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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Vince in Swansea

Blogging really will be light today.

I have 1,500 Focus leaflets to deliver over the weekend but most of my time will be spent with Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader, Vince Cable who is visiting Swansea today.

He will be starting off with a question and answer session with local business men and women at lunchtime, then meeting local traders around Swansea West before starring as guest of honour and speaker at a dinner in the Dragon Hotel.


I note from yesterday's Guardian that the allegations made against four Labour peers concerning cash for amendments have had some consequences already. The paper reports that Lord Taylor of Blackburn, one of the peers at the centre of the claims, has lost his consultancy with the credit check company for which he allegedly boasted he had altered legislation:

Experian said it was "surprised" by the Labour peer's descriptions to undercover reporters of his role for the firm. "We have agreed that Lord Taylor will retire with immediate effect," a spokesman said.

Taylor is the second peer to lose a consultancy in the row over possible abuses of rules which allow members of the House of Lords to earn money outside their parliamentary work. Lord Truscott resigned from Landis+Gyr on Wednesday night.

Taylor's parting of company with Experian came as peers made a flurry of changes to the official register of Lords' interests, which lists paid and unpaid work and appointments that could be thought to affect their parliamentary work.

On Tuesday and Wednesday they made a total of 37 amendments to the register, more than twice the normal rate, with several declaring paid directorships, regular jobs and sponsored overseas visits months later than they should have done according to their own code. Normally only 20 to 40 changes are made in a whole week.

A fresh version of the list, which is usually updated online every seven days, was last night posted on the House of Lords website for the second time this week as officials strived to appear as transparent as possible.

This is a clear sign that self-regulation has not been working. The House of Lords needs to get its act in order. Alas I fear that will only be possible if proper accountablility is introduced into the second chamber. I know that it is a predictable view but direct elections really are the only way forward in my view.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Devolution settlement not fit for purpose?

More from Plaid Cymru in this morning's Western Mail about the inadequacies of the current devolution settlement and in particular the system of drawing powers down from Westminster, which all the evidence shows remains unfit for purpose.

This time it is former MP and AM, Cynog Dafis who rightly questions why the draft Legislative Competence Order that would give the Assembly law-making powers over the “collection, management, treatment and disposal of waste” as well as over “environmental protection, including pollution, nuisances and hazardous substances” has been stuck in the system for 19 months.

This LCO has become bogged down in behind- the-scenes disputes involving the Assembly Government and four Whitehall departments – the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the Department for Energy and Climate Change and the Wales Office and does not look like surfacing anytime soon. Its non-appearance is hampering the Assembly's efforts to tackle climate change and to promote sustainability.

On the same theme, I might as well throw in the question as to what has happened to the promised devolution of power over building regulations? This power is essential if we are to build more environmentally-friendly homes, offices and factories in Wales.

Cynog Dafis is quoted as saying: “The system is clearly not working in the way intended and is now breaking down.

“The claim that the procedure would work for the benefit of Wales by enabling the Assembly to carry through its strategies and policies depended on a positive and collaborative approach by Westminster and Whitehall.”

“We were led to believe that the Assembly’s requests for legislative powers would only be turned down in circumstances that were very exceptional.

“Clearly we now have a situation where both Westminster and Whitehall are being obstructive. What lies behind that is the notion that they should have a significant voice in what legislation the Assembly passes – and that’s just not acceptable. The fact that this process is breaking down makes the case for moving towards full lawmaking powers for the Assembly very soon overwhelming.

“I hope AMs will take note of what is happening. This incredibly obstructive and grossly inefficient way of doing things is bringing the whole devolution project into disrepute. It is appallingly time-wasting and, because of the waste of human resources, an enormous waste of money.”


Notable Events today - seven squared

133 - Marcus Severus Didius Julianus, Roman Emperor born
1505 - Thomas Tallis, English composer born
1563 - Franciscus Gomarus, Dutch theologian born
1648 - Eighty Years war ends. The Treaty of Münster and Osnabrück is signed, ending the conflict between Netherlands and Spain.
1649 - King Charles 1 of England is beheaded.
1790 - The first boat specialising as a lifeboat is tested on the River Tyne.
1826 - The Menai Suspension Bridge, considered the world's first modern suspension bridge, connecting the Isle of Anglesey to the north West coast of Wales is opened.
1847 - Yerba Buena, California is renamed San Francisco.
1882 - Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States born.
1913 - The United Kingdom's House of Lords rejects the Irish Home Rule Bill.
1913 - Percy Thrower, British Television Gardener born.
1915 - John Profumo, British cabinet minister born.
1927 - Olof Palme, Prime Minister of Sweden born.
1930 - Gene Hackman, American actor born.
1933 - Adolf Hitler is sworn in as Chancellor of Germany.
1937 - Vanessa Redgrave, English actress born.
1937 - Boris Spassky, Russian chess player born.
1941 - Dick Cheney, 46th Vice President of the United States born.
1948 - Indian pacifist and leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is assassinated by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu extremist.
1948 - Orville Wright, American aviation pioneer dies.
1951 - Phil Collins, English musician born.
1968 - Vietnam War: The Tet Offensive begins when Viet Cong forces launch a series of surprise attacks in South Vietnam.
1969 - The Beatles' last public performance, on the roof of Apple Records in London. The impromptu concert is broken up by the police.
1972 - Bloody Sunday: British Paratroopers kill fourteen civil rights/anti internment marchers in Northern Ireland.
1972 - Pakistan withdraws from the Commonwealth of Nations.
1974 - Christian Bale, Welsh actor born.
1974 - Jemima Khan, English socialite born.
1976 - George H. W. Bush becomes the 11th director of the CIA.
1981 - Peter Crouch, English footballer born.
1982 - Richard Skrenta writes the first PC virus code, which is 400 lines long and disguised as an Apple boot program called "Elk Cloner".
2003 - Belgium legally recognizes same-sex marriage.

Oh, yes and I am really really old today!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Vince for leader

I have shamelessly nicked this screen shot from Iain Dale's blog. I am sure he will not mind. Vince Cable is not of course the Liberal Democrat Leader despite the machinations of BBC's News at Ten. Still he is a major asset and we are big fans.

New leader, new vision

Interesting article in today's Western Mail about the man who would be First Minister of Wales, Merthyr Tydfil AM, Huw Lewis. We are told that he has been busy reinventing himself in preparation for the contest to succeed Rhodri Morgan:

Probable Labour leadership contender Huw Lewis yesterday morning brandished his business credentials when he set out a vision for innovation in Wales.

Mr Lewis – previously more comfortable taking part in marches alongside his comrades – called for investment in industries such as digital media, while admitting less money will be available to support the public sector.

At a breakfast organised by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, he said the recession should be “attacked” and not tamed.

And if Welsh Labour Kremlinologists were looking for a further sign Mr Lewis was serious about taking on Carwyn Jones for his party’s leadership later this year, this was it.

Sightings of the former deputy minister taking Welsh lessons, a more media-friendly persona – and now the Valleys socialist stating he was “gobsmacked” at the way advice from entrepreneurs has been “ignored” in the past.

Officially of course there is no contest and all of the prospective candidates have been busy avoiding any direct reference to the potential vacancy. Nevertheless one cannot help but feel that Huw is building up a good head of steam, though there are others who might say that he needs to do so, given the fact that he has not been a Cabinet Minister and thus has a lower profile than his opponents.

A resigning issue?

Over at Freedom Central discussions have turned to North Wales Plaid Cymru AM, Janet Ryder and her abrupt departure as her party's education spokesperson. This morning's Western Mail has some of the answers even if Janet's explanation does not seem to fit very well with the circumstances of her 'resignation'.

Janet told the newspaper that she quit because she was "unhappy with some aspects of the Learning and Skills measure, and the lack of progress in achieving improvements to the measure. I have had many meetings with the minister responsible over the past months, and some significant improvements have been made, but I am unable to satisfy myself that everything has been done to make this measure as good as it could be." There is no doubt that this is correct.

However, given her concern about the contents of this measure why walk out halfway through a meeting discussing important amendments to it, changes that would go some way towards dealing with her concerns? And why not go to the subsequent meeting? After all she is still a member of the legislation committee and thus able to influence the outcome of its deliberations. One cannot help but feel that this resignation was less than voluntary.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Leadership campaign derailed

After yesterday's piece reporting that Torfaen Council was to consider a congratulatory motion supporting Huw Lewis' campaign to dual the A465 I was anxious to know the outcome.

Alas, the Labour Councillor advocating patting Huw on the back changed his mind and amended his own motion to remove all reference to the Labour Assembly Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney.

Another false start on the leadership trail? I am so disappointed.

The price of staging the Olympics

More coverage of the impact that the London Olympics are having on Wales this morning with confirmation from Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell that £65 million is being diverted from lottery money that would otherwise be spent in Wales to pay for the event.

Equally as worrying is that Ms. Jowell told the Welsh Affairs Select Committee that only four contracts for the 2012 Olympic Games have been awarded to Welsh firms and that these contracts are worth less than £100,000 in total.

It is difficult not to get the impression that money is being creamed off from Wales, Scotland and the English regions to pay for this event without any prospect of any return on that investment. All of the events are taking place in the South East of England, the vast majority of the contracts are being awarded there and there is a huge investment taking place in the regeneration of a big chunk of London with no Barnett consequential to the devolved administrations.

Should Wales, one of the poorest parts of the UK, be subsidising the capital in this way? Can this extravaganza be justified on its present terms? I think not. I have no problem with the Olympics coming to London nor with the investment in that City but those who are getting the benefits of that event should be paying, not the rest of us.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The fate of our schools

I made careful note of the press reports of Estyn's Annual Report and its assertion that Councillors are bottling difficult decisions to close schools. Gwynedd is testimony to what can happen when elected members do grasp the nettle, but as ever timing is everything and perhaps the year of a local election is not the best time to propose the widescale closure of small schools.

I have to say though that I do not recognise the picture that was painted. Yes, there are examples of Councillors backing off from controversial proposals in the face of sustained and organised resistance and there are examples of badly thought-through and poorly-researched closures being withdrawn once their limitations are exposed, not least in my own Swansea.

However, there are also instances of local Councils delivering on school improvement plans, as in Pembrokeshire, and others, such as Swansea that have carried out a huge amount of work on condition surveys and then sought to engage with the local community in drawing up an extensive programme of change and improvement.

The big problem for all local authorities is the failure of the Welsh Assembly Government to provide sufficient capital funding to deliver properly planned improvement programmes that eliminate surplus places, whilst at the same time enhancing the educational experience of school children.

And then there is the WAG factor, otherwise known as the propensity of Assembly Government Cabinet members to talk the talk about school reorganisation and investment and then to oppose and obstruct proposals that come forward irrespective of their merits, just because Labour no longer control the Council.

Estyn may well have a point of sorts but is it not time that they inspected the national politicians who are making Councillors jobs that much harder by their continual interfering and lack of support?

Huw Lewis fan club

Evidence that Huw Lewis' leadership campaign has moved up a gear comes from the website of Torfaen County Borough Council. They will be meeting at 5pm today when Councillors will be considering the following motion:

From Councillor Richard Clark


That this Council supports the ongoing efforts of the Assembly Member for Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney, Huw Lewis in relation to the dualling of the Heads of the Valley Road and asks the Welsh Assembly Government to take action to honour previous commitments to dual the entire route.


The northern part of this County Borough and by association the whole County Borough has benefited from the Heads of the Valley Programme. The heart of that programme is the actual A465, Heads of the Valley Road. The dualling of this road has been long promised but progress has been slow and piecemeal. For Torfaen it provides an important route to our Northern Gateway and is vital for business and tourism in that area and the northern part of our County

Watch out for a whole spate of similar motions along the route of the A465.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Reverting to type

A story I missed but which has been drawn to my attention by Tom Harris' blog is this one in the Daily Mail from Friday. The paper reports that a hedge fund run by two Tory donors made a £12million killing in days by exploiting the collapse of Barclays shares:

Financiers Paul Ruddock and David Craigen have donated more than £300,000 to the party, most of it since David Cameron became leader.

Within hours of the ban on the controversial practice of short-selling being lifted last Friday, their company Lansdowne Partners sold shares in Barclays worth £28.4million.

They were bought back on Wednesday, by which time the bank's value had nose-dived by almost £1 per share, netting a handsome profit for the financiers' investors.

As we face the prospect of 2,000 UK job losses at Corus it is hardly the sort of activity that David Cameron would wish to be associated with. As soon as the Government re-establishes the regulations that had banned this sort of gambling with share prices the better.

Underlining the case for reform

Yesterday's allegations that four Labour peers were ready to amend laws for money did more than highlight the rather lax regulations in the House of Lords, they also drew attention to the bizarre practice in both Houses of Parliament whereby it is apparently alright for Parliamentarians to be paid as advisors but not to advocate on behalf of their paymasters. Frankly, it is a very thin line and not a system that should be allowed to continue in my view.

Whether the four Peers stepped over that line or not is a matter for others to determine but the fact that they were drawn into the Sunday Times' web in the first place highlights the confusion that apparently exists over what is acceptable and what is not.

Liberal Democrat Homes Affairs Spokesperson, Chris Huhne has called for a police investigation into the allegations. He is right to do so. However, it should not stop there. There needs to be a fundamental review of the rules so that there is clarity for all of us as to exactly what is allowed and what is not.

Iain Dale reports that Baroness Royall, Leader of the House of Lords told ITV News that "Peers don't get paid so they are free to do consultancy work." Really? Well as Iain points out they do get £330 every time they sign in for duty. But surely this is the problem. The Lords are not properly accountable. The case for a directly elected second House has never been stronger.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

When 'Tony Blair' was introduced to Gordon Brown

I have still not had time to see Frost/Nixon but I intend to do so soon. However, I heard an amusing anecdote on the radio this morning that came from an interview with Michael Sheen. It is reproduced here in a Times diary item last October:

“I had a very peculiar experience the other night,” Michael Sheen revealed during a Tiscali Screen Talk at The Times BFI London Film Festival. “David Frost introduced me to Gordon Brown - but he introduced me as Tony Blair.” The actor memorably dramatised TB’s “Granita triumph” over his rival in The Deal . “I saw this look of panic spread across Gordon Brown’s face,” he added.

Big state arrogance

Henry Porter blogs over at Comment is Free on the continuing threat posed to our civil liberties by the Government's attitude to data collection and sharing:

The problem is that the government is pressing ahead with the vast project of merging all government databases (under the deliberately dull title of Transformational Government) without the slightest concern for individual privacy, or the mistakes contained in those databases. This week the data protection agency Garlik revealed that although millions of pieces of information were wrong, most departments had no policy or budget to correct them.

This tells you something about the government's sense of entitlement over personal data. Once it has our information, a discreet transfer of ownership takes place and it feels no responsibility to the people to whom this data actually belongs. This is classic big state arrogance, and no doubt the dreadful Straw hopes to smuggle this bill through parliament in the usual way – with as little scrutiny as possible. Jenny Willott a Lib-Dem MP sums up the situation: '"It is shocking enough that the government has no system to correct mistakes in personal information records, but to propose spreading this error-riddled data across the whole of government is dangerously absurd."

It must be clear to everyone that merging government databases will mean cross-infection of poorly maintained and uncorrected records, but I doubt this will concern Labour MPs. When the times comes they will file into the voting lobbies oblivious of the issues concerning bad records and privacy, and happy to act as the instrument of a project that is run behind closed doors by the civil service.

The government want us to trust them and their reliance on the systems that are in place so as to protect our liberties and our personal security. Unfortunately, all the evidence shows that their systems are not good enough, that there are no proper safeguards and Ministers themselves do not understand the monster they are unleashing on the public. There can be very little reassurance either in Ministers' actions or their words.


Cops on Facebook

This morning's Wales on Sunday reports that North Wales Chief Constable, Richard Brunstrom has urged his officers to join Facebook. He says he wants to take "community engagement into cyberspace" in a bid to engage with young people.

The article quotes a survey that suggests that children would find it less intimidating to contact an officer via the internet rather than face to face. This of course depends on how good the community police officer is but nevertheless it is a valid way forward.

As it happens my local community constable is already on Facebook and is one of my Facebook friends, so in the spirit of all-Wales cyber comradeship I logged onto my profile this morning and searched for Richard Brunstrom so as to extend the hand of friendship to him. Alas, there was no profile to be found.

What I found instead was a series of Facebook groups that reflected the controversial status of the North Wales Chief Constable. The biggest of these groups with 281 members rather unfairly goes under the name of 'Richard Brunstrom is an arse'. Thirty eight people believe that 'Richard Brunstrom is spot on', whilst 31 proclaim that we should 'Legalise all drugs. Back up Richard Brunstrom'. Twenty people mysteriously believe that 'Richard Brunstrom is a turd', but the membership of the group that wants Richard Brunstrom to be Prime Minister is just one less at 19 and 16 people assert that the Chief Constable is a legend.

It continues with twelve members of a group who want Richard Brunstrom sacked and ten who believe that he is an absolute idiot. Seven people want to 'remove Richard Brunstrom' and nine people have joined a group dedicated to 'The Richard Brunstrom pension fund'. This last group was set up in response to rumours that the Chief Constable is to retire in sixteen months and encourages people to contribute so as to bring the date forward.

This post has not been written to knock Richard Brunstrom, after all in terms of the internet he has been a trailblazer amongst Chief Constables. He still maintains his blog here and understands the uses that the internet can be put to. Maybe when he gets around to setting up his own Facebook profile he will send me a friend request.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Pro-nuclear party

In his latest post on the proposed nuclear power plant for Anglesey, Tory Parliamentary Candidate Glyn Davies hits one particular nail firmly on the head.

Despite the fact that Plaid Cymru claim to be an anti-nuclear party, the replacement for Wylfa has the full support of the island's AM, Ieuan Wyn Jones, who also happens to be Plaid leader and Deputy First Minister of the National Assembly for Wales.

Ieuan makes the point that he is defending the economy of the constituency he represents. But as Glyn says: 'It would be OK if he was a backbencher. But he's not. He's the Leader. In my book, that makes Plaid Cymru a pro- nuclear power party, and that's what it should say on the tin.'

When Lib Dems go to war

With the two major Cities of South Wales poised to back their respective football teams in the fourth round of the FA Cup in the next few days I noted that the relative sporting conflicts have an interesting political angle for Liberal Democrats.

Swansea are poised to take on FA Cup holders Portsmouth at 3pm today. Both Cities have local Councils that are led by Liberal Democrats, the latter having succumbed to majority control only in the last week after three defections, including one Conservative.

Meanwhile, Arsenal who are based in the Liberal Democrat controlled London Borough of Islington will be making the journey to Welsh Liberal Democrat-led Cardiff and the team who were FA Cup runners-up early tomorrow afternoon.

The Welsh teams are considered to be the underdogs in both contests. Here in South Wales Welsh Liberal Democrats are used to fighting against the odds and triumphing. Let us hope that our football teams are able to do the same.

Friday, January 23, 2009

My cat and René Kinzett

The Conservative leader on Swansea Council has the front page in today's South Wales Evening Post seeking to justify his poor attendance record at Council meetings by claiming that most of them are a waste of time.

René Kinzett only attended 13 per cent of committee meetings since last April. His defence is that a number of them are pointless:

He said: "The member support and development working group is a total waste of time. It does not make any decisions whatsoever. What is the point in attending meetings that have no decision-making powers?

"The constitution working group is another talking shop. Nothing of any use ever comes out of this meeting. A lot of councillors sit around creating a lot of hot air."

He continues: "Much of the time spent in meetings in County Hall is an utter waste of time — pointless pontificating by councillors who know less than my cat about much of what they are considering."

I have illustrated this story with a picture of my cat who is much more photogenic than either René or me. The question is 'does she know more about what is going on in Swansea and on the Council than René Kinzett?' I think that given the amount of time she spends sleeping on top of the Evening Post, that may be very possible.

The ghost of past campaigns

Peter Hain will no doubt hope that his apology to the House of Commons for breaching its standards through his non-declaration of more than £100,000 of campaign donations will be the end of the matter. However, his former campaign manager seems determined to ensure that the affair continues for some time to come.

One of the reasons for this is that despite his apology, Mr. Hain does not appear to have fully accepted responsibility for what happened. In his letter to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner he says:

“I have never been given any explanation as to why the procedure in the campaign which had previously been well established and followed to the letter for five months completely broke down from late May 2007.”

He adds: “I have identified, with the benefit of hindsight, two particular factors which I believe were significant... The first was the unexpected and abrupt departure of Mr Taylor. I now believe the resulting disruption was significant.”

This attempt to deflect part of the blame has caused his campaign director Steve Morgan to retaliate. He issued a statement yesterday disputing Hain's version of events:

“I was never made aware that Peter had not declared the... £100,000 pounds that he personally raised to either the Electoral Commission or Parliament.

“My main disagreement with Peter was, and remains, the fact that he was not prepared to pay the Labour Party the full money owed to them on those donations under the rules of the Leadership contest.

“It is unfortunate that I personally was not given the opportunity to provide the Committee with both oral evidence and documents relating to the campaign itself. I will of course now be writing direct to the Standards Commissioner John Lyon clarifying the timeline of campaign events and the role of those involved.”

Peter Hain also seeks absolution on the grounds that it was he himself who made the donation errors public, and apologised, before any complaint was made to the Standards Commissioner. That must be a mitigating factor but it is not the whole story.

It is true that the former Secretary of State for Wales put together a comprehensive report of the errors of omission in his declaration and said that he was sorry for not having complied with the rules to which he is subject as an MP, but he only did so after others, notably the Guido Fawkes website, started to ask questions as to his accounts and drew his attention to the problems that lay therein.

I have repeatedly asserted that Mr. Hain is an honourable man whose honesty and integrity is not in doubt and I have not changed that opinion, nor is there anything in this latest development that might cause me to revise my view. However, I believe that he was naive and complacent in the way that he administered his deputy leadership campaign and he is paying the price for that now.

Unfortunately, whilst Steve Morgan feels the need to continue to put his version of events so as to defend his own reputation, Mr. Hain will not be able to completely shake off this affair and that could cast a shadow over any role that the Prime Minister now wishes to offer him.

Re-visiting the 1970s

The Conservative Leader tried to conjure up the ghost of the 1970s and all the bad memories of the winter of discontent and the intervention of the International Monetary Fund in the British economy yesterday by warning that Britain may have to borrow billions of pounds from the IMF again so as to keep the economy afloat:

In remarks that are likely to provoke Labour charges that he is running down the economy, the Tory leader spoke of a "frightening and worrying" scenario in which the nation's finances run dry.

"If we continue on Labour's path of fiscal irresponsibility, at some point - and it could be very soon - the money will run out," Cameron said in a speech to the Demos thinktank in London. "Then you will see the return of what happened under Labour in the 1970s, including emergency cuts to many of the public services on which a progressive society depends."

The Tory leader, who spoke of a "catastrophic fiscal position", said he was not setting a date by which Britain would turn to the IMF for emergency funds, as the former chancellor Denis Healey did in 1976 in a move which destroyed Labour's economic credibility and helped bring Margaret Thatcher to power three years later. But Cameron warned of a real and growing risk that Britain will have to turn to the Washington-based fund which usually helps developing nations.

It is a clever move but I am not sure how much resonance it will have. That is because many voters will not remember that period but more importantly, those that do will have the counter-image of Margaret Thatcher coming to power to contend with.

It might play well in Middle England but those of us who live in communities that were devastated by Thatcherism will not thank David Cameron for reminding us of how bad things really could get.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Website blues

It is a well-known fact that the production of high volume, professional websites can cost a bit of money to design, set up and run, however the Welsh Assembly Government are surely taking the biscuit if this news is correct.

This morning's Western Mail reports that they are spending £3.5m to set up two new websites. The paper tells us that details of the £3.5m contract can be seen on the Assembly Government’s existing business website, http://www.sell2wales.co.uk/:

A notice on the website says: “The Welsh Assembly Government is rationalising its business websites. There will be two primary websites: a single super site which will provide business information and will be the entry point for Assembly Government services for business; and the National Procurement Website (www.buy4wales.co.uk / www.sell2wales.co.uk) which provides businesses with access to procurement opportunities from across the public sector in Wales.

“Additional suppliers will be contracted to provide additional internet, online, software development and consultancy services as required and as need arises over the period to 2012.”
Cardiff-based digital company Sequence has won the major elements of the contract. A statement issued by Sequence said: “Sequence has been awarded the contract for the ongoing design, development, management and hosting of Flexible Support for Business (FS4B), the Assembly Government’s central Government-to-Business application. The contract is designed to allow the Assembly Government to consolidate their business support websites to work alongside the citizen focused www.wales.gov.uk and expand their provision of e-Government services.

“The deal is worth upwards of £750,000 for three years and for this the Assembly Government will have a dedicated on- demand team at Sequence providing consultancy, design and development services to ensure the Assembly Government remain in the best possible position to meet their online communications and business delivery strategy.

“As a public procurement tender, Sequence faced significant competition from across Europe, yet the Welsh agency achieved the highest scores. The successful bid draws on the extensive experience that Sequence have had in successfully delivering business services on behalf of the devolved government in Wales.”

Other elements of the contract have been won by web companies Reading Room, Fusion Workshop, Serco, Valtech, Precedent, Silverbear and Box UK.

The Assembly Government has form on this sort of thing of course. Their own website reportedly cost £2.7 million to develop and I understand that it is about to be revamped. Goodness knows how much that revamp will cost but you would have thought that for that price they could have got it right first time.

Who said that the financial settlement was tight? It seems that money is available for some things not for others, so whilst local government makes deep cuts in services and jobs we at least get top class websites. What a sense of priorities this One Wales Government has.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Fantasy Finance

It is fantasy finance time in the Western Mail this morning as they devote the best part of a page to discussing how we could spend the £100 million Wales is not getting as a result of money being diverted to the Olympics.

Suggestions include free childcare for the under 14s, a grant of £35 to every man, woman and child in Wales to help boost the economy, school repairs, more affordable housing, more cash for higher education and an investment in Wrexhan Football Club.

Nice work if you can get it, but surely we would be better off focussing on the money we do have and how that is being used. This is especially so when one realises that none of this £100 million would have come to the Welsh Assembly to spend. £70 million of it would be available to lottery companies and the other £30 million would be the financial spin-off from that expenditure.

Back to the drawing board I think.

More control-freakery from One Wales

This morning's Western Mail reports that the Assembly Government has said it will not take forward legislation proposed by green transport charity Sustrans, which is being considered by the cross-party enterprise and learning committee.

Sustrans wants the Assembly to gain new powers to speed the creation of a nationwide network of car-free routes which could be used by cyclists and pedestrians but the Assembly Government says that it already has the powers it needs and warns that supporting the LCO “would divert resources away from taking forward the Assembly Government’s legislative programme.”

Lee Waters, Welsh director of Sustrans, said: “The real reason is the LCO system is log-jammed and they don’t want to send any more LCOs to Westminster.”

He fears this will send a message to organisations across Wales that there is no point investing time and resources to petition the Assembly to initiate legislation.

He said: “It seems to me there is absolutely no reason for anyone to come forward with an LCO because the Welsh Assembly Government are unfortunately saying they are ‘full’.”

Mr Waters hopes the committee will press ahead with developing the legislation, despite the opposition of ministers. Deputy First Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones will appear before the committee on Thursday.

The Sustrans director said: “My understanding is there has been a bit of a row about it internally. What I’m hoping is the committee will have the courage of its convictions and go ahead anyway.”

Admitting that he “felt a bit let down”, he insisted that the Assembly needed the power to compel highway authorities to create and maintain such networks. He argued these would help cut down on car use and encourage exercise, combating climate change and obesity.

Lee Waters has a point. There has been a marked reluctance on the part of the One Wales Government to support any legislation that does not originate from their own side. I can certainly understand their frustration at the logjam that is building up at Westminster and the incredibly lengthy, unwieldy and unworkable Legislative Competence Order system but that is no excuse for not trying to maximise the powers of the Assembly over all areas of our legislative competence.

Of course it does not help that the Assembly Government's own Environment LCO has slipped into some kind of limbo and nobody knows what has happened to it but that is no excuse for Plaid Cymru Ministers to go native. Once more we have to pose the question if Plaid Cymru are not going to fight to bring more powers to Wales when they are in government then what are they for?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Fighting the bureaucracy

Interesting article in this morning's Western Mail about the problems facing those interested in getting projects off the ground with the help of European Convergence funding. They say that ambitious projects aimed at boosting the economy in Wales’ poorest communities are being held back by Assembly Government bureaucracy. Some project ideas first mooted more than 18 months ago have still not been approved by the Welsh European Funding Office causing immense frustration to those involved:

Wefo’s website, www.wefo.wales.gov.uk, contains a list of project ideas submitted by a variety of organisations. In some cases, ideas dating back to the first half of 2007 are still being evaluated.

One would-be project manager, who did not wish to be named, said: “The whole process is taking much longer than we expected. You fill in a form providing all the answers, and then you get a further set of questions. This goes on and on, and is immensely frustrating.

“The whole point is to create new jobs to raise the prosperity of the region, yet there seems to be no sense of urgency on the part of Wefo to make sure the evaluation is completed and a decision made.

“The Convergence programme has a finite timescale and the worry is that the longer the evaluation takes, the greater the chance that the project will have to be shortened.

“We have spoken to quite a few other projects, and we know they are as frustrated as we are. Ultimately it’s the people of Wales and the Welsh economy that are being let down by the failure to make decisions.”

Projects are also responsible for finding “match funding”, and some managers are worried that the failure to get the green light

Clearly there is a problem in getting money out to where it will do some good. That is not new. WEFO has always seemed to be an obstacle and has caused much frustration amongst all those who have had dealings with them. This though is our last chance. Once this convergence funding is spent it is likely that there will not be anymore.

We need to get it right but we also need to be seen to be creating jobs and moving the economy forward. If that is a priority for the One Wales government as well then they need to start doing something about this bureaucracy.

Monday, January 19, 2009

From George Washington To Barack Obama - A Long Way

It is the last day of George W. Bush's Presidency. This video is a remarkable record of the office.

"cc all your emails to Jacqui Smith" Day

I have just been invited to join a Facebook Group called "cc all your emails to Jacqui Smith" Day. The blurb starts with a quote, "No government of any colour is to be trusted with such a roadmap to our souls" but does not attribute it.

It continues: The government has unveiled plans for a private company to run a "superdatabase" that will track all our emails, calls, texts, internet use and so on. This is an immense infringement of civil liberties, not to mention a major risk to our private data - but it won't make us any safer. The sheer amount of information that the Government intends to collect will be impossible to analyse properly and will undoubtedly turn up false positives while missing potential security threats amongst the morass of spam emails and private chat.

So, for one day, we should send a message to the Home Office - "you want to see our emails? Ok then, here they are then!". We do this by simply cc'ing or bcc'ing every email we send (and if you like, forwarding every email you receive), regardless of importance or content, to public.enquiries@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk.

That way Jacqui Smith and the Home Office will be able to see how difficult it will be to get on with their actual work - keeping our country safe - when they're trying to monitor every harmless private thing we say and do.

All we need to know now is which day?


Fighting for jobs

Recently I had a meeting with Union representatives from the Land Registry, who have two offices in Swansea employing more than 700 staff. The Land Registry was my employer before I became an Assembly Member so I have more than a passing interest in its future.

Being a demand-led service the Land Registry has been particularly badly hit by the collapse in the housing market. They operate as an independent trading fund and look set to make a loss for the first time ever. As a result they are embarking on a period of rationalisation and have earmarked £25 million to close down offices and to lay off staff.

In Swansea that could result in the two offices being merged and the loss of up to 220 staff posts. Management are seeking to achieve this through voluntary redundancy on compulsory terms and through transferring staff to other departments where there are vacancies but naturally there is a fair degree of cynicism as to whether this is achieveable.

I recall that the last time there was a slump in the property market spare capacity was used to improve the service to customers. Specifically, all of the Land Registers were computerised enabling a swifter service and a move towards e-conveyancing, of which more later. This meant that when demand picked there were skilled and well-trained staff in place who could deal with it.

The one thing I took away from the Land Registry was its ethos of investing in its staff and it is a slashing staff numbers by so much when they will need these people later on as the property market recovers.

Accordingly, I have written to the Chief Land Registrar to ask him to think again. Specifically, I have suggested using staff to computerise their filed plans and to consider changing legislation so as to bring in more work. They could also systematically seek out voluntary registrations from large land-owning public bodies such as Local Councils, the Ministry of Defence, the Forestry Commission or even charities like the National Trust?

If such work was obtained and kept within Wales then it would be possible to minimise job losses. It would also be possible to continue to concentrate staff in one office at the same time by taking up short term office space around the Wales Office to accommodate those who cannot be housed in the main Llansamlet office.

One aspect of their work that could have contributed to the present crisis is the Land Registry's attempt to get into e-conveyancing. Like other government computer projects this appears to have crashed and burned badly.

According to the current issue of Private Eye the Land Registry has written off £15 million of the £42 million spent up to last March on this project. The scheme was launched in 2002 by the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Irving and should have seen paperless conveyancing become the norm two years ago.

Private Eye says that under the 'chain matrix' system property sale chains should have been logged and tracked electronically enabling lawyers, estate agents, buyers and sellers to check on progress. But the system was so hopeless that only 10 such chains were successfully recorded, the longest covering just two transactions. They say that the idea has been abandoned with a promise to look at it again in a couple of years.

The magazine says that the Land Registry is now doing the market research that should have been done years ago to gauge 'the current and likely future market behaviours and preferences'. They believe that enough will emerge to justify keeping the multi-million pound contract with IT supplier, IBM despite their track record. For example according to the public accounts committee IBM was the company that supplied the IT contract for the Department of Transport which instead of saving £57 million, will end up costing taxpayers £81 million.

Long term planning does not appear to be one of the Land Registry's strengths.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Massaging the figures

MPs may be poised to deny us access to details of their expense claims but that has not stopped the Sunday Telegraph from exposing a more personal agenda. They report that the gym at Westminster has introduced a range of new beauty treatments including chest and back waxes for men:

"We do a lot of massages and facials are very popular," says Louise Meddar, the parliamentary masseuse and beauty therapist. "A lot of them come in during their lunch breaks. We have everyone in here: MPs and members of the House of Lords. I would say waxing and massages are the most popular. Women MPs come in, but quite a few male MPs are very good clients." Gordon Brown has yet to visit, though. "I really want to do something for him," she says. "He needs relaxing. He needs a massage."

There are no plans for a similar service in the Welsh Assembly.

More Tory grief on expenses

Are the Tories accident prone when it comes to their expense returns? I only ask because following on the heals of the great Bourne/Cairn's ipod controversy we now have the Mayor of London being accused of misusing public funds to pay for his stay at Tory Party Conference.

The Independent on Sunday reports that Boris Johnson spent £1,955.25 on accommodation for himself and a small group of advisers at the luxury Hyatt Regency hotel in Birmingham last September.

His office insist that using public funds was justified because he was attending the conference in his capacity as Mayor, giving a speech to delegates. However, Boris did not attend the Labour or Liberal Democrat conferences. By contrast, cabinet ministers did not use public funds to attend the Labour Party conference and were, instead, asked to pay out of their own pockets:

Mr Johnson is believed to have arrived in Birmingham on Saturday 27 September, staying for three nights. A suite at the Hyatt Regency, the main conference hotel for senior Tories, would have cost around £1,000 for three nights. The spacious room has a separate office and dining area, a giant bathroom with whirlpool bath and huge windows overlooking the city's canal district. The remaining £955 would have covered the cost of the advisers' bedrooms.

Downstairs in the hotel, Tory activists drank champagne at Bar Pravda – despite a message from the party leadership that they should not be seen to be enjoying themselves at a time of intense difficulty for the economy.

Stephen Pound, Labour MP for Ealing North, said: "If Ken Livingstone had done that he would have been hung, drawn and quartered. Boris has always had a reputation for playing fast and loose with the rules."

No doubt there will be a definitive ruling on this expenditure in due course.

Reshuffle news

It seems an eternity since speculation about a Conservative front bench reshuffle was started. All of the chatter is over whether Cameron will bring back Kenneth Clarke or not.

The indications are that the Tory leader wants the former Chancellor of the Exchequer in his Shadow Cabinet but as the Sunday Times points out today resistance to the move is growing.

The problem for Tory right wingers is Clarke's views on Europe. They believe that they have won the civil war within the party on this issue, which made the Conservatives unleadable during much of the 1990s. Kenneth Clarke in the Shadow Cabinet could re-open those wounds.

Clarke may well add gravitas to the Tory front bench but his return could also herald another bout of infighting that may undermine Cameron's leadership. Bring it on I say.


Freedom Central has the full text of Lembit's adjournment debate speech on Segways as well as details of a new Lembit fan blog.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Weapons of mass destruction

I did not have time to highlight this yesterday but the views of two retired defence chiefs that the Trident missile system should be scrapped are sufficiently important to merit a late comment.

Lord Ramsbotham, a former adjutant-general who became the chief inspector of prisons, and Field Marshal Lord Bramall, a former chief of the defence staff, have appealed to ministers to think again about their 2007 decision to renew Trident at a cost of up to £20bn. They argue that the money would be better spent on the precision weapons needed for current conflicts.

I believe that their case has merits. Britain's obsession with holding a nuclear deterrent cannot be justified by our status in the world. There is a strong argument in my view to let our present nuclear arsenal wither on the vine and to reinforce our conventional forces instead.

Perhaps the intervention of these two authorative figures will cause the Liberal Democrats to rethink their policy on Trident.

Weekend Spoof music video

Brilliant Razorlight spoof.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The elephant in the room

I am going to make an exception to my usual style and begin this post by agreeing with the Welsh Affairs Committee.

They have produced a report that accuses Whitehall officials of “forgetting” about Wales. They also argue that a breakdown in communications between Cardiff Bay and Whitehall over skills training has left key employers scratching their heads. They believe that neither side has taken enough notice of policies on the opposite side of the border.

This was the theme of a debate tabled by the Welsh Liberal Democrats last year when we argued that the One Wales Government's obsession with keeping services within Wales was disadvantaging those living on the eastern and northern borders of the country.

The starkest example of this was the now-abandoned plan to send neurosurgery patients from North Wales to Swansea and Cardiff, but there are a whole range of anomolies including Welsh patients being disadvantaged at their nearest (English) hospital and problems with using the Assembly's OAP bus pass on the other side of the border.

In this case the Welsh Affairs Select Committee concentrate on different training and qualification regimes. They say that employers are left unsure over whether training qualifications taken in Wales count for anything in England, and vice versa. They argue that Ministers have repeatedly focused on the need to develop a highly-skilled workforce to mitigate against the worst effects of the recession but there is no joined-up thinking between the two administrations:

An example of the difficulty, highlighted by the MPs, is Airbus, which employs 7,000 people just within the Welsh border at Broughton.

The aerospace giant says it feared the development of an “extremely confusing and disparate qualification system...changes being proposed are seen as a significant potential risk”.

In evidence to the committee, Airbus also raised concern that the planned National Apprenticeship Service for England would lead to further differences between Wales and England.

The report notes that communication between the Assembly Government and the UK Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) on the issue has “not been sufficiently effective” and has only added to confusion.

“There is a need for officials within Whitehall to have a better understanding of devolution as there is an impression that some officials believe that it means they can ‘forget’ about Wales,” the MPs say.

“Similarly there is a need for officials and Ministers in the Welsh Assembly to take a greater interest in developing policies across the border."

For once this is not anti-devolutionist rhetoric, it is a recognition of the barriers that mis-perceptions of devolution can throw up. Having a Welsh Assembly does not mean closing our borders and pretending England does not exist, nor does it mean that the English can ignore us. There needs to be greater effort and understanding on both sides to make it work, learning from each other and adopting best practice.

The other issue that the Welsh Affairs Select Committee highlighted was the £61 million funding gap between the cash available to Welsh universities and their counterparts in England. This is evidenced by a number of bodies, not least the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and yet the Welsh Assembly Government seem determined to prove once more that denial is not just an Egyptian river. They responded by saying that they disagreed with the committee's findings and claimed the level of funding is on a par with English levels.

Quite apart from the problem that this is contrary to the facts, it is a completely different tune to the one being sung by Plaid Cymru in the four years leading up to their being seated in ministerial limousines and it is also contrary to what Labour were saying during the second Assembly, when they agreed to close that funding gap. Yet another abandoned Plaid Cymru policy.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Welsh Lib Dems take up blogging

The Welsh Liberal Democrats have launched their own collaborative blog along the lines of Liberal Democrat Voice, though obviously not as professional. It will take a bit of time for Freedom Central to get going properly so bear with us.

Job done

Whoever it was who leaked the detailed objections of Paul Murphy on the Welsh Language Legislative Competence Order appears to have achieved their objective.

Within hours of the BBC setting up interviews to lead on the story this morning the Secretary of State for Wales announced that he was going to sign it off and refer it to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee even if he does have substantive reservations about the order:

Although Mr Murphy has agreed the assembly government can publish the LCO, so that AMs and MPs can begin their scrutiny, he has also issued a warning to ministers in Cardiff Bay that he fears some of the provisions will be so controversial that they may not survive into the final draft.

Until this week, Mr Murphy was refusing to include a clause that would mean Whitehall departments could face financial penalties for failing to comply with language equality legislation.

But officials in the assembly government were adamant it should remain, saying it would "focus the minds" of civil servants in England.

I predict a particularly rough ride when the MPs get their teeth into this.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Joined up government?

According to this article in Computer Weekly nearly a year ago now, the troubled £447m project to provide a national case management system for magistrates courts should have been rolled out to all 370 magistrates courts in England and Wales by the end of last year. This scheme is already 16 years late and will cost nearly three times more than expected.

I have no knowledge as to whether this roll-out has been completed on time and to budget and would welcome any information anybody has. However, a memo I saw recently suggested that the system is incapable of issuing bi-lingual summonses.

So much for joined-up government.

Forever delayed

Betsan Powys has had a whisper that all is still not well with the Welsh Language Legislative Competence Order. It appears that when the Secretary of State for Wales told the Assembly before Christmas that the order had been scrutinised by officials and was sitting on his desk awaiting sign-off some may have come away having drawn the wrong conclusion.

According to Betsan, there is still no agreement as to whether criminal sanctions should apply to those who are in breach of any measures arising from the order, whilst there are other issues that remain "to be resolved at the political level".

All-in-all this saga looks like it will run and run. There is still a major stand-off between the One Wales Government and Westminster that is not going to be resolved easily. Will a UK Government veto on controversial matters prove to be the only way forward again?

Further signs of a public sector under pressure

Following on from their piece on Monday about the impact of the recession on Council services, this morning's Times newspaper has published the results of a survey of forty local Councils that indicates substantial job losses as part of the current budget round:

Forty councils approached by The Times yesterday were planning a total of 7,000 redundancies, and unions fear that few of the 442 local authorities across England, Scotland and Wales will escape the cutbacks. Although most of the job losses will be among backroom staff, there is concern that services will be affected.

The scale of the proposed redundancies is the first indication that Britain’s six million public sector workers will not be protected from the slowdown. Health and education professionals fear that they may be next.

Unions said that the cutbacks contradicted Gordon Brown’s plans to create jobs. “Already local councils are reporting huge increases in the number of people seeking help for debt counselling, housing advice, employment services,” said Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison. “It is the council workers who deliver that, so it would be madness to chuck them on the dole.”

Their findings are supported by the Local Government Association who said that one in seven of the 388 councils in England planned to make redundancies. Those in Scotland and Wales are in similar trouble:

Margaret Eaton, the association’s chairman, said: “The credit crunch and the recession are causing a decline in income and an ever greater demand for essential services such as help for the homeless and increased support for local businesses. It is a highly unpleasant decision for any council to cut jobs, but they also understand that local people are suffering.”

A combination of enforced efficiency savings, inadequate central grants and reduced fees and charges have all taken their toll on local council services. In addition many local authorities have had to curtail their capital spending as a result of the collapse in the property market. Capital receipts used to finance such expenditure have all but dried up.

A lack of integrity?

Interesting letter in this morning's Western Mail from John Ball, the former Plaid Cymru candidate for Swansea East that is worth quoting in full:

SIR – The decision by the Assembly to stop payment of an automatic grant to Welsh university students and replace it with a means-based scheme is a serious retrograde step.

This decision raises three fundamental questions about how the Assembly works, how it views education and its role in it.

The first of these is the integrity of a supposedly left leaning coalition – I remember many Plaid Cymru conferences when speaker after speaker became apoplectic at the very words “means test”; now clearly an adopted party policy.

The second is the Assembly’s view of the future. It is no great secret that the Welsh economy is, at the very least, not performing well and that Wales lags behind in education at all levels. These are two sides of the same coin; a well educated workforce is the very cornerstone of economic growth and well-being.

The third is perhaps the most important of all. The UN’s educational philosophy is based on chilling words and upon which the assembly might reflect – If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.

Lecturer in Economics, School of Business and Economics, Swansea University

A clear sign of the unhappiness at Plaid Cymru's sell-out on tuition fees amongst their core supporters.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The impact of the credit crunch

Interesting article in yesterday's Times regarding the impact of the economic downturn on local councils:

One in four councils in England has reported an increase in homelessness and more than half have experienced a rise in housing benefit claimants as the recession bites.

A snapshot survey also shows that the demand for free school meals and state school places has shot up, and more people have sought help for mental health problems.

The study carried out at the end of last year shows the extent to which the downturn is affecting demand for a range of public services. Almost all authorities who were contacted expect the situation to get much worse in the next few months as more people lose their jobs and homes.

At the same time one in seven councils is making redundancies and one in four has a recruitment freeze. Nearly 75 per cent have already revised their budgets for the current year, mainly because of a loss of income from service and planning charges.

I would guess that there has been a similar impact in Wales, which makes it all the more important that local Councils are given the resources to deal with this additional demand on their services. It is perverse that authorities are having to trim back frontline delivery because of financial pressures at a time when they are needed the most.

More controversy on allowances

The real shock in this morning's Western Mail article about Welsh Tory Leader, Nick Bourne's expenses was not the fact that he allegedly claimed more than £1,800 from public funds to run a website, but that he used his expenses to pay Preseli Pembrokeshire Conservative Association a total of £3,450 in respect of room hire for his surgeries – at £150 a time.

If these figures are right then they raise questions about value for money. Like the Welsh Conservative AM for my region, Alun Cairns, I use a room in Killay to hold surgeries for which we each pay £6 a time. The vast majority of my other surgeries are held in public libraries for which there is no charge.

I can only hope that the venues I use do not read this article and use it as an excuse to levy a similar fee.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Lessons learned?

This morning's Daily Telegraph indicates that the Government has failed to learn the lessons from losing 30 million personal data files in two years.

They tell us that staff are still able to copy unencrypted information from internal databases on to USB sticks, the portable memory devices that have been involved in many of the recent high-profile security breaches whilst the health and transport departments – as well as the Driving and Vehicle Licensing Agency – have failed to make encryption mandatory despite the recommendations of a Cabinet Office report last year:

The Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Ministry of Justice are among the major departments that allow the copying of data of encrypted data onto memory sticks, but it is not clear whether the encryption is actively enforced.

The Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is one of the few departments to force encryption on memory sticks.

And they wonder why we have concerns about the National database they are planning to back up the introduction of ID cards.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Credit crunch

Today's Sunday Telegraph reports that Labour's attempts to woo regional businessmen has not been a great success. It appears that having spent an estimated £200,000 of taxpayers' money on the Cabinet's "away-day" in northern England, the Labour Party then asked businessmen hit by the economic crisis to pay £20 each to meet Gordon Brown:

Louise Ellman, the MP for Liverpool Riverside, hosted the "Meet the PM" night at Newz, a bar in the city, last Wednesday. "I told them that I'd only cough up £20 if Brown resigned," says the unimpresssed owner of one local business.

Ellman is keen to disassociate herself from the decision to ask guests to pay to attend the two-hour drinks reception. "I don't know anything about charging for tickets," she tells Mandrake. "I don't even know if the drinks were free because my friend brought me one. The event was organised by the North West Labour Party. I told the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce about the event. It is up to them whether they chose to advertise it."

A spokesman for the chamber says: "The Labour office got in touch with us as Louise Ellman was hosting an event. We know her as we do about four events a year with her."

It is not as if the Prime Minister is Tony Blair. Some in the Labour Party clearly hanker after the good old days when they could command £150 a head or more from people keen to be seen with the former Labour leader.

And in other news

Here's another use for stilettos, Annunziata

Somerset and Frome Lib Dem MP David Heath has put the knife into his local Tory candidate, hackette Annunziata Rees-Mogg, after she waxed lyrical about the thrills of 'wearing a stunning pair of Christian Louboutins'. Bearded Heath, who prefers wellies, scoffs: 'She has written more about designer shoes than the economy

From today's Daily Mail.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

What are Plaid Cymru for?

And so we turn inevitably to the latest chapter in the saga of the Affordable Housing Legislative Competence Order.

For the uninitiated an LCO is an order that enables the Welsh Assembly to draw down additional law-making powers. It does not in itself actually change anything but enables us to legislate for changes in the law on its particular subject matter once the order has been signed off by the monarch.

More details about the impasse that developed over this order between the Welsh Affairs Select Committee and the Assembly Government can be found here. As I predicted a compromise was reached. The problem is that this compromise has set a precedent that could undermine the very basis of devolution and which could easily be applied to future LCOs, not least the one on the Welsh Language.

As Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader, Kirsty Williams said: "It must be particularly humiliating for a Plaid Cymru Minister having to accept this imposition from a UK Labour Minister. If these are the actions of a party that Plaid Cymru are in a coalition with and who are supposedly in favour of further powers, what happens if the next Westminster government is opposed to devolution?"

To be fair the Deputy Housing Minister does make a good attempt at defending her actions in accepting this compromise. She told the media that “As a Plaid Cymru AM I am very frustrated with this system and want us to have a proper Welsh Parliament – something we’ve wanted for 80 years. As an Assembly Government Minister I am pleased we have at last reached a position where we will get all the powers we were committed to in the One Wales agreement. We have no intention of scrapping the right to buy – all we wanted was the flexibility to grant requests from councils to suspend the right to buy temporarily."

In pure policy terms that may be right, but how is this standing up for Wales and the devolution process? I accept that one of the disciplines of government is that you have to make compromises but the problem is set out quite starkly by Jocelyn Davies' own words. Plaid Cymru allowed the terms of this LCO to be defined by what they wanted to do rather than by the powers that the Assembly may need over housing in the future. They are in danger of making the same mistake on the Welsh Language LCO.

In other words, whatever the limitations of the LCO system, this One Wales Government have never really used it to push at the boundaries of what can be done. They have not thought beyond the exigencies of the coalition agreement so as to try and accumulate powers for the Assembly that can be used in the long term. Instead they have taken us a step backwards and allowed a veto by a Westminster politician over an area of devolved policy.

We now find ourselves in the position of Plaid Cymru being in government but failing to meet many of their promises:
In the circumstances I think we can be justified in asking if this is what they do when given some semblance of power, then what is Plaid Cymru for?

Could the BBC make the Middle Class obese?

Daily Mail-o-matic!

A new Daily Mail headline every time you click the button. Warning not politically correct.

With thanks to Jonathan Calder.

Actually the David Blunkett policy maker is much more fun...

Friday, January 09, 2009

Trashing the place

The article in this morning's Independent, which reported that taxpayers face paying tens of millions of pounds in compensation to private companies involved in the national identity card scheme if their contracts are torn up on a change of government, reminds me a bit of a Spitting Image sketch.

It is the morning after the 1992 General Election and John Major and his Cabinet are waking up in Number Ten with the most awful hangovers. They have trashed the place, thinking that they were going to lose but somehow pulled another four years in Government out of the bag.

These sort of clauses in Government contracts on long term controversial policies are the political equivalent of Labour trashing the place in case they fail to be re-elected. It shows enormous disrespect for the voters who might reject their policies at the next election and expect a new government to reverse them.

If the ID card policy is reversed after the next election then millions of pounds of public money will have to be spent on producing nothing. That is hardly prudent.


Will it be Ming versus Beith for the Speaker's Chair?

This morning's Times speculates that Michael Martin will step down as Speaker of the House of Commons within a matter of months and that Sir Menzies Campbell is in prime position to take his place.

The paper says that Labour realises that it will not be possible to get a third Labour speaker past the House of Commons and is looking for a compromise candidate to prevent the Tories taking the position. Stephen Tall on Liberal Democrat Voice reported last October that the last Liberal MP to be Speaker was the Coalition Liberal John Henry Whitley (1921-28).

It will not be plain sailing though as this time there will be a secret ballot and a number of Liberal Democrat MPs believe that Sir Alan Beith, with his constitutional affairs background as chairman of the Justice Committee, is a strong contender.

Let us hope that when they do hold the election the alternative vote method of proportional representation is used. That way we may well get the first Liberal Democrat speaker for eighty years.

Another fine mess

It would be very easy to suggest that Plaid Cymru's three nominees for the House of Lords were being more than a little precious in demanding an explanation as to why they have been left out in the cold by the UK Government for so long. It certainly appears that it was their own naivety that got them into this position in the first place.

It cannot be denied that they the nationalists have been taken for a ride by key Labour figures who clearly made promises that could not be delivered and, in the first flush of getting into government for the first time, they walked open-eyed right into the honey-trap that had been set for them.

However, there are wider issues at stake here that go beyond the hubris of senior Plaid Cymru politicians. In particular, the question as to why membership of the United Kingdom's key second chamber, responsible for revising legislation and the scrutiny of the government, should rely on a nod and a wink from the 'usual channels'.

There is no doubt that Plaid Cymru should have greater representation in the House of Lords than they currently enjoy and it should be up to the voters to determine what that should be. The sort of patronage enjoyed by the Prime Minister over the membership of this chamber is anachronistic and its abolition long overdue. An elected second chamber is the only way forward. Alas, it is unlikely that this particular crisis will be the catalyst that will deliver one.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Compare the Meekat.com

This is a really clever and rather fun site:

Q. Isn’t a meerkat a type of mongoose?
A. NO! This great insult! Mongoose not good enough to lick dropping from my shoe! I am meerkat and I live in mansion filthy mongoose could only dream about in wildest dreams.

A matter of concern

The Times has a follow-up to the story initated by Julia Goldsworthy yesterday, which found that Councils in England and Wales are taking people to court too quickly if they fall behind with their council tax payments. One million people received court summons, whilst bailiffs called on 600,000.

They have found that some householders who owe less than £2,000 in arrears are suddenly faced with a bill of up to £50,000 and forced to sell their homes because of the exorbitant fees which kick in after bankruptcy. Insolvency accountants who chase up small council tax arrears of a few hundred pounds charge up to £600 an hour. They say that up to 5,000 householders were pursued for bankruptcy last year and at least 1,000 were made bankrupt.

Vince Cable is absolutely right when he says that there seems to be no justification whatever for these astronomical fees for what appears to be routine work. He believes that there is a clear case for the Government to intervene either by involving the competition authorities or by opening up the business to a wider range of providers. I agree.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Getting Britain working (or not)

The Conservatives held a Get Britain Working" day yesterday in which their Shadow Cabinet toured Britain meeting businesses and workers. According to the Conservative Party, the away-day is to allow "David Cameron and the Shadow Cabinet" to hold forums which "will be attended by local business owners, business organisation representatives, relevant voluntary organisations, local people, Conservative councillors and Conservative Parliamentary candidates."

However, the Daily Telegraph reports that one Shadow Minister was missing, drawing attention once more to the alleged lack of commitment by senior Tories, who prefer to keep lucrative part time jobs rather than spend all their time holding the government to account.

Step forward Tory Shadow Business Secretary Alan Duncan who has chosen instead to attend the 53rd Anglo-Swiss Parliamentary Ski Week in Davos in Switzerland. How this will impact on David Cameron's reshuffle we have yet to see but rumours are rife that former Channcellor of the Exchequer, Ken Clarke is being lined up for Mr. Duncan's job.


An excellent article from Nick Clegg in this morning's Guardian on the Israeli invasion of Gaza:

Brown must stop sitting on his hands. He must condemn unambiguously Israel's tactics, just as he has rightly condemned Hamas's rocket attacks. Then he must lead the EU into using its economic and diplomatic leverage in the region to broker peace. The EU is by far Israel's biggest export market, and by far the biggest donor to the Palestinians. It must immediately suspend the proposed new cooperation agreement with Israel until things change in Gaza, and apply tough conditions on any long-term assistance to the Palestinian community.

Brown must also halt Britain's arms exports to Israel, and persuade our EU counterparts to do the same. The government's own figures show Britain is selling more and more weapons to Israel, despite the questions about the country's use of force. In 2007, our government approved £6m of arms exports. In 2008, it licensed sales 12 times as fast: £20m in the first three months alone.

There is a strong case that, given the Gaza conflict, any military exports contravene EU licensing criteria. Reports, though denied, that Israel is using illegal cluster munitions and white phosphorus should heighten our caution. I want an immediate suspension of all arms exports from the EU, but if that cannot be secured, Brown must act unilaterally.

Finally, the world's leaders must accept that their response to the election of Hamas has been a strategic failure. The removal of the EU presence on the Egypt border in response to Hamas's election, for example, has made it easier for the rockets being fired at Israel to get into Gaza in the first place. An EU mission with a serious mandate and backing from Egypt and Israel would help Israel deal proportionately and effectively with the threat from weapons smuggling.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

What unionists?

Alan Cochrane in the Daily Telegraph reports that the The Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party have changed their name and are now known simply as The Scottish Conservative Party. Will the Welsh Tories follow suit?

Alternative energy

Interesting article in yesterday's Guardian on the proposal to construct a barrage across the River Severn. Tidal Electric, which wants to generate electricity by using up to 13 tidal lagoons built on the estuary floor from rock instead of a barrage has accused Government consultants of miscalculating the costs so as to promote the barrage scheme above the lagoons.

Studies carried out by the engineers AS Atkins, for Tidal Electric, have suggested that the lagoons could generate twice as much power, per square mile impounded, than the barrage, and therefore generate about 25-40% more energy without damaging the shoreline. However, the plan sent by Parsons Brinckerhoff to ministers says the tidal lagoon option would be eight times more expensive than the barrage scheme and would not generate as much power.

It is difficult to believe that the barrage will cost less than tidal lagoons to construct or even that it will keep within the £14 billion estimated budget. If we are to proceed with it then there must be an authorative and independent assessment of the costs of all alternatives to ensure that we are getting value for money.

I am also struck by the parellels between this row and what has happened in Swansea Bay where there are proposals to construct a tidal lagoon. It seems that this project has been thwarted at Government level, both at Westminster and Cardiff Bay, despite many experts believing that it is feasible and cost-effective.

I am not anti-wind power but there does appear to be an element of truth in accusations that the Government is incapable of looking objectively at any other non-fossil energy source and that Ministers and civil servants are promoting turbines at the expense of other feasible and more reliable alternatives. Lagoons are hardly cutting edge. It is not as if the government is being asked to invest in or approve untried technology. Maybe it is time they gave them a chance.

A tax cut?

All this morning's papers give some prominence to David Cameron's promise of a tax cut for basic rate savers if the Tories get into power and for once it is a proposal worth looking at. After all many pensioners, who rely on their savings to maintain a decent standard of living, have found themselves struggling in the face of the recession and the impact it is having on the value of their investments.

However, as Nick Clegg points out the impact of this so-called cut will be negligible. It only amounts at today interest rates to an extra 40p a year for someone saving £100. Far better would be the sort of big, permanent, fair tax cuts proposed by the Liberal Democrats and which will take many of the poorest pensioners out of paying tax altogether.

The other problem with Mr. Cameron's proposal is how it is to be paid for. Although he plans to keep spending on schools, health, defence and international development at Labour's planned levels, projected spending in other departments could grow by only 1% in real terms, instead of the 4.1% planned by Labour. That means restrictions on spending by the Home Office, Ministry of Justice, business department, and communities department.

In other words the Tories will effectively allow spending on the police, prisons, the court system, investment in small business, local government and regneration projects to fall behind other departments, despite the increased demand on their resources. That is a matter of judgement on their part of course and it does matter how this expenditure will be managed. We have yet to see the details of that but once we do at least the electorate will now have something to consider when they look to cast their vote at the next general election.

Monday, January 05, 2009

The Doctor's new assistant

Sara Bedford draws attention to this article in the Daily Telegraph, which speculates that Doctor Who's new assistant might be Lily Allen. My vote goes to Charlotte Church!

Age of consent

It is always dangerous to rely on a newspaper for news especially when the article is as speculative as this one, however this morning's Guardian does raise some issues that deserve consideration, even if they have got it wrong.

The paper claims that the government is considering raising the school-leaving age to 18 immediately, as a way of combating the huge rise in unemployment, particularly among the young, that it expects to see this year. They say that there are also proposals to accelerate the filling of existing vacancies at local authorities.

The Government has of course already passed legislation that will ensure that all 16 and 17-year-olds remain in school, training or an apprenticeship until they are 18, but that only applies to children who turn 11 this year, and so does not effectively start for another five years.

However, the paper argues that because the 137,000 rise in those unemployed in the three months to October contained 55,000, or 40%, who were in the 18-24 age bracket then this has prompted a radical re-think. They say that while the country's overall jobless rate is currently 6%, among 18-24-year-olds it is 14% and among 16-17-year-olds it is 26%.

Personally, I was never happy with the original legislation. It seemed to me to be unnecessarily restrictive to force 16-18 year olds to stay in education or training and that such a measure will only cause problems for those earmarked to teach or train these young people. After all, it is not easy dealing with reluctant pupils, especially when they feel that government legislation is taking away their freedom to choose.

Do not misunderstand me. I am all in favour of more investment in 16-19 education and training, offering more choice to those who want to continue down that route. That is a long overdue investment. But these young adults must have the freedom to find employment if they wish, even if that work does not contain a training element. And let us face it, there is no point in extending formal education and training if there is no employment at the end of it.

And that is the point. Bringing forward this provision so that it becomes effective immediately rather than 2014 or 2015, smacks of desperation on the part of the government. They are manipulating the statistics rather than offering real opportunity. It does take time to put the relevant training places and apprenticeships in place and my best guess is that the providers are nowhere near ready. There is certainly no guarantee that there will be jobs for these youngsters in two years time.

I was also quite amused by the suggestion that local Councils should accelerate the filling of existing vacancies. Many of these jobs are being kept vacant because local authorities cannot afford to fill them. A lot will disappear in the current budget round as efficiency savings. If the government is going to massively boost the resources available to councils so as to rectify that then that is all well and good, but we all know that is not going to happen.

Like many other proposals this is just spin put in place so that others can be blamed for not delivering. If the Guardian piece is to be considered accurate then the government needs to do better.

Sunday, January 04, 2009


Congratulations to Paul Flynn, who has been pursuing the multi-billion pound subsidy to an American company in the event of a catastrophic accident at Sellafield during part of the massive £93 billion clean-up of the nuclear legacy there.

As the Independent on Sunday reveals the Government pushed through the handover of Sellafield to a private business at breakneck speed because it feared that the "unstable management arrangements" of the controversial Cumbrian nuclear complex risked its safety. In doing so they effectively by-passed Parliamentary scrutiny by preventing MPs challenging the deal.

The paper tells us that 'the cover-up arises from the awarding, late in November, of a contract to run the nuclear complex to Nuclear Management Partners, a consortium of US, French and British companies. Although the contract is worth some £22bn, the consortium told ministers that it would walk away from the deal unless it was fully indemnified against the costs of cleaning up an accident at what is one of the world's most hazardous nuclear sites.

Normally, as the documents repeatedly acknowledge, the Government would place a special minute before Parliament if it intended to undertake a liability of more than £250,000. MPs would then have 14 days to raise an objection, which would stop the undertaking going ahead until it had been dealt with. But MPs were not told about the Sellafield indemnity until 75 days after the last moment when they could object, even though it potentially exposes the taxpayer to liabilities running into billions.

The energy minister Mike O'Brien blames a "clerical oversight" for this. But the documents clearly show that the senior civil servants and nuclear administrators had been actively discussing how to limit MPs' chance to object at least since early last year.'

This whole incident highlights a number of issues with nuclear facilities such as Sellafield. Firstly, for those who argue that alternative energy sources such as wind power have an unfair advantage because of public subsidy, it is worth noting that nuclear power has far greater amounts of public money propping it up and that the hidden subsidy for this form of generation lies in the clean-up costs and the public indemnity of risk.

Secondly, it underlines the aura of secrecy and the lack of accountability that surrounds civilian nuclear projects. Ministers and civil servants find the level of subsidy involved to be uncomfortably high and seek to avoid effective scrutiny on it. The security issues involved too make proper oversight difficult though not impossible.

With Wylfa Nuclear Plant on Anglesey due to be shut down and decommissioned in 2010 and with Trawsfynydd in the process of being decommissioned then there will inevitably be questions about the cost to the public purse involved there as well as well as the level of accountability. How does this episode impact on proposals for a Wylfa B to be built on Anglesey?

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