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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Supporting the dictators

An e-mail wings its way to my in-box inviting me to a meeting tomorrow to discuss setting up an All Party Group on Latin America. The meeting is also to consider hosting a reception to mark the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, and the 10th anniversary of the election of Hugo Chavez as President of Venezuela.

Putting aside the fact that Wales does not yet have a seat in the United Nations next to Cuba I do have some very real problems with this concept. Cuba is hardly an example of an effective democracy, in fact it is a dictatorship with some very marked differences in income levels and wealth as well as a general lack of freedom for citizens.

As for Hugo Chavez, I do not think that we can celebrate a man who seeks election as President for life and whose country features on Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch webpages with reports condemning the government on their failure to support democratic institutions and human rights.

Is this the agenda that Plaid Cymru now concerns itself with? How easily their heads are turned.

Woods, trees and badgers

Elin Jones, the Minister for Rural Affairs, has issued a written Statement launching the Woodland Strategy. There is no word yet as to whether any small animals will be harmed in the process.

Paranoia runs rampant

For goodness sake! The BBC were reporting this morning that Labour MP, Sir Stuart Bell believes a mole is flogging off details of MPs expense claims for hundreds of thousands of pounds:

Sir Stuart told BBC's Newsnight programme: "All of the receipts of 650-odd MPs, redacted and un-redacted, are for sale at a price of £300,000, so I am told.

"The price is going up because of the interest in the subject."

It may be a theft, but we will get to the bottom of it. In the public interest

Asked who was trying to sell the information, Sir Stuart replied: "Well we have a pretty good idea of not the person, but the source, and that is a subject of a House of Commons investigation."

"It's probably breach of the Official Secrets Act," Sir Stuart said. "It may be a theft, but we will get to the bottom of it. In the public interest, by the way."

The public interest would best be served by complete transparency on the part of the House of Commons' authorities leading to the immediate publication of all expense claims and a monthly update of new claims. There could be no better way to undermine the market in such information, if it exists at all.

I just cannot believe that at a time when public confidence in politicians is so low that MPs are still digging a hole for themselves.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Double standards? Surely not!

This morning's Times newspaper reports that the English Local Government Minister, John Healey is going to demand that all the details of 'overgenerous remuneration packages' in local government for those in the top tier of their organisation are published. The rules will also cover temporary staff in senior positions:

Councils will have to state how many of their staff are being paid more than £50,000. Mr Healey said: “Councils are big organisations with a tough job – they need the best people in charge. But we’ve recently seen top salaries rising far faster than the rest of local government, with some councils swapping managers like Premier League football clubs. This salary spiral has to stop.”

Of course many of those earning in excess of £50,000 are headteachers but there are others and transparency is a good thing. Local Councils have to compete for staff with other organisations and as a result need to offer what appears to be a generous package to attract the person they want. We are talking about the management of a multi-million pound business after all. However, if the publication of these details helps to limit excess and get a better deal for taxpayers then I am not going to argue.

Surely, though the same rules must apply to Central Government. How about publishing details of all civil servants who earn more than £50,000 a year? That would certainly improve transparency in government. There does not appear to be any suggestion that this is going to happen.

In fact how about publishing MPs expenses on a monthly basis as is proposed for Welsh Assembly Members from this summer? At the moment any request for details hits a brick wall and we are having to rely on leaks for any information to make the public domain. One of the reasons why MPs are facing a steady trickle of embarrassing stories about their expenses is the excessive secrecy they apply to the whole subject, leading many to believe that they can get away with frivolous and unjustifiable claims.

Unless there is complete openness across the whole public sector then confidence in our system of government cannot be restored. Ministers should realise this and act accordingly. In the meantime singling one set of public workers out whilst they themselves remain immune from proper scrutiny just seems like double standards.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Welsh Political Blogs

It wasn't me guv, honest!

Welcome to Mississauga

This is great and it is not a hoax either. Thanks to Iain Dale for drawing it to my attention.

Troubles abroad

The Tories may be enjoying a substantial lead in the opinion polls but their divisions over Europe could well derail their attempt to capitalise on that when we come to elect MEPs in June. They also underline how far David Cameron still has to travel to put the chaos of the Major years behind him, albeit that this particular mess is of his own making.

Today's Observer reports that in an attempt to find an alternative to the centre right European People's Party the Tories have held talks about teaming up in the European parliament with a nationalist Latvian party, some of whose members attend ceremonies to commemorate the Waffen SS. This has dismayed pro-European Conservatives who believe such an approach will leave the party isolated on the world stage:

However, the search for new partners has run into difficulty after this weekend's edition of the Economist reported Hague's recent talks with the Latvians. The magazine notes that the party includes "hardline nationalists who attend ceremonies to commemorate a Latvian unit of Waffen SS troops".

It argues that, while the Latvians say that their Waffen SS heroes were patriots fighting against Soviet Russia, not Nazi war criminals, such explanations will be hard to sell to British voters. "Try explaining that distinction in a British election campaign," the Economist says.

Ian Taylor, the Tory MP for Esher and Walton and chairman of the Conservative Group for Europe, refused to discuss the Latvian connection but made clear his disquiet. "I am disappointed that the decision has been made to leave the EPP. We need strong alliances in Europe if we are to have influence and we need those alliances to be with people who reflect well on the Conservative party. This is particularly so as we will be under close inspection from a whole series of people watching everything we do."

A leading Tory MEP, who refused to be named, described the decision to quit the EPP as "crazy", saying that the Conservatives were dabbling on the "wild fringes" of European politics.

It is possible that Cameron's attempts to stuff the Tory MEP Group with wild-eyed Euro-sceptics and to seek alliances with some of the more off-beat European parties may cause huge problems within his party and his shadow Cabinet where Kenneth Clarke is understood to take a more moderate approach. It could also impact on the party's electoral support.

Getting a tan on-line

Who needs to pay to use a sunbed when you can get a tan in the comfort of your own home via your computer? Go here but beware there is a serious twist.

Tuition Fees revisited

A few weeks ago the Welsh Assembly Government announced that it would be phasing out the tuition fee grant for new students from academic year 2010-11 and instead introducing a series of means-tested benefits aimed at the poorest students so as to enable them to attend University.

Welsh Liberal Democrats have opposed this move for reasons Jenny Randerson outlined at the time:

The total amount set aside to assist students going to university is to be cut by approximately 40 per cent. As a result of this package, there will no longer be any financial incentive to study in Wales, which was a key reason for introducing the tuition fee grant. Its purpose was to assist Welsh institutions to build their capacity by encouraging students to study in Wales. Also, we all know that students who study in Wales are more likely to stay in Wales, and we need their skills.

The complexity of the package, Minister, is in itself a big problem, because there is a maze of entitlements in this announcement, many of which are means-tested. The Welsh Liberal Democrats remain firmly committed to the principle that a university education should be free as of right—in principle and in practice. We remain convinced that the tuition fee grant was the best solution in light of the existence of top-up fees in England.

In the circumstances I am astonished that the Deputy Minister for Regeneration did not join in to agree. In 1985, Leighton Andrews produced a pamphlet called 'Liberalism Versus the Social Market Economy' in which he wrote: 'there are fundamental reasons for arguing against a transfer to means-tested welfare benefits for political activists seeking to challenge the divisions between those in and out of the workforce. Means-testing generally involves stigma, low take-up and a sharp division between those seen to be ‘enjoying’ the benefits and those paying for them.'

Does he still stand by those words?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The tricky relationship between Cardiff Bay and Westminister

In this morning's Western Mail, Assembly Presiding Officer, Dafydd Elis Thomas once more highlights the very real problems that the Government of Wales Act 2006 poses to those interested in making devolution work. In this particular instance it is the delay in processing those private member LCOs that the Welsh Government allow through once they get to Westminister.

Of concern is the fate of Jonathan Morgan's Legislative Competence Order that seeks to give the Assembly the power to pass laws on Mental Health. This has been sitting at Westminster for some time with the result that Jonathan may not have time to actually propose a change in the law through an Assembly Measure before the 2011 Assembly elections. It is a ludicrous system designed to add between 18 months and two years onto the already drawn-out process of law-making with no real productive purpose.

Jonathan wants people with mental health needs to be assessed and treated earlier. He also anticipates that the Assembly would pass a Measure guaranteeing patients independent advocates who will defend their rights. However, his LCO has been left in somebody's drawer in Westminster since last June with the result that no progress can be made on these reforms.

What this illustrates is how unfit for purpose the Government of Wales Act is. We desperately need to dismantle the LCO apparatus so as to remove Westminster from the equation and enable the Assembly to utilise all the powers it has been granted already in the 2006 Act. That is what we will be asked to vote on in a referendum and it is one reason why Conservatives such as Jonathan Morgan are supporting a 'yes' vote.

One of the obstacles to that 'yes' vote are the Conservative Party themselves and in particular their Westminster MPs. They have refused to commit to supporting a 'yes' vote so far but still like to portray themselves as devolution-friendly. Thus we get the faintly ludicrous promise from the Conservative Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Cheryl Gillan this morning, that she will work far more closely with the Assembly than the current incumbent.

Does this mean that she will scrap the expensive, wasteful and obstructive LCO system so that the Assembly can get on with making its own laws? No, it does not. Does it mean that she will expedite the passage of LCOs through Parliament so as to remove the delays and red tape from the system? Er...no.

What it means is that she will come to Cardiff Bay from her English constituency and Westminster office three times a year instead of just once, and she will answer questions. It is the rebirth of the old imperial Welsh Office that the Conservatives offered between 1979 and 1997.

We are promised a committee of MPs to oversee the Assembly's administration of services on the border of England and Wales and that is it. That is a job that can already be done by scrutiny committees on both sides of the border. It is joint-working between Ministers that is the problem not MPs and AMs. Effectively, Cheryl Gillan is proposing a clawback of powers from the Assembly to Parliament, presumably as a precursor to emasculating it completely.

This is the same-old, arrogant Conservatism of John Redwood, a party that treats Wales as a second-rate nation to be ruled from England. It is why we set up the Assembly in the first place, to provide a bulwark to that sort of imperialism and to bring accountability and transparency to Welsh Government. If we do not get a referendum and a 'yes' vote by 2011 as promised then Welsh devolution will be sliding downhill for another generation.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Grasping the new reality

I have been waiting for some time for Nick Clegg to announce that Liberal Democrat plans to offer net tax cuts at the General Election are no longer realistic in the present economic climate.

According to the Financial Times Nick has now said that the drastic deterioration in the public finances since the policy was adopted means that overall tax cuts in the short term are "implausible". Effectively the state of the UK's finances leave any government little room for manoeurvre:

He told the Financial Times that the Lib Dems had to be honest about the need to cut the size of the state and should lead the debate over where cuts could come in the next parliament.

Mr Clegg said the government might have to axe the "wholly artificial target" of getting 50 per cent of children to university, arguing that other vocational courses might be better suited to the needs of some students.

He also called for a review of the pension entitlements of "upper earners in the public sector", although he shied away from a promise to scrap final salary pension schemes across the board.

Mr Clegg said there would also be a review of Britain's Trident nuclear deterrent, although he stressed the party favoured trading it in as part of a multilateral deal on nuclear disarmament.

He confirmed though that the party's long-term aim is still to cut taxes and to reduce the size of the state, although he said there was a case in the short term for some expansion of the state to pull the country out of recession. He is also still calling for a redistribution of the tax burden to help low- and middle-income earners, principally by cutting tax breaks and closing loopholes for high earners. All of that is welcome.

The things that they say

Labour's new website has attracted a lot of comment on the media and the blogosphere but the most memorable remarks have to be those of its supporters.

The site itself carries two endorsements from Wales' most senior politicians. Despite refusing to answer questions on the website on Radio Wales this morning, First Minister, Rhodri Morgan tells its readers that: "This brand new political website is definitely one to watch!" Clearly, he does not spend much time on the internet.

Meanwhile, Paul Murphy, who as well as being Secretary of State for Wales is also apparently the Minister for Digital Inclusion says: "I welcome this important new initiative. We must not surrender the internet to our opponents." One would have thought that being Minister for Digital Inclusion would enable him to distinguish between a beachhead and a shipwreck.

My favourite was Peter Hain, who went on Dragon's Eye last night to argue that this is a principled left wing website. Er..no, it is an attack blog and a pretty poor one at that. He went onto argue that Plaid and the Tories will be afraid of this site and that it is Labour's Obama moment , however as Freedom Central points out it is more like a "Howard Dean moment".

Betsan Powys quotes Labour Assembly Member, Alun Davies who believes that this site is "an opportunity to create a positive and constructive debate about the future of Wales". We await the constructive and positive stuff.

At the moment aneuringlyndwr.com is the internet equivalent of watching your dad dance at a disco.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Knowledge gap

She may be angling to become our next Prime Minister but that does not mean that Harriet Harman understands the Barnett formula, or does she?

She told the House of Commons yesterday that the Chancellor of the Exchequer's plans for £5 billion of efficiency savings across Whitehall will not lead to the devolved administrations losing out.

This could mean one of two things. Either the cuts are all planned for non-devolved functions such as defence and the Home Office or else the Deputy Prime Minister does not understand the basis on which Wales and Scotland are funded?

Answers on a postcard please.

Plaid Cymru get tough

If anybody still harbours the misconception that Plaid Cymru is a liberal party or even a democratic one for that matter then this should quickly disabuse them of such a notion.

According to the Western Mail, the student who e-mailed Ieuan Wyn Jones to complain about his party's unprincipled abandonment of a key election pledge has been booted out of Plaid Cymru. So much for their claims that the abolition of tuition fees is still party policy.

Ms. Caiach-Taylor sums up what every student and young person in Plaid Cymru must be thinking: "If disagreeing with the leader is grounds for expulsion, then the party should be a lot smaller...... I have no intention of apologising for having an opinion that doesn't mesh with Ieuan's, or participating in a witchhunt for anyone within the party who cares about students more than they care about Ieuan."

Does Plaid Cymru have anything to offer young people anymore? It seems not.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Big Brother on Facebook

When it comes to the capacity of the Labour Government to undermine our basic rights by extending its reach to our private lives, nothing will surprise me anymore. Thus the suggestion today that those using social networking sites such as Facebook could soon have their every move monitored by the Government and saved on a "Big Brother" database is entirely predictable.

That does not make it right of course. As Liberal Democrat MP, Tom Brake says: "Plans to monitor our phone and email records threaten to be the most expensive snooper's charter in history. It is deeply worrying that they now intend to monitor social networking sites which contain very sensitive data like sexual orientation, religious beliefs and political views. Given the Government's disastrous record with large IT projects and data security, it is likely that data will leak out of every memory stick, port and disk drive when they start monitoring Facebook, Bebo and MySpace."

This is a deeply intrusive proposal and must be resisted.


Why a badger cull is just wrong

Yesterday's statement by the Rural Affair's Minister that she is to instigate a cull of badgers in North Pembrokeshire so as to reduce the incidence of bovine TB has led to predictable and entirely justified opposition from wildlife groups.

I have written in more detail on this issue here and continue to hold these views. What the Minister did not explain yesterday was how she came to a different conclusion to the English Rural Affairs Minister on the same evidence. It leads one to the conclusion that it was not the arguments for a cull that prevailed in this case but the symbolism of Wales doing something different and the politics of a Plaid Cymru Minister pandering to the rural lobby.

In England the plan is that badgers will be vaccinated against bovine TB in six pilot areas next year. Why could that approach not be followed here? If the intention is to catch the badgers before exterminating them, why cannot they be tested and a vaccination given to non-carriers? The Minister is acting in a barbaric and unjustified way towards wild animals and in a way that will have an impact on our environment and biodiversity.

There was no vote yesterday, but if there is a vote on the legislation needed to implement this then I will vote against it.

Google Earth

As the fuss continues about the images captured on Google Earth cameras I was shocked to discover that my street is not featured at all. I am considering starting a Facebook group.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Waiting for Ieuan

There is a fair amount of discussion on the blogosphere today about research carried out by the All-Wales Convention which indicates that 48% of those asked want the Assembly to be able to access the full range of powers available to it under the Government of Wales Act 2006 without having to suffer the wasteful, time-consuming and expensive legislative competence order procedure it is currently subject to.

Most bloggers ask the perfectly reasonable question, why such a big lead for a 'yes' vote is considered by the media to be insufficient to win a referendum? Maybe the question they should be asking is why we have to suffer this £1 million talking shop when we could be getting on with a proper campaign to persuade people of the merits of giving that extra a authority to the Assembly?

Plaid Cymru have already abandoned many principles and policies since they went into government, the chances of them delivering on a referendum before 2011 is looking more and more remote as every day and opinion poll survey passes.

No more inflation?

News is that inflation has now reached zero per cent, which means of course that it is no longer inflation. It is the lowest rate for the Retail Price Index since 1960 and could soon become deflation.

None of this is good. Some inflation is necessary to stimulate growth. The only indicator that appears to be growing to any considerable degree is unemployment.

Clearly, the sharp drop in mortgage payments has had an impact on the RPI as Consumer Prices Index and the underlying rate of the Retail Price Index are slightly up.

We are on the edge of a precipice. We wait to see whether government action will be able to pull us back.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Healthy centralisation?

This morning's Western Mail highlights the danger of dictating local policies from the centre. Further it also shows that when one starts to set standards that everybody must follow the exceptions can be fairly bizarre and not a little embarrassing.

In this case it is the Assembly Government’s flagship scheme to remove unhealthy snacks from hospital vending machines that has come under the spotlight. It seems that under the rules a white bread sandwich filled with reformed ham would be acceptable but a wholemeal cheese and tomato sandwich, regarded by most as the healthier option, falls foul of guidelines used to determine what snacks can be sold in hospitals.

A Welsh Government spokesperson has said that the cheese and tomato sandwiches would comply with the guidelines if manufacturers used a low-fat cheese and added more salad but honestly, do we need that much detail? Is there an army of inspectors scrutinising every sandwich to ensure that it meets regulations? It is bureaucracy gone mad.

The British Sandwich Association (there really is such a body?) are scathing: “We all support the intention of encouraging healthy eating but these guidelines are absolute nonsense. Not only do they not make any sense, but the understanding of vending appears to be completely misunderstood.” The organisation, which is based in Chepstow and represents the UK sandwich industry, has called for the guidelines to be withdrawn and re-evaluated.

The guidelines it transpires are based on those issued by the Food Standards Agency, proof that even Health Minister, Edwina Hart is not adverse to looking across the border for assistance. It is expected to cost the Welsh Health Service £300,000 a year. It is difficult not to agree with the British Sandwich Association spokesperson when he says:

“Most vending machines in hospitals are there to serve the staff and people visiting patients – they are rarely used by the patients themselves.

“Furthermore, many of the staff using the facilities are doing tough jobs late at night when their only option is vended food. Their nutritional needs are very different to those of patients.

“The guidelines being imposed by the Assembly Government not only make little sense nutritionally but also deny consumers any freedom of choice in the foods they eat.

“There’s an assumption that one-size-fits-all when it comes to diet yet we know that this is completely wrong.

“People doing demanding jobs have very different needs from those in sedentary occupations. These rules completely ignore these factors.”

Government should offer good advice but it is not their place to nanny us and tell us what we can and cannot eat.

Absentee politicians?

Even though he is fourth on the list of Labour European Candidates and has no chance of being elected, Leighton Veale has a whole page of the Western Mail devoted to him this morning. His crime is allegedly that he has been drawing allowances to serve as a councillor in the London Borough of Merton while working for a charity in Cardiff and living in Neath.

We are told that Mr. Veale does not sit on any committees but attends full Council and took part in the budget process this year. He uses e-mail and the telephone to deal with his constituents, which he considers to be acceptable. His Labour group leader has other views however.

Stephen Alambritis has publicly criticised Mr Veale and another Merton councillor who also lives outside London. He says they are leaving a “democratic deficit” in their ward:

Mr Alambritis said: “These councillors haven’t decided to get elected and then abscond elsewhere. There are good reasons for them to leave. But I can’t, as leader of their group, freeze their allowance or force them to live in their ward. The residents can take a view on this but I do have sympathy. I don’t want to be hypercritical of my councillors, but they are aware of my views, even though I can’t take any action."

It all has a familiar ring to it, though the Merton residents concerned will at least have the opportunity to give their verdict on the arrangement in just over a year's time. In the meantime Mr. Veale might be best advised not to be overly critical of his local community councillors, who do not have the benefit of his £8,000 allowance and who at least live within the qualifying area to serve on that Council.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Government breaks law

The Sunday Times reports on research by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust to be published tomorrow that has concluded that at least 10 of the giant government databases built or planned by ministers unlawfully breach privacy.

The Trust believes that the computer registers, including the DNA database, the national identity register, the Contactpoint child protection database and the health service patients’ register, all breach human rights and data protection laws:

The report, whose joint author, an academic expert on privacy at Cambridge University who is one of the most respected in Britain, warns that ministers are planning to spend a further £100 billion on information technology databases over the next five years while only 30% of big information technology projects succeed.

Claims by the government that the databases make the provision of public services such as health easier are dismissed as “illusory”.

In fact, the giant repositories of personal data can expose people to greater risk, particularly the most vulnerable, the research says.

More than half the nearly 50 state databases have “significant problems” in protecting privacy, it adds. Only one in seven of the databases assessed by the study was “effective, proportionate or necessary”.

The report says Britain is alone among developed countries in the pace at which it is expanding national database systems. The Government's reliance on big computer projects and databases is both dangerous and expensive. It is a major threat to civil liberties and to our privacy especially if they are unable to keep to their own rules and laws.


E-mailing Gordon

The Pendennis column in today's Observer reveals that Downing Street has closed down the facility which enables members of the public to e-mail Gordon Brown. Instead you can write a letter or send a fax!

Things have moved on a lot since Tony Blair took his first tentative steps into the twentieth century by learning how to switch on a computer. Not!

Twitter you not

I finally succumbed last night and signed up to Twitter. It is not something I planned to do nor am I really convinced as to its value but I had my laptop with me and was browsing the web rather than watch 'Notting Hill' for about the fifth time.

In fact, I blame Bethan Jenkins. I was sitting next to her at the e-government conference on Friday and noted that she was twittering away. So I was on the Twitter site in the first place out of curiosity to see what she had been saying.

When I started blogging I did so because I could see its value as a means of getting across a point of view, interacting with people and also a means of promoting a campaign and keeping a record of key issues for non-internet campaigning. That is why there is a thread running through my blog on data protection for example and also on civil liberties issues. I cannot see the same value in twitter but I will give it a go and see what happens.

Matt Withers has some of the same issues in this morning's Wales on Sunday. He records some of the more mundane comments from politicians on Twitter recently:

It's good to see so many of our elected representatives getting involved on Twitter, which is, depending on how you look at it, either the latest Internet phenomenon or an AOL chatroom from 1995.

Thanks to this constantly-updated bible of people’s statuses, we know that in the last week Neath Port Talbot council leader Derek Vaughan “just had excellent meeting with my cabinet”.

Fellow Labour European candidate Lisa Stephens, thrillingly, was “on the train to London”, while Caerphilly AM Jeff Cuthbert was “off to the Labour group meeting” and leadership wannabe Huw Lewis was “getting ready for a day of meetings in the Assembly”.

Deputy regeneration minister Leighton Andrews, on the other hand, was – wait for it – “working in the Bay”.

It’s the future and we like it!

It is inevitable really that twitterers will lapse into that sort of record of their life simply because that is the nature of the beast. Still, if you cannot beat them....

Saturday, March 21, 2009

More Plaid Cymru on Top-up Fees - on the record

This morning's Western Mail contains more details of the unease that exists within the ranks of Plaid Cymru about the decision of their Assembly Members to abandon the party's opposition to top-up fees and sell-out students. They reveal the existence of an internal discussion paper that sets out the consequences for the party of abandoning their policies and their principles:

The Plaid discussion group paper states: “Plaid candidates and activists are lobbying AMs to vote against the Labour motion.

“Falling in behind director of elections Adam Price, they are fearful that target seats will be lost.

“Prime fear is that Ceredigion, with the large student vote in Aberystwyth, will be retained by the Liberals as the issue of top-up fees is already being used by Liberal activists against Plaid. If minister Elin Jones, the local AM, votes for the motion, activists believe they will lose the seat.

“In Ynys Môn, the attempt to regain that seat will be hampered by the fact that Ieuan Wyn Jones, the local AM, will be seen as anti-student and willing to sacrifice his principles for power. Local Conservatives will make full use of the embarrassment and with the strong swing towards them are now hopeful of taking the seat from Labour.

“In Neath, Plaid is hopeful of unseating former minister Peter Hain. Activists want the moral high ground, not having to apologise for AMs willing to flout party policy to keep power in Cardiff.

“In Llanelli, Plaid’s candidate Myfanwy Davies hopes to be Plaid’s first woman MP. However, the strong stance of her patron, mentor and close friend Helen Mary Jones in favour of scrapping the top-up fees grant could scupper her chances.

“This issue has been an elephant trap for Plaid. Ieuan Wyn Jones has made it a ‘confidence’ issue but members are beginning to fear the true cost of keeping Ieuan as Deputy First Minister could be disaster at the European and General elections with electoral stagnation rather than the gains which seemed likely only a few weeks ago.

“Ieuan Wyn Jones wants to portray this disagreement as a ‘leadership challenge’ from Adam Price. Most members realise Mr Price is just doing his job to try to get Plaid candidates elected!

“Plaid’s April spring conference in Cardiff is held on a university campus and has the theme of ‘young people’. All-comers under 30, members or not, will have free entrance to the main conference sessions on Saturday and opportunities to meet leading Plaid figures. Main speakers are Adam Price and Ieuan Wyn Jones.”

Assessments such as these are always debatable and in any case there is some question as to the document's authenticity but far more damaging for Plaid Cymru is the publication of a letter from a sixth form member, Arainwen Caiach-Taylor to the Party leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones:

Her letter to Mr Jones states: “I’ve been a teenage member of this party for years now, and things have changed considerably. I never thought I’d live to see so much power in the Assembly, and I never thought we could get so many seats and so much trust from the people.

“Not all good news though. In the last two years party power has become more important then helping the people of Wales, a disturbing turn which keeps getting worse just when you begin to think that it can’t possibly. But I stuck it out the same, getting by writing and editing any letters or leaflets sent to my desk by way of contributing. I have always believed that this was just a phase, that we are the most moral and most trustworthy party out there and my confidence has been unshakeable.

“But having read your e-mail on your so-called reasons for supporting the ‘student milking’ regulation, I can’t decide whether to laugh, or cry, or beat myself to death with my laptop. I would like to say that there are no words for what an awful plan this abomination does to Wales’ future.

“The rich will make it, but if they’re going to pay anyway they’re not going to send their kids to Wales. The middle class will have a lot more trouble, they won’t qualify and the recession will bite hard. The lower class will have no hope at all even with handouts because unfortunately we’re in a recession.

“You’ve sold out our students for the sake of squeezing them for cash.”

Friday, March 20, 2009

E-democracy 2.0

Busy day today so not much time for blogging. I am just about to head off to the Vale of Glamorgan Hotel to introduce and take part in the second Welsh e-democracy conference put on by Ofcom and the Assembly Commission to spread best practice and to learn from others.

There is no truth of course in the story that the venue was chosen in the hope that those organising the conference might bump into the Welsh rugby team so as to wish them all the best for tomorrow, though it goes without saying that we are all rooting for the 14 point margin needed to establish Wales as the Six Nations Champions and Triple Crown winners for the second year running.

The Conference includes a session on Citizens’ Digital Participation, which will be an overview of Ofcom’s latest research, published today, with particular reference to findings from Wales. There will also be a key note address from Jesse Salazar on The Use of New Media in the US Presidential election campaign, a panel discussion and a showcase of examples from community groups around Wales.

I will be highlighting the many initiatives being taken by the Welsh Assembly on this agenda. The National Assembly has a very real interest in developing the relationship between the people of Wales and their use of new technologies, so as to ensure that we use every channel at our disposal to help people engage in the democratic process and to allow people to use different routes into the Assembly to hold elected representatives like myself to account. This includes e-petitions, Senedd TV and the on-line forums. There is more to come.

Alas, I cannot stay for much of the afternoon as I have to head to Bridgend to do surgeries before setting off for Cardiff Bay to watch Mary Poppins at the Wales Millennium Centre. It is a hectic life.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Plaid Cymru and Labour sell out on top-up fees - on the record

From yesterday's statement in which the Labour Plaid Cymru Government effectively introduced top-up fees for Welsh students in Welsh universities:

Jenny Randerson: Thank you very much, Minister, for your statement and, indeed, for letting me have early sight of some of your plans this morning. I will start by taking us back to 2002, when the Minister who then had responsibility for education stated to the Assembly that one reason why she was opposing tuition fees was because the Rees report had concluded unequivocally that upfront tuition fees did not just deter those who would have to pay them, but those who would not have to pay them. Therefore, I greatly regret the Government’s somersault on this.

This is clearly a complex package, but its complexity does not disguise the fact that the total amount set aside to assist students going to university is to be cut by approximately 40 per cent. As a result of this package, there will no longer be any financial incentive to study in Wales, which was a key reason for introducing the tuition fee grant. Its purpose was to assist Welsh institutions to build their capacity by encouraging students to study in Wales. Also, we all know that students who study in Wales are more likely to stay in Wales, and we need their skills.

Bethan Jenkins: I restate my opposition to the introduction of top-up fees in Wales. I am deeply disappointed that the Government of Wales, under your watch, has turned its back on one of the most distinctive policies since its inception.

I welcome the partial debt write-off to a degree, but I wonder how effective it can be when we are intent on forcing students to incur more and more debt as a result of the abolishment of the current fee grant structure. Minister, can you assure the National Assembly that the Welsh Assembly Government is opposed to lifting the cap on fees and is vehemently opposed to the abolition of the cap on tuition fees, which was an idea floated recently by Universities UK? There is a danger that such moves in England will add pressure on institutions in Wales to follow suit on the agenda of the marketisation of higher education.

Could you enlighten us on the representations that the Assembly Government will make to the review being held by the Westminster Government on student finance and the financing of HE? Is it not the case that, if the UK Minister implements the recommendations of this review, whenever England increases fees, Wales will have to follow suit? You said earlier that this agenda was compatible with 'One Wales’ priorities, but how does perpetuating the market in higher education reflect that?

I also want to express my discomfort at the way in which this consultation was carried out from its inception. Many students, including those outside the National Union of Students leadership, have had legitimate concerns about the decision to scrap the fee grant. The decisions were made before the consultation began, which is damaging for the development of democracy in Wales.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Order. Please ask a question.

Bethan Jenkins: I reiterate that most people in this room have had free education, and it is hypocritical to say that things should now be different.

Leanne Wood: Minister, your statement today is a great disappointment to those of us who believe in free education as a right for all. The universal tuition fee grant was a hard-won gain for Wales—a real devolution dividend. I fully understand that there is a significant and growing funding gap in the university sector and that that gap needs to be filled. However, what I fail to understand is why students have to pay to plug that gap. Students are among those on the lowest incomes in our society and, on the other hand, our universities have vast assets in the form of land, buildings and, in some cases, even artwork. Can you assure us that all efforts have been made to assess the value of universities’ assets to establish whether there are any other ways to plug this funding gap? I am concerned about the precedent that this sets. What happens when the university sector puts more pressure on the Assembly Government later on because the cap has been lifted in England and the gap between the English and Welsh university sectors has grown? Will we be taking more money from student support then to fund that gap?

I am sure that you agree that 'One Wales’ and, you could argue, Welsh devolution, were built on the spirit of progressive universalism. Universalism is preferable as a principle to means-testing. Why is this so? As Mark Drakeford said in 2007, 'services which are reserved for poor people very quickly become poor services’.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Order. Could we have your questions, please, Leanne?

Leanne Wood: I am coming to the questions now, Deputy Presiding Officer.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Order. Can you come to them now, please?

Leanne Wood: We are all aware that high numbers of people who are entitled to means-tested benefits do not claim them, and we all know about those people who fall just above a threshold—people who are in work but not well off, who miss out on all kinds of benefits. I am sure that we are all aware of the kinds of resentment that exist—

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Order. Could we have a question, please, Leanne?

Leanne Wood: The tuition fee grant is a universal benefit. I was fortunate enough to have received free education, as were most Assembly Members.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Order. Could you please come to the question?

Leanne Wood: If there had been a threat of a debt at the end of that education—

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Order. I have switched off your microphone. Are you going to ask the question?

Leanne Wood: My fear is that this change will reduce the numbers of people from working-class backgrounds going into higher education. I hope that I am wrong on this, Minister, but if it transpires that the numbers of young people from working-class families applying to higher education—[Interruption.]—bring back universal student support if the evidence shows that that is needed?

I am indebted to Valleys Mam for this quote:

"The democratic nature of a party where it’s essential that leaders follow the policy decided upon by the ordinary members. And democracy in general. “Vote Plaid, Labour lied” was the chant on the lips of nationalists whilst referring to the mess made in Iraq and Labour’s u-turn on tuition fees. Plaid Cymru’s constitution - in letter and in spirit - does not allow us to make the same mistake." (Adam Price, 27 November 2008)

She poses the question: If in 2004 Plaid in the Assembly, but outside the Welsh Assembly Government, can work with the then other opposition parties to foil the introduction of top-up fees in Wales by Labour, how come when it's inside the Welsh Assembly Government in 2009 Plaid has less influence?

It is a good one. Plaid Cymru has a lot to answer for.

New words

Sometimes, even in the Assembly Plenary one can learn something new. So it was yesterday when my party colleague Eleanor Burnham introduced an acronym I had not heard before:

Eleanor Burnham: We recently received a statement from your Deputy Minister on the high number of young people not in education, employment or training in Wales—referred to as NEETs. I was concerned to learn this week that a new type of disengagement has been identified, described as RHINO—really here in name only. In the present economic climate, with young people facing diminishing job opportunities and the prospect of thousands of pounds’ worth of debt due to university top-up fees, what are you and your Welsh Government doing to ensure that they do not lose interest in education and/or training?

Judging by the statement on tuition fees (of which more later) there appear to be quite a few RHINOs in the Assembly nowadays. Eleanor however is the genuine article as was demonstrated by her small mix-up over words in a subsequent debate:

I am only a local cyclist, I do not wear latex, and I do not always look as if— [Laughter.] Cycling is good for us, and it is important that we support it, but how can you support it? Half the time it is difficult, because, as Mick Bates said earlier, cycle paths come and go: you can get on to a cycle path but, 100 yards later, it comes to an end. Let us be honest, cycle paths have not been taken seriously, but it is about time that they were.

And also:

Why does the Government not take on board some of the B roads and reduce the speed that is allowed on them so that you could get on your bike, wearing latex, a helmet or whatever—

They were serious points and well worth making even if it is normally lycra that one wears whilst cycling not latex. I would guess that latex garments could cause one to get very hot really quickly.

Government withdraws Housing LCO

News is reaching us that the Government has withdrawn the Housing Legislative Competence Order from consideration in the House of Commons. The Order hit trouble last week when a joint Parliamentary Committee ruled that the Secretary of State's veto on the abolition of the right to buy was possibly illegal. The Assembly's Presiding Officer added to the Government's troubles by suggesting that he might vote against the LCO in the Lords for this reason.

A further announcement is expected from the Government on this issue today but it seems that they have four options:

1. Tough it out, let the House of Lords have their say and then reconsider what to do;
2. Amend the order by taking the veto clause out of it and letting it proceed as originally envisaged;
3. Withdraw the Order altogether; or
4. Ask the Courts to rule on the legality of the LCO before taking it back to Parliament.

Personally, I welcome the fact that the Government is having second thoughts. The veto clause they have inserted into this LCO is potentially illegal, sets a dangerous precedent and shows that they are prepared to play fast and loose with the constitution.

If the LCO is debated in the House of Lords first, then peers will have the opportunity to discuss the verdict of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, however I would much prefer the veto to be removed so that the legislation can proceed as originally intended by the Welsh Government.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats do not want to lose the opportunity to transfer powers on the right to buy to the Assembly but we will not back. The Government of Wales Act is already difficult enough without unnecessary complications. We will not allow the constitution to be undermined by these shenanigans. The implications for other more controversial LCOs such as the one on the Welsh Language are too serious to let this pass in its current form.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sharing the pain

Frankly, I think that it is a bit of a cheek for a Vodaphone representative to argue to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee that Wales is losing out on mobile phone coverage because of nimbyism. Their solution to a better service appears to be more masts.

Yet they have proved it is possible to share networks for 999 calls in Wales, thus alleviating the need for more of these intrusive structures. Why cannot they do the same for non-emergency calls?

If I go abroad then my mobile finds the nearest network. Surely that arrangement can be put in place here too.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Why are you a Liberal Democrat?

Keeping to the rules

It is a common problem faced by all parties that political campaigning costs money and we all take every opportunity to maximise our income for that purpose. It is only natural therefore that when one party launches a particular campaign on an issue with limited but nevertheless enthusiastic support then they will use it to raise cash as well.

All of that is of course legitimate but the minimum expectation in this process is one of transparency. Indeed the relevant Act of Parliament demands such transparency. It is of some concern that this does not appear to have been achieved on the new Plaid Cymru site on Independence.

Today's Western Mail suggests that the Wales Can website may not be fully compliant with electoral law. Donations are requested for Wales Can not Plaid Cymru and it is not clear that the money will go to the party, though a spokesperson suggests that it will.

In addition on the donations page there is a drop-down menu which invites the donor to indicate which of 200 countries they may be from even though there are clear guidelines on accepting donations from abroad. It is not forbidden but it is regulated and there are maximum limits on how much can be given by a non-British resident.

All of this can be overcome of course with some tweaks to the site explaining the rules to potential donors and making it clear that the money will go to Plaid Cymru and not some putative independence campaign. Given the problems Plaid Cymru have had on their own site recently in not putting data protection warnings onto on-line petitions, it is an area that they need to clear up.

In the meantime we will all be looking at Electoral Commission reports to see if this site on Independence attracts any substantial donations for Plaid Cymru.

The limits of free speech

The long-running debate as to what extent religious leaders should comment on secular and political matters has spilled over into this morning's Western Mail.

Last weekend the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey urged Gordon Brown to apologise for weakening the UK economy. He told the paper yesterday that religious leaders have a "vital role to play in holding politicians to account" and that there is a "critical as well as creative relationship" between faith and politics.

However, Labour Assembly Member Lorraine Barrett has a different view. She told the Western Mail that "I think a church leader calling on the Prime Minister to apologise is totally out of order and overstepping his jurisdiction. He's clearly not speaking for me." Well no, clearly not.

I agree with Lorraine that Bishops should not sit in the House of Lords, but then I do not think any non-elected people should sit there. It should be 100% elected. However, I disagree that clerics should keep schtum on secular matters. They are voters too for goodness sake and have a right to express a view in the same way as anybody else.

The argument is of course about their spiritual leadership role and whether it should spill over into other matters but you cannot separate issues of morality from public policy. The two are intertwined. My problem is when religious leaders try to suppress the views of others or limit our rights, but providing that they exercise their own right to free speech in the context of open debate then who could object?

Monday, March 16, 2009


Oh, the irony! The Telegraph reports that if he is to claim his £31,000-a-year pension as a former European Commissioner, then Peter Mandelson must maintain a "duty of loyalty to the Communities". In other words the paper believes that the Business Secretary could be unable to stand up for British interests in disputes with Brussels.

The Taxpayer's Alliance, who unearthed this clause go further. They argue that Peter Mandelson is effectively being paid to support the Euro and the Lisbon Treaty. As usual with pronouncements from this body this is a two dimensional conclusion.

No organisation could impose such a condition on a former employee. The reality appears to be that Lord Mandelson is under an obligation is to give "undertakings that don't bring the organisation paying the pension into disrepute".

What amused me the most about this piece however was the idea that Peter Mandelson needs to be forced to defend Europe because of his pension arrangements. It is not as if he is a Euro sceptic of some sort. In fact quite the opposite.

This whole article and much of what the Taxpayer's Alliance does is based upon the premise that at all levels of government politicians and civil servants are motivated by their own financial interests. It is a cynical and unworthy position that is not justified by reality in 90% of cases.

This constant obsession with what things cost as opposed to the value achieved is undermining what public confidence is left in politics. The Taxpayer's Alliance will not find it easy to switch off this tap if and when their friends in the Conservative Party ever get into power.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Value for money

The Sunday Times reports on a report by the House of Commons' health select committee, which has accused Ministers of spending vast sums of money on "ineffective and possibly damaging" interventions which they hope will force lifestyle changes on the public, without carrying out elementary research to see if the programmes make any difference.

The paper quotes Labour committee chairman Kevin Barron as saying that MPs were shocked by the Government's failure to collect any meaningful evidence about whether dozens of schemes to promote healthy habits made any difference before they were introduced across the nation:

The inquiry says projects were designed so badly that it was impossible for them to be properly evaluated, reporting the views of one expert that documents which passed for research often amounted to "little more than propaganda".

It concludes that ministers have "spent large sums of money on social experiments to reduce health inequalities – but we do not know whether these experiments have worked or whether the money has been well spent."

The Committee goes on to list these failed experiments at length:

Dozens of schemes were critiqued in the report. They include the £3bn Sure Start project launched in 1998 to provide one-stop childcare, educational, medical and social help for the poorest young families, and later expanded to all social groups, despite doubts about whether the initiative was effective.

Other projects include Healthy Schools, a multi-billion initiative to promote healthy eating and exercise to children, an 'expert patient' programme to teach people how to manage chronic illnesses, and most recently, £30 million pumped into creating "Healthy Towns" which promote exercise.

More than 10 years since many of the projects were introduced, there is little proof they are working, the report says.

The MPs warn: "More public money must not be wasted on ineffective and possibly damaging interventions" but say one of the latest Government initiatives, Healthy Towns, already appears to be repeating the same mistakes.

In November, ten areas were promised millions to develop cycling, walking, healthy eating and green spaces as part of an anti-obesity drive.

Their experiments will include a "loyalty card" which rewards people for going to keep-fit classes, weight-loss clubs or going for a run.

The scheme being tried in Manchester will give people points which could be redeemed for food, sports equipment or gym sessions.

Because the money was given to 10 areas which drew up the most impressive bids, rather than a random selection of towns, it will never be possible to determine whether the £30 million scheme works, or whether the areas were already more likely than others to succeed in efforts to combat obesity, the report warns.

Nevertheless, if the pilots appear to succeed, they are likely to form the basis of a national programme.

MPs also accuse the Government of "appalling" failures to take actions which it says would improve the health of most Britons.

The report attacks ministers for "continuing to procrastinate" about whether or not to introduce traffic light labelling to inform consumers about how healthy each product is, and criticises the NHS for paying GPs for simply identifying their patients as smokers, regardless of whether they do anything to persuade them to give up.

Despite a Government target set in 2002 to reduce health inequalities by 10 per cent by 2010 the gap has widened – by 4 per cent for men and 11 per cent for women.

I suspect that the Welsh Assembly has similar problems. What evaluation is being carried out for example to determine whether the money being spent on free swimming, free school breakfasts and free prescriptions is having the desired effect? Can we be certain that the hundreds of millions of pounds spent over the last few years on the Communities First programme has had the desired effect of lifting communities out of poverty?

Important as the Home Energy Efficiency Scheme is, it was determined as long ago as 2006 that only one in three of those being helped were actually fuel poor and yet nothing has been done to restructure the scheme.

Government Ministers in both administrations are keen to keep repeating that they are 'evidence-led'. Alas, the evidence points to a contrary conclusion.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The flow of money

All of this talk of quantitative easing is confusing at the best of times. It certainly did not feature when I took my A level Economics exam thirty years ago. However, the Independent has a new twist.

They say that much of the new money the Bank of England has "printed" to stimulate the UK economy is ending up abroad where it will be of no benefit to UK households and businesses:

The Bank is in the process of purchasing about £75bn of government securities, or gilts, over a three-month period, the first instalment of a massive £150bn programme. The Bank is effectively converting these government securities or gilts into cash and bank balances which, it is hoped, will be used to support lending and spending in the UK and boost the economy.

But City experts analysing the scheme for The Independent say large quantities of money will simply end up abroad because so many of the gilts are held by foreign investors. They fear that they will hoard the cash, which will be of no benefit to the British economy, or dump it in favour of safer currencies, which could cause a run on sterling. More than a third of gilts are owned by foreign entities, official statistics reveal, and there are doubts about how effective the policy will be if that sort of proportion of the new money is diverted abroad.

Colin Ellis, an economist at Daiwa Securities, said: "In principle, creating new money to pump into the economy is the right thing to do when interest rates are already near zero and further monetary stimulus is required. But the Bank of England may, possibly inadvertently, be buying up gilts from foreign investors – who, according to the latest data, held over £190bn, or 36 per cent, of UK Government debt. If the Bank is pumping its new money abroad, it is clearly not going to UK households and businesses, and will not help boost UK demand."

Even if relatively little of the cash leaks overseas there is a strong possibility that the banks, as with previous attempts to bolster them, may end up "hoarding" the cash to shore up their own beleaguered positions, with little extra lending to companies and first-time buyers.

Poor Gordon Brown cannot win either way.

Fighting to save the devolution process

Until a referendum is held to do away with the complicated system of Legislative Competence Orders by which the Welsh Assembly draws down powers so as to pass its own laws, we are caught up in a time-consuming and expensive process that continues to sap our energy without actually producing anything of use at the end.

That system is bad enough without adding any further complexities. That is why the Welsh Liberal Democrats have sought to stop the deeply flawed and precedent-setting Secretary of State's veto in the Affordable Housing LCO in the House of Lords.

As is reported in today's Western Mail, Lord Richard Livsey of Talgarth has tabled what is known in the parlance of the House of Lords as a 'fatal amendment' to force the LCO out of Committee and onto the floor of the House where it can be properly debated and voted upon. He has tabled this motion reluctantly and in response to the decision of a joint committee that warned that the veto provision in this order could be ultra vires.

As I wrote on Freedom Central on Wednesday: The Government of Wales Act does not make any provision for the transfer of power to be approved by a Government Minister as is envisaged by this LCO. The question then must surely be can an Order or Statutory Instrument amend the terms of an Act under which they are made? Surely the answer is no.

Somebody has to draw a line in the sand to signal to MPs that their unacceptable interference in the LCO process goes beyond what was envisaged when the Government of Wales Act was passed in 2006 and that it must stop. It seems that it falls to the Welsh Liberal Democrats to do that.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The strange world of politics

Politics is a funny old game. Just when you think everything is going well the unexpected comes along and bites you. What is worse is that often the offence you are accused of is spurious, taken out of context or just plain made up, leaving behind the feeling of why bother in the first place.

Sometimes a perfectly innocent event such as a fancy dress party to celebrate your birthday, months before you were even elected is blown up out of all proportion and used by your opponents to hit you over the head. It is as if the fact that you serve the public on a Council or as an AM or MP means that you can no longer have a normal life. You spend all your time looking over your shoulder in case something that nobody else would give a second thought to is taken out of context and used against you.

It is the personalisation of politics. Instead of discussing the issues and how we can improve people's lives, a certain category of politician and their various ambitious hangers-on are seeking to score points, to gain an advantage by attacking the person rather than his or her views or policy positions. They are aided in this by the media, who are always looking for a human interest story and by the open access granted by the internet, where many of these personal attacks now start.

It is no wonder that people are put off politics or that so many people do not want to go into public life. These tactics have turned the business into a circus.

Luke Ellis may well be feeling that way this morning. He works for the Assembly's Counsel General, Carwyn Jones and has a personal blog. A few days ago he wrote an interesting and thoughtful, though rather naive, piece on drugs policy. Included in that post was a suggestion that former drug dealer Howard Marks could be used as an example of what drug use could do to you:

An expert in the dope field, Howard Marks lives in the same Village as me and I sometimes see him up the video shop and generally around and about. I approached him once and told him how much I enjoyed how he had written his first book, Mr Nice. He was extremely polite and receptive, but does not seem dreadfully well and is not really a good advertisement for long term drug use.

It would be a very brave move by Government and Mr Marks as they are no fans of each other but maybe, just maybe they could be convinced to work together to put some sort of message out there informing people that they should learn to make better choices for themselves when it comes to drugs, including the legal ones which kill more people each year than all illegal drugs put together IE; Booze, Tobacco and fatty foods.

Astonishingly this idea reappeared in this morning's Western Mail as if Luke Ellis was trying to corrupt children rather than warn them off drug use. Leading the charge is Monmouthshire Conservative MP, David Davies. Now David Davies is a man who apparently does not believe in redemption - once a bogeyman, always a bogeyman - however even by his standards this intervention is bizarre:

Monmouth Conservative MP David Davies said: “Inviting Howard Marks to lead a campaign to discourage drug taking is like asking the Yorkshire Ripper to campaign against domestic violence."

What is most unsettling is that nobody knows if Howard Marks would undertake the sort of role that Luke Ellis envisages for him or even whether he was looking rough that particular morning because of a lifetime of drug abuse or just that he had a bad cold at that point in time.

So far so good. My sympathies are with Luke Ellis but only to a limited extent. After all Luke is not above this sort of character assasination himself as his blog demonstrates. He too has been guilty of taking words and actions out of context and turning them into personal attack stories.

Luke also appears to support the actions of the Labour Town Councillor in Porthcawl who managed to twist the 'all, 'allo themed party referred to above into a restaging of the holocaust for the benefit of the local and national press.

The lesson is clear, if you live by the sword then you suffer by it too.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Planning for the future

Those members of the Plaid Cymru Assembly Group who keep falling back on the excuse that times are hard and the Barnett formula is unfair as an excuse for underfunding local government and education amongst others may well benefit from reading this article.

The writer suggests that an essential element in efffective leadership is being able to identify the icebergs ahead and take appropriate avoidance action. It goes on:

'Wales is not bankrupt. The question for politicians is where to invest the scarce and finite funds. Is it to be headline-grabbing projects or the baseline funding required to maintain the standards of public service?'

In other words it is about priorities and the Welsh Government has got them wrong.

More misplaced data

This story in the South Wales Evening Post demonstrates that data does not have to be held electronically to be misplaced. In this case a large pile of files were discovered near the entrance of Morriston Hospital's dental outpatients department by members of Swansea Community Health Council (CHC).

What it does do however is to underline the need for robust procedures to manage the data, no matter what format it is held in.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Dealing with the English ignorance of Welsh matters

Thanks to Tom Harris for bring this to our attention from the corrections and clarifications column in today's Guardian:

A letter to the editor, which touched lightly on English ignorance of Welsh matters, was attributed in an early edition to Hwyl Fawry. It should have been attributed to Gill Caldwell. She signed off her letter with hwyl fawr, which translates roughly as “all the best” (March frogs, 6 March, page 35).

The Guardian has obviously succumbed too

The need for transparency on expenses

The Western Mail is absolutely right today in saying that the £14,000 a year supplement to Labour MP, Don Touhig's salary to chair a committee looking into future changes to MPs' expenses is not the main issue.

They say it is time for a consensual change to bring MPs' salaries and expenses into the twenty first century. They want to see more transparency and accountability as well a better sense of proportion in terms of what MPs can claim. That is something the Welsh Assembly is leading on and we can expect further changes to our expenses regime later this year.

The way that the House of Commons handles issues of transparency with regards expenses is absolutely appalling. Requests for information are obstructed and even when one establishes through the Information Commissioner's Office that one is entitled to information they use every possible avenue to refuse to provide it.

It took me two years to get details of spending on circulars and reports by my local MPs for the financial year 2005-06. When I received it I immediately wrote back asking for the same information for 2006-07 and 2007-08. That letter was sent on 7 May 2008.

I was told on 6 June 2008 that the House of Commons had taken the decision to publish this information as part of a wider scheme before the end of 2008 and that therefore my request was invalid. In fact they said that the information was exempt from disclosure on the basis of section 22 of the Freedom of Information Act and that this was in the public interest. Suspecting deliberate obfuscation I appealed and then complained again to the Information Commissioner.

It is now the third month of 2009 and the promised publication of information has still not occurred. That was predictable and justifies my decision to appeal. The Information Commissioner has told me that he is requesting a definite publication date from the House of Commons and that if this is not forthcoming then he will issue a decision notice on the matter. By then of course I will want the figures for 2008-09.

If the House of Commons continues to force people to wade through mud to get even the smallest piece of information from them then they will deserve all the brickbats that are thrown at them.

Labour in dire straits - a pedant writes

The Financial Times reports that Labour strategists believe the party could lose control of all of Britain’s county councils at the local elections this summer for the first time since 1977. They say that losses on this scale would be a bitter blow to Gordon Brown and would be comparable to the Tory slump in 1993 when it was left with only one county council – Buckinghamshire.

Although this could well prove to be correct and will represent a new nadir for Gordon Brown it is worth pointing out that there are no council elections in Scotland and Wales in June and that if you take these two countries into account, then whatever happens, Labour will continue to control at least a handful of County Councils after people vote this year.

The correct assertion is that Labour could lose control of all of England's county councils this summer. I doubt if that will be of any comfort for No. 10 Downing Street.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Those very clever cats

Jonathan Calder draws our attention to an article in the Liverpool Daily Post in which Liberal Democrat Councillor, Richard Kemp is calling on Liverpool City Council to use its financial muscle to set up new credit unions, region-wide building societies and other financial institutions.

Richard is quoted by the paper as saying: “Frankly, my cat could run a better bankers than the London-based banks. So I want to bring some fresh thinking."

This is the second time that such a talented cat has been drawn to my attention. Only a few weeks ago, in seeking to justify his non-attendance at some Council meetings, the Conservative Leader on Swansea Council struck a similar note:

He said: "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."

As a result René's cat, Derrick has developed an internet presence of his own. Could Richard Kemp's cat form a double act with Derrick to save the country from recession?

Monday, March 09, 2009

Speaking too soon

A few days ago I commented on revelations by the Guardian that Police are targeting thousands of political campaigners in surveillance operations and storing their details on a database. I concluded by asking how long now before this database is found on an unencrypted memory stick on a commuter train into London?

Clearly, I spoke too soon. BBC Scotland report today that an unencrypted memory stick containing information on hundreds of police investigations has gone missing in Edinburgh. The USB memory stick contains 750 entries on vehicles "of interest" to police, along with other intelligence.

That will teach me!

Peter Hain raises the stakes for Brown

In this morning's Western Mail the former Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain argues that his outspoken attack at the weekend on the Prime Minister's leadership of the Labour Party was not an attack on Gordon Brown at all.

Instead he is outlining his thoughts on how the Labour party can improve its popularity. There is no attempt to launch a personal comeback at all. Still, Gordon Brown must surely be thinking that it is safer to keep friends like Peter inside the tent rather than outside it.

Can he afford to allow Peter Hain to twiddle his thumbs for much longer?

Plaid Cymru capitulate

The decision of Plaid Cymru's National Executive to back their leader and their Assembly Group in introducing top-up fees in Wales signals an ignominous capitulation for that party. The Liberal Democrats are now the only party who continue to resist this additional taxation on educational achievement.

Rather bizarrely this u-turn appears to be based on a belief that being in Government requires compromises. Plaid even argue that it is normal in coalition for a party to hold one position whilst its ministers implement another. What utter nonsense.

Having been in government I am prepared to accept that compromises have to be made, that policies have to be implemented that some Ministers and their party are not comfortable with and that collective responsibility has to apply. That is certainly the case where it proves that a promise is impractical or when circumstances dictate that a change is necessary, but neither of those scenarios apply in this case.

The present arrangements in which the Welsh Government pays the top-up fees for indigenous students is already in the budget. There are no financial pressures that require the government to find the money to pay for it. The imperative for change was always going to be the lifting of the cap on fees by the UK Government and yet it now looks unlikely that this will happen and in any case the present Welsh proposals pre-empt any UK decision. In other words there is no good reason why what we have at present should change ahead of the 2011 elections.

Being in government is about getting things done, but it is also about sticking to your values and your principles, even in coalition. If the One Wales Agreement does not give Plaid Cymru the assurance it needs to resist top-up fees then they failed to negotiate it properly.

Their Ministers say that they fought for their position in the Cabinet and lost but the fact is that the real choice they faced was not one of collective responsibility, it was whether the principles and values they held were strong enough to break the coalition over. This was not about the realities of power it was about retaining the privileges of power.

Plaid Cymru have sold out Welsh students so that their leadership can continue to enjoy the comfort of ministerial limousines.


Sunday, March 08, 2009

Government u-turn on data sharing

Yesterday's Daily Telegraph reports that Justice Secretary, Jack Straw has abandoned plans in the Coroners and Justice Bill that would have led to patients' confidential medical records being passed to third parties.

Instead he will try to reach a consensus on introducing a scaled-back version at an unspecified stage in the future. However that does not mean that he is off the hook:

Simon Davies, director of the pressure group Privacy International, said last night: "This is an extraordinary U-turn but we cannot be led into a false sense of security.

"We congratulate the Government on its decision, but it was inevitable given how badly the clause have been drafted and how morally corrupt its outcome would have been.

"Nobody should be under the illusion that the Government has changed its colours with regard to its zeal for surveillance. This could be merely a blip, so we all have to remain vigilant for the next assault of privacy."

Phil Booth, Director of the No2ID campaign, said: "This is a huge victory for the massive public backlash there has been over this. This one spot of rot has been scooped out, but we need a wholesale clearance of the Government's approach to personal data."

It is a useful victory but it has been hard won and there are still many other proposals in the pipeline that threaten our basic liberties.


Saturday, March 07, 2009

Another database

The practise of monitoring and storing details of political activists is not a new one in this country. It was certainly happening when I attended anti-apartheid demonstrations in the 1980s and I am sure it was going on both before and after that point. Most activists assume that their details are held on some large government database somewhere and so would express no surprise at the revelations on the front page of today's Guardian.

The differences I suppose are firstly that disclosures through the Freedom of Information Act, court testimony, an interview with a senior Met officer and police surveillance footage obtained by the paper now make the existence of such a database undeniable and that secondly, the Police appear to have targeted journalists:

The Guardian has found:

•Activists "seen on a regular basis" as well as those deemed on the "periphery" of demonstrations are included on the police databases, regardless of whether they have been convicted or arrested.

•Names, political associations and photographs of protesters from across the political spectrum – from campaigners against the third runway at Heathrow to anti-war activists – are catalogued.

•Police forces are exchanging information about pro­testers stored on their intelligence systems, enabling officers from different forces to search which political events an individual has attended.

Lawyers said tonight they expect the Guardian's investigation to form the basis of a legal challenge against the use of police surveillance tactics.

How long now before this database is found on an unencrypted memory stick on a commuter train into London?


Being serious about child poverty

Speaking in Llanelli last night, Labour leadership candidate, Huw Lewis set out the platform on which he will be seeking to replace Rhodri Morgan when the First Minister steps down later this year.

There is nothing new in that but I was interested in one proposal in which Huw suggests setting up a National Children's Savings Fund that will supposedly enable every child in Wales to fulfil their potential. He suggests an initial investment of £50 million into this fund followed by yearly top-ups of £20m until there was enough to generate a sizeable income from interest payments to provide bursaries for children to 'do something creative'.

I am not sure that Huw has thought through all the implications of this fund not least whether it is a good use of public money. For example I would have thought that a substantial investment in early years education and additional support for schools in deprived areas might have a bigger impact.

What is significant however is that Huw has put a figure to the sort of investment that the Assembly Government needs to make to deal with child poverty. This is in direct contrast to the Social Justice Minister who, on Tuesday, introduced an Assembly a Children and Families Measure on this precise subject without a single penny of extra expenditure to back it up.

As Kirsty Williams said in her forensic demolition of the measure: "We have new powers in the Assembly and I wish that we would use them to deliver a real difference rather than dressing old things up in new clothes. In reality, that is what this propsoed Measure does."

Perhaps if Huw does become First Minister we will at least have the government putting its money where its mouth is on child poverty.

Shock, horror!

This morning's Western Mail expresses surprise that the Deputy First Minister and leader of Plaid Cymru has refused to condemn plans that could see the Assembly Government spending up to £42 million on refurbishing its own headquarters.

And why should he? He is after all part of the Government. Could the paper's Chief Reporter be confusing the Plaid leader with the Ieuan Wyn Jones who, before the May 2007 elections, would have been the first to feature in news reports arguing that the money should be spent on hospitals and schools instead?

Then again, reading carefully what is actually said, the 'embattled' Ieuan Wyn Jones does not endorse the expenditure either. Instead he argues that he will have to consider the business case if it ever crosses his desk.

So where is the story?

Friday, March 06, 2009

The interfering MPs and a weakened party leader

Some fascinating coverage in the media today about the agonies faced by Labour and Plaid Cymru in particular as they come to terms with the realities of coalition politics.

Peter Hain is in particularly devastating form in arguing that Plaid Cymru's internal squabbles are threatening the future of the One Wales Government. He points to the disagreements over policy within Plaid that he believes are endangering the survival of the coaliton:

He said: "Ieuan Wyn Jones should get his party's house in order if he wants to be taken seriously as a governing party.

"It is absurd that some politicians within the ranks of Plaid Cymru continue to undermine the policies of the One Wales project that they belong to."

Peter Hain cites the intervention of Adam Price MP in the decision of the Plaid Cymru Assembly Group to abandon its policy on top-up fees as well as opposition by other leading figures in Plaid to the new defence training academy at St. Athan that will create thousands of jobs. He argues that the instability that this squabbling is causing within the junior government party is threatening the credibility of Plaid as a party of government and as a coalition partner.

Meanwhile, Ieuan Wyn Jones himself went on television last night to claim that his position has been "enhanced" over the issue of student top-up fees, despite criticism from his party. He told BBC Wales' Dragon's Eye that he was not "forced" to surrender the policy by his Labour colleagues:

"We argued very hard indeed as you would expect for the package to be an enhanced package of student support," he said. "We wanted to ensure that student debt was properly addressed. As a result I think of what we said, that will happen."

This bravado has not convinced anybody: BBC Wales political editor Betsan Powys said she doubted that Mr Jones had emerged stronger from the fallout.

"I don't see how this week can possibly have enhanced his party's position nor its leader's position either," she said.

"What Adam Price has done here is to put the focus right back on this being a decision taken in Cardiff by a Welsh government and of course his own party and that isn't helpful to them in the long run."

On Swansea Children's Services

The decision of Deputy Minister for Social Services to set up an intervention board to oversee improvements in Swansea's Children Services was most probably the right decision given the way that this department has been kicked around like a political football on that authority in the last year.

The administration there is unhappy but has accepted the decision and is buckling down to work with the new board. In contrast the opposition is in denial over their own part in bringing this judgement down upon the Council. As their website, Inside Out Swansea illustrates, they have learnt nothing and continue to snipe from the sidelines rather than engage constructively in the improvement process.

Before I comment further on the issue I would like to respond to a few of their allegations about me. Far from being absent from the chamber for the Deputy Minister's statement I was there throughout and can be seen to be so on the video record available on the Assembly's website. I did not participate in the questioning of the Minister because, as a member of the Council, I had a clear conflict of interest however I did take part in a private meeting with the Deputy Minister earlier that day in which I questioned her and her officials in some detail on the decision.

When the Minister publishes the report is of course a matter for her, but I feel it is unreasonable for the local paper to partly blame the Council for this when the decision is out of their hands. Certainly, an earlier publication date might help to settle everybody down and focus minds on the improvement of the service but it is right that the final report has to include the response of the Council to its conclusions.

What needs to happen now is for all political parties on Swansea Council to put aside their differences and work together in the best interests of children. The report is a very serious judgement on children's services in Swansea but it is not all negative. For a start inspectors have concluded that all the key performance indicators have improved since their last inspection. None of them are any longer considered to be poor, though four of the seven are classed as inconsistent. The concern that the Minister and the CSSIW have is not that the Council is failing to improve but that improvement is not moving fast enough.

The report also recognises the positive influence of the Cabinet Member for Social Services on the improvement process. However, the main concern of all those I have spoken to is corporate and political leadership and the fact that not all Councillors are committed to that aim.

There is huge concern that instead of pulling together to support officers in putting right evident weaknesses in children services, some councillors have taken the opportunity to score political points instead. This was most evident in the refusal of the opposition leaders to take part in an all-party improvement board six months ago, a decision that seems to have directly influenced inspectors and prompted the minister to act.

Some politicians continue to misrepresent this report and are using it to score points when they should be coming together to work for the best interests of children. I am particularly appalled at claims that the initial inspection that led to the intervention process was sparked off by the death of Aaron Gilbert. In fact that inspection was a programmed one and took place before the joint review into the circumstances of Aaron Gilbert's death had reported. That review found that although a Swansea social worker had failed to follow proper practice, Aaron Gilbert had never been a social services client and that there were severe failings on the part of the Police, the Probation Service and the health services as well.

If opposition politicians do not now put aside their differences and work together for the best interests of children, if they do not take their corporate parenting role seriously and if they do not abandon the endless sniping and name-calling on this issue then Swansea Children's Services will fail to satisfy the tests that will face it over the next twelve months. I want to see the Council's performance indicators in this area rated as good or excellent but to do that officers must have the support of the full council.

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