the powers for a future measure on this issue. I had a meeting with the Electoral Reform Society yesterday to discuss tactics and we are lobbying members in ernest.

So far it is likely that the Conservative Group will abstain on block. Plaid Cymru have said they will vote for the Legislative Competence Order whilst I have now discovered that Labour are likely to have a free vote. This leaves me with a real opportunity to overcome the first hurdle by getting approval for the LCO to proceed.

We are very hopeful though the voting figures do look quite tight.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Labour's police state under siege

The Government's plans to make us all carry ID cards and to lock away suspected terrorists without trial for six weeks take a bit of a battering this morning with senior police officers criticising the latter whilst the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee jumps in on the former.

The Guardian reports that four senior police officers who oppose the extra period of detention without charge have expressed their concerns publicly. These include:

· Damage to relations with Muslim communities from whom intelligence to counter terrorism is needed;
· Fears that detectives will face pressure to find, even manufacture evidence, against those held for 42 days;
· Damage to the police's reputation by becoming involved in such a controversial issue.

One, Rob Beckley, who was the Acpo lead on communities and counter-terrorism from 2002 until last year, went public with his opposition in a speech to a Muslim Safety Forum conference last month.

A DVD of his speech, seen by the Guardian, shows the deputy chief constable of Avon and Somerset telling delegates: "It would be wrong to think that there is a uniform professional view within the police service. I, and I know other chief officers, do not see the necessity of 42 days; we can see the desirability, but at this stage I do not see the professional necessity.

"The issue now, unfortunately, has become very toxic and political, and we are moving away from a rational debate, because of the politics that now envelop this subject, not least of all, the role and position of the government and prime minister and all the other dimensions we read about in the press."

When the Guardian approached him, Beckley said: "I stand by what I said, and continue to have doubts about the investigative need and concerns about the impact on hearts and minds in our work with communities.

Meanwhile, a group of influential MPs have concluded that Britain is in danger of turning into a surveillance society. The report by the Home Affairs Select Committee concludes that they "are concerned about the potential for 'function creep' in terms of the surveillance potential of the national identity scheme. Any ambiguity about the objectives of the scheme puts in jeopardy the public's trust in the scheme itself and in the government's ability to run it."

The MPs said they accepted the government's assurance that ID cards would not be used as a "surveillance tool". But they demanded further assurances that people would not find themselves subject to unnecessary intrusion from the authorities.

"We recommend that the Home Office produce a report on the intended functions of the national identity scheme in relation to the fight against crime, containing an explicit statement that the administrative information collected and stored in connection with the national identity register will not be used as a matter of routine to monitor the activities of individuals."

The response of the Home Secretary is bizarre to say the least: "I know that ID cards will help me to prove more easily who I am," she said of the benefits ID cards will provide for innocent people. I suppose that could be quite valuable, after all Jacqui Smith is hardly the most recognisable of Government Ministers at the best of times.

Still, it does not explain why a supposedly left-of-centre government is pursuing such an authoritian agenda, going further than the Tories ever dared.


Sunday, June 08, 2008

The cost of money

I was shocked this week when a constituent passed to me a loan offer she had received unsolicited through the post. The offer came with a typical APR of 183.2%.

'Provident Personal Credit' state that a loan of between £50 and £800 is available. I contacted the company and discovered that the total re-payable on an £800 loan over 56 weeks is a staggering £1,344 with repayments of £24 a week, a charge of £544. The advert also states that the unemployed are welcome to apply.

The most expensive loan detailed on a price comparison website charged almost a third of the price and had lower monthly repayments. The total charge was £191 instead of £544, and this was for someone with a 'poor' credit rating.

This advert tries to convince people of the affordability of loans by disguising the repayments as weekly. It is incredibly irresponsible to invite someone who is unemployed to apply for a loan which they would struggle to repay. £24 a week is £98 a month.

My concern is that with credit from legitimate lenders becoming increasingly hard to come by during the 'credit crunch', those who need cash will be forced to turn to companies such as Provident. They are preying on the poor and attempting to disguise an incredibly uncompetitive product as fair value.

A brief history of Conservative scandal

Very helpfully today's Observer has provided a cut-out-and-keep guide to Conservative scandals, past and present. Including Neil Hamilton, Jonathan Aiken and Jeffrey Archer, the piece adds the names of Michael Trend, Derek Conway, Giles Chichester and Den Dover. It really does sound like David Cameron has his hands full.

The unknown quantity at this point is what impact these latest scandals will have on the Tories opinion poll ratings.

A question of priorities

Welsh Education Minister, Jane Hutt confirmed yesterday what we have long suspected, the One Wales Government does not have the money to properly fulfil its commitment to deliver the Foundation Phase for 3 to 7 year olds, nor does she seem to have the support of other ministers in putting that oversight right:

The under-fire minister told the audience of teachers’ union representatives she was having to battle fellow ministers for cash to fund her own proposals.

And she pleaded with the teachers for their help wringing the cash needed for the Assembly’s flagship teaching shake-up from her Cabinet colleagues.

Vale of Glamorgan AM Ms Hutt told the meeting at a plush Cardiff hotel: “I know that we haven’t got enough.

“The budget planning exercise for 2009-10 is now with us and we need to have reliable projections to present to the Finance Minister.

“I need your backing and I have to make sure that we have got the reliable evidence to ensure that I get adequate funding from 2009 to 2010.”

She added: “I’m living, sleeping, working the Foundation Phase. It is so critical that we take this forward.”

Her comments came almost a month to the day after she announced an extra £5m funding for the “learning through play” teaching proposals for three to five-year-olds saying it would “make sure that all children in Wales get to benefit from what it has to offer.”

But yesterday’s remarks appeared to accept she knew the extra £5m – which takes the total funding pot for the scheme to £30m – was well short of the sum needed.

Some teachers estimate that the cash shortfall will mean there are almost twice as many pupils per teacher in some Welsh classrooms as envisaged in the plans for the shake-up, which is dubbed the Foundation Phase. They say the shortfall for next year alone is up to £15m.

Although, we need to acknowledge that there has been a tight budget settlement for the Welsh Assembly Government that was hardly unexpected. In fact it was being predicted well before the Assembly elections and we were constantly being reassured that the Government was planning for it.

Where things seem to have gone wrong are the One Wales Agreement, which led the Government to assume a wide range of spending commitments including the controversial freebies. What is missing is any sense of priority. Indeed when I tabled a question not so long ago to ask what the Government's spending priorities were I was referred to this ambitious and largely unfunded programme document.

In the last year Labour and Plaid have dropped previous commitments to narrow the funding gap between Welsh Universities and their English counterparts, they have continued to starve the FE sector of much needed funds and they have imposed a harsh settlement on local councils that will mean many more schools going into budget deficit. They have also failed to find any more money for school buildings and they have left the widely supported foundation phase underfunded.

If there are priorities in the One Wales document it is clear that education is not amongst them. This government is floundering beneath the weight of its own financial commitments and it is the future of our education system and our economy that is suffering.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The art of government

I have commented before about the impending problem Labour faces as we approach the year 2010. Keen to appear as an action-orientated government, determined to tackle the big issues of the day New Labour set about creating a whole series of targets as soon as they took office in 1997.

Cannily, they acknowledged that in many instances it would take a generation to eradicate long-standing sores like child poverty and fuel poverty and so they picked a date in the distance future by which they hoped to achieve it. In this way they would be able to marshall the necessary resources, put in place any legislation needed, alter the tax and benefit systems accordingly whilst staying immune from effective scrutiny for most of that period on whether they were going to achieve their goal or not.

Even now, with just a few years to go detailed questions are likely to be brushed aside with assurances that the government is on track to fulfil its promise. Alas, it is not the case. Although we have to acknowledge that some progress has been made Labour has failed to carry out the necesary reforms to really crack the problem. As a result reports such as this one are starting to appear pointing out how off course Labour really is.

The Guardian tells us that new figures due out on Tuesday are expected to show a small rise in the numbers in child poverty, leaving ministers with only the 2009 budget to inject up to £3bn to meet the target:

The Department for Work and Pensions has already admitted in internal documents that it is unlikely to meet the government's chief measure of halving the number of children in households with an income of 60% or less of average (median) earnings.

Last year's equivalent figures covering 2005-06 showed an extra 100,000 children falling into poverty measured before housing costs, and 200,000 children measured after housing costs.

A second successive year showing the government failing to make progress will be deeply disappointing, even though ministers insist they have taken extra measures since then and the target is not being ditched.

The paper reports that the Child Poverty Action Group is expecting to see a rise of between 100,000 to 200,000 at worst in child poverty, bringing the total to around 2.9m households. They say that the government needs to cut that figure to 1.7m households by 2010-11 if it is to meet the target. They add that the Institute for Fiscal Studies is predicting that the government will miss its 2010 target by almost half a million children.

On top of this failure are the problems faced in tackling fuel poverty as summed up by Rhodri Morgan in First Minister's Question Time this week. He told the chamber that the government may need to review its targets in the light of recent price rises:

On the question of fuel poverty, everyone is ferociously revising their approach to fuel poverty following the doubling, at least, of fuel prices recently, and, probably, their trebling over the past three or four years, to see to what extent they can maintain the previous targets or whether they have to revise them or provide additional resources. The Westminster Government has said that the winter fuel allowance as regards old people will go up further this winter to try to cope with rising oil prices and the way that that has dragged up electricity and gas prices. However, we will have to look at our targets to see to what extent they have been wrecked by the rise in fuel prices that has occurred suddenly and sharply worldwide.

I think we can all sympathise with the difficulties faced by Labour due to the impact of 'market forces' on fuel prices but we still need to ask hard questions as to whether they have really used the resources available to them to best effect. For example a recent review of the Welsh Government's Home Energy Efficiency Scheme revealed that despite a total expenditure of £50 million only 29 per cent of those helped were classed as fuel poor.

I write all of this with regret because I believe that the objectives that the Government have set itself are laudable and worth pursuing. I genuinely do hope that they meet their targets. Much as I oppose a large part of the New Labour agenda it would be a very sad day indeed for Britain if we lose what is still a largely left-of-centre government at the next election after 12 or 13 years in power without having lifted the required number of our citizens out of poverty.

That is why I found Gordon Brown's actions over the doubling of the 10p tax rate and the expenditure of huge sums of public money on an illegal foreign war and in bailing out what was then a privately owned bank so inexplicable.

Whatever Cameron's rhetoric we know that if he were to enter 10 Downing Street the alleviation of poverty would not be high on his agenda. That is why the achievement of the ambitious targets the present government has set itself are so important. This really is a once-in-a-generation chance to make a difference. Labour had better not blow it.

Friday, June 06, 2008

George Orwell Square, Barcelona

The death of irony!

Hat tip: Amlwch to Magor

No change

Anybody who genuinely thought that the Tories have managed to effect a step-change from the nasty, sleazy party they were around the time of the 1997 General Election must have been disabused of that illusion by this latest episode.

For all the fuss about the failure of various MPs to declare donations with the electoral commission it remains the case that the most serious allegations of abuse to date have been against the Tory Group Leader in the European Parliament, Giles Chichester and Tory MP Derek Conway.

We must not forget that sustained publicity about sleazy Tory MPs directly contributed to their defeat eleven years ago. At that time there were constant headlines about a whole variety of indiscretions all adding to the view that John Major had lost control of his party.

So far the general disillusionment with Gordon Brown and the apparent short memory of many people seems to have protected David Cameron from a similar backlash, but he must know that unless he gets a grip and drags his MPs, MEPs and Councillors out of well-worn but questionable practices with regards to allowances and expenses, then he faces another meltdown.

To be fair Cameron seems to understand this and is doing a reasonable job of containing the damage. The question is though, does his party have the same level of understanding and will they allow their present opinion poll lead to lure them into a potentially disastrous complacency?

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Still waiting for the answer

Tempting as it is to talk about Lembit Öpik's interview with Piers Morgan for GQ magazine there are far more pressing issues to consider than why the two Cheeky Girls share a bed.

In particular we are shortly to face a vote to consider whether the period of time somebody can be detained without charge should be extended to 42 days or not. A House of Commons Committee reports today that the case for such a change has not been made.

According to the Guardian 19 Labour backbench rebels met at Westminster yesterday and resolved to vote against the proposals next Wednesday, even if they caused the government short-term damage. They say that the rebels refused to discuss how wide their support was, but denied the vote had crumbled:

Frank Dobson, a leading rebel organiser, said the concessions tabled by the government on Tuesday after weeks of internal debate still allowed ministers to detain alleged terrorists for 42 days routinely, and questioned the value of the commitments that there had to be evidence of a threat of a grave terrorist emergency.

"The power to detain for up to 42 days is not confined to an emergency, it is there as an administrative convenience," Dobson said. He recalled that when he became an MP, the police had a power to detain suspects for only three days. "Defeat next week would be a temporary setback for the prime minister, but in the long term it will be of benefit to him."

The joint human rights committee said that the additional safeguards set out by the Home Secretary did not include "any additional judicial safeguards for the individual at hearings to extend their detention. The lack of proper judicial safeguards at such hearings is one of the main reasons why extending the maximum period of pre-charge detention to 42 days without any additional judicial safeguard would be in breach of the right to liberty in article 5 of the European convention on human rights," it said.

There was also no evidence provided by the home secretary which demonstrated that the terrorist threat was escalating, the committee said.

It warns: "In our view a requirement that the secretary of state merely make a declaration to parliament that she is satisfied that there are exceptional circumstances giving rise to an exceptional operational need to use the power would not amount to much of a safeguard."

The committee says this "can only be made meaningful if there is an opportunity for that assertion to be tested by independent scrutineers, whether in parliament or the courts".

It also dismisses the offer to allow parliament to debate the issue within seven days of the home secretary taking a power to detain beyond 28 days, arguing the debate would be circumscribed by the risk of prejudicing future trials.

It is likely that the Government will now win the vote on 42 days. That can only be bad for our democracy.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The friendly Minister

The Welsh Assembly Government's favourite UK Minister, Ben Bradshaw was at it again yesterday with his assertion that longer waiting times for Welsh patients are a “consequence of devolution”.

He pointed out that only 109 English patients were waiting more than 13 weeks for outpatient treatment, compared with 25,042 patients in Wales.

Mr. Bradshaw of course is making precisely the same point as that made by the Welsh Liberal Democrats: there are no such things as 'free' prescriptions or parking. These 'perks' are paid for by diverting money from frontline services. Free prescriptions should not cover millionaires and free parking should not cover commuters.

Ben Bradshaw’s comments may be helpful in one regard. They will hopefully help to dissuade the growing body of opinion in England that Wales is over-funded because we can afford to do things differently. The message to the English is that we cannot afford these freebies at all, we just have a Government even more obsessed with gimmicks than theirs.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Economic troubles

We have sat in Plenary for the last five years or so listening to a whole litany of statistics from Labour Ministers on how well the Welsh Economy is doing. Now official UK Government figures have confirmed what we knew all along, that we have been trailing behind the rest of the UK for the whole of the last decade:

Official UK Government figures included in a report on competitiveness in Northern Ireland place Wales at the bottom of the economic performance league behind all other 11 UK regions. The table is headed by London, followed by the south-east of England. Northern Ireland is in third position and Scotland is seventh.

Some would call this a major failure, the Welsh Government however prefer to think of it as 'a challenge'. Surely it is time that they met that challenge head-on.

In the chair

The South Wales Evening Post reports that two Baglan Councillors who switched sides to Labour within hours of the close of nominations and were subsequently elected unopposed have now been awarded Committee Chairs and a Special Responsibility Allowance of between six and ten thousand pounds a year each.

As reported on this blog the two Councillors caused controversy a few months ago when, having first been elected for the Ratepayer Neath Port Talbot group in the Baglan Ward in 2004, they switched their allegiance to Labour just as nominations were closing. 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 were elected unopposed.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Fighting for our Post Offices

Saturday's South Wales Evening Post reports that 23 Post Offices are to be earmarked for closure in Swansea, Carmarthenshire and Neath Port Talbot. I am aware that when the official announcement is made tomorrow there will also be closures proposed for Pembrokeshire and Bridgend.

This cull comes on top of the 4,000 Post Offices so far closed by Labour since 1997, 150 of them in Wales and 22 of them in Swansea. Their plan is to close another 2,500 branches across the UK in this latest reorganisation, a euphemism if ever I heard one. The Conservatives are no better, they closed 3,500 Post Offices when they were in office.

Some commenters on the Evening Post site suggest that if people used these Post Offices more often then they would not be closing. It is true that they are making a loss and need to be subsidised. However, the Post Office is more than a business, it is a community resource. As such it is right that it is treated differently to other businesses.

Research for Postwatch in 2004 showed that 75% of those surveyed felt their local office was ‘extremely important’; 59% thought it was ‘essential to their way of life’; 91% agreed that post office plays an ‘important role in their local community’; 86% felt that losing a post office often means ‘a lot of people lose their independence’; and 27% found it difficult to get to another post office when their local one closed. These figures increased among the elderly or those with disabilities affecting their mobility.

Personally, I try to use the Post Office whenever I can, resisting blandishments to renew my road tax on-line or over the telephone for example. However, one of the key factors in the decline of Post Offices is the removal of Government business from them. In 2006/07 the value of services withdrawn by the government equalled £168 million whilst Post Offices made an operating loss of £111 million.

There are further threats to our Post Offices on the horizon. Those in the business are warning that if they do not win the contract for the new Post Office Card Account then another 4,000 branches may close. This is not viable. The Liberal Democrats have a plan that would invest an additional £2 billion in the Post Office network. The Government needs to revisit this issue and find ways to prevent the devastation to local communities that their closure plans are bringing.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Labour fail on youth crime

Apologies for the slight hiatus in posting but I have been away at the Hay Festival and have just got home. This did not stop me noting however this headline in today's Observer.

We have just been through a local election campaign in which Labour sought to focus on the issue of anti-social behaviour and attempted to blame local Councils for their failures in dealing with this issue. However, an internal government report has now concluded that it is Labour's 10-year strategy for tackling youth crime has failed:

The briefing document says that around 25 per cent of under-18s have committed an offence, while reoffending rates are 'very high and have not significantly changed' since 1997.

The embarrassing disclosures come despite a massive increase in the budget for tackling youth crime and counter Labour claims that the government has had significant success in reducing rates of offending among the young.

Cutting youth crime was a major Labour priority and yet they have made no progress in reaching their objectives:

The briefing notes that '5 to 6 per cent' of young offenders commit between 50 and 60 per cent of all juvenile crime, with an average of 30 to 40 offences a year. The worst offenders have a 96 per cent reoffending rate, with each costing taxpayers £80,000 a year.

Despite the courts handing down some 34,000 community and 7,000 custodial sentences a year, reoffending rates in Britain remain some of the highest in the world. The document reveals that 70 per cent of male offenders under the age of 18 who receive a community sentence commit further crimes, compared with 76 per cent of those who are given a custodial sentence.

The briefing suggests that the youth justice system raises 'barriers to effective resettlement' after young offenders have finished their sentences and that by setting strict supervision conditions it leads to an increasing number of children breaching their orders, which in turn triggers more custodial sentences.

'Labour policies on youth justice over the past decade have resulted in a huge rise in children jailed,' said Harry Fletcher, of the probation union Napo. 'It's to be welcomed that this policy is being revisited so that more emphasis can be put on support and education of the poorest children.'

Labour's slogan of 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' has been lost in all of their macho posturing. They forgot to deal with the causes.

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