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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Politicians and the Internet

I have written an article for the Institute of Welsh Affairs 'Agenda' magazine on politicians and the internet. At 2,400 words it is a bit long to put on this blog but it can be read here.

Tackling fuel poverty

Those British Gas customers faced with a 35% rise in their gas bills and a 9% hike in the price of electricity will not be able to find much to comfort them at all in today's press coverage. Even Centrica's attempt to justify the increases whilst simultaneously trying to make us feel sorry for them has deservedly fallen on stoney ground. After all nobody has much sympathy for a company suffering a 19% fall in first-half profits when they are still trousering a surplus of £992m.

In today's Independent Vince Cable argues that a windfall tax on the energy companies is not the way forward. He says that headline profits usually relate to global operations, of which only a modest part is in the UK. He points out that North Sea producers already face a windfall tax. I am not entirely convinced. I believe that there is a role for stronger regulation to rein in price rises for those companies who are recording large surpluses. Nevertheless I entirely agree with the remainder of Vince's analysis and the three action points he identifies for government:

There is, however, a separate argument about the electricity and gas companies. These companies benefit from a windfall received from phase two of the Emissions Trading Scheme. During phase two of the scheme, the vast majority of permits to produce carbon dioxide have been given away free, and energy companies can decide to trade rather than use these permits.

The energy regulator Ofgem has calculated that the collective windfall of energy producers from the introduction of free ETS permits amounts to £9bn over the whole of phase two (five years). At least some of this money is fair game: there is a difference between profits made because of increasing demand and profits made because of a government giveaway.

Indeed, the Government (and the industry) has now accepted this argument in principle, and will auction permits in the future in a way that their scarcity value accrues to government rather than to the industry.

The industry argues that the current arrangements were entered into in good faith and that they should not be taxed retrospectively. But it is not unreasonable to expect it to shoulder more responsibility.

Indeed, there are other arguments for taking a tough approach. The competitive market which once existed in electricity generation has largely disappeared, with six major vertically-integrated companies dominating it. Moreover, the claim that consumers can shop around for good bargains is undermined by analysis from the University of East Anglia, which shows that a third of switchers actually make themselves worse off, and half of customers never switch. Overall, there is a strong case for a Competition Commission referral.

Vince argues that we should be looking to is to improve energy efficiency: According to the Local Government Association, at least 12 million houses are currently inadequately insulated, costing households around £200 in lost energy. Some companies, under the Carbon Emission Reductions Target, already have a rolling programme to insulate people's homes, but this needs to be scaled up hugely. A 10-year rolling programme of £500m could ensure that not only are all British homes adequately insulated, but that household carbon emissions are reduced by a fifth.

Secondly, we need to do something about pre-payment meters: the most vulnerable customers face disproportionately high bills from pre-payment meters. Ironically, despite the claims to offer a "social tariff", major energy companies charge a negative social tariff. According to recent research commissioned for Energywatch, those on pre-payment meters can pay up to £142 more than people on direct debits on their combined gas and electricity bills. With around a quarter of poorer fuel customers on pre-payment meters, this has to be a priority.

Rolling out social tariffs to ensure that the 2.25 million people on pre-payment meters are not unfairly penalised would cost the energy companies in the region of £275m a year. Given the level of their ETS windfall, this does not seem an unreasonable obligation.

Finally, there should be a systematic investment in smart meters, which display consumption costs and enable customers to plan their energy usage: Energywatch has shown energy usage can be reduced by between 3 and 15 per cent through changes in behaviour. With a 5 per cent reduction translating into a bill reduction of around £35, this can also help reduce fuel poverty. What is more, the introduction of smart meters that can be read remotely could also significantly benefit the energy companies.

It is a forceful argument and one that both the energy companies and the government need to take notice of. If Gordon Brown is looking for an issue by which he can force his way back into electoral reckoning then this is it. He needs to be decisive and uncompromising. Customers have been at the mercy of market forces on gas and electricity prices for too long. We need a government that does not just understand the economic pain but does something about it.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The code of life

Please excuse the geeky Stargate SG1 reference in the title. This post is in fact about DNA and in particular the report of the Human Genetics Commission published today. How nice to see an independent body reinforce my own prejudices.

The Independent reports that a generation of young Britons is being criminalised for life by the relentless expansion of the national DNA database:

Alarm and hostility over the massive scale of the collection of DNA has been uncovered by groundbreaking research funded by the Home Office among panels of members of the public.

The Human Genetics Commission found there was widespread mistrust among people presented with evidence of the size of the database, which now contains the genetic records of more than four million people. It called for the database to be taken out of the control of the Home Office and police altogether, with one panel member warning that the database was a "first step towards a totalitarian state".

Britain now has by far the largest DNA database in the world. It includes an estimated one million people who have never been found guilty of any offence, some 100,000 of whom are children.

About 40 per cent of young black men have been forced to provide samples, compared with 13 per cent of Asian men and 9 per cent of white men.

Genetic material is now taken from all people arrested by police, regardless of whether they are subsequently charged or convicted, and remains on file for life.

Offences covered include begging, being drunk and disorderly, taking part in an illegal demonstration and minor acts of criminal damage caused by children kicking footballs or, in one instance, throwing a snowball.

The Commission found the public believed samples provided by the innocent should be destroyed and those of people convicted of lesser offences removed after a few years. Panels in Birmingham and Glasgow concluded that the records of children convicted of minor offences should be removed after a short period. They warned that adults are "criminalised" by having their DNA permanently on record, and suggested that the length of time it stays on the database should be proportionate to their offence. There is currently no distinction is made between someone who has been arrested for breach of the peace and someone who has murdered somebody.

The report also registered alarm over the "very lax security" protecting the database and concerns over "who had access to samples and profiles and for what purpose". The panel members unanimously supported a nationwide publicity campaign to raise awareness of the database, using the internet, posters, leaflets and school visits.

The public backed control over the database being transferred to an independent body comprising ministers, police and civilians. Juries should be given better information about DNA in trials, they said, with independent scientists explaining the evidence, in addition to those hired by the prosecution and defence.

All of this is very sensible and matches the concerns of the Liberal Democrat Home Affairs Team over a significant period of time. Now we await to see if the Government will act on the report. I am not holding my breath.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Carnage (updated)

The announcement today that a further 52 Post Offices are to close in North Wales brings the total to be shut down across the Wales to 155. It will mean the loss of 282 Post Offices here since 2003. A fine record for a Labour Government supposedly committed to communities and to social justice.

The photograph shows a map of all Post Office closures in Wales since 2003 including those in North Wales announced today. Each red dot represents a closed branch. You will note that even with the 52 we were informed of today the vast majority are in urban South Wales.

Blog wars

Sanddef has started a bit of a debate on the blogosphere with his claim of internet supremacy for Plaid Cymru bloggers. He states that the presence of Labour, Wales's largest political party on the Welsh blogosphere has been reduced to an MP, a couple of AMs, and Martin Eagleston.

He goes on to claim that the number of Plaid Cymru bloggers has increased this year, with a combined daily output that is greater than that of all the other politically partisan blogs put together.

I can only find six active Labour blogs and four Tories, all of which are on my blogroll. In contrast I have listed eleven Welsh Liberal Democrat blogs, eight of whom have posted in the last month, the vast majority in the last week. We may be a bit behind the nationalists but at least we are there in a reasonable number.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Pre-emptive strike

Rumours that a Government reshuffle may lead to the abolition of the Wales Office has provoked a pre-emptive strike by both Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives this morning.

The suggestion is that the Wales Office could be merged into a new “super-department” for the UK’s nations and regions as part of a cabinet reshuffle in the autumn. The departments for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland would be integrated into one single Department for Nations, Regions and Local Government, with the Wales Office and the post of Welsh Secretary ceasing to exist.

Both Plaid and the Tories are arguing that because the Assembly does not have full legislative powers then there is still a need for a “strong voice” representing Wales at the cabinet table. I suppose you could argue equally that there is a need for the UK Government to be represented in Wales but does that have to be done through a dedicated Cabinet member?

What is interesting about the Conservatives' stance in particular is that not so long ago they organised their shadow spokespeople precisely along the lines being suggested for Gordon Brown's reshuffle. They had no shadow Secretary of State for Wales and even now that post is not filled by an MP representing a Welsh Constituency.

Labour too have experimented with a part-time Secretary of State for Wales, which was working fine until the incumbent bit off more than he could chew by standing for his party's deputy leadership.

I was quite intriqued by Elfyn Llwyd's comment that if we were to create a Secretary of State for the Nations, Regions and Local Government then "it would slow down the democratic process and hinder the work being done on LCOs [legislative competence orders]." He does not explain how, nor can I see such an outcome. Indeed is it possible to make that process any slower than it is now?

Presumably, under a re-organised Cabinet structure there would still be a Minister of State for Wales, possibly two. The UK Government would also retain a dedicated team of civil servants who would concentrate on Welsh matters and legislation. For all practical purposes I cannot see how anything would change.

The big question mark is over status. Would a combined post mean that Wales was less important in UK terms? I do not see how anybody could draw that conclusion. Wales has its own National Assembly, it has a privileged place in the drawing up of UK legislation due to the fact that it often gets its own clauses passing on powers to the Assembly or Welsh Government Ministers, and it continues to have its own Select Committee and Grand Committee. Furthermore. any Cabinet Minister for the Nations and Regions would retain a specific brief for Wales.

It seems to me that the creation of a composite post is long overdue and will in fact assist the devolution process. Instead of having a Wales Office in competition with the Welsh Assembly Government for status and power, we will have a practical arrangement designed to facilitate devolution. It will offer a more coherent overview of the reform of the Barnett formula and who knows, a reshuffle might even speed up the LCO process.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

A question of balance

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey of Clifton has leapt feet first into the controversy surrounding the award of £60,000 in damages to Max Mosley for breach of privacy after the News of the World published details of a sado-masochistic orgy the formula One boss participated in.

In today's News of the World Carey argues that the ruling set a "dangerous precedent" and undermined public morality. The noble Lord believes that the outcome of this court case created 'a new privacy law, which undermined press freedom.

He said the judgment made ‘unspeakable and indecent behaviour’ no longer significant and prevented investigations by the media into matters of public interest.

“If a politician, a judge, a bishop or any public figure cannot keep their promises to wife, husband, etc, how can they be trusted to honour pledges to their constituencies and people they serve?"

He said the ruling shackled the press and removed the right of the public to make informed moral judgements.

“This is a bleak, deeply-flawed "anything goes" philosophy. It is also dangerous and socially undermining, devoid of the basic, decent moral standards that form the very fabric of our society.”

He is joined in this nonsense by most of the press, who are suddenly facing the prospect of a lucrative vein of stories drying up. Both they and the former Archbishop are wrong on a number of fundamental points:

Firstly, journalists and editors pretend to be interested in morality and the public interest but in reality their main concern is selling newspapers. They exercise double standards both in what they preach to their readers and in the way they react if it is their privacy that is being threatened. There is no consistency in how they report stories and no underlying principle or philosophy behind their choice of material. They exercise power without responsibility and it is right that they are regulated and have restrictions put on them so to ensure that they do not abuse that position.

Secondly, it is not the business of the fourth estate to tell us how to live our lives any more than it is that of the Lord Archbishop. It is an historical fact that 'the moral standards that form the very fabric of our society' follow the trends of the day, they are not immutable nor are they absolute.

People have the right to privacy and to live as they wish irrespective of their position in society. The only caveat I would add is that we should be free from undue interference by others and that we should not have our own rights and freedoms impugned. As such there are natural limits on our freedom of action. I think it is only reasonable too to suggest that if a somebody takes a position publicly and then acts in a contrary way then they can become fair game. There is nothing in this judgement to undermine such a position.

Thirdly, Lord Carey is wrong in his interpretation of the judgement. As Henry Porter points out in today's Observer there has been much hand-wringing about the freedom of the press. 'Most of it is self-serving. The damage to the press has not been done by Mosley, or the law, but by the practices of the News of the World. The public-interest defence still remains, but because of the Mosley case, newspapers are now going to have to justify such exposés under the chilly gaze of Mr Justice Eady and the accumulation of privacy law.' That can only be a good thing. It is a shame that Lord Carey does not agree.

Henry Porter argues that haphazardly building a law of privacy in a limited sphere of interest leaves us exposed to intrusions by the state that also have the impact of restricting our freedoms. He cites a number of examples, many of which have been referred to on this blog before, including government plans to legislate to give the state access to every email, phone call, text message and internet connection made in this country.

His case is that we need a comprehensive privacy law that covers the shenanigans of government as well as the press. He is right. It is the only way forward that can ensure that a satisfactory and logical balance is struck between the rights of the individual and the needs of the state. It is the only way to simultaneously protect us from both the over-zealousness of the News of the World and those who do have both power and responsibility, but do not understand how to exercise it so as to fulfil their obligations to the democratic process that put them in that position in the first place.

High drama

I have just returned from a weekend away and had big plans for today. As part of those plans I had intended to have blogged by now but as ever events got in the way.

As will become apparent when the Assembly Commission publishes details of member's expenses, I have been renting a flat in Cardiff since the beginning of this year. Previously, when I needed to stay over I booked into a hotel but the additional workload generated by the Government of Wales Act 2006 and the new Committee structure was making this arrangement more and more untenable.

When I had been staying over half a dozen times each term it was a more effective use of public money to stay in a hotel. Now that I am staying over once or twice a week the renting option becomes more economical by comparison. As the place was already furnished I have also avoided having to buy furnishings etc.

Anyway, I got to the flat today with the idea of dropping off my stuff and then going into the Assembly to do some work only to discover that while I was away somebody had tried to break into it. To be precise they had smashed down the door but had failed to steal anything as they were disturbed, presumably as a result of the burglar alarm going off.

The Police had secured the flat but as a result that meant that I was unable to access it. I then spent the entire afternoon liasing with my landlord, a local locksmith and the police. Just to top off the day I had decided after the weekend that I would no longer pay the extortionate amounts charged by hotels for internet access. Accordingly I went out to buy a dongle, a mobile internet modem. This of course mean't that I used up the rest of the day on the phone to the help desk getting it to work.

It never rains when it can pour. Now I have a load of work to do which I was hoping would be behind me by now.

Saturday, July 26, 2008


As I type the TV is reporting Barrack Obama's visit to 10 Downing Street. Because the Prime Minister's meeting with John McCain was low key the same arrangements need to be applied to the Democrats' presumptive nominee. This means that there are no rallies, no joint press conferences and no opportunity for the sheen of power to rub off onto a politician seeking to establish himself in the public's affections, namely Gordon Brown.

In many ways this is just as well, the contrast might have been just too great. On the one hand there would have been a popular left-of-centre statesman who has just taken part in a robust and bruising selection contest to establish himself as his party's choice to fight the forces of reaction, a man who has come to embody the notion of change and who has grown into the role of leader as a result of the democratic challenges he faced up to and overcame.

On the other hand there would have been Gordon Brown, presiding over a divided and confused party, seemingly unprepared for the role he has taken on and entrusted with that role without any means of testing whether he was up to the job in the first place.

It is a bit late for Labour to hold its own primaries for leader, but I am sure that they will not make that mistake again. The Prime Minister personifies the reason why coronations are not a good idea in a democracy.


The Western Mail's piece on where Assembly Members will be spending their summer holidays is as predictable and dependable as the first cuckoo in spring. It is the first sign that summer is here.

It appears that we are all going green or at least are trying to make it look as if we are environmental friendly. There also seems to be an effort not to be too extravagant in the face of widespread belt-tightening due to soaring fuel and food prices.

Of course this only applies to the 26 AMs who responded to Matt Withers' survey. Nobody knows what the other 34 are getting up to.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Unfinished books

Following on from Sunday's meme concerning how many of the allegedly top 100 books I have read, would like to read and would not touch with a bargepole, today's Guardian starts another: books that we have started but cannot finish.

I have not even picked up any of the five books listed in the on-line version of the article, though I do admit to starting James Joyce's Ulysses twice but not getting past page 100 on either occasion. Also, as I said on Sunday, my bedside table is full of half-finished books but I plan to deal with all of those in due course with the possible exception of Hillary Rodham Clinton's memoirs, 'Living History'.

Cameron on a referendum?

According to Welsh Ramblings David Cameron has said that he is overruling some of his party's AMs in Wales and will not be allowing a referendum on a real Parliament for Wales.

Lenin Cymru says that the media have failed to report these remarks, preferring instead to concentrate on the Tory Leader's support of a badger cull in Wales and his non-remarks on Alun Cairns and Lord Wyn Roberts' report on devolution. However Lenin Cymru also fails to give a source for these comments and nobody else in the blogosphere or elsewhere seem to have independently picked up on them.

Now I am quite prepared to believe that the Tories will revert to type on devolution as soon as they get back in power and that their Assembly Group will consequently be left isolated on the issue of further powers, but I really need more evidence than one unsubstantiated blog entry before letting rip.

The fact that Cameron says that he is still considering Wyn Roberts' report indicates that, at least publicly, he has not yet made up his mind and that he has not yet reached a compromise way forward with his own AMs. We will have to wait and see what exactly the Tories will be saying on this issue at the next General Election.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Scottish stories

As voters go to the polls in the Glasgow East by-election the fate of Gordon Brown allegedly hangs in the balance. It is widely acknowledged that the SNP are the main challengers though I expect the Scottish Liberal Democrat candidate to make a fight of it. Consequently, there has been a fair amount of movement between Wales and Scotland as Plaid Cymru activists head north to assist their nationalist brethren.

Those Plaid members may be interested in a piece in this week's Private Eye about the way the SNP are shaping up in government. The magazine tells us that the SNP had intended to re-regulate Scotland's buses, which provide publicly funded services. But just before the party became the Scottish Government it received a handy £500,000 donation from Stagecoach boss, Brian Souter and promptly dropped the idea.

This is a phenomenon that New Labour will be familiar with given the UK Government's decision to exempt Formula One from its ban on tobacco advertising following a completely unrelated £1m donation to Labour from Bernie Ecclestone.

The Welsh Assembly will shortly be considering a Legislative Competence Order tabled by Labour backbencher, Huw Lewis that could lead to the re-regulation of the buses in Wales. It will be interesting to see whether those with investments in transport in Wales will oppose this proposal.

Not fit for purpose

Just under two weeks ago Miss Wagstaff tagged me in a meme to name the most monumental waste of £200,000 public money. There was just so much to choose from. However, a current news story has prompted me to make a choice even though the amount of money being wasted is well in excess of the nominated amount.

The BBC is reporting today
that MPs are calling for a cut in the number of bids by AMs and the Welsh Assembly Government for more powers. The Welsh affairs select committee say that the eleven proposed legislative competence orders (LCOs) risk swamping the system, when they expected only four or five. They want a smaller number of high quality bids, believing that too many bids could bring the process into disrepute.

In many ways they are fortunate, after six months before the last May 2007 elections the Presiding Officer was predicting that the Welsh Assembly would put forward 18 pieces of legislation in its first year. That we have not done so is down to a number of factors, but chief amongst them is the over-cautiousness of the Labour- Plaid Cymru Ministers, in which even nationalist ministers have been reluctant to seek all the powers they might for fear of upsetting the apple-cart, and the control freakery of government whips in vetoing private members legislation at the earliest possible stage.

All of this fuss however just avoids the main point that the process of the Assembly asking for specific powers through a legislative competence order is not fit for purpose and is an enormous waste of time and money.

The idea that an elected Parliamentary body needs to ask permission before passing laws affecting devolved subject matters is enormously patronising. To then apply a process of dual scrutiny allied to the ritual humiliation of Welsh government ministers in front of MPs adds insult to injury. This is wasteful duplication. It is a protracted and pointless scrutiny process put in place to rein in Wales' ambitions, and to let us know who is boss. What is more it costs hundreds of thousands of pounds each year and yet at the end of that process we do not even get a law, we get permission to legislate.

Despite all of this we now have MPs whinging and whining about their workload. Apparently, our aspirations are getting in the way of their protracted world tour. They have spent 18 months looking into globalisation, an enquiry that has involved them visiting Spain, China, the Czech Republic and Poland so far. Nice work if you can get it.

Well I am happy for them to prioritise their important work. All they have to do is to give the Assembly the same powers as Scotland and we can then get on with our job whilst they get on with their's.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The wrong trousers

The Welsh Conservatives returned to form yesterday blaming the Welsh Assembly Government for a 154% increase in the bonuses paid to top civil servants over the last five years, even though it is not a devolved matter and despite the fact that the bonus system was introduced by a Tory Government in 1996.

It may well be of course that these particular bonuses are difficult to defend given the state of Welsh public services in comparison to England however for some reason the Tories failed to draw the obvious conclusion. If we want the salaries of Welsh civil servants to reflect local performance then we need to have our own independent civil service.

In many ways this over-concentration on the remuneration of public officials and the cost of pot plants and plastic bags can be quite cathartic, on the other hand those who are really accountable are Welsh Ministers. Perhaps there should be an independent body assessing their performance and determining their rate of pay accordingly.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

An inauspicious start

The appointment of Alun Ffred Jones as the new Heritage Minister has been much anticipated none more so than by his own side it seems.

Tom Bodden reports that North Wales Plaid AM Janet Ryder welcomed the appointment in a press release issued at 12.37pm today. Unfortunately, when the press release reached the media, the ministerial appointment had yet to be confirmed by the Assembly Government, or indeed by the Queen.

First Minister, Rhodri Morgan made the announcement at 14.59 today. I wonder how he feels about being upstaged by one of the Administration's backbenchers?

MPs rock the boat

BBC's Good Morning Wales is reporting that an Early Day Motion signed by nine MPs, eight of them Welsh, has caused mild consternation at the Royal Welsh Show.

Alun Michael (Cardiff South and Penarth), Martyn Jones (Clwyd South), Hywel Francis (Aberavon), Madeleine Moon (Bridgend), Paul Flynn (Newport West), Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd), Don Touhig (Islwyn) and Chris Bryant (Rhondda) have all put their name to what is effectively a Parliamentary petition congratulating English Farming Minister Hilary Benn for refusing requests to cull badgers to tackle TB in cattle. Their motion hopes Welsh Rural Affairs Minister Elin Jones will "return to an evidence-based approach" and abandon her proposed cull.

Given the vociferous nature of the support for this cull from Welsh Conservatives I was intriqued to see that the ninth signatory is the Conservative Worthing MP Peter Bottomley. There is still time for Liberal Democrat MPs to sign I am sure.

Those promoting this motion have a very good point: how can the science and the evidence lead to Hilary Benn ruling out a cull in England whilst the so-called 'evidence-based' Welsh Government believes that one is justified in Wales? Surely, that contradiction should be enough for Plaid's Rural Affairs Minister to pause and reflect on her decision. Alun Michael makes some excellent points when he says:

"The problem is that the border is very long and porous and depending where a cull was taking place, you could disperse badgers across the border in a way that might help make things worse.

"All the evidence shows there's a danger of a cull probably making things worse by dispersing badgers and that's why a decision taken in Wales could have implications across the border and not just be bad for farmers in Wales but bad for farmers in England too."

He said the view that culling badgers would help reduced the spread of TB in cattle was very strongly held in the farming community.

He added: "It's difficult to shake that belief because it is so strongly held but the science of the evidence contradicts it.

"My plea is for really for [Elin Jones] to return to the science and the evidence because I think that will encourage her in the direction of not proceeding with the cull."

Wales does of course have the right to take a different decision to England but we have the right to have the Minister justify her view on the basis of the evidence. All the reports I have seen indicates that a cull could make matters worse. The Minister needs to explain what evidence she has to the contrary that is not available to her counterpart in Westminster.

Monday, July 21, 2008

A question of credibility

As the dust starts to settle on the sacking of Rhodri Glyn Thomas as Heritage Minister all the speculation has turned to who will succeed him. The favourite appears to be Alun Ffred Jones, who is already being damned by faint praise as 'competent but not particularly charismatic'. The implication is that this is what is needed by the One Wales Government following the alleged roller-coaster ride under Rhodri Glyn.

But hold on a minute, what roller-coaster ride? Yes, Rhodri made a few mistakes, he didn't deliver all that was expected of him, but he worked damned hard and was by-and-large a solid and reliable minister. The picture being spun by Plaid Cymru advisors that he was accident-prone and far too flamboyant and colourful to keep his job, does not ring true.

Glyn Davies has hit the nail on the head when he suggests that this 'character assasination' is more about protecting Ieuan Wyn Jones' credibility than justifying a supposedly inevitable decision:

Supposedly there have been concerns about Rhodri's behavior for years. If that's so, why on earth did Ieuan Wyn Jones make him a Minister in the first place. Every report on this issue will make reference to Rhodri Glyn having a penchant for a drink, quickly followed by the qualifier that there is 'nothing wrong with that'. But the implication is clear enough. Rhodri was desperately unlucky to have messed up at the Welsh Book of the Year Awards, which did make him a bit of a joke - but I'm told that it was just that, unlucky and could have happened to anyone. No Ieuan wyn Jones fired his Culture Minister for walking into a pub with a lit cigar in his hand. Remember that when you are smothered in the 'spin' that there was more to it. The Plaid Press Office are desperately trying to bolster the credibility of the Deputy First Minister. Politics is a dirty game.

The question that we should be asking is, if Rhodri Glyn Thomas was such an embarrassment then why did the Deputy First Minister appoint him to begin with? Surely the incident that led to the Heritage Minister's dismissal was so petty as to barely warrant a reprimand.

One cannot help but think that Ieuan Wyn Jones caved into external pressure on this issue. The more one looks at the sacking, the less it looks like decisiveness and the more it appears to be the act of a weak leader seeking to cover up his own mistake.

Five years!

It is Monday 21st July so it must be the Royal Welsh Show. I will be on the road heading for Llanelwedd shortly.

It is also the fifth anniversary of the start of this blog which commenced on this day in 2003 with a post about the Royal Welsh and this picture. This is the 3,314th post.

I think it is best to gloss over the antics of my staff who made badges out of the aforesaid photograph and distributed them at a Welsh Conference a few years ago. Needless to say most of the offending lapel pins ended up in the hands of BBC Wales journalists.

This blog is the longest running by an elected Liberal Democrat politician and is topped only by Tom Watson MP in longevity amongst all elected officials at whatever level. I still have not tired of updating it on a regular basis though it has been known to get me into trouble and does occasionally upset colleagues in all parties, though not necessarily at the same time.

I think I can honestly say that I do not regret a word I have written on here though there were occasions when reading back through a set of posts I have surprised myself at how open and emphatic I was about my feelings and views.

I am now getting between 300 and 400 hits a day on average, which is very gratifying and quite flattering. Thanks to all of you. I am sure that many are just coming aboard to see if I will slip up or to get ammunition to have a pop at me, but nevertheless all readers are welcome. You make it worthwhile.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Book meme

I have borrowed this meme from Alix Mortimer because it looks like a bit of fun for a lazy Sunday afternoon (and I don't get many of those nowadays). The thing is I do not have much time for reading which is why my home is full of half-read and barely started books. I plan to do more but do not know when.

The Big Read reckons that the average adult has only read 6 of the top 100 books they’ve printed.
1) Look at the list and bold those you have read.
2) Italicize those you intend to read.
3) Underline the books you love.
4) Strike out the books you have no intention of ever reading, or were forced to read at school and hated.
5) Reprint this list in your own blog so we can try and track down these people who’ve only read 6 and force books upon them

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
4 The Harry Potter Series - JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott
12.Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
34 Emma - Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52 Dune - Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web - EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

I think that I could have emboldened a few more if the rules allowed us to include the fact that we have seen a film or TV version but then that is modern life for you. I have also seen stage versions of some books such as The Great Gatsby but never got around to reading them.

You could not make it up

The Sunday Times reports that the Government is thinking of reforming an age-old law:

Ministers are preparing to allow people labelled “idiots” and “lunatics” by archaic laws to stand for parliament.

Though it may come as a surprise to voters, laws dating back to Elizabethan times bar this category of people from becoming MPs.

Idiots are defined as those “incapable of gaining reason” and lunatics as people only “capable of periods of lucidity”.

The rules ban lunatics from standing as MPs in “their non lucid intervals”. They also ban anyone sectioned under the Mental Health Act from standing for parliament, even if they have made a recovery.

MPs have to give up their seat for life if they are sectioned for six months.

Bridget Prentice, the justice minister, is to consult on scrapping the laws after complaints from MPs and mental health charities that they are discriminatory.

“People who have suffered mental health problems can function at a very high level,” said a spokesman for Mind, the mental health charity. “Look at [the actor] Stephen Fry. He has been open about his manic depression and people would be shocked if somebody like him were not eligible to stand.”

A survey of MPs found that 27% had experience of a mental health problem. One in three said the stigma had stopped them being open about it.

Now how many voters would believe you if you told them that such a law existed? Clearly, the terms in which the law was framed are out-of-date and no longer resonate as have public attitudes to mental health issues. There is though a certain attraction to a restriction which says that only those capable of lucidity should be allowed to seek elective office.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A serious misjudgement

With Rhodri Glyn Thomas' demise as a Government Minister the media is full of speculation that he will stand down in 2011 so as to allow Adam Price to assume his 'natural' role as Plaid Cymru leader.

If Mr. Price does get that opportunity then he will need to exercise better political judgement than this. Holding the referendum on the same day as the Assembly elections would guarantee a 'no' vote in my opinion.

A combined poll would fragment the support for greater powers and polarise opinion. It would also lead to key players in all parties failing to campaign for a positive outcome because of the distraction of the other election. It is just not an option, which is presumably why many in Wales Labour favour it.

And then there were three

First we had Huw Lewis and Leighton Andrews addressing meetings of party activists to outline their political philosophy, now they have been joined by Carwyn Jones. It cannot be long before Andrew Davies is on the leadership trail with them.

The smokers amongst them (and I believe there is only one) need to be careful where they indulge their habit over the next 12 months.

Friday, July 18, 2008

An odd sequence of events

When I posted yesterday afternoon that a senior Assembly Member had been asked to leave a Cardiff Bay public house on Wednesday night for smoking in the bar it seemed like an innocent enough piece of gossip. However, events nowadays have a habit of moving very quickly, far more quickly than I remember during past controversies.

I could speculate that one of the reasons for the swiftness at which these stories develop is down to a combination of 24 hour rolling media and the over-sensitivity of party machines to the prospect of scandal, but I digress.

I was not there on Wednesday but I am told that Rhodri Glyn Thomas walked into the Eli Jenkins carrying a lit cigar following an animated discussion with a BBC journalist. He was accompanied by an ITV Wales reporter, though the bar was packed with AMs, Assembly support staff and other journalists. A Welsh Liberal Democrat intern drew the attention of the bar staff to the lit cigar and Rhodri was asked to withdraw.

As far as I know the first public reference to this incident was my blog post, which is curious given the huge number of media and political witnesses. By this morning other bloggers had passed comment as well.

This morning I received a phone call from a Western Mail and South Wales Echo journalist who had read my blog and wanted more details. I referred him to the ITV Wales journalist. By lunchtime ITV Wales were running the story so as not to be left out and other papers and media outlets were following suit.

The Welsh Liberal Democrat Head of Media had one call and I had another both asking if we were calling on Rhodri Glyn Thomas to resign. We both considered such a question to be ridiculous. We told them that it was a minor incident worthy of a diary piece at best, it is certainly not a resigning matter.

Nevetheless by that time the story had a life of its own. The Tories, in a spectacular example of over-reaction put out a press statement calling on the Heritage Minister to explain himself and apologise or consider his position. Contrast this with the magnaminous resistance put up by the Tory Health Spokesperson earlier this week to supporting a demand by North Wales Conservative MP, David Jones for the head of Assembly Health Minister, Edwina Hart over the issue of neurosurgery.

In the meantime both Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Assembly Government were staying officially neutral on the whole issue. As I caught snippets of news between engagements it became obvious that they were taking the matter very seriously indeed, to the extent that both Rhodri Glyn Thomas and Ieuan Wyn Jones pulled out of a high profile official engagement this evening and talk was not if the Heritage Minister would survive but how long.

Apparently, Rhodri Glyn Thomas is too accident prone, so much so that a few minutes ago he announced his resignation. It could be argued that Rhodri might not have had to go if he were good at his job. After all, he has upset a fair few in Plaid Cymru with his failure to deliver a Welsh Language newspaper as promised and by the non-appearance of the Welsh Language LCO. It is also the case that he was not really on top of the broadcasting part of his brief either. I understand that the Assembly Government response to the OFCOM review of broadcasting was submitted after the deadline. Still, it is a truly bizarre and over-the-top conclusion to a few minor mishaps.

What is interesting about this whole chain of events is how they were started off on blogs. It seems that the mainstream media felt obliged to cover the incident so as not to be left behind, even though the matter is not really newsworthy in its own right. Has the Welsh blogosphere claimed its first Ministerial victim?

Fresh Ood?

This picture was taken in Marks and Spencer in Swansea. Apparently, the photographer checked but there were no Ood on sale.

Another funding fog

Anybody listening to the Education Minister in Plenary yesterday would have thought that all was hunky dory with the Foundation Phase. She was at her most robust when defending the scheme in questions from Kirsty Williams:

Jane Hutt: I am sure that all will be revealed on how we move forward for the benefit of children and their education because of the commitment and the decisions that I have made, which have given our schools the stability and confidence that they can deliver the 1:8 ratio for the statutory curriculum for three to four-year-olds. I am seeking further funding, but the roll-out of the 1:8 and the 1:15 ratios is under way. It is wholly unhelpful to have this constant negative griping about this major investment in the education of our young people and children in Wales.

This is of course all part of the cut and thrust of political debate in the chamber but I do not think that the Minister will be able to shrug off the more considered all-party report from the Assembly's Finance Committee so easily:

A report by the National Assembly’s finance committee said there had been a “systemic failure” in the transfer of relevant funding information between councils and the Assembly Government.

The pioneering foundation phase scheme, which starts in September, aims to encourage three to seven-year-olds to learn through play.

The report, published today, also highlights concerns about staffing costs and recruitment and the effective allocation of funds.

The comments of the Teaching Unions are particularly pertinent and leads me to wonder which schools the Education Minister has actually been talking to:

“It is unsatisfactory that schools are expected to implement the foundation phase in September and yet the schools still don’t know exactly where they are going this coming September, the following September or the September after that.

“Somebody needs to take control and direct where this initiative is going at this moment in time or there’s going to be a potential disaster in some schools.”

Iwan Guy, acting director of the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) in Wales, who gave evidence to the National Assembly’s finance committee last month, said: “There’s a lesson here for all future initiatives. They must be pre-costed before they are published or broadcast.”

Despite the political fix that has got the Minister over the hurdle of starting the roll-out in September the future of the Foundation Phase has still not been secured and will not be until the Government demonstrates that all the necessary funding is in place.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

End of term

As it is the end of term, a piece of irrelevant gossip in the form of a rhetorical question.

Which senior Assembly Member was asked to leave a Cardiff Bay pub last night for smoking in the bar?

Update: Alwyn Ap Huw names the guilty party.


I have a huge amount of sympathy for striking Council workers, many of them are underpaid and work in often stressful situations. However, I recognise that local Councils do not have the money to offer them more.

A derisory 2.4% increase in the grant from the Labour-Plaid Assembly Government this year left Welsh Councils with little choice but to make substantial savings and to restrict their pay offer to local government workers.

This reality has not stopped some Assembly Members jumping on the bandwagon and declaring their support for the current strike leading to a predictable reaction from both Trade Unions and employers.

Yesterday Carwyn Jones, Leader of the House, and Plaid Cymru Local Government spokesperson, Dr Dai Lloyd spoke at a rally of Unison members in Cardiff, telling them a greater value should be placed on their work. And Cynon Valley AM Christine Chapman issued a statement offering her support. Plaid Cymru AM, Bethan Jenkins has also written on her blog that she is planning to visit Unison's Bridgend picket line today. She says that it is 'unacceptable that those in the public sector are not been rewarded the pay rise they deserve'.

All four of these AMs are members of the governing party in Wales. I voted against the local government settlement because it short-changed Councils and left them without sufficient resources to deliver basic services and give their workers a decent pay increase. Carwyn Jones, Dai Lloyd, Christine Chapman and Bethan Jenkins all supported that settlement. By playing to the public gallery now they have marked themselves out as hypocrites. Isn't it about time they put their money where their mouth is?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The green agenda

Just how green is the One Wales Government? It is a question worth asking in the light of their intention to run an extension of the M4 through five SSSIs and proposals to dual the A40 amongst many others.

Today's Western Mail throws further doubts on the green credentials of the Labour-Plaid Administration by reporting that at the same time as these very expensive road schemes are being mooted bus services are to be cut back as a result of the lack of Government support.

They tell us that the recent grant of £10.8m for local transport services, and the further £19.5m for the Bus Services Operators Grant and the Bus Revenue Grant have not kept pace with inflation and thus amount to a real term cut on last year. In addition the Labour-Plaid Assembly Government has effectively levelled a tax on bus travel by refusing to refund last year’s 2p-a-litre rise in fuel duty, which has been granted to English bus companies.

Although free bus travel for pensioners, introduced by the previous Labour-Liberal Democrat Administration, is a valuable boost it is no good if bus services are not available for older people to use. The actions of the present coalition makes it less likely that people will leave their car at home and catch the bus.

A threat to our way of life

The information commissioner today has joined those of us who are objecting to the creation of a "super-database" tracking every phone call, text, email and internet usage in Britain in real time:

Richard Thomas said there needed to be the "fullest public debate" over the justification for - and implications of - a database which held details of everyone's telephone and internet communications and was potentially accessible by a wide range of law enforcement agencies.

"Do we really want the police, security services and other organs of the state to have access to more and more aspects of our private lives?" the commissioner asked at the launch of his annual report.

Precisely. The proposal is insidious and barking mad. It needs to be consigned to the dustbin before it gets any further.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The backlash against speed cameras?

The Daily Express reports on Swindon Council's decision to stop spending money on speed cameras but instead put the cash into designing out speed on its roads. They estimate that this will release up to £400,000 for road safety measures that will deter drivers putting their foot down in built-up areas. Options include improving road designs, particularly on bad bends, easing cambers and assessing speed limits and training for new drivers.

As sensible as this sounds I do not think that it is quite that straightforward. In reality the Council will need to do all of this and maintain speed cameras, at least in the short run. It is likely too that the Council will need a lot more than £400,000 to make the sort of difference that will enable them to move to this new regime.

As for their motives for this shift in policy, well that is not straightforward either. It seems that the appeal of speed cameras has been hit by the Government’s decision last year to end self-funding for road safety partnerships. Almost 30,000 people in Wiltshire received speeding tickets last year, generating £1.76million in fines, of which £252,300 came from Swindon.

So is this a genuine and sustainable policy shift or one brought in to spite the government? You decide.

What are they for (Part Three)

As if to add to the confusion of what exactly they are for the All Wales Convention emerged from their first meeting yesterday and said that it was not their intention to campaign for a referendum on greater law-making powers for the Assembly. Instead they are going to talk to the people or, in the words of Sir Emyr Jones Parry, their priority is to communicate the potential the Assembly already has to make “massive” changes.

It would be possible to engage a public relations firm to carry out that task and still get substantial change from the cost of this Commission. The fact is that much of what Sir Emyr wants to do has already been achieved by the Richard Commission. The task ahead of us now is one that politicians need to fulfil, to set a date for the referendum and to go out and make a case for a 'yes' vote. If the Commission is not even going to do that then we really do need to ask why they are there?

The answer is that they exist to keep the One Wales coalition together by giving the appearance of action on devolution whilst treading water until the 2011 Assembly elections. This Commission is a political fix designed to keep both Plaid Cymru and Labour unionists happy. It is a clever move but it does not actually get the Assembly the extra powers it needs to make a difference to the lives of Welsh people.

How much to tip

It is the question that everybody asks themselves at some stage or another: how much do I tip the person serving me at the local restaurant? Personally, I always aim for a minimum of 10% and add more if I think the service deserves it.

However, as is pointed out in the Independent today, I am aware that the money does not always reach those who it is intended for, especially if it is added onto the bill and paid with a credit or debit card. That is why I always try to tip with cash, the restauranteur has no choice but to pass on cash to the staff.

The Independent highlights some of the sharp practices that prevail across the UK. They reveal that:

* Carluccio's, Café Rouge, Chez Gerard, Strada and Café Uno all pay their staff less than the minimum wage and use customers' tips to make up the balance in their employees' pay;
* PizzaExpress takes an 8 per cent cut of tips left on a credit card;
* One chain of Asian restaurants, Georgetown, takes 100 per cent of tips;
* Staff at one London eatery receive no basic wage at all.

The paper goes onto reveal that 'restaurants are using several loopholes to take a portion of the money. The practices are believed to have intensified with the rise of electronic payments and the introduction of the chip and pin system in 2006. Among the most popular is the exploitation of a loophole in minimum wage legislation. Restaurants have won the right to pay staff below the minimum wage of £5.52 per hour for workers aged 22 years and older. Staff are paid as little as £3 or £4, with the remainder topped up by tips.

In a few cases, such as at Tuttons restaurant in Covent Garden, the staff receive no "pay" at all: their wages are derived entirely from tips left by diners.

Other waiters are forced to pay restaurant chains hundreds of millions of pounds in sales fees for "administering" tips. Other establishments make deductions as a result of breakages or customers leaving without paying.'

They want three simple guidelines for fair treatment of waiting staff and are asking that the Government introduces legislation to end the widespread unfair tipping practices adopted by many of Britain's restaurants. These are:

1) All restaurants should operate a fair, clear and transparent policy for distributing service charges and gratuities to its staff.
2) All restaurants should display their policy on service charges and gratuities clearly on all of the menus.
3) All waiting staff should be guaranteed a basic salary of at least the minimum wage, excluding gratuities.

I fully support this campaign and would urge everybody to lobby their MP in support of it.

Monday, July 14, 2008

More questions

Labour Assembly Member and blogger, Huw Lewis this morning joined the growing list of people who are asking what the All Wales Convention is for.

Writing for the BBC news website, Huw says that are those inside and outside the Labour Party in Wales who question the need for such a convention at this moment in time:

As someone who is currently engaged in a backbench bid to devolve more powers to the assembly (on buses and coaches) using the new Government of Wales Act, I have some sympathy with that opinion.

We are after all talking about changing the Welsh devolution settlement before we've really tested the new powers won through the 2006 act.

To some, that seems an unseemly way of doing things, and without a case in point where we can say 'We need extra powers because currently we can't make Welsh society better by doing X, Y or Z' it is reasonable to ask if we are putting the cart before the horse.

I've always been pro-devolution because of the opportunities it affords people to make society-changing decisions closer to the grassroots.

The best outcome of the convention will therefore have to involve some real examples of why further powers are needed to make Wales a better place to live and do business - only then will popular support be assured in any future referendum.

What is not clear is whether this vision of the convention making the case for further devolution is one shared by the Labour-Plaid Government and the Convention members themselves. Isn't that what the referendum campaign should be about?

Where I disagree with Huw is in his assertion that we need to test the powers granted to us by the 2006 Government of Wales Act before proceeding to the next stage. That is because that Act did not so much give us powers as create an elaborate mechanism which we are able to use to progress further down the road to full powers. What we have established already is that this mechanism is not fit for purpose, it is a series of road blocks rather than the road map it is promoted as.

Unless it proves otherwise the Convention appears to be me to have been created to analyse the nature of those road blocks and suggest possible diversionary routes. What is actually needed is a referendum to clear the road.

N.B. Congratulations to Huw and his wife Lynne Neagle by the way. Lynne gave birth to their second son on Saturday.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

To curfew or not

The Sunday Times reports that nine out of 10 parents would back a curfew to prevent their children going out after dark. The poll follows news that the home affairs select committee of the House of Commons will say this week that a national curfew on young teenagers could curb anti-social and violent behaviour. Keith Vaz, the Labour chairman of the committee, said: “I have sympathy with the view that children should not be out after 9pm.”

There are many dangers with this approach of course, not least the misconception that a problem, which is particularly severe in some English Cities applies across the whole Country and therefore requires a nationwide solution. Such an idea is nonsense. A curfew in Redruth, Cornwall, which will run over the summer holidays, gives police the power to remove anyone under 16 seen on the streets after 9pm and any child under 10 after 8pm but I suspect that has more to do with general anti-social behaviour rather than specific issues regarding knives.

The Redruth curfew also underlines the fact that the police and local Councils already have powers to introduce curfews when such measures are necessary on a case by case basis (the 2003 Anti-Social Behaviour Act I believe). If we are to go down the curfew road then that is the correct approach, not a blanket measure impacting on all communities irrespective of the circumstances.

My biggest issue with such a proposal however lies with its implications for young people. We should be clear that the vast majority of young people are law-abiding and more likely to be the victim of knife and other crime than its perpetrator. What justification is there for removing their liberties because of the behaviour of a few of their peers? There is none.

This measure would introduce a siege mentality across Britain. It would place any young person innocently going about their business under suspicion and heighten fear of crime in local communities.

This government has introduced countless measures to deal with crime and disorder since it came to power in 1997. Many of them are specifically targetted at and demonise young people. Despite that we still have the same problems now as we did 11 years ago.

Maybe it is time for a different approach, in which government invests in engaging young people, reconciling them with their community and providing facilities for them to safely gather at night. Did the Home Affairs Committee consider the approach? Or did they consider it would not get big enough headlines?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Cerys, Jonathan and Rhodri

I was bemused to read in this morning's Western Mail that former Catatonia singer Cerys Matthews and rugby pundit Jonathan Davies have been recruited to star in a new film aimed at explaining the workings of the Welsh Assembly Government.

The idea is to make a two-minute film, which will be screened at big summer events this year such as the Royal Welsh Show and the National Eisteddfod. The film’s producer, John Morgan says that the film will 'explain some of the intricacies of the Assembly', which immediately brings into question his own knowledge as it is meant to be about the Government. The two are of course different in the same way as Parliament is different and separate from the UK Government.

He goes on to say that some of the topics discussed by Cerys Matthews and Jonathan Davies include the free car parking available at Welsh hospitals and public transport benefits for pensioners, a statement which added to my bemusement as it takes the film into a different arena.

It is all very well making a film explaining how Government works and its relationship with the Assembly but if it is to be used to promote controversial policies then it becomes party political. The question that must then be posed is whether or not it is appropriate to spend public money on the project? And talking of money, how much is this film costing? There is no clue in the article but it must be worth asking. A case for Mulder and Scully perhaps (sorry I could not resist).

Friday, July 11, 2008

And then there were two

So we now have two inquiries into the Barnett formula.

Earlier this week the Welsh Government announced that their investigation will be chaired by the former head of the IPPR, Gerald Holtham. Today, the Western Mail reveals that Lord Barnett, who initiated the controversial formula on a temporary basis, has persuaded the House of Lords to hold its own inquiry.

A report by the IPPR think-tank published this week suggested the Assembly Government could be getting as much as £2bn a year less than it needs to invest in public services under the current arrangements.

The question now is whether the two new inquiries will come to the same conclusion, and what if they take a different view to each other? Will the Welsh and Westminster Governments pick and choose the outcome they want leaving us no further forward? We will see.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Facilities for young people

I gave the keynote speech to the Annual Conference and AGM of the Council for Wales of Voluntary Youth Services this morning. The text of my speech can be found here.

Reflecting the nation

It has been a long hard slog against impossible deadlines but the Assembly Broadcasting Committee of which I am a member, managed to publish its report on time yesterday, largely due to the heroic efforts of its clerks, the members' research service and the Chair, Alun Davies AM.

Our main conclusion is that Wales is largely invisible on the UK TV networks, all of whom fail to reflect modern Welsh life in their output and fail to take account of the devolution settlement in the way that they deliver news and current affairs programmes.

We have called for greater acountability, with the BBC's Welsh Trustee and the Chair of the S4C authority being appointed by the Assembly, a Welsh member of the Ofcom board, the granting of radio licences being devolved to Wales and a permanent standing committee of the Assembly to scrutinise broadcasters and the Welsh Government on media matters.

The report should be on the Assembly website later today.

Those troublesome Tory MEPs

The BBC reports that David Cameron's attempts to reform the way that Conservative MEPs. An unsigned memo written by a Conservative MEP is a "direct breach of the rules of the European Parliament" and likely to bring a PR "defeat".

The document suggests that an attempt by Mr Cameron to merge the European and Westminster expenses system "threatens the worst of both worlds". It describes the proposal as a "direct breach of the Rules of the European Parliament", which will "snatch defeat from the jaws of victory" in PR terms. It adds that Mr Cameron's plans threaten to "scupper plans for a new group" for the Conservatives to join after the party's planned withdrawal from the centre-right EPP-ED group after the 2009 elections. The memo also argues that the legal basis of the proposed sanctions is "very shaky".

The memo is evidence that the Conservative Party is struggling to get its members to agree to the higher standards required by voters of those in public life. As Norman Baker says: "The reality is that Tory MEPs are a by-word for inappropriate claiming of expenses. The words 'Tory and sleaze' go together as easily as cheese and sandwich."

Wednesday, July 09, 2008


This morning's Daily Post reports that the multi-million-pound Capital of Culture celebrations are not bringing the benefits to North Wales which were mooted when Liverpool beat off rival bidders, including Cardiff.

The claim is made by North Wales Plaid Cymru AM, Janet Ryder, who says that there was no sign of the Capital of Culture event 2004 at the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod yesterday, even though a formal tie-in was suggested by the Liverpool bid’s leader in 2004:

Ms Ryder said: “North Wales has been wooed and then dumped with no ceremony.

“To be blunt, we’ve been conned. It’s deeply disappointing but perhaps not surprising because this seems to be a pattern whereby Wales is promised spin-offs but, when they actually materialise, we see no benefits at all.

“This happens time and time again. It’s about time we woke up to the fact that we’re being used.”

Llangollen’s MP, Martyn Jones (Labour, Clwyd South), claimed the Liverpool team had flagged up the benefits to Wales to bolster its own bid.

“I don’t see any positive spin-offs for Wales,” he said.

“It was obviously a ploy, because now is the time we should be getting the benefit and there’s nothing there.”

Personally I would not be surprised if this is true. It is notoriously difficult to deliver benefits for a wider area when such landmark events are planned as is evident from the Olympics. I wonder why those evaluating such bids ever believe that it can be done.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Banquo at the feast

Yesterday Gordon Brown was lecturing us about not wasting food. Today we read that he participated in an 8 course banquet at the G8 summit in Japan.

I hope that they all cleared their plates and that no food was thrown out.

A flatter Wales?

A Western Mail headline this morning announces that buses are finding that Welsh hills are making them late.

Fear not. Further on in the article the Traffic Commissioner is promising to ensure a level playing field for these buses.

I wonder which hills he will flatten first.

Monday, July 07, 2008

A complaint to the BBC

I have just e-mailed this complaint to the BBC via their website:

I wish to complain that tonight's Panorama dedicated an entire 30 minute programme to the English NHS without making it clear that their comments applied only to England. The tone of the programme led viewers to believe that it applies to the whole of the UK when it does not. There was no attempt to draw any contrasts with how the NHS operates in other part of the UK, which actually might have underlined the point being made. This is completely contrary to the recommendations in the King Report. It seems that it did not take the BBC long to revert to type.

More uncosted promises

Beset with their own problems amid allegations of some of their MPs and MEPs being mired in sleaze and poor judgement on the part of the London Mayor, the Tories moved yesterday to distract us with an eye-catching promise to slash fuel taxes by 5p per litre.

In making this promise of course the Conservative Leader and Shadow Chancellor have abandoned all pretence at adopting the green agenda. This will not stop them continuing to use slogans pretending that they are a green party but the reality is very different. I doubt whether David Cameron will be losing any sleep over this.

More interestingly, we are still awaiting to see how the Tories propose to pay the £3 billion bill for this measure. George Osborne believes that the tax cut will be cost neutral because it will be balanced by windfalls coming to the Treasury as the result of rising oil prices but, as is pointed out by a Treasury political advisor, that means hiking government fiscal policy to the vagaries of the market with a very real danger that they will come unstuck.

George Osborne should not forget that the prices can go down as well as up. Both the Institute of Fiscal Studies and leading accountants seem to be questioning the wisdom of the approach taken by the Tories, whilst Vince Cable points out that a huge hole has been created in Tory spending plans.

The unanswered question in all of this lies with the assumption that if the tax is cut then prices will follow. There is no guarantee that this will happen. Indeed retailers may decide that they can use the opportunity to boost their profits as well. Will the Shadow Chancellor intervene in a free market to prevent that happening?

Sunday, July 06, 2008

The cost of using Welsh

I am a bit confused about newspaper reports on 4 June that the cost of establishing Welsh as an official EU language will be over £500,000 and that the Assembly Government will be picking up the tab for that.

This matter has recently been the subject of a spat between Plaid and Labour MEPs but it seems that the truth is a bit more prosaic as is made clear from this exchange at the Communities and Culture Committee on 26 June 2008:

Peter Black: I wish to go back briefly to the issue of the use of Welsh in the European Union. I have read reports that there is a fairly substantial cost involved in that, and that the Welsh Assembly Government will be meeting that cost. Could you put on the record what the position is?

Rhodri Glyn Thomas:
I am not aware of a substantial cost to the Assembly from this

Peter Black:
What is the cost to the Assembly then?

Rhodri Glyn Thomas:
There will be a cost to the Assembly if those services are used, because we will have to ensure that translation is available. We also have simultaneous translators being trained so that they can meet the standards of the European Union, including several translators from this institution. The standards there are very high, and it is quite an achievement to be accredited within that service. However, we have some wonderful translators here, who are more than able to reach those standards. Therefore, there will be an element of cost, but I am not sure where you are getting the idea of a substantial cost.

Peter Black:
That is why I asked you the question, because I did not believe that what I saw was realistic. Regarding the translators who are being trained, I presume that we are paying for the training; would we pay for the use of those translators in the European Union, or would the EU pick up that cost?

Rhodri Glyn Thomas:
John has the answer to this.

Mr Howells:
We pay.

Peter Black:
So, what sort of cost are we talking about in terms of using those translators to provide the translation facilities?

Rhodri Glyn Thomas:
It depends on the uptake. Obviously, translating correspondence does not have a huge cost attached to it, but there will be some cost. However, if there are meetings, they will not be official EU meetings. For example, I was speaking at a meeting some months ago in Europe that was being translated into something like 50 languages—or there was translation from 50 languages. It was a strange situation, because the Minister from the Republic of Ireland, where about 3 per cent of the population speaks Irish, was able to speak in his native tongue, whereas I, representing a country where more than 21 per cent of the population speaks Welsh, was unable to speak in Welsh, because, at that point, Welsh was not officially recognised in Europe.

Therefore, in those sorts of circumstances, it would be possible to have simultaneous translation from Welsh as well—and there would be a cost element to it. I am not sure whether we are in a position to give you any figures; I am prepared to see whether we can come up with some figures, but I have not seen any figures.

Mr Howells:
The best that we can say is that we expect it to be modest. In a sense, it would be a nice problem to have, if the demand became significant. However, we have agreed to this development on the basis that we believe that we can accommodate these costs without busting the bank.

Peter Black:
What is 'modest’? Is it £50,000?

Mr Howells:
I would say less than that.

Would somebody like to shed some light on what exactly the controversy is please?

Saturday, July 05, 2008

A major funding gap

One of the biggest weaknesses of the One Wales Government is the way that it is neglecting education. Not only is the Foundation Phase underfunded so that schools are unable to deliver the 1 to 8 teacher pupil ratio required for the under eights, but the local government settlement was so inadequate that core funding for schools is being eroded once again. Many more schools than before will be setting deficit budgets this year.

At Higher Education level a funding gap between Wales and England of £61 million remains unaddressed and continues to grow despite a personal commitment from the First Minister to address it a few years ago, whilst the condition of University buildings is poor and deteriorating.

School buildings too are in crisis. A recent report highlighted the state of school toilets but this issue is intrinsically tied into an historic underinvestment in the buildings themselves and still we have no extra money for this purpose from the Labour-Plaid Government despite the fact that they are sitting on an unallocated capital fund of several hundred million pounds.

Further Education Colleges play a vital role delivering the Government's skills agenda and yet they have been starved of cash in recent years. This years increase in their funding was barely above one per cent. As a result they are having to cut courses and make staff redundant.

The Western Mail estimates that up to 300 jobs will have to be cut across the sector and courses for an estimated 2,500 students will have to be cancelled. Fifteen colleges are planning on freezing posts when vacant, according to fforwm. Seventeen colleges are likely to make voluntary or compulsory redundancies. And part-time courses for adults could be the worst hit as colleges are rewarded for enrolling 16 to 19-year- olds but not those over 19. Courses for disadvantaged adults are also vulnerable, as are courses in construction, travel and tourism. As well as job losses and cancelled courses, the lack of funding will result in a reduction in spending on equipment and building projects.

This is no way to run a Country.

A lack of transparency

Attempts by the Western Mail to get more information from the Commons' authorities on how much MPs have spent on equiping their second homes have hit a brick wall. This is precisely the same brick wall as I have hit recently in seeking details of taxpayers money spent by MPs in my region on communicating with their constituents.

Rules in Westminster are much more lax than those that apply in the Assembly. An AM can not use Assembly resources to send out unsolicited mail unless it is to advertise surgeries. For MPs it appears that there are few such restrictions and I regularly get a glossy propaganda newsletter through the post featuring my member of Parliament in every article. This is an improvement on her predecessor but in my view such communication is party political and should be paid for by the MP.

When I first received such a communication I asked the Commons authorities for details of how much it had cost. There then followed a two year battle before they were forced to reveal that information to me. Once I had it I then asked for the same information for the last two years only to be refused again because they said that they were planning to publish it anyway at some unspecified time in the future.

I do not believe them and have appealed again but really, what are they trying to hide and why are MPs so afraid to tell us how they spend public money? It is like trying to get blood from a stone.

Friday, July 04, 2008

By convention

At long last the members of the All-Wales Convention have been named. It is an impressive list of the great and the good.

What we need now is some idea of what they are going to do and what they are for.

Great ambitions

Intriguing letter in the Western Mail this morning from the President of Plaid Cymru, Dafydd Iwan on the need for more affordable housing. Dafydd echoes the Essex report on housing in suggesting that the Labour-Plaid Cymru Government's target of 6,500 new affordable homes by 2011 should be the bare minimum.

However, he goes further than both Sue Essex and his own housing minister in proposing that these new homes should all be built by the public sector and be additional to any that can be provided by private builders through planning gain.

Such an assertion is in direct contrast to the public utterances of the Plaid Cymru Housing Minister. She has been unequivocal in saying that her target of 6,500 new homes will only be met if we include private sector housing in the total. She knows that there is not enough money in the budget to meet Dafydd Iwan's ambitions. She also knows that due to the credit crunch there are less houses being built and that as such she faces an uphill struggle to get anywhere near what Plaid Cymru are now calling a 'bare minimum'.

Currently, it is difficult to say exactly how many new affordable homes are being built by local councils and housing associations because the Welsh Government do not have accurate statistics. What we do know is that according to the Wales Audit Office, in the last year for which they have figures there were less than 1,000 built, though that statistic is challenged by the Minister.

At the same time the number of sales under the right to buy and demolitions far exceed the sum of all new affordable homes being built meaning that we are actually going backwards. A survey of local Councils undertaken by my office revealed that in the last five years less than 2,000 affordable homes were provided by the private sector through planning gain. What all this demonstrates is the danger of setting arbitrary targets when a measurable and precise action plan would be far more efficacious.

With three years left the Labour-Plaid Government is not only nowhere near its 6,500 target but looks like it will miss it by a mile. That will be a tragedy for those struggling to get onto the housing market. Like Dafydd Iwan these first time home-makers may have placed their faith in Plaid Cymru rhetoric on this issue. They are likely to be sorely disappointed.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Raising the profile

Labour AM and Deputy Minister, Leighton Andrews has been a busy politician this week, popping up all over Wales and making headlines.

Having been in Wrexham today I was unable to get the Western Mail* so had to settle for the Daily Post. There on page two, accompanied by a photograph of Leighton that made him look like he was auditioning to be one of the Blues Brothers, was this report on a speech he gave to Trade Unionists in Colwyn Bay last night.

Leighton told his audience that Labour can only regain crucial seats like Clwyd West by “being on the side of hard working and aspiring individuals and families.” He also said that the party needed a period of renewal, warning: “Crowing about our achievements won’t win us future elections. People want to hear about what we are going to do, not what we’ve done."

Well, yes but it might take a bit more than that. In fact as the polls currently stand it may take a miracle or at the very least for Gordon Brown to metamorphose into an entirely different sort of Prime Minister. Anyway, I digress, because once I did get my hands on a copy of the Western Mail back in South Wales, I found this article.

Apparently, Leighton is addressing another set of Trade Unionists tonight and this time he is going to blame the credit crunch on 'corporate greed'. Well, yes again, but Leighton cannot wash away Labour's responsibility for the economic mess we are in with a single convenient sound bite.

When he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown built an economy based on credit. He encouraged the public to 'spend, spend, spend' when what he really meant was "borrow, borrow, borrow". He failed to seize the opportunity when times were good, to prepare for the rough times we are seeing now. He helped to lay the foundations of our present downturn.

Leighton's lack of originality in both speeches will not concern him. The important thing is that he is being seen and heard both in the media and by an important part of Labour's electoral college. With reports that Huw Lewis has been spotted addressing Labour activists in Mid and West Wales too, there is no doubt that the starting gun has well and truly been fired on the Labour Party leadership. All we are waiting for now is for Carwyn Jones and Andrew Davies to enter the fray and we will be eagerly counting down the days to Rhodri Morgan's departure.

* I went into the Spar next to the office of Ian Lucas MP and Lesley Griffiths AM, where I was told that if I wanted the Western Mail it would not be with the other newspapers but by the magazines. I could not find one anywhere. I did not dare look on the top shelf.

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