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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Eight for 2008 revisited

So this time last year I posted my eight wishes for 2008 and now it is time to see how I did, not very well I fear:

1. To see the Liberal Democrats sustain poll ratings at least in the mid-twenties throughout the year - OK that was a bit optimistic, but I think that we have held our own in the face of a classic squeeze. Need to do better next year though.

2. To retain control of Swansea, Cardiff, Bridgend and Wrexham in May and make further advances both on those councils and elsewhere in Wales - in the end we retained the leadership of Swansea, Cardiff and Wrexham and increased the size of our group on each. We now hold the Deputy Leadership of Newport and in all are helping to run 12 of Wales' 22 Councils.

3. To see a Democrat become President of the United States (I really am not fussed which of the three front-runners it is) - less than 20 days to go before Barrack Obama succeeds to the Presidency.

4. For Swansea City FC to gain automatic promotion as Division One champions - what can I say? They did it and are more than holding their own in the Championship.

5. For Brian Paddick to become the first Liberal Democrat Mayor of London - OK perhaps this one was too optimistic.

6. For British troops to be pulled out of Iraq - still waiting Gordon!

7. To see Wales win another Grand Slam - another one bang on the nail. My sporting wishes seem to be more successful than my political ones.

8. To lose some weight - in fact I have put some on. Not good.

Four out of eight. Maybe I will do nine for 2009 tomorrow.

Data hell

Like the Bourbons this Government seem determined to learn nothing and forget everything. This morning's Guardian confirms that Britain is leaving this year in the same way as we departed 2007, at the bottom of the World league table when it comes to protecting people's privacy.

The paper reports that the Government is planning to go-ahead with creating a huge database that will keep track of everyone's calls, emails, texts and internet use but, as if to add insult to injury, they are going to ask the private sector to manage it:

External estimates of the cost of the superdatabase have been put as high as £12bn, twice the cost of the ID cards scheme, and the consultation paper, to be published towards the end of next month, will include an option of putting it into the hands of the private sector in an effort to cut costs. But such a decision is likely to fuel civil liberties concerns over data losses and leaks. Macdonald, who left his post as DPP in October, told the Guardian: "The tendency of the state to seek ever more powers of surveillance over its citizens may be driven by protective zeal. But the notion of total security is a paranoid fantasy which would destroy everything that makes living worthwhile. We must avoid surrendering our freedom as autonomous human beings to such an ugly future. We should make judgments that are compatible with our status as free people."

Maintaining the capacity to intercept suspicious communications was critical in an increasingly complex world, he said. "It is a process which can save lives and bring criminals to justice. But no other country is considering such a drastic step. This database would be an unimaginable hell-house of personal private information," he said. "It would be a complete readout of every citizen's life in the most intimate and demeaning detail. No government of any colour is to be trusted with such a roadmap to our souls."

The moment there was a security crisis the temptation for more commonplace access would be irresistible, he said.

The problems of keeping this data secure are huge as it is without involving an outside contractor. It is at the point of competitive tender that things start to go wrong. Government's use such a process to keep costs down but when it comes to ICT projects the opposite happens. Development costs grow out of control and the project becomes unmanageable. This scheme will be no exception.


Limiting our speed

I was fascinated for most of yesterday by the discussion around a report by government transport advisors that Speed-limiting devices should be fitted to cars on a voluntary basis to help save lives and cut carbon emissions. They believe that the technology will cut road accidents with injuries by 29%.

The campaign group Safe Speed say that this system will encourage drivers to enter a "zombie mode" and are concerned that it will be another automated system that deals with speed rather than bad driving. In some vehicles that carry this technology drivers have been known to lose concentration and I have to say that having driven a car with cruise control you really do have to pay attention when using it. There is also the need in some instances to speed up to avoid a hazard and the inability to do so could well compromise safety.

The BBC say that Ministers are planning to help councils draw up digital maps with details of the legal speed on every road. The speed-limiting devices will then use satellite positioning to check a vehicle's location and when its speed exceeds the limit, power will be reduced and the brakes applied if necessary.

This is where I started to wonder. My car came with a built in sat-nav and on the first day I used it I discovered that the maps were out of date. In fact the biggest problem with sat-navs is when people slavishly rely on them and do not use their commonsense. That is when articulated lorries get stuck down quiet country roads and people end up turning the wrong way up one-way streets.

Nobody is suggesting that this will happen with this technology but it does pose the question as to how the devices will be updated in the many millions of cars that might use them. There is a real danger that a car will be limited to 40mph for example on a road that has recently been downrated to 30mph. The danger with relying too much on new technology is not that it might fail you but that your own ability to think and use commonsense will desert you. That cannot be good for road safety.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Celebrity Mastermind

Bob Harris still whispers! Excellent and welcome back to television!

Nick Clegg's New Year message

Just this once I am going to do the dutiful party hack bit and propagate the Nick Clegg New Year message. I may do some more video blogs myself next year once I get my video camera back from the Kirsty campaign team.

How things change in 30 years

It is time for the annual unveiling of sealed government papers and in particular documents that reveal that back in 1978 the then Labour Government considered introducing ID cards as part of the fight against illegal immigration.

However, a draft statement for Home Secretary, Merlyn Rees, concluded that the introduction of identity cards “would require major changes in practices and powers reaching far beyond immigration control”. It labelled the idea as “unacceptable” and “objectionable” adding “In the past such changes have been contemplated only in war: the Government does not believe they could be justified on immigration grounds alone.”

No doubt the Government will argue that the war on terror justifies their plans to bring in ID cards now however there is considerable expert opinion to the effect that this is nonsense. In fact ID cards will have little impact on the fight against terrorism, which is best fought on the basis of gathered intelligence and proper resources for our security services.

As I pointed out back in August 2006 the then Home Office Minister, Tony McNulty, himself said:

"Perhaps in the past the government in its enthusiasm oversold the advantages of identity cards. We did suggest, or at least implied, that they may well be a panacea for identity fraud, benefit fraud, terrorism, and entitlement and access to public services."

On 16 November 2005 the former head of MI5, Dame Stella Rimingtonshe told the Association of Colleges' annual conference in Birmingham that "ID cards have possibly some purpose. But I don't think that anybody in the intelligence services, particularly in my former service, would be pressing for ID cards.

"My angle on ID cards is that they may be of some use but only if they can be made unforgeable - and all our other documentation is quite easy to forge. If we have ID cards at vast expense and people can go into a back room and forge them they are going to be absolutely useless. "ID cards may be helpful in all kinds of things but I don't think they are necessarily going to make us any safer."

Similarly, the Government's official reviewer and overseer of the Country's anti-terror laws had this to say in January 2006:

"I can't think of many terrorist incidents, in fact I can think of very few... that ID cards would have brought to an earlier end."

".......ID cards could be of some value in the fight against terrorism but they are probably of quite limited value. They would be an advantage but that advantage has to be judged against the disadvantages which Parliament may see in ID cards."

"I certainly don't think the absence of ID cards could possibly have any connection with the events of last July."

The Government has claimed that entitlement cards will help to combat terrorism, fraud and crime. The 9/11 terrorists carried valid ID cards; most benefit fraud involves people who misrepresent their circumstances rather than their identity; and the difficulty in clearing up crime is almost always that the criminals are not caught, rather than not identified.

It is also likely that members of ethnic minority groups will be stopped and asked for their ID cards much more often than white people are. This could lead to a serious deterioration in relations between ethnic minorities and the police and other sections of the community.

To add to this injustice requiring the ID card to be used to access public services will rapidly lead to a situation whereby the card is voluntary for most of the articulate middle classes and compulsory for those who use public services and/or can’t argue and resist the need for the card.

All in all the conclusion reached by Merlyn Rees in 1978 still stands. The changes to our way of life required to introduce ID cards make them unacceptable and objectionable. They will not work, they will generate a whole new criminal industry in forgery and identity theft and they will lead to discrimination against the poorest in our society. And that is before we have even looked at the security of the databases that are required to make them work.


Monday, December 29, 2008

A right to privacy

So are things getting dirty in the yet-to-be-announced Wales Labour leadership contest or is there a concerted attempt by outsiders to seek to discredit the supposed front-runner?

I only ask because of a letter in this morning's Western Mail which is couched in near identical terms to two other missives that appeared in the same paper before Christmas.

This morning's contribution is as follows:

SIR – I do not wish this in any way to be considered an ad hominem attack, but the recent assertion by the counsel general (Carwyn Jones) at the National Assembly that he is a unionist at least raises one question.

How does he reconcile his unionism with his wife who advocates independence for Ireland?

Balen Ty Pant, Tredegar

To be frank this attempted attack on Carwyn Jones' integrity is not just clumsy and inept it is objectionable and it is difficult to understand why the Western Mail gave it or its two predecessors space.

Carwyn Jones is accountable for his own views and I do not have a brief to defend him or otherwise. I have no problem with all of Carwyn's collected works and speeches being examined for inconsistencies and him being scrutinised on them. That after all is what politics is partly about.

However, what has any of this got to do with the views of his wife. She is an individual in her own right and is perfectly at liberty to hold opinions at variance with those of her husband. How the two of them reconcile their differences of view, if they have any, is entirely a matter for them and absolutely nothing to do with us. What is more she is not even a public figure and is entitled to her privacy.

Carwyn Jones is not responsible for the views of his wife and she does not have to answer for him. The whole tone of these letters is positively neanderthal.

Policing the internet

Having been away from the internet for a few days I have not had a chance to comment on the latest public relations initiative from Culture Minister, Andy Burnham to censor the internet. My first reaction was that he has bitten off a bit more than he can chew. It is a view that is reflected by quite a few commentators including Quarsan on the Blairwatch site.

Many of us have concerns at the influence that the internet can have on children but we understand that the best way to deal with this issue is proper supervision at the point of use. Mr. Burnham on the other hand wants internet-service providers (ISPs) to offer parents “child-safe” web services. It is not clear how he is going to enforce this other than some vague notion that the new President of the United States will join him in this crusade.

One of the options is to give film-style ratings to individual websites. ISPs, such as BT, Tiscali, AOL or Sky could also be forced to offer internet services where the only websites accessible are those deemed suitable for children.

Quarsan however has a better idea of the size of the task and the problems facing the Culture Secretary:

The sheer idiocy of this is remarkable.

1. The numbers involved. According to the
Netcraft Server Survey, in December 2008, there were around 186,727,854 websites. So, the proposed scheme would have to classify 187 million websites. But it gets worse; in December 2008 an extra 1.56 million sites were created. Just to tread water 1,560,000 sites would have to be classified in December alone.

Lets say it takes an hour to look at a site, classify it and do the paperwork. In a working month of 160 hours, this would take 9,750 people to classify December's sites alone. Lets say the cost of employing them was 20,000 a year. The annual salary bill of the raters alone would be 195,000,000. Then you have the support staff, the HR etc. Then the buildings etc.

It is a ludicrous idea. It's a very, very expensive idea.

2. What are the standards? Take Channel 4's website. Some of it is very child-friendly, some more adult orientated. There are many more sites like this, so you are going to have to apply standards, not to websites, but individual web pages. This means that the sums above increase by a factor of thousands.

3. Who decides the standards? How are they going to be applied? What about an appeal process?

4. The internation nature of the internet. How are you going to enforce classification in China? Russia? Anywhere?

The Guardian Technology blog points to a further obstacle to Mr. Burnham's ambitions:

you'll have trouble persuading Barack Obama that he needs to focus on that when the economy is collapsing around him, and as for Britain's libel laws - if there's one thing Britain doesn't need, it's to make it easier for people to run off to courts. On the internet, Mr Burnham, good information tends to drive out bad. Information drives out misinformation. Time instead for people to remember that childhood rhyme about sticks and stones, I think.

All in all this idea has all the hallmarks of being badly thought out and misconceived. Full marks to Mr. Burnham for his ambition but nothing at all for practicality and deliverability.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Music to their ears

Being the holiday season many of the feature articles are written before Christmas whilst journalists ready themselves for the festivities, and then are published whilst the self-same authors are working off the turkey in the local gym. Yesterday's Western Mail article on the music that inspires Assembly politicians is one such piece and it shows.

It is difficult to know what question the politicians in question were asked of course so it is unlikely to be their fault that the final result comes across as a bit of a parody of such end-of-the-year pieces.

Labour's John Griffiths for example was inspired by John Lennon’s Working Class Hero and Imagine and he wore Rock Against Racism and Nuclear Free Wales badges on his denim jacket, alongside a Che Guevara patch. I wonder whether he also went by the nickname of 'Wolfie'.

Mike German tells us that his political stance was influenced by Shostakovich’s seventh symphony, written and performed during the World War II siege of Leningrad. He said: “It gave me a sense of the resistance and defiance of totalitarianism which has strengthened my political creed that none shall be enslaved by conformity, and the pursuit of freedom which is such a pillar of Liberal Democracy.”

Whilst Jenny Randerson 'salutes the genius of the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby. She said: “It’s all about the impact of loneliness and isolation.” Bethan Jenkins is invigorated by the Manic Street Preachers and is a particular fan of their song Socialist Serenade, whilst Joyce Watson says she has never forgotten the moment during the 2000 Labour Conference when Nelson Mandela made a surprise appearance and Gabrielle performed her hit Rise.

Hats off to Mick Bates though who treats the piece with the levity it deserves. He tells the reporter that on a desert island, he would hope to be able to listen to Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, the Sex Pistols, Tito and Tarantula, and Pink Floyd. When feeling “miserable” and in need of sympathy he listens to Bob Dylan’s Tangled up in Blue. He turns to Dylan again when he needs to “go on the attack” and plays Hurricane, which depicts the arrest of black middleweight boxer Ruben Carter.

Maybe my problem is that I am tone-deaf, listen to loud raucuous rock music to help me stay awake on long journeys and have no musical soul whatsoever. I have certainly never been inspired to political action by a piece of music nor has a concert or rendition been linked in my mind with any momentous event.

In fact when it comes to great cultural feasts I have the attention span of a flea and need to digest great works in small chunks. This could be why I was not asked to participate in this survey.

New Year challenge

It is a bit early for New Year resolutions, not that I make them anymore, however the period between Christmas and New Year is a useful one for reflection, even if I am currently up in the Wirral with my family and beseiged by youngsters.

This year there is a particular challenge due to the fact that I will be taking up new duties next term. I have decades of experience of local government and have been a Deputy Minister also so that particular new portfolio holds no fears for me. However, speaking on health for the Welsh Liberal Democrats is a massive challenge.

I have done it once before, when we were in government and our then health spokesperson, Kirsty Williams was on maternity leave, but I cannot say it was a happy experience. This time I have more scope to prepare but it is still going to be a steep learning curve. I have a fair bit of reading to do over the next few weeks.

My other new duty is as Welsh Liberal Democrat Business Manager, which means sitting on Business Committee and managing the day to day activities of the group. I have done that job as well too, on each of Kirsty's maternity leaves, so I am looking forward to doing the job full time.

All of the Welsh Liberal Democrat group face challenges under our new leadership. We must face outwards more as a party and project our policies and principles better. That means spending more time selling our ideas and achievements to the electorate and less obsessing with the Cardiff Bay bubble.

It will not be easy especially given our size as the fourth party in the Assembly but our successes in this year's local government elections give us hope that we can do it. There is a renewed sense of purpose in the party, the sort that comes whenever one embarks on a new journey. I am looking forward to it.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

At the end of the day

Apparently it is a bit early for links on the Western Mail website so I am going to have to make do with the hard copy. This is because in an hour or so I am going to be separated from the internet for 48 hours and do not have time to come back and update entries.

What caught my attention was the proposed New Year inquiry by the House of Commons' Public Administration Select Committee into Whitehall jargon. No doubt this will involve watching the entire collection of 'Yes Minister' and 'Yes Prime Minister' followed by swift condemnation of obfuscation and circumlocution, all written in the best Parliamentary language.

Newport West MP, Paul Flynn is quoted as believing that the phrases "at this moment in time" and "at the end of the day" are particularly tiresome. Has he told the Assembly's Health Minister? Nevertheless, no self-respecting civil servant would be caught using such a non sequitur, these are phrases mostly used by politicians and thus are outside the scope of the Committee's inquiry.

I can certainly sympathise with Paul when he complains that was once confronted with a sentence in a committee document consisting entirely of acronyms. When I was chair of the Assembly's Education Committee I insisted on having a glossary of acronyms and phrases issued to every committee member so as to assist them with reports.

The paper quotes the tax credit system as a good example of over-administration and I cannot dispute that. The problem with this system however is not so much in the language it uses but in its design and concept. If the Committee can go anyway towards improving its operation then it would have done a worthwhile job.

Alas, the tax credit system itself seems to be outside of the inquiry's remit so we are left with the questions as to what exactly MPs hope to be able to achieve and is an examination of language as opposed to Government actions really a good use of their time?

Friday, December 26, 2008

Labour in revolt

It is indicative of how much turmoil the Labour Party has been over the last year and how the authority of the Prime Minister has been undermined by the resulting uncertainty that there have been so many Parliamentary revolts against the Government.

Today's Times reports that Gordon Brown suffered more backbench rebellions in his first full year as Prime Minister than Tony Blair in his first four-year Parliament. The total of 103 revolts during the 2007-08 parliamentary session was the most inflicted on any governing party for more than 30 years. It was higher than any other session during the Blair era, higher even than the 93 revolts suffered by John Major in 1992-93 when the Maastricht Bill tore the Conservative Party apart, and even bigger than the 97 revolts in 1977-78 when the late James Callaghan was struggling, and failing, to keep the Parliamentary Labour Party together.

The paper reveals that despite these rebellions the Government won every whipped vote, even though it sometimes appeared to face defeat. It had to negotiate its way out of trouble on several occasions, most notably on the abolition of the 10p tax rate, when a £2.7 billion package was needed to appease the rebels. Support from the Democratic Unionists helped the Government to a nine-vote victory on the 42-day plan, but it also managed to talk dozens of its own MPs out of rebelling.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas

The one thing we think we know about next year is that Rhodri Morgan will be standing down as leader of the Wales Labour Party and there will be a contest to succeed him. Both Carwyn Jones and Huw Lewis have been touted as potential candidates but the one person who has dropped out of the limelight as a contender since his illness a few months ago is Finance and Public Services Minister, Andrew Davies.

This does not mean that Andrew Davies will not run, just that he seems to have had other things to do other than set out his stall in advance of the official start of the contest. Maybe he has decided that he has other priorities. Either way there are signs that he is beginning to let his hair down a bit recently, not least in the video Christmas card his staff circulated to all Assembly Members a few days ago.

Personally, I think that a dancing elf is just what we need for the next First Minister. Will the brothers and sisters in the Wales Labour Party agree? We shall have to see.

Who says that politicians do not go clubbing anymore?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Tracking Santa

Just in case you cannot wait to see what presents you are getting tomorrow, it might be worth checking up on where exactly Santa Claus is. Thanks to the wonders of satellite technology it is now possible to do so here. I particularly like the inset videos.

Update: The history of this tracker is set out here:

According to NORAD, Santa began his latest flight early Wednesday at the International Date Line in the Pacific Ocean. Historically, Santa visits the South Pacific first, then New Zealand and Australia. NORAD points out that only Santa knows his route.

Last year, NORAD's Santa tracking center answered 94,000 calls and responded to 10,000 e-mails. About 10.6 million visitors went to the Web site, which can be viewed in English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Japanese and Chinese.

NORAD's holiday tradition can by traced to 1955, when a Colorado Springs newspaper printed a Sears, Roebuck & Co. ad telling children of a phone number to talk to Santa. The number was one digit off, and the first child to get through reached the Continental Air Defense Command, NORAD's predecessor.

Col. Harry W. Shoup answered. Shoup's daughter, Terri Van Keuren, said her dad, now 91, was surprised to hear that the little voice on the other end thought he was Santa.

"Dad thought, `What the heck? This must be some kind of code,'" said Van Keuren, 59.

Shoup, described by his daughter as "just a nut about," didn't want to break the boy's heart, so he sounded a booming "Ho, ho, ho!" and pretended to be Santa Claus

Enough calls followed that Shoup assigned an officer to answer them while the problem was fixed. But Shoup and the staff he was directing to "locate" Santa on radar ended up embracing the idea. NORAD picked up the tradition when it was formed 50 years ago.

"If we didn't do it, truly I don't know who else would track Santa," Maj.Stacia Reddish said.

The task that began with no computers and only a 60-by-80-foot glass map of North America now includes two big screens on a wall showing the world and information on each country Santa Claus visits. It took off with the Web site's 1997 launch, Reddish said.


Another own goal

Geoffrey Wheatcroft in today's Guardian believes that the Tories should be charging ahead but they keep on getting knocked back by their leader's lack of judgment:

And yet, in this festive season, one is left with the uncharitable reflection that whenever the political match is going their way the Tories score another own goal - from their association with plutocrats to Cameron's recent stunt in Ulster, or even his naff Christmas card. He once claimed to be Blair's heir, and sometimes he does resemble the last prime minister at his worst: a man not so much seeking office to put a programme into effect as looking for a programme to be a means of achieving power; all form and no substance; or as Wagner unkindly said of Meyerbeer's music, all effects and no causes. But whereas Blair's opportunistic cynicism worked for a time, Cameron isn't even a skilful opportunist.

The columnist concludes that although voters can see Cameron trying to reform his party by standing up to the right-wing headbangers, they can see no evidence that his judgement is any better. Even the Tory leader's opportunism is mistaken:

Much of political life involves calculation of interests and assessment of opportunity. Cameron's harshest critics in the Tory press are really rightwing Trots, who prefer revolutionary defeatism and doctrinal purity to anything so vulgar as winning elections, and Cameron is right to ignore them. But if he is going to make calculations, he might at least make sensible ones. There's not much to be said for a party of inopportune opportunists, or cynics who get it all wrong.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

What is Plaid Cymru for?

Alwyn Ap Huw has started the debate off here.


Talking of heresies, today's Western Mail reveals that the threat posed by a single GB Olympic football team is still a live possibility.

Many people would like to see such a team play at the 2012 London Olympics, however that could jeopardise the independence of football associations representing the celtic nations and put the continuing existence of their national football teams at risk.

The reassurances of FIFA do not cut much ice with the Welsh and Scottish FAs and why should they when Lord Coe and the British Olympic Association continue to trample over people's sensibilities?

The FIFA press release from May 2004 found by Wrexham Labour AM, Lesley Griffiths offers an alternative way forward. The British Olympic Association should look at that alternative rather than persist with its present course of promoting conflict and mistrust.

A question of tolerance

Well that is a good start to the Christmas holidays, not. The season of goodwill has fallen by the wayside following the objectionable pronouncement by Pope Benedict XVI on Monday that saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behaviour is as important as protecting the environment.

It is an invitation to further discrimination and hatred against specific groups in our society, the triumph of narrow-minded doctrine over Christian tolerance and goodwill. In my view this Pope wants to take us back to the dark ages.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A matter of timing

It is beginning to get to the situation whereby we do not know what the One Wales Government have promised anymore in relation to a referendum for further powers.

Allegedly, it is meant to be held before the Assembly elections on 2011, but the Electoral Commission has quite rightly ruled out holding it on the same day as that poll. However, at a time when key services are being cut back all across Wales the Assembly Government is spending £1 million of taxpayers money to fund a talking shop under Sir Emyr Jones Parry, which is supposed to advise whether a pre-2011 plebiscite is possible at all.

The odds are that he will report that the One Wales commitment is undeliverable simply because his Commission (and this is not their fault) have spent so long talking about it when the four political parties who are commited to further powers should have been out in every community as part of an all-party campaign convincing people of the need for them.

There is of course the economic argument put by many Labour MPs that the last thing people want is to worry about a referendum for a proper law-making Parliament when they are facing job losses, mortgage repossessions, high fuel bills and more. However, as more than one person has said on this blog and elsewhere it is the job of a 'Yes' Campaign to make the case as to why more powers can help to alleviate this situation.

As if to add to the confusion the Presiding Officer, speaking in a personal capacity as a leading member of Plaid Cymru, has gone on the record today to urge people to chill out. He believes that with the All Wales Convention not reporting until December next year then this will leave it a “bit tight” to stage a referendum. Surely, that was factored in or was it? Perhaps that was the calculation made by the Labour Party when they signed up to the commitment but Plaid Cymru only twigged later. Maybe the Nationalists really were taken for a ride back in 2007 when they went into government.

Dafydd Elis Thomas also says that he would not want to see a referendum unless it was clear there was a 20% majority in favour of the move to law-making powers. That is a bit like wanting your cake and eating it. You only get those sort of margins if you campaign for them and that sort of activity has been conspicuous by its absence from the Government parties.

Dafydd's vision of working "with the grain of Welsh society and Welsh political life" is absolutely right but sometimes you have to show some leadership so as to shape that grain. It is leadership that is missing here. I am perfectly content to hold the referendum when the time is right but that was not what was promised in the One Wales Partnership Agreement.

What I will not accept is that we should sit back and wait for our time to come. If we do that we could be waiting for ever. It is likely that Plaid Cymru and Labour have already blown the possibility of a positive referendum vote before 2011 but that should not rule out an attempt shortly afterwards. If those who are supposedly commited to that outcome stop talking about it and start campaigning for it then we might begin to get somewhere.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Media Wales continues campaign

This morning's Wales on Sunday continues their campaign to unseat Nick Bourne as leader of the Welsh Conservatives. The latest protagonist is former Welsh Conservative leader, Rod Richards. Unsurprisingly, he does not give Nick Bourne long and even argues that he should resign now for the good of the party.

This is the sort of opinion that could have been solicited from Mr. Richards at any time in the last eight years. There is no denying that the former Welsh Office Minister is value for money. Asking him to condemn Nick Bourne is roughly akin to requesting Senator Joseph McCarthy to pronounce on communists. The outcome has a certain inevitability about it as well as producing some colourful points of view:

Speaking to Wales on Sunday, when Mr Richards was asked if Mr Bourne could lose his job within a matter of weeks he said: “You would think so.

“I think a lot depends whether he is pushed or if he jumps. Personally, I don’t think he will jump so it will be up to the party. A lot might depend on if the London office has a view on it.

“He is not going to last much longer that is for sure.

“I would like to see him gone by the end of the month so that everybody can have a happy new year.

“Nick was not elected in the first place. He’s the only leader ever not to be elected at the Assembly. He was appointed by William Hague.

“If you ask the members of the Conservative Party in Wales they will say he has to go.”

“He says he was using the iPod for speeches and learning Welsh. “I’m sorry but there’s no politician who likes to listen to other’s speeches.

“As for the Welsh – what is the end product? He has been learning Welsh for ages and I’ve never heard him speak a word of it. I occasionally see David Davies being interviewed on S4C but never Nick.

“He will certainly be no loss. I mean, a bloody trouser press? That’s the kind of thing you use in a hotel.”

Asked what the Welsh public would think of Mr Bourne’s reign as leader if he did leave his post, Mr Richards replied: “Nick who?

Still maybe Rod's time has come. The pressure on Mr. Bourne does not appear to be easing at all and I would suggest that when the Conservative Group in the Assembly convenes in the new year some harsh words will be spoken.

My guess is that a compromise will be struck that enables a dignified transition at sometime next year and that the most likely successor will be Cardiff North AM, Jonathan Morgan. That possibility brought forth further views from Mr. Richards:

“Jonathan is an experienced hand by now and I don’t think it will be long before he has his feet under the table.” he said.

“Whether he will make a good leader is another matter.

“My fear for the Conservative voice in Wales is that we will become even more indistinguishable from Plaid and Labour under Jonathan because he is to the left of centre of the party.

“One of the problems with the Assembly is that there isn’t really much choice. That’s why the people of Wales find it so boring.”

Oh dear!

Retailers critical

It really is quite depressing. As if we have not lost enough of our long-standing high street retailers the Sunday Telegraph reports new signs of desperation with thousands of supermarkets, department stores and independent shops making plans to open up on Boxing Day for the first time.

This is despite the fact that shoppers were out in force yesterday, attracted by the huge discounts on offer. Similar scenes are expected today as retailers predict that sales will total £6 billion for the weekend. Fiona Wilkinson, from credit card company Visa Europe, told the paper that sales peaked at 12.15pm yesterday when the company recorded 700 transactions being made every second.

Experts say that so far the massive cost cutting has failed to increase shops' turnover. More than two thirds of stores saw their turnover fall in the first half of December and footfall was down 11.2 per cent last week compared to the same time last year.

Another Labour revolt

As the credit crunch continues to bite and becomes a deep recession the impact on the welfare state will be immense. The cost of paying more benefits, emergency loans and mortgage support will grow exponentially and place a strain on the Treasury and the Government's ability to repay the extra loans they have taken out to reduce the impact of the recession.

The first signs that Ministers are thinking about this and how to tackle it are evident from the plans announced in the Queen's Speech to put more pressure on claimants to find work. There is also the article in today's Mail on Sunday, which suggests that plans to charge interest on emergency loans from the DSS has generated huge opposition across the parties.

The paper tells us that Work and Pensions Secretary Mr Purnell wants to start charging 26.8 per cent on new loans – the sort of punitive rate found on High Street store cards and way above normal credit-card rates. This would add nearly £50 to the cost of an average £433 loan and saddle the borrowers, who are almost all on State benefits, with an extra four weeks of repayments.

Some MPs have accused Gordon Brown and Mr.Purnell of behaving ‘like loan sharks', whilst rebel Labour MPs have joined forces with David Cameron’s Tories and the Liberal Democrats to accuse the Government of penalising hundreds of thousands of families on benefits who rely on these interest-free cash advances to cover the cost of unforeseen crises.

More than one million individual loans worth over £600million were paid out from the Government’s social fund last year to hard-up people – many of them disabled – who struggled to afford to repair a broken boiler or cope with some other domestic emergency.

The Government have now back-peddled on this proposal and suggest that the leaked paper was just a suggestion that they have no intention of implementing. This raises the question as to who leaked it?

I am sure that it is often the case that controversial plans are often placed in the public domain in this way so as to test the water. That way they can easily be disowned if reaction is adverse. With a bit of luck this will be the last we see of this particular idea.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Leaks and leakers

There is an interesting story in this week's Private Eye about the Government's inconsistent attitude to civil servants with a tendency to leak secrets to the opposition.

The magazine tells us that Jacqui Smith sent a blistering letter to her Tory shadow Dominic Grieve earlier this month urging him to show more 'respect for the law' by condemning all Whitehall leakers. She argued that leaks are serious irrespective of whether they relate to national security or not and that to argue otherwise is a cavalier and irresponsible attitude to take and entirely unfit for those who seek to hold high office.

However, last week Jacqui Smith's Cabinet colleague Andy Burnham appointed a new chair of OFCOM. The lucky person who will collect a salary of £200,000 for up to three days work a week is Colette Bowe. She first came to public attention in 1986 during the Westland Scandal when she leaked to the Press Association a letter from the Solicitor General to Michael Heseltine, apparently on the instruction of another civil servant, Bernard Ingham, who wanted to discredit Heseltine.

Is this appointment 'cavalier' and 'irresponsible'? Is the Culture Secretary unfit for office? We should be told.

What is in a name?

Over on Political Betting Morus has a fascinating post about the importance of dynasty in American politics:

I decided to do some research on the US Senate, and found that the proportion of members who in my view owed their seats in some way to direct descent from high political office-holders was higher than the proportion of hereditary peers in the House of Lords.

At the heart of this post is the idea that if Caroline Kennedy is selected to succeed Hilary Clinton as the junior Senator for New York then she will be ideally placed to become the first female US President in eight or twelve years time.

Friday, December 19, 2008

First Lady of 'Trek' dies

Majel Barrett Roddenberry, the widow of "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry and an actress whose longtime association with the "Star Trek" franchise included playing Nurse Christine Chapel in the original series and Betazoid Ambassador Lwaxana Troi in the later series, has died at the age of 76:

In the first TV pilot, she played a leading role as Number One, the first officer who was second in command.

But at the request of various executives, changes were made, and she did not reprise her role in the second TV pilot. Instead, she played the minor role of Nurse Chapel when the series began airing on NBC in September 1966. Roddenberry had another distinction: Beginning with the original series, she supplied the coolly detached voice of the USS Enterprise's computer -- something she did on the various "Star Trek" series.

She also was the voice of the Starship Enterprise for six of the 10 "Star Trek" movies that have been released, as well as the 11th, which is due out next year.

Roddenberry also played Dr. Christina Chapel in two of the "Star Trek" movies, "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" and "Star Trek: The Voyage Home."

And she played the recurring role of the flamboyant Lwaxana Troi on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine."

Battle for the moral high ground?

The Times has branded the 'war of words' between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Prime Minister as a 'battle for the moral high ground'. In reality though both are right because they are largely talking about separate things.

The Archbishop has quite rightly pointed to the drive for never ending and unsustainable credit as one of the sources of the economic troubles we find ourselves in. He describes the credit crunch as 'a welcome “reality check” for a society that had become driven by unsustainable greed.' Dr Williams believes that the country has been “going in the wrong direction” for decades by relying on financial speculation to generate wealth rather than “making things”. In that regard his analysis is very similar to that of Vince Cable and, I believe spot-on.

I think though that the Archbishop is mistaken in carrying forward the analogy to the state. Gordon Brown is quite right to say that we cannot "walk by on the other side when people are facing problems". Even though I disagree with the details of the government's rescue package I believe that it is right that the state should borrow to invest in our future. As long as that investment is sustainable, it can play a valuable role in easing some of our problems and slowing down the impact of the recession.

What has to come with that though is a new attitude (and regulations) towards consumer debt and our financial institutions. We must not allow the sort of abuses that led us to this situation to occur again if we can help it. That is why the Government has to demonstrate that its approach to this recession is twin-track; alleviative and preventative.

In that regard the Archbishop's intervention has been useful in reminding us that we have to learn the lessons of the past and act on them as well as trying to deal with the consequences of our own mistakes.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Early u-turn

The ink is barely dry on the Queen's Speech and already the UK Government are involved in an elaborate u-turn. In this morning's Guardian we are told that the government has abandoned plans to make the police more accountable to local communities through direct elections because of opposition from senior officers, Labour council chiefs and concern that the proposals would politicise forces.

These are genuine concerns though I did express the view back in November that the possible outcome of an election should not be a consideration as to whether to have it or not. My questionmark over the proposals was whether directly elected Police Authorities will make any difference to the way that our communities are policed or even to how the constabulary is run?

Clearly, on the last part of that question the Home Secretary's answer was a resounding 'Yes! but not in the way she would like it'. She is apparently (and rightly) worried that Boris Johnston's intervention in the resignation of Sir Ian Blair as Metropolitan Police Commissioner would be repeated up and down the Country. She is also sensitive to charges of politicisation following the arrest of Damian Green.

What bothers me most about the article is its description of Jacqui Smith's next steps. The paper tells us that she has asked the former home secretary David Blunkett to prepare a report to her on how to achieve a consensus within Labour on how to make the police more accountable. Whatever happened to governing in the national interest and for all the people?

If this becomes an exercise in delivering what is acceptable to the Labour Party rather than what is practical and in the best interests of the Country then Ms. Smith will have politicised and undermined one of the great offices of State. That would be unfortunate to say the least and a disaster for policing in this country.

Personally, I would rather she concentrated on getting more resources to the Police instead of indulging in sideshows such as directly elected Police Authorities and ID cards. It is a lesson that my own party should take as well. The Liberal Democrats are absolutely right to oppose ID cards for a whole host of reasons, but why are we falling for New Labour gimmicks and supporting direct elections? Police Authorities are already comprised of accountable politicians and are answerable to the Government. I hope that we will now jettison that policy as fast as the Home Secretary did.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

How much of your personal data has been lost?

You hand over your personal details to councils, hospitals, employers and businesses all the time. But these institutions don't always keep that data safe. In fact, since HMRC lost its entire database of child benefit claimants in the post last year, not a week goes by without another high profile data loss hitting the headlines. But how does this affect you and your family? Take the questionnaire to find out here.

It really is very scary.

Hat Tip: Alix Mortimer

Enemy at the Gate

It is not for me to call for the resignation of the Welsh Conservative Leader as the Western Mail has done today, that is a matter for his party. However, it is worth noting that the whole expenses affair now has its own name and a small place in political history.

The paper has allocated a 'gate' suffix to its story, labelling it 'iPodGate' in the manner of all political scandals since 1972. Nixon has a lot to answer for.

Update: Jonathan Morgan has now come out into the open and effectively challenged his group leader's authority. It seems that he has the backing of former AM, Glyn Davies.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

More on those expenses

Today's Western Mail suggests that an attempt was made by the Welsh Conservative Chief Whip to secure a 'gentleman's agreement' aimed at silencing criticism of AMs’ expense claims:

Last night an AM, who preferred not to be named, told the Western Mail: “William Graham [the Tories’ Chief Whip at the National Assembly] was very keen to bury the expenses issue, knowing it was very damaging to the Conservative group. He wanted a gentleman’s agreement under which AMs of all parties would agree not to criticise others over their expense claims.

“I certainly would not have been prepared to go along with such an agreement.”

Mr Graham did not return a detailed message we left for him after a spokesman for the Welsh Conservatives referred us to him.

Glyn Davies has been very vocal on his blog in criticising the timing of the publication of the expenses, suggesting that the decision to publish the expenses on the day after the AMs had left Cardiff Bay on recess was a monumental mistake. He also believes that a conscious decision has been taken by Assembly Members not to face the media to justify claims on taxpayer's money when the expenses were released.

Personally, I would have preferred to publish the expense returns earlier that week but the fact is that they were not ready to be put into the public domain. I am not aware of any conspiracy of silence on the part of Assembly Members. Like Bethan Jenkins I am willing to defend my claims. I have not been asked to do so however.

In fact yesterday's phone-in on Radio Wales had both Nick Bourne and Alun Davies speaking in defense of their expenses. I did not hear it but I understand that at least one of them argued that the system needs to be changed and that the Commission set up by the Assembly under Sir Roger Jones is in the process of making recommendations on that.

There is no doubt that the Tories seem to have come off worse from this latest publication of expenses. This is partly because they have made some unusual claims but also because of the dissatisfaction within the Conservative Group about Nick Bourne's leadership and the fact that some are using his expenses as a stick to beat him with. In the circumstances I would have been surprised if allies of Nick Bourne had not sought to dampen down the controversy.

News on the Welsh Language

It is the question that has been on everybody's lips for the last 16 months, when will the Welsh Language Legislative Competence Order be published? It is not just the opposition who have been frustrated by the lack of news, Plaid Cymru Ministers have also struggled with this process and have been positively outraged at the hurdles they have had to jump to meet the One Wales Government commitment to deliver on this piece of legislation.

The nearest we have come to a date was during the debate on the Queen's Speech last week when the Secretary of State for Wales, Paul Murphy told the Assembly:

With regard to the Welsh-language LCO, that came to us about a month ago. It has now completed its passage, so to speak, through Whitehall departments, and it has now returned to my office. I hope that, in the new year that we will be in a position, jointly, to see that published. Again, there are issues that require careful examination, and I know that the Welsh Assembly Government has looked in detail at its wording and the details behind it. It is a work in progress.

A question to the Counsel General later that afternoon got us no further. Now however, we have a date but that does not seem to have emerged from any formal announcement by the Welsh Assembly Government. It appeared on an e-mail received by all Assembly Members earlier today from Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg.

The Welsh Language Society are to hold a New Year's Rally at 2pm on Saturday 10th January. They tell us that this rally has been timed to coincide with the publication of the Legislative Competence Order for the Welsh Language:

The purpose of the rally is to highlight the principle that all legislative powers for the Welsh Language are transferred to the Welsh Assembly, and that we the people of Wales are responsible for our own comprehensive language measure that will ensure linguistic rights, equal status and a language commissioner that will allow Wales to develop into a fair and bilingual country.

Fair enough, but why has the Minister chosen this route to announce the fact that agreement has at last been reached? Why has the date been e-mailed to Assembly Members during recess when we are not in a position to scrutinise the Minister and why has it come from a third party?

Monday, December 15, 2008

A really good use for Facebook

It may just be another social networking site but as the Guardian reveals, if used properly Facebook can be very useful indeed:

Campaigns launched on the site have inspired thousands of people to join groups urging them to become members of tissue transplant registers. Joining the registers helps widen the pool of bone marrow and blood donors available and increases the chance of a match being found for patients.

The parents of 23-month-old Iona Stratton, who fell ill with leukaemia when she was 13 weeks old, launched a Facebook appeal in October to find a bone marrow donor. The appeal attracted almost 7,000 members and they found a match in Australia within weeks. Sadly, Iona died this month due to complications after her transplant, but her case shows the precariousness of the lives of people relying on donors to give them a second chance.

It is worth using it more widely in this way in my view.

Unwrapping the spin

Today's Guardian reports that last summer's week-long climate camp protest against the proposed Kingsnorth power station was not as traumatic for the police as was reported at the time:

Police were accused of using aggressive tactics, confiscating everything from toilet rolls and board games to generators and hammers. But ministers justified what they called the "proportionate" £5.9m cost of the operation, pointing out that 70 officers had been injured in the course of their duties.

But data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act puts a rather different slant on the nature of those injuries, disclosing that not one was sustained in clashes with demonstrators.

Papers acquired by the Liberal Democrats via Freedom of Information requests show that the 1,500 officers policing the Kingsnorth climate camp near the Medway estuary in Kent, suffered only 12 reportable injuries during the protest during August.

The paper goes on to reveal that only four of the 12 reportable injuries involved any contact with protesters at all and all were at the lowest level of seriousness with no further action taken:

The other injuries reported included "stung on finger by possible wasp"; "officer injured sitting in car"; and "officer succumbed to sun and heat". One officer cut his arm on a fence when climbing over it, another cut his finger while mending a car, and one "used leg to open door and next day had pain in lower back".

A separate breakdown of the 33 patients treated by the police tactical medicine unit at the climate camp shows that three officers had succumbed to heat exhaustion, three had toothache, six were bitten by insects, and others had diarrhoea, had cut their finger or had headaches.

All of this is fair enough but why spin it into a full scale riot? And how can the police justify spending £5.9 million on what was essentially a peaceful protest?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Outrage is justified

Today's Observer reports that more than 100 Labour MPs are to demand a one-off tax on energy companies for refusing to pass on recent sharp cuts in oil prices to millions of customers:

Compass, the centre-left pressure group co-ordinating the campaign, expresses 'grave concern' at how the companies are continuing to charge higher rates imposed earlier this year, 'in spite of sharp falls in the world price of crude oil'.

'Since 2000, gas prices have risen 100 per cent and electricity 61 per cent. Correspondingly, energy providers' profits have risen from £557m in 2003 to over £5bn today,' it says.

Compass is lining up Labour rebels behind a Commons motion laid in parliament on Friday that decries the 'massive unearned windfall profits' of the energy firms and demands immediate action to help hard-up customers.

They are quite right to be outraged. The way that the energy companies have profited whilst people have struggled to pay their energy bills is quite wrong. The government needs to act to curb their excesses.

Should he stay or should he go?

Yesterday's Western Mail confirms what we already knew, that Nick Bourne's position as Welsh Conservative Leader is under threat from elements in his own group. There is more in today's Wales on Sunday, which says that momentum is building within the Conservative Party to push him out:

His latest expenses claims show he bought an iPod music player – claiming it was to help him learn Welsh – a £119.99 trouser press, plus £5,003.46 worth of “essential work” on his bathroom.

At least seven senior Tories are understood to want a change of leader. One political pundit said he could be gone by Christmas.

Speculation has been mounting that AMs Jonathan Morgan and Darran Miller have done a deal to mount a coup against Mr Bourne and become leader and deputy leader of the Assembly group.

Today Mr Morgan told Wales on Sunday: “The group has been very supportive of Nick and I’m assuming that is still the case.

“I wouldn’t be a politician if I wasn’t ambitious and of course I would consider it, but at this moment there is no vacancy.”

Peter Davies, a Tory councillor on Newport City Council’s cabinet, said political rivals were giving “a lot of stick” about “thieves running the kitchen” since the expenses details were released on Friday.

It is understood Mr Bourne asked officials to drop Mr Davies from a list of Assembly election candidates last year after he publicly advocated abolishing the Assembly.

“I have to say now that I agree with his decision because I don’t want to be associated with these type of claims,” said Mr Davies yesterday.

When asked if Mr Bourne should stand down he added: “That is for the members of his group to decide. He must be under a lot of pressure at the moment, he will have to mind his ps and qs now.”

One senior Tory has said: “This has damaged Nick a lot, adding to the concern over his judgment caused by the incident several months ago where he had to apologise after trying to distance himself from a dossier attacking Rhodri Morgan that he had authorised.

“The worst thing is that people are now laughing at him.”

Admittedly, this is a case of the usual suspects but the media smells blood in the water and are starting to circle in anticipation of a feast. They are not the only ones, even Conservative Home has got in on the act. They have put up a largely factual article about the speculation but I doubt that Nick Bourne will view it as helpful especially given the nature of some of the comments:

An iPod on public expenses? What a disgrace.

Go now.

Posted by: Rich December 14, 2008 at 11:56

We really need to be a lot less tolerant of elected Conservatives, and politicians in general who see and use public office as an opportunity to line their own pockets.

Do these people not think about their actions when they make these expenses claims or do they not care about this behaviour and how it will be seen?

Posted by: Rich December 14, 2008 at 12:00

I was extremely concerned to see him attend a protest organised by fringe fundamentalist group Christian Voice. Even a little research into them would have dissuaded most politicians from attending what may have appeared to be an innocent looking protest.

Posted by: Afleitch December 14, 2008 at 12:53

Nick Bourne's best chance is that the Christmas period will dampen down speculation and that it will all be forgotten by the New Year. I am not so sure his group have such short memories.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

The Independent reports today that Gordon Brown has been rebuked by the statistics watchdog for his "irregular and selective" use of knife crime figures.

Both the Prime Minister and Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, trumpeted a report apparently showing stabbings had fallen by a quarter in areas where police stepped up searches of young people. However, Sir Michael Scholar, head of the UK Statistics Authority, has protested that figures put out on Thursday had not been checked and warned that putting them out prematurely was "corrosive of public trust".

Thank goodness that the Prime Minister has announced the end of New Labour spin.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A "perfectly sensible political party"

There are times when Plaid Cymru's Parliamentary Leader, Elfyn Llwyd is beyond parody. Diplomacy is not his strong point (but then who am I to complain about that?).

In his effort to get the three Plaid Cymru nominees into the House of Lords, Mr. Llwyd has run to the Western Mail once more to cry foul. Apparently, it is all the Prime Minister's fault. The allegation is that Gordon Brown has personally blocked the appointment of Dafydd Wigley to the House of Lords. The government say that Mr. Llwyd has not followed the correct procedure. It seems that Plaid needed to wait to be asked, rather than get all presumptous and pushy.

What a system? The sooner it is reformed the better. At least the voters can be trusted to judge membership of a second chamber on the basis of ability and policies rather than petty personality clashes.

Still it would have been entertaining to watch Mr. Llwyd spluttering in indignation as he told journalists “It seems this is a matter of pure prejudice on the Prime Minister’s part against a perfectly sensible political party. It’s very disappointing and I shall be writing to Gordon Brown asking for a meeting. That seems the only way we can take this forward.”

The debate as to whether Plaid Cymru is a "perfectly sensible political party" will have to wait for another day, especially after their shameful abandonment of democratic principles and kow-towing to Christian Voice yesterday, however it is clear that there is more to this refusal to anoint Dafydd Wigley than procedure.

Labour may have to work with Plaid Cymru in the One Wales Government but they do not have to like it, especially in Westminster. So why aggravate Welsh Labour MPs more by giving the nationalists what they want when you do not have to do so? There is an element of payback in this refusal to act on Plaid's nominations for the Lords and it ain't subtle.

Hidden agendas

When Welsh consultant neurosurgeons signed a letter to the Chief Medical Officer for Wales arguing for a single neurosurgical centre I was prepared to listen. The Health Minister's preference is for a single service on two sites so as to retain a service in Swansea. However, there is a danger that this will not be sustainable in the long term and may wither on the vine.

In particular there needs to be a critical mass of operations to maintain clinical safety and the service will need the capacity to deliver a fully staffed 24 hours, seven days a week emergency service on both sites. In my view there is a strong argument to have a single service centred on Morriston Hospital. This would maintain the viability of the trauma centre there whilst ensuring that everybody in South Wales will be within striking distance of a neurological service, either at Swansea or Bristol.

However, after listening the one of the Consultants on Radio Wales this morning it turns out that their agenda is not so much a single service but a single service based in Cardiff. It is another bid by Cardiff based physicians to build up their empire in the capital, backed up with nonsense arguments about threats to paediatric neurosurgery and the Cardiff Children's Hospital if they do not prevail.

If they want another fight then they have got it. The people of South West Wales will not stand for the further dilution of vital services so as to big-up Cardiff physicians.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Is the Welsh Tory leader a democrat?

Today was a good day for democracy in Wales. Patrick Jones came to the Welsh Assembly to read from his controversial book of poems, ‘Darkness Is Where The Stars Are’, whilst 250 Christians sang and prayed outside.

As one of the sponsors of this reading I felt that I had a moral duty to arrange it. Patrick Jones may have sought debate with Christian Voice and others over poems that they consider to be blasphemous and obscene but that does not justify them seeking to shout him down or forcing the cancellation of the launch of his book in Waterstones.

This was never about the poems. I did not set out to upset anybody of any religion. However, I could not stand by and allow a small minority to trample over basic rights to freedom of speech and expression. The National Assembly for Wales is the home of Welsh democracy, it has responsibilities for culture and literature, so it is the ideal place to stage a reading.

Freedom of speech is the freedom to offend. Once people are allowed to apply their own subjective values to others then we are on a slippery slope to dictatorship. I very much regret that people were offended but the principles involved in putting on this event were paramount.

Update: The full article is here.

Labour slammed on human rights record

I suppose that when you try to set up a 'government of all talents' and bring members of other parties into your team of advisors you are always going to run the risk of one or two of them jumping ship and dishing the dirt. In this case however, the criticism is particularly trenchant and damaging:

Lord Lester, a Liberal Democrat and distinguished human rights lawyer, quit as the prime minister's adviser on constitutional reform a month ago. In a scathing attack yesterday, he revealed for the first time how he felt tethered by the government, describing its record on human rights as "dismal and deeply disappointing".

He was speaking on the 60th anniversary of the UN's declaration of human rights, and singled out the justice secretary, Jack Straw, for failing to produce a radical constitutional renewal bill or to defend the Human Rights Act.


Lester went on: "In spite of its achievement in introducing the Human Rights Act, the government has a deeply disappointing record in giving effect to the values underpinning the Human Rights Act in its policies and practices. Through a lack of political leadership, it has also failed to match the expectations raised by the Governance of Britain green paper for much-needed constitutional reform."

Lester went on to criticise the government's failures to fight for human rights across a range of issues.

"The government could have celebrated Human Rights Day by defending the Human Rights Act against unfair attack. It could have celebrated by accepting the recommendations of the UN human rights treaty bodies, the joint committee on human rights and NGOs to allow the people of this country to exercise the right of individual petition against the government under the international covenant on civil and political rights, the convention for the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, and the torture convention.

"The UK is alone in the European Union in refusing to do so in the case of the international covenant. And the government is judge in its own, rather than in the people's cause, in shielding itself in this way."

No doubt many Labour MPs would celebrate such a macho record. They have nothing to be proud of.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A cross to bear

Vaughan Roderick has blogged here about yesterday's rather chaotic Conservative press conference in which the planned assault on the Welsh Assembly Government was derailed by a throwaway remark by Tory leader, Nick Bourne:

Concerning the poet Patrick Jones’s invitation to read his work in one of the assembly offices on Thursday. You’re bound to remember the background. The event was organised by Peter Black and Lorraine Barrett after Waterstones cancelled a similar reading in the face of protests by the group "Christian Voice".

The Tories’ news conference became a shambles this morning when Nick Bourne mentioned in passing that the Conservative group had written officially to the Presiding Officer requesting that the event be banned.

Now, as a rule, we at the Welsh Lobby are polite, impartial and unassuming people. But if someone presses our buttons of freedom of expression we immediately turn into a rowdy mob, baying for blood. Nick’s announcement was enough to turn several Bruce Banners amongst us into raging hulks. In no time the news conference had become a heated argument!

The Tory group are apparently united in supporting freedom of speech unless it is to do with a subject they disagree with. Nick Bourne argued that holding the event which, in his opinion, is an attack on religion, is inappropriate in the assembly building. He claimed that it could be against the law which prohibits inciting racial hatred.

This argument has already been dismissed by assembly lawyers and, as Vaughan points out if attacks on religion are in fact inappropriate in assembly buildings wouldn’t it also be inappropriate to hold events which promote religion such as the Carol Service and Diwali and Eid events?

From the point of view of the Conservative press office this was a bit of a disaster. They are already disillusioned with their leader after being blamed by him for issuing a 39-page dossier on the First Minister calling him the "Clown Prince of Wales" and even criticising his dress sense and hairstyle, despite the fact that Mr. Bourne signed it off personally. I understand that they were even more unhappy yesterday at having their carefully thought-through agenda thrown off-track.

When one considers also that according to some journalists the Conservative Group are leaking like sieves then the future of Nick Bourne as Tory leader must be in some doubt. I am told that off-the-record briefings are regular occurrences and that many of them are by Tory AMs and critical of their leader.

In the meantime I must put my hand up and confess that the typo on the posters advertising the Patrick Jones event is my fault. I had a perfectly good translation which I needed to type up only to somehow transcribe the Welsh for all welcome as 'croes i bawb'. Given the level of objections to this event by Christian Voice and their allies the phrase 'a cross for all' may prove apt.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


In the end the leadership contest was not as close as I had feared. In fact the result very much reflected the canvassing returns held by Kirsty's campaign team.

It was a hard fought election in which both candidates did themselves and the party much credit. I think that the difference lay in the quality of Kirsty's literature and in the candidate herself.

Members looking for change recognised that the best way of getting it was to elect somebody who had a proven record of campaigning in both urban and rural Wales and who was sufficiently different to what had gone before and to the other party leaders so as to give the Welsh Liberal Democrats a distinctive edge.

The challenge now is to harness the enthusiasm and optimism that this election has generated amongst the membership and turn it into future success. The hard work begins now.

Monday, December 08, 2008


Is it me or is the drama over the arrest of Damien Green becoming a media witchhunt against the Speaker of the House of Commons?

This article in the Daily Telegraph makes it clear that it is almost impossible to remove a sitting Speaker though moves are afoot in the Labour Party to encourage him to step down at the next General Election. In return his son, Paul Martin will be offered his safe seat of Glasgow North West.

The personalisation of this issue is regrettable because it detracts attention from the main issue, the nature of Government in this country. Nick Clegg is quite right to say that the Liberal Democrats will not serve on the proposed Committee of Enquiry as it is currently constituted. The Committee will be dominated by the Government and will just whitewash the whole affair.

If, instead of debating their own privileges and the future of the Speaker, MPs and the media concentrated on discussing how to address the culture of secrecy in Government then we would all be better off. An American style Freedom of Information Act would be a good start.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

A Grauniad Christmas

Jennie has already snaffled the Vince Pies from the Guardian website so I am going to go with the Gordon Brown one instead.

Having just been told by a shop assistant that I can have two and half percent off the price of a purchase thanks to the "generosity of Mr. Brown", it may well be time for a reality check.

I am sure that Scrooge would not have approved of the Chancellor's accounting methods.


The Hain conundrum

Having listened to former Welsh Secretary Peter Hain on the Politics Show this afternoon I am not convinced by his story that he is the victim of a massive conspiracy cooked up in the Electoral Commisson's offices.

Let me be clear, Peter Hain is a man of integrity. Whatever our political differences I have always made it clear that I have great respect for him as a politician. There is no doubt that he has acquitted himself well as a Minister and proved himself a safe pair of hands in government.

I also accept that the last ten months have been stressful and traumatic for him and his family. The whole affair has no doubt cost him money, which he will not be able to claim back. It has also cost him his seat at the Cabinet table.

However, the fact remains that the late declaration of donations remains an offence. That nobody was prosecuted seems to be because his campaign did not have clear lines of accountability with the result that the Police could not find who was responsible. This lack of organisation may well be the reason for the non-declaration in the first place and will have contributed to his failure to be elected Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, despite outspending his opponents. It is also the case that Mr. Hain still faces a Parliamentary Standards inquiry.

We should not forget that Mr. Hain is an experienced and senior political operator who must take some responsibility for the shambles that he allowed to develop around him. He did not keep a tight enough grip on what was being done in his name and he paid the price for that. There is no dishonesty here or any suggestion of fraud but there was a case to answer on late declaration and that needed to be resolved.

Meanwhile, here is something else I agree with Mr. Hain on, the Electoral Commission needs to be overhauled. Mr. Hain is right that they do not have the flexibility to deal with complaints in their own way without involving the police. But whose fault is that?

Peter Hain was a member of the Government when the Electoral Commission was established by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Most party managers know that this act is not fit for purpose and that the Commission it established was unfocussed, knew nothing about the political parties it was regulating and had little experience of running elections.

My view is that the Electoral Commission had no choice but to refer the complaints about Peter Hain to the Police. They did not do so because they had an agenda as he suggests but because it was their duty. Hain complains that other politicians have been treated differently, I would suggest that is because their case is different. He is also confuses in his complaints late declarations on the register of interests in the House of Commons, which is regulated separately, with political donations to individual campaigns.

I think that it is time that Peter Hain stops railing against his accusers and takes some responsibility for the mess he got himself in. I also think that it is time that the government reformed the Electoral Commission so that genuine mistakes and omissions in declaring donations are no longer criminalised.

The Commission should have the power to mete out its own punishments. It also needs to be more realistic in the way that it deals with local political parties run on a shoestring by volunteers and there needs to be a resolution to the issue of double declarations that seems to confound so many MPs (and MSPs).

In defence of freedom

Curiously missing from the pages of the Observer when the story of Damien Green's arrest broke, Henry Porter is back:

Most of us spend our time these days with our heads stuck in our screens or worrying about the economy, but out there, real and important changes are taking place.

There is a new world where economic disaster is matched by the collapse of standards that were all part of the gentlemen's agreement; tolerance, respect, fairness and shared values are being vanquished by the police and by bullying, oppressive officialdom.

You see evidence in ID cards issued to foreigners, the banning notices handed to football fans in Manchester who had caused no trouble whatsoever, but were detained and forcibly bussed back to Stoke-on-Trent without seeing their match, and also in the Metropolitan Police's Form 696, which requires venues and club managers in London 'to report to the police the names, addresses, aliases and telephone numbers of performers'. More worryingly, Form 696, which was promoted by Sir Ian Blair, demands the venue define 'the ethnicity of their audience'.

There is no room for complacency. We must all be on our guard against the erosion of our liberties.


Saturday, December 06, 2008

An effective database

Listening to the Liberal Democrats' Home Affairs' Spokesperson, Chris Huhne speak at a dinner last night reminded me that I have not blogged on the landmark ruling by the European court of human rights in Strasbourg, which condemned the "blanket and indiscriminate" nature of the powers given to the police in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to retain the DNA samples and fingerprints of suspects who have been released or cleared.

The decision means that fingerprints and DNA samples of more than 857,000 innocent citizens who have been arrested or charged but never convicted of a criminal offence now face deletion from the national DNA database. About 340,000 of these citizens are under the age of 18.

The court said there was a particular risk that innocent people would be stigmatised because they were being treated in the same way as convicted criminals. The judges added that the fact DNA profiles could be used to identify family relationships between individuals, meant its indefinite retention also amounted to an interference with their right to respect for their private lives under the human rights convention.

This is good news. What is not so good is the fact that in their obsession to get as many people as possible on this DNA database the Government has failed to make it effective as a genuine crime-fighting tool.

Research by the Liberal Democrats has revealed that more than 2.3 million criminals, 41.6% of all criminals with a record on the Police National Computer, are not on the DNA database. The number of crimes solved using DNA evidence fell by nearly 12% last year.

As Chris Huhne says: "The Government's policy is both shambolic and grotesquely unfair. Because it has proved easier to target kids and the innocent than criminals, the enormous increase in DNA samples has not led to a corresponding increase in convictions.

"Nobody who committed a crime before 2001 and who has evaded arrest since then will have their records on the computer, so many real crooks are avoiding detection. The random growth of the database is due to a policy of incompetence combined with intrusiveness. The police should target former criminals, not the innocent.

"All the innocent people on the database will be outraged that they are being treated worse than nearly half of all convicted criminals. Ministers should focus on tracking down the serious offenders not on the database, rather than preying on the vulnerable and the lawful."


Friday, December 05, 2008

My friends electric

I had a fascinating visit this morning to Port Talbot car-maker Stevens Vehicles today to see their range of zero-emissions vehicles for myself.

The cost of fuel may be falling at the moment, but it remains clear that controlling climate change will require organisations and individuals to switch to sustainable vehicles more and more; particularly for short journeys around town.

That is why I wanted to visit Stevens Vehicles to see their range of electric cars and vans. With orders from Scotland, the Falkland Islands and from Neath Port Talbot Council, it is clear that interest in their vehicles is rising.

As most of the journeys we take are within 12 miles of our homes, cars and vans like those that Stevens make, which can go all day and then be recharged through a normal 13 amp plug overnight are making a vital contribution to combating climate change. The car even has a top speed of 56 mph.

What is needed to ensure that this vital industry lifts off in Wales is help with marketing, and for companies like Stevens Vehicles to be given access to the funds they need to be able to sell to the big fleet operators.

The 'coping classes'.

We are all looking forward to Plaid Cymru's Party Political broadcast tonight, after all it is not often that a party's spin machine invents a new class of people to focus its appeal on. In this case the nationalists have coined a new campaign slogan – On Your Side – aimed at winning support from the “coping classes”.

The Western Mail tells us that: The term “coping classes” is the latest effort to come up with a term to describe the section of society once known as the “working class” – a term now regarded as outdated.

Focus group discussions with a cross-section of the Welsh public have now convinced Plaid to concentrate on bread-and- butter issues as part of the party’s latest image change.

And while the new leaflets will be bilingual, they make no mention of the language issue.
A Plaid strategist said: “Our success in the Assembly elections and this May’s local elections has given the party a massive fillip.

“It puts us in a great position to challenge Labour. The new ‘On Your Side’ slogan is just one way we will be reaching out to those millions of people struggling to cope with the high cost of living and the impact of the credit crunch.

My first impression was that this new campaign is not mentioning the Welsh language because of Plaid Cymru's own appalling record in government in promoting it. They have failed to deliver their promise of a Welsh Language daily paper and we are still waiting, after 16 months, for the much-anticipated bid for primary law making powers. In fact the so-called Party of Wales were even upstaged by the Tories on Wednesday in this regard and not for the first time.

However, there is a more substantive criticism of this approach, that Plaid's record in government does not live up to their rhetoric. That is intentional of course. Plaid's strategy from the outset has been to distance themselves from any negatives from their time in government whilst taking credit for the goodies.

At the same time, whilst they are in bed with Labour in Cardiff Bay they want to remain free to attack Labour in Westminster. There is nothing wrong with that, it is what any other party would do in the same situation.

The test that has to be applied to this campaign is how have Plaid Cymru fared as champions of the 'coping classes' whilst in government? My answer is not very well but of course I have to temper that by the fact that many of the economic levers rest with Westminster and also quite a lot of the powers. Nevertheless there is a case to answer.

Firstly, we need to look at education and training, the means by which many people lift themselves out of poverty and improve their standard of living and job satisfaction. Plaid and Labour have failed to meet their own target, as restated by the present Education Minister, of making all schools fit for purpose by 2010. In fact only £24m of the recently announced £350m of capital investment was for schools. The condition of many of our school buildings are a disgrace and this One Wales Government is not putting in enough resource to deal with the issue.

Plaid and their Labour allies have failed to bridge the £41 millon funding gap between Universities in Wales and those in England. Worse they are planning to bring in top-up fees for Welsh students despite a strong commitment by Plaid not to do so. This will hit many middle income families and put off poorer students from going into higher education.

The One Wales Government underfunded the Foundation Phase, effectively delaying its full implementation by a year and now they are set to make the same mistake with their 14 to 19 education and training plan. Both the Assembly's Finance Committee and the Measure Committee tasked to examine this legislation say it is drastically underfunded and undeliverable. Another blow for aspiring low and middle income families.

Worse, Labour and Plaid have underfunded local Councils, offering them below inflation grant settlements for two successive years. In fact they have failed to even pass on the grant increase they have had from Westminster to local government. The impact of this is that funding for essential services such as schools, social services, transport and economic development will end up being cut. In addition Council Tax bills will rise more than they need to, hitting the 'coping classes' with a double whammy.

And then there are Plaid Cymru's policy failures. It is still possible of course that they will meet their target of 6,500 new affordable homes by 2011 but it is becoming increasingly clear this is a gross figure that does not take account of sales and demolitions. Figures I have seen suggest that new affordable homes will be cancelled out by those taken out of the social housing sector. We are also waiting for a robust method of measuring this Plaid Cymru Labour promise. Meanwhile there is no action being taken to bring the 18,000 empty homes in Wales back into use.

With hundreds of jobs disappearing almost on a monthly basis one would have thought that the Government will be doing everything it can to create new ones and to help existing businesses. One mechanism is Finance Wales. a government-owned Merchant Bank but their interest rates are higher than most of their competitors.

There is much more, including the imminent destruction of the environment by road schemes such as the M4 extension through the Gwent Levels, that brings into question the substance behind Plaid Cymru's latest spin initiative. What is clear is that although they may be justified in attacking the UK Government for abandoning the 'coping classes' they are doing exactly the same down in Cardiff Bay.

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