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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Verbal dysfunction

I have mixed feelings returning home from Hay-on-Wye. On the one hand I had a really good time in some exceptional weather and attended a number of facsinating and enjoyable events, but on the other it was a bit of a strain being cut off from the outside world for so long.

No mobile signal meant no access to phone or e-mails. Getting back to several hundred e-mails and phone messages has been a bit like surfacing for air after spending too long swimming underwater.

Highlight of today had to be Vince Cable, whose appearance at the Festival to promote his book led to a sell-out in the biggest tent, which must hold at least 1500 people. Other sell-out events were Alan Bennett and the Very Hungry Caterpillar.

I did get to read the newspapers so I was not entirely cut-off from the outside world. After listening to Chris Patten yesterday, I was interested to find his views on David Cameron's policy for Europe in the Guardian and in particular these words:

'the Tory leader stands accused of adopting a "rigid commitment to impotence" after he pledged to withdraw from the main centre-right grouping in the European parliament.'

An interesting choice of words I thought on a dysfunctional Tory policy.

Hay Festival Last Day

Almost time to go home. I wonder how many readers I have lost with these postings.

Just four events today, A.C. Grayling arguing for a vigorous defence of our civil liberties, Richard Dearlove, who was head of the Secret Intelligence Service known as 'C' from 1999 to 2004, Vince Cable talking about his book,'The Storm' and finally Antonio Frasier marking the 40th anniversary of her biography of Mary, Queen of Scots.

What a great weekend. Back to work tomorrow, in fact I expect I will be catching up on my e-mails as soon as I get home.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Hay Festival Day Two

Fantastic start to my Hay Festival visit and plenty to look forward to. We are starting today by attending a conversation between Peter Florence and Henning Mankell, the creator of Wallender and then going on to see Marcus Brigstocke, Andre Vincent and Carrie Quinlan. I have high expectations of both.

And then it is politics with Chris Patten telling us how to survive the twenty first century followed by Alan Bennett and then David Simon, the creator of The Wire. Finally, Alex Valentine in concert. His four line, four line word poems accompanying the single Hurricane have had 264,846 views on YouTube.

Wonder what is happening in the outside world.

Update: Henning Mankell cancelled so we attended the replacement session entitled 'Overthrow Parliament now'. There was a great deal of sympathy for this point of view, though Helena Kennedy, Marcus Brigstocke and Phillippe Sands made an excellent case for fundamental reform led by citizens themselves.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Moral authority

A quick post before I set off to Mid Wales regarding Ieuan Wyn Jones' claim this morning that the MPs' expenses scandal has stripped Westminster of the "moral authority" to refuse a referendum on dismantling the LCO system so that the assembly can use its powers in full.

I am a bit sad to see Ieuan take this view as it turns what is a national crisis about our political system into a narrow self-serving opportunity and as such misses the point. It is not just Westminster that has lost all 'moral authority' as a result of this crisis but all politicians, whether they be AMs, MSPs, MPs, MEPs or MLAs. The public are angry with us as a political class and quite rightly so. It is also worth pointing out that the Assembly too has had its problems though nothing like on the scale of Westminster.

The point is that I want a referendum and a 'yes' vote but we have to argue for it on its own merits. Ieuan is right to highlight the inconsistencies in David Cameron's position of promising to empower communities but not addressing the efficacy of the Welsh Assembly. He is also right that such devolution of power is one way of reforming the present system. But it must form part of an overall package that includes the Assembly, where we change the rules on allowances, cap political donations, introduce fixed term Parliaments, democratise the House of Lords and bring in a proper proportional system for the House of Commons (and for the Welsh Assembly).

We can no longer afford to do things piecemeal, that is one of the reasons we are in this mess. We need to think through what we want our constitution to look like and plan out how we are going to get there. Maybe Plaid Cymru could take that wider view as well.

Hay Festival

Off to Hay-on-Wye today for the annual literary festival and so blogging will be very light. This is largely to do with the fact that the town is an O2 blackspot and thus neither my mobile or my Blackberry will work. I am hoping that this visit will be a bit more successful than two years ago when I bit into some food and broke a capped tooth on a fork.

Nevertheless I have some interesting events lined up. Today, we are starting off with Kate Adie talking to Rosie Goldsmith about her career, the comic novellist Howard Jacobson talking to Peter Florence and then to conclude Jo Brand talking to Francine Stock about the great Herefordshire novel.

I am really looking forward to it.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Pay back time in the Welsh Assembly Tory Group

Jonathan Morgan has made a hard hitting speech tonight on the use of public money and regaining public trust. He sets out a number of reforms to the Assembly's expenses system he would like to see introduced and argues that the Welsh Government needs to introduce robust, disciplined budgetting. I suspect that his speech will be most widely reported though for the explicit criticism it makes of the Welsh Conservative Leader, Nick Bourne:

Politicians who have claimed inappropriately or illegitimately, whether it be phantom mortgages, i-Pods, plasma televisions, trouser-presses or duck islands for their ponds, have proven their judgement has been flawed and they have lost the moral, ethical and political capacity to show leadership.

It is a fine example of the old adage that 'revenge is a dish best served cold'. Is this the start of the sort of backbench sniping at Nick Bourne's leadership that many predicted when Jonathan was stripped of his health spokespersonship?

Update: sure enough BBC Wales have interpreted it as I predicted.

The Telegraph only rings once

Just had a missed call from the Daily Telegraph.

When I rang back the recorded message said "You've been called by the Daily Telegraph. We are sorry to have missed you. There is nothing to worry about. We will endeavour to call you some other time. Goodbye."

Hopefully it was just a marketing call.

BNP under fire

The Times has turned its guns onto the BNP today by highlighting a £5,000 political donation that ended up in the personal bank account of Nick Griffin so that the donor could remain a secret.

The paper says that Mr Griffin admitted that he had paid the £5,000 donation that appeared to be from a political supporter into his own bank account and then transferred the money to a sympathetic political organisation without alerting the authorities.

He said that he did so because the donor, an elderly North London woman who is a member of the BNP, wished to remain anonymous. He said that he gave the money in February to the nationalist trade union Solidarity, which has strong BNP links, because he believed that it would have had to be declared if he had given the donation to the party. He said that there was “no need” to declare it as the donor had asked him to put the money to “best use”.

The BNP cannot have it both ways. They cannot claim to be a legitimate political party whilst treating the rules in this way. The rules have been put there to ensure accountability and transparency and it is important that all parties adhere to them.

Meanwhile, the Tory leader has turned his fire on the BNP, calling them "Nazi thugs". At the same time retiring Labour MEPs Glenys Kinnock and Eluned Morgan have jumped in with both feet saying that they fear a low turnout will hand one of the Welsh seats to the BNP.

Let us be clear once more, the BNP have no chance of winning a European seat in Wales. I am astonished that two such experienced politicians are prepared to give them this credibility by suggesting otherwise just so that they can scare Labour voters into going to the polls on 4th June. This sort of opportunism is shameful.

MP claims for servants' quarters

To the horror of the Tory leadership, which believes the expenses claims of grandees are reviving old stereo-types, Butterfill appeared slightly confused as he explained that today's Daily Telegraph had mistakenly claimed that he had servants. "It is a gross misrepresentation of what I said to the young lady at the Telegraph," he told the BBC Newsnight programme as he denied having built servants' quarters from his parliamentary allowance.

"I purchased a house in Woking in ­derelict condition. I gutted and rewired it. I extended the living room, I extended the kitchen, and made a family room off the kitchen; and I extended it to make a wing for my gardener and his wife."

Then, with a slip of the tongue, he indicated that he did have servants' quarters. "The mistake I made was that, in claiming interest [from the expenses allowance] on the home, I didn't separate from that the value of the servants' … er the staff … wing. I claimed the whole of that and the whole of the council tax related to that.

Good grief! Can it get any worse? Upstairs Downstairs returns to Parliament.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Lib Dem barcharts make academia

Liberal Democrat barcharts are of course legitimate ways of getting a message across but they can sometimes be controversial, especially with other parties. I was surprised therefore to have a question in a Statistics for Economics examination at University of Wales, Aberystwyth drawn to my attention by the creator of the barcharts used in the Welsh Liberal Democrats General Election campaign in Ceredigion in 2005.

The exam in question, which took place only a few weeks after Mark Williams famously won the seat from Plaid Cymru, reproduces one of these barcharts and asks the students to comment on it. A total of eight marks is at stake. I wonder what a model answer would have been.

A question of image

We have already seen controversy over the use of a picture of Sir Winston Churchill by the UK Independence Party, now the BNP are to follow suit. In their search for respectability they intend to use an image of the wartime leader and quote one of his most famous speeches in their Election broadcast tonight.

It is a move that has attracted protests from Sir Winston Churchill's family. They say that the BNP is trying to hijack his legacy. His grandson, ­Nicholas Soames, said it was "offensive and ­disgusting," and he has consulted lawyers in an attempt to force the Electoral Commission to stop the broadcast. The Guardian reports:

Griffin was also accused of hypocrisy over his use of second world war footage, after it emerged that an article which appeared in a rightwing magazine he edited in the 1990s appeared to praise the wartime exploits of Hitler's SS.

"For him to evoke the memory of Churchill and our second world war ­servicemen is a disgrace," said a ­spokesman for Searchlight, the anti-racist organisation.

The BNP's deputy chairman. Simon Darby, denied Griffin supported the SS, and defended the use of Churchill. "It is very relevant to what is happening today," he said. "I am extremely upset at what is happening to the country. What was the point of fighting the second world war, if this is where we are going to end up?"

I am sure that most veterans would agree that we fought the Second World War to protect the freedoms that the BNP are trying to take off us. Any politician of whatever seniority who defends the SS has no credibility. It shows the real face of the BNP.

If there is one thing I have found heartening about the present elections it is that despite all the scandals and controversy the threatened surge in the polls for the BNP has failed to materialise. In fact they are struggling to make any mark at all.

That may not stop the BNP winning a seat in the European Parliament but it does show how they have underestimated the intelligence and discernment of the voting public. Their present PR exercise smacks of desperation and as a result their veneer is slipping. That is a good thing.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Cameron heralds a dead end

The most interesting parts of David Cameron's speech on Parliamentary reform today were those that he left out. It seems that the change he is promising is long on rhetoric and short on specifics, and that is before we get to the glaring omission of the need to reform the electoral system so as to give voters a greater say who runs the country.

There are many other political bloggers who can deal with the PR issue with greater authority and knowledge than I, notably James Graham, who describes Cameron's proposal to send out text messages about legislation as the modern equivalent of John Major’s Cones Hotline. James demolishes the arguments deployed by Conservatives against fair voting. His post is well worth a read.

Of most interest to me is what this speech means for devolution and Wales in particular under a Conservative Government. This is a subject that Conservative blogger Professor Dylan Jones-Evans has already attempted and yet reading his contribution has left me with more questions than answers.

The good Professor considers that the proposal to push power down to neighbourhoods and communities may mean that there will be further devolution downwards to councils from bodies such as the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. He suggests this could be an alternative approach to giving devolved Assemblies more power themselves.

Welcome as the idea of empowering councils is we should not forget that local government is a devolved matter. It would be inappropriate for any UK Government to seek to by-pass the Welsh Assembly and force it to pass on powers it did not wish to do so itself. If that is the Cameron agenda then that brings into question once more the Conservative's understanding of and commitment to devolution.

However, the elephant in the room that Dylan Jones-Evans does not address is what the Conservative leader's speech actually means for the Assembly itself and specifically the referendum provided for in the Government of Wales Act 2006 that would enable us to access primary law-making powers without the need for a Legislative Competence Order.

Thus far the Conservatives have been fairly silent as a party on what they would do if they were in Government and a request for a referendum arrived in their in-tray. They have also been quite reticient to say where they would stand as a party on a 'yes' vote. Would they have an official position? Would they campaign for one side or another? Or would they divide amongst themselves on the issue?

The obvious implication of Cameron's promise to push power down to the lowest possible level is that the Conservatives would support the Welsh Assembly assuming full law-making powers under Part Four of the Government of Wales Act. So why not say so?

Isn't it about time that the Conservatives took responsibility for their new policy position and finally said as a party that they will be supporting a 'yes' vote in the impending referendum on law-making powers? Can we have that detail filled in on Cameron's speech at least?


With all three of the main parties upping the stakes daily with regards to the need for constitutional and institutional reform (of which more later) it was a bit disappointing to read in this morning's Times that nothing has really changed in the big two parties.

The paper tells us that there are plans afoot in the House of Lords to raise the threshold above which parties must report donations from £5,000 to £7,500. The move is opposed by Lord Neill of Bladen, former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, who said that there was no real justification for the increase.

The Electoral Commission has said: “An increase of this level has the potential to reduce public confidence in the transparency and integrity of political funding.” The Liberal Democrats are the only political party opposing the change. David Howarth, for the party, said that the proposals were “going too far in the direction of reducing transparency”.

The Times explains further:

Under amendments to the Political Parties and Elections Bill, the threshold at which donations to individual MPs and local parties need to be reported would also rise, from £1,000 to £1,500. Mr Wills said that this was to reduce the administrative burden that the process placed on volunteer activists. “We have to be careful about placing burdens on them, putting barriers in the way of this sort of activity, that might discourage these selfless volunteers from giving their time and effort,” he said.

Since the last general election the Conservatives alone have received 179 donations between £5,000.01 and £7,500 that, under the new arrangements, would not have to be declared.

The move is likely to be lucrative for political parties because it means people who want to give anonymously can give larger sums.

The Tories want local parties, which are funded by Lord Ashcroft’s marginal seats campaign, to be able to receive even more cash without declaring it. Jonathan Djanogly, the Shadow justice minister, said that the Tories were “reasonably satisfied” with the national threshold but wanted the local one raised from the £1,500 proposed by the Government to a figure of £3,000.

The Electoral Commission has made clear that it would campaign publicly against such a move.

When Labour and the Tories seek to undermine transparency in this way, it makes you wonder whether they really do understand the prevailing mood of the public.

Is WAG failing to support Welsh businesses?

Interesting post on the Smiling Under Buses blogspot yesterday, offering a translation of this post on the Cachu 360 blog. They are very unimpressed with the Welsh Assembly Government's on-line alternative to the promised Welsh Language daily newspaper, the first of a number of promises to be broken by Plaid Cymru Ministers.

It is not just the technical aspects and the look of the site that come in for criticism but also the superficial content, which in many people's minds fails to offer the sort of in-depth analysis and coverage they had come to expect from such a heavily subsidised venture. It has also been noted that just a week after its launch Golwg 360 has gone into beta, which could explain why the big launch party in the Senedd was cancelled last week.

The most disturbing aspect of this saga however is the allegation in the post that the site may have been designed and put together in India. We are told: "There is an obvious link between the Golwg 360 website and a company called IndInfoTech from Hyderabad, India, which “specialises” in developing websites. Was public money spent outside Wales – or out side Britain even? Was any money at all spent on the Golwg 360 (beta) website?"

The full reasoning behind this conclusion is set out on the Smiling Under Buses post concluding with the discovery that the domain name is registered with indinfotech.net, a company linked to indinfotech.com which is a general computing service company with its headquarters in Seattle and its technical team based in India. If this is true then £200,000 of public money is a lot of cash to spend abroad when it could have been used to commission a Welsh-based internet design company to set up the site.

The post ends with a series of questions, only the first four of which I have reproduced below:

To close, it must be asked – after seeing the “evidence” above:

1. Was the public money spent on Golwg 360 go to Seattle and India?
2. Why was the majority of the development done outside Wales, when the development work would have been incredibly valuable to the Welsh on-line community in Wales - Golwg 360 (beta) precise audience?
3. Has Golwg made a mistake by moving from publishing in print to on-line publishing?
4. Does the public deserve better, considering all the public money given to a private company?

These may well be questions that are worth asking of the Minister after the half-term recess.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The dangers of losing data

The BBC report that the loss of disks with data on tens of thousands of personnel from RAF Innsworth in Gloucestershire last September is more serious than previously thought. Apparently, these discs contained 500 highly sensitive files with details of affairs, debt and drug use. They were taken from a secure area, and included names, addresses and some bank account details:

An internal MoD memo - obtained by a former officer and passed to BBC Two's Who's Watching You programme - shows the lost files contained "details of criminal convictions, investigations, precise details of debt, medical conditions, drug abuse, use of prostitutes, extra-marital affairs including the names of third parties".

The e-mail - from an unnamed wing commander - says the data "provides excellent material for Foreign Intelligence Services and blackmailers".

In the memo, written three weeks after the disks were stolen, he added: "By not declaring that highly sensitive vetting information has been lost, I am concerned that we, the RAF, will be accused of attempting a cover up."

Still I am sure that the National ID database will be as safe as houses. After all, what could go wrong?


MPs denied vote on database

Plans by the Labour Government to allow police to store innocent people's DNA profiles for up to 12 years are likely to be passed without being properly debated and voted on by MPs on the floor of the House of Commons, it has emerged:

Ministers were forced to reform the crime-fighting DNA database after the European Court of Human Rights last year outlawed the current rules under which anyone arrested for any crime has their genetic profile stored indefinitely - even if they are innocent and never charged.

But the Home Secretary sparked outrage over so-called 'Big Brother' powers earlier this month when she unveiled new rules, which will still allow the police to keep innocent people on the database for six years, or 12 years if they were arrested for but cleared of a serious sexual or violent offence.

Yesterday the criticism mounted as the Home Office admitted it plans to rush the reforms through Parliament using a 'statutory instrument' which will be rubber-stamped following 90 minutes of discussion by a Labour-dominated committee, with no debate or vote in the House of Commons.

Miss Smith's officials sparked further anger by saying the procedure was necessary in order to comply with the Strasbourg ruling as quickly as possible - effectively claiming there was not enough time for MPs to debate the matter.

Liberal Democrat Homes Affairs Spokesperson, Chris Huhne has accused the Government of trying to bypass Parliament. It certainly seems wrong that such a fundamental attack on our liberties can be decided with so little debate. The database already contains around five million entries - 850,000 of which are from people who were arrested but not convicted. It is wrong that executive power is misused in this way to undermine the rights of the innocent.


Sunday, May 24, 2009

Will Farage's admissions derail UKIP?

This morning's Observer reports that the leader of the UK Independence party, which wants to lead Britain out of the EU, has taken £2m of taxpayers' money in expenses and allowances as a member of the European Parliament, on top of his £64,000 a year salary.

Nigel Farage claims that he has not "pocketed" the money. Instead he says he has used this "very large sum of European taxpayers' money" to help promote Ukip's message that the UK should get out of the EU. The paper says that the admission threatens to flatten a bounce in the polls for UKIP that has seen the party climb to around 17% over the last fortnight as angry voters flock to smaller parties regarded as untainted by the Westminster expenses scandal.

The revelation will be deeply embarrassing for Farage and his party in the light of their attempt to get votes by calling on voters to punish "greedy Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem MPs" at the European elections on 4 June. This is especially the case when one considers the fate of the 12 UKIP MEPs elected five years ago.

Ashley Mote, was expelled from the party - and later jailed - for benefit fraud. Another, Tom Wise, is now facing prosecution for alleged false accounting and money laundering relating to his EU expenses. He denies the charges. Television presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk, who won the East Midlands for Ukip, later left to form another eurosceptic outfit, Veritas.

The report continues: Last night, as Ukip circulated new party literature saying Westminster MPs had "ripped off taxpayers", Farage, who employs his wife to help run his office and pays her from his allowances, faced a backlash as opponents accused him of hypocrisy. MacShane suggested that Ukip's attempt to pose as more honourable on expenses than other parties had been exposed as shameless and hollow.

"Far from being the party of the little man in Europe, Nigel Farage's astounding £2m raid on the taxpayer shows he is up there with any other politician, happy to line his pockets with gold," he said.

Maybe the recent fall in UKIP poll ratings is down to the fact that voters are already starting to see through their hypocrisy on this issue.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Tories revert to type

The Welsh Conservatives have unveiled their big idea in the field of education this morning, free schools. Well yes, I know that school education has been free for a very long time but this is not what they are getting at.

The plan is to set up schools directly funded by the Welsh Assembly Government so as to give them the freedom to make their own decisions. However, all schools will have to abide by the national curricula on the core subjects of English, Welsh, science, ICT and maths; there will be no privatisation; pupils at free schools will pay no fees and bids would not be subject to the raising of millions of pounds in sponsorship as is currently the case in England; they will still be inspected by Estyn; and there is to be no selective exclusion either, so Welsh free schools would have to abide by strict criteria in order to exclude a pupil, and ensure that the child was placed in a referral unit should they do so.

So how are these 'free' schools any more free than the current Local Authority schools? That remains a mystery. In truth the only difference appears to be that these schools will come under the direct control of the Welsh Government, who will be responsible for their funding. In other words we are back to the pre-1997 agenda of dismantling local education authorities and the democratic control and accountability that went with that. The Welsh Tories have not changed one bit from their predecessors.

They are not any more consistent either. On the one hand they are rightly criticising the Labour-Plaid Cymru Welsh Government for centralising control of the NHS in the hands of the Health Minister. On the other they are proposing the same treatment for schools. It is little wonder that they are a shambles as an official opposition.

Lord Bonkers on the G20 demonstrations

'I marched because of Jonathan Ross, because schoolboys no longer wear short trousers, because you cannot get a cooked breakfast on trains any more. I marched because I can no longer patronise the Woolworth’s Pick ‘n’ Mix counter (even if I don’t tell Nanny), because Tom Croft was omitted from the British Lions touring party to South Africa, because you don’t get proper wet fish shops any more.'

Classic satire.

Western Mail plays catch-up

Not wanting to be left out of the furore over MPs' expenses the Western Mail has decided to play catch-up and has started a series of articles designed to shift attention back to the Welsh Assembly and how its members use their accomodation allowance. They have started today with an item on each of Leighton Andrews, Mike German and Jocelyn Davies.

The paper has e-mailed all Assembly Members in South Wales West, South Wales East and South Wales Central to ask them to justify their use of this allowance. Of course the Welsh Assembly has much tighter rules than Parliament. Members are not allowed to flip homes, their second home is always the one nearest the Assembly and we have published details of all claims in full on our website. From this summer we will be publishing AMs' claims monthly, three months in arrears.

There is also an independent review body looking into what allowances Assembly Members can claim. Their conclusions will be published on 6th July.

As I have said previously I rent a flat in Cardiff Bay using the accomodation allowance. I have answered the Western Mail's questions. My response is below:

'I have only one home and that is in Swansea. I have a furnished flat which I rent in Cardiff and at which I stay one, sometimes two nights per week depending on the Assembly timetable. The rest of the time I sleep in my home.

I rent the flat solely to facilitate my work as an Assembly Member, for convenience and for the flexibility it affords me. The drive to and from my home is an hour minimum each way and on most days I will undertake that drive. Taking the train is mostly not possible because being a regional Assembly Member I will regularly be travelling home via other parts of my region. However, particularly on Tuesdays and Wednesday nights I am often required at functions or events in Cardiff until late in the evening. There is often alcohol at these events though as you may know I am virtually teetotal. I could drive back and get home after 11pm, get up the next morning and leave at 7am to go back to Cardiff but this is not just tiring but sometimes impractical as well. I do therefore need to stay in Cardiff on the basis I have already stipulated.

The reason I have the flat rather than stay in a hotel is that it enables me to relax in familiar surroundings but more importantly to work. If I stay rather than drive back I have two more hours in which I can work in comfort. It also means that I have the flexibility to make snap decisions as to whether to stay or not depending on what has cropped up. I often have early morning meetings or work to do in the Assembly that is best done first thing so the proximity to Ty Hywel is very convenient.

I try to minimise the cost to the Assembly and do not benefit in anyway from renting this flat. At the end of the day, when I vacate it I will walk away with nothing extra than I might otherwise have. All the furniture and fittings will stay behind. On that basis I think that it is reasonable that I have use of this flat.'

Whither Nadine Dorries?

I have never had much time for Nadine Dorries. Frankly, I thought her recent claims that MPs were being pushed to breaking point by the “torture” of having their expenses claims made public were just ludicrous.

She went on to say that MPs were justified in their use of the accomodation allowance because officials from the Commons fees office had told them it was theirs to do with as they wished. “MPs were told to use that money because it wasn’t expenses, it was an allowance in lieu of not having pay rises,” she said. She has also accused The Telegraph of launching “McCarthy­ite witch hunts” against MPs. It is little wonder that David Cameron has been keen to distance himself and his party from her.

On her blog she has gone on to make unproven allegations against the paper's proprietors. As Dizzy reports the upshot of this is that Lawyers acting for the Barclay brothers, Withers, instructed hosts, Acidity via mail last night that the blog be taken down, citing the Acceptable User Policy. He says that the takedown will be bolstered by the Godfrey vs Demon precedent, where an order can be made and it will be done instantly.

Dizzy also notes that the day after Ms Dorries' blog gets taken down by lawyers this morning's Telegraph carries what he describes as a gushing piece about UKIP. To be fair to the Telegraph they have not shirked from mentioning the elephant in the room for Nigel Farage's party:

Ukip may be seeking capitalise on the expenses imbroglio, but its record in this area is hardly spotless. Two of its MEPs became mired in scandal almost immediately after their election. Ashley Mote was expelled from the party and was later jailed for benefit fraud – he plans to appeal the verdict – while Tom Wise is facing prosecution for alleged false accounting and money laundering relating to his EU expenses. He denies the charges.

Ukip's detractors say the party exercises double standards in using its MEPs' expenses, which dwarf those available in Westminster, to fund anti-EU activity.

The paper's actions in taking down Nadine Dorries' blog cannot be justified in my view. I may disagree with what she has to say but she has the right to say it and for a newspaper, of all institutions, to suppress her freedom of speech in this way is indefensible.

If she has libelled them then they have the right to sue her. Instead they have resorted to the methods of the corporate bully. What then is their agenda? One consequence of the Telegraph's actions is that they will unite those who value democratic freedoms against them.

You could not make it up

The Press Association are reporting that Gosport Tory MP Sir Peter Viggers has apologised for his error of judgement in claiming for a home for his ducks:

Sir Peter said he felt "ashamed and humiliated" over his expenses claim for an island to house the ducks in his pond.

He described his decision to include the feature in his taxpayer-funded second home claims as a "ridiculous and grave error of judgment".

The ducks had never liked the feature and it was no longer being used, he added.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The things that they say part two

As if it was not bad enough that he spent taxpayers money on treating 500 trees in the grounds of his house, Tory MP Sir Anthony Steen has hit out at his constituents for forcing his retirement from Westminster.

The MP appeared on Radio 4's The World at One to lash out at constituents who objected to his claim for the treatment of the trees. "I've done nothing criminal, that's the most awful thing, and do you know what it's about? Jealousy," Steen said. "I've got a very, very large house. Some people say it looks like Balmoral."

With an attitude like that I am astonished he got elected in the first place but then that is the problem with our electoral system, it creates personal fiefdoms that are almost impossible to breach. The fact that MPs think that they are untouchable means that they think they can get away with unacceptable behaviour.

A number of people have said that the only way to resolve this is a quick General Election. I agree that the Country needs to have the opportunity to vote on the next Government. My problem though is that without fundamental constitutional reform we will be just replacing one set of complacent politicians with another.

We have to do away with safe seats such as those occupied by Sir Anthony Steen and take away the power of political parties as the sole arbiter of suitability in such constituencies. The only way to do that is a system of Proportional Representation known as the single transferable vote in which we have multi-member constituencies, often represented by more than one party, in which voters choose the most suitable representative of their party of choice.

I can think of no better way to keep MPs on their toes and in touch with the views and feelings of their electors.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Some more expense titbits

To be honest the whole expenses thing is getting a bit overwhelming and it is difficult to keep up even if I had the time to do so but there were one or two that caught my eye this morning that I thought were worth repeating if only to illustrate the state that things have come to.

The first one of course was the floating duck house. For goodness sake do these people have no commonsense? The Daily Telegraph has very helpfully provided a photograph of the structure and the view of it via Google Earth.

Meanwhile I note that the MP for Clwyd West, David Jones (a former Assembly Member, though he will not admit it too readily) has opened up his expenses for the Daily Post. They have decided that the star buy is a Sat Nav system for £339, which the MP said he bought after getting lost in his own constituency.

Such refreshing honesty should be its own reward.

A short tribute to Chris Rennard

As reported first on Freedom Central, the Liberal Democrat Chief Executive, Chris Rennard is to step down from that role in the summer.

Despite the recent controversy that has emerged around Chris I think it is right that we concentrate on the enormous contribution he has made to the party. It is also right that he depart with the dignity that he has been afforded and with the grateful thanks of the many thousands of elected Liberal Democrats who owe their position to his work.

Chris first came to my attention as David Alton's agent in the 1979 Edge Hill by-election. It was the contest that saved the Liberal Party from being devastated in the subsequent General Election and which helped many of us realise that previously safe Labour seats could be won by the party with the right campaigning techniques, policies and messages.

In the three decades since that by-election Chris has made himself virtually indispensable to the party. He has masterminded many by-election wins and it was his strategy that gave us our breakthrough in 1997 that we have since sustained. He has never been backward in passing on his knowledge and it is no coincidence that any training event he runs is always oversubscribed.

If Chris had resigned in this way even five years ago I would have said that the hole in our organisation that he had left could not be filled. However, it is a credit to him and the way that he has managed the party that he leaves behind a very talented and capable campaigns department that collectively can more than fill his shoes.

The party is in good health financially, though we can always do with more money and we are more than ready to take whatever opportunities come our way as the result of the principled stance taken by Nick Clegg and Vince Cable on a whole range of issues including the economy, political ethics and people's rights.

Chris will of course continue to serve in the House of Lords where he is an effective and respected performer. In the meantime I and many others wish him the best of luck in whatever he decides to do next as well as our eternal gratitude for his services to liberalism and the party.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Inappropriate comment of the day

From today's Western Mail:

A brief statement from Mr Martin at 2.30pm confirmed what had been clear for several hours; he would be standing down, ostensibly to maintain the unity of the Commons.

It was over in 45 seconds.

“I wonder how long,” one Welsh MP mused afterwards, “it took Charles I to kneel down and have his head chopped off?”

It is always useful to have a sense of perspective in these things.

Did Hain claim for his Aga?

This morning's Western Mail reports that Neath MP, Peter Hain billed the taxpayer £1,000 for an oven. Receipts obtained by the Telegraph suggest Mr Hain claimed £1,054.90 for an oven in 2005, and claimed more than £6,000 in heating oil between December 2005 and April 2008.

All of this immediately reminds me of the time Mr. Hain appeared on the Aga website proudly displaying his new oven for all to see. Alas, it soon disappeared from their website and even the cached version is no longer available, although I have preserved the photograph for posterity.

This raises an interesting question. Did the taxpayer pay for Mr. Hain's Aga?

Update: Peter Hain's office has just rung to say that the Aga was already installed in his property when he bought it. The £1,000 was for the purchase and installation of a cooker and hood from Comet.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

People and Parliament: Jo Swinson MP's response

This is an excellent use of new media by Liberal Democrat MP, Jo Swinson on how Parliament should be using new media to engage with electors. A positive initiative shining out from the darkness and negativity around expenses and MPs' allowances.

Consultation on the code of practice for the welfare of rabbits

The purpose of this Code of Practice is to provide advice on how to meet the needs of your rabbit. It applies to all persons who have responsibility for rabbits kept as a companion animal.

Nice to see that the Welsh Assembly Government are getting one thing right. Will we be having a consultation on the welfare of badgers next?

Thanks to Heledd Fychan for drawing it to my attention.

Government misleads on Further Education

One of the big issues I am dealing with in my region currently is the impact of spending cuts on three of the four FE colleges in my region. In Bridgend the College is facing a £1 million shortfall and has been forced to axe all its A-Level courses from September, to cut back on part time courses and it will be losing approximately 16 lecturing staff.

I was bemused to see the Assembly's Business Minister on the front page of the Glamorgan Gazette last week vowing to support A-level students in his Bridgend constituency when it is the decisions of his Government that has led to this situation in the first place.

Both Swansea and Gorseinon Colleges face cutting about three quarters of a million pounds off their budgets as a result of this failure of the Labour-Plaid Cymru Government to put sufficient funding into Further Education. An extra £9 million was found after protests from opposition AMs, lecturers and students but this was not distributed according to the normal formula allocation and as a result all three Colleges remained underfunded, forcing them to make cuts. In Swansea this has led to the proposed closure of Adult Learning Centre Canolfan y Bont in Pontarddulais and Special Needs provision at Stadium House in Landore, redundancies and the closure of adult education and other courses.

When challenged on these funding issues in the Assembly, Finance Minister, Andrew Davies argued that the two Swansea colleges had not received all the funds they need because their performance was not good enough. On Swansea Sound on 10th May he repeated that argument, claiming that the Colleges had not met the targets set for them by the Government. Yet the answer to a written question tabled by me has revealed that this is not the case.

In her response the Education Minister Jane Hutt says that ‘in terms of 2006/07 and 2007/08 the targets have been met by both colleges. The 2008/09 targets are still being monitored.’ She goes on to point out that both Swansea and Gorseinon have received excellent Estyn reports and that they have exceeded all quality targets set by the Government for the Further Education sector.

In a time of recession Labour and Plaid Cymru are cutting back on education and training and all we get from Ministers are excuses and misleading answers to legitimate questions in the hope of avoiding the blame. I am appalled that the Assembly Member for Swansea West has disparaged the very good and high quality work delivered by Swansea and Gorseinon Colleges in this way.

At the end of the day the reason why cuts are being made in our local Further Education Colleges are down to decisions taken by him and his Ministerial colleagues. To even suggest that it is the fault of the colleges for not meeting targets is insulting and very wrong. Ministers must take responsibility for their own decisions but above all they must ensure that good work is rewarded and on that basis they need to find more money so as to reverse these cuts.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Why Clegg is right to call for the Speaker to go

In many ways Alix Mortimer has already made the case brilliantly about what the Liberal Democrats need to do to adequately respond to the crisis of confidence in politics generated by the widescale misuse of the expenses system in Westminster.

I have argued consistently on this blog and to anybody else who will listen to me that there are two elements to this issue. On the one hand there is the excessive secrecy and a not-fit-for-purpose expenses system that has allowed systemic abuse, on the other there is the willingness of many politicians of all parties to take advantage of it. You cannot deal with one without tackling the other.

I said on Saturday that although it is important to remove the main obstacle to reform in the House of Commons, namely the Speaker and his Commission, we also have to be careful that this is not seen as displacement activity. My party also needs to set out its own position on errant MPs and Lords and make it clear that abuses will not be tolerated. We should also produce a clear set of rules and standards for Liberal Democrat MPs to follow in future.

It is up to the Federal Executive tonight to set much of this in motion and I have already e-mailed the Party President to let her know my views. But what Clegg called for yesterday is the important other half of this equation and because he did not just concentrate on the Speaker but also set out other reforms, it does not count as the sort of displacement activity I feared. Well, it won't do if the party delivers as well.

I believe that the proposals set out by Nick Clegg yesterday morning is just the sort of agenda we need to catch the mood of the country and put things right. The establishment of a constitutional convention, overseen by 100 randomly selected voters to draw up a short constitution setting out what rights people enjoy and making clear the subservience of Parliament to the people is a good start.

I think too that people will expect that party leaders should guarantee that the recommendations of Sir Christopher Kelly's independent inquiry into MPs allowances are accepted in full, no matter what they say and a system that ensures that if MPs transgress the rules then there will be a way for their constituents to sack them is just what the doctor ordered. I am more than happy to go on the doorsteps and argue for a method of "recall" so that a small percentage of constituents can force a by-election on any MP suspended for wrongdoing.

Finally, I think Alix and others are right. This is the right time to push for wholescale constitutional reform, to call for the empowerment of local communities with real devolution, to cut back the size and power of the Whitehall state, to eliminate central bureaucracy and above all to introduce fair votes so that we make all politicians more accountable to their electorate and eliminate safe seats where some of the incumbents think that they can get away with anything.

This is a big ask of any political party but we cannot duck the big issues any more than Labour and the Conservatives. There are a lot of angry and disillusioned people around who want to see some action. The future of our democracy depends on the right response.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Hope not hate

In about an hours time I will set off for Swansea's cenotaph to take part in a Hope not Hate day event to commemorate those who died fighting fascism. There will also be those who will take the opportunity to compare the attitude and the policies of the present day BNP with that common enemy.

There is much that I despise about the BNP but as I have said in the past it is important that we do not give them more credibility as an anti-establishment party if we can help it. That is why I think it is important to concentrate on countering the misinformation that they rely on to propagate their message and on dealing with the issues and problems they latch onto to build support.

It is also right that we highlight their hypocrisy when it surfaces. Thus this story on the Hope nor Hate website needs wider publicity:

An elderly couple pictured on BNP election leaflets endorsing the party's anti-immigration views are actually Italian models, it can be disclosed.

Pamphlets being distributed by the far right party to 29 million homes ahead of next month's poll European and council polls feature testimonies from five "typical Britons", giving their reasons for voting BNP.

The endorsements from apparently respectable members of society – including a soldier, doctor, and young mother – reflect the party's attempt to appeal to mainstream voters.

But far from depicting proud BNP supporters, the images are actually stock photos from online picture libraries that have been used by dozens of websites to promote everything from painkillers to caravans.

On the leaflet, the elderly couple are quoted complaining that hard-working Britons are being "pushed to the back of the queue by bogus asylum seekers".

But last night Italian photographer Luca Di Filippo confirmed that the people in the photo were actually his parents, who had only ever visited this country as tourists and do not share the views of the BNP.

The disclosure sits uncomfortably with the party's campaign slogan "British jobs for British workers".

Mr Di Filippo, who is now based in London, said he was astonished to see images of his mother and father being used to promote an extreme right wing party.

"I did not think they would be allowed to use a royalty-free image for political purposes. I'm really, really upset," he told The Daily Telegraph.

"If the BNP had been open about what they were doing and asked me directly I would have said 'no thank you'."

This revelation has caused considerable embarrassment for the BNP but more importantly it has highlighted an important truth. Our economy is international and relies on workers from other countries to keep going, just as other economies rely on British workers to do crucial jobs. Even the BNP need to use overseas models to deliver their message.

If we isolate ourselves from the rest of the world as the BNP advocate then we will be undermining our own prosperity and digging ourselves even deeper into recession. This is a international economic crisis and it can only be tackled in partnership with other countries. The BNP's policies not only fail to recognise that but they will make things worse.

The BNP are an anachronism who have no relevance to twenty first century Britain, their politics are based on hate and resentment and would divide and destroy our society if ever put into practice.

Update: I have added photos of the event showing me reading out some of the names of those who gave their lives fighting Fascism and laying a wreath alongside other local politicians including Bethan Jenkins AM and Councillor Derek Vaughan.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A growing momentum to ditch Speaker Martin

The Times speculates that the Liberal Democrats are about to come on board the campaign to replace Michael Martin as Speaker with somebody more in tune with the public mood over MPs expenses.

They say that the party’s deputy leader, Vince Cable disclosed that there would be a party statement about Michael Martin next week after Chris Huhne, the Home Affairs spokesman, made an outright call for the Speaker to go:

Asked whether he agreed with Mr Huhne’s comments, Mr Cable told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4: “Neither Nick Clegg nor I are taking that view, because we take the view that if we did that would be an expression of the view of the whole party.

“What we have said — and Nick Clegg has said this very clearly — is that the Speaker has not handled this crisis well going back some months. It all came to a head on Monday when he rounded on Norman Baker and Kate Hoey. I think that was completely unacceptable.

“I think we have to be careful — and Nick Clegg and I are being careful here — that we want to respect the office of the Speaker and separate that issue from an individual. We have been saying that the office has not been well conducted in recent weeks.

“I think we will make a statement about this in due course as a party. We will have to wait and see how events develop over the next few days.”

The paper says that there are two methods of focussing on the future of Michael Martin as Speaker. The party could use one of their own Opposition day debates, or go much further and table a motion of confidence in the name of the leadership. That would probably require tacit support from the Conservatives.

Important as I think it is to remove the main obstacle to reform in the House of Commons we also have to be careful that this is not seen as displacement activity. The party itself needs to set out its own position on errant MPs and make it clear that abuses will not be tolerated. We should also produce a clear set of rules and standards for Liberal Democrat MPs to follow in future.

I am looking to Monday's meeting of the Federal Executive for this lead. I hope I will not be disappointed.

Geographically challenged

Like many of the 323,000 people who use Facebook in Wales I am outraged at the way that Welsh towns and Cities are being described as being in England by the geographically-challenged owners of the site.

This morning's Western Mail has highlighted that the default settings for Cardiff have this problem but so do the settings for Swansea. I have now removed the hometown information from the sidebar so as not to have to suffer this embarrassment but cannot do so from basic information, and why should I have to?

I have even changed my hometown to Abertawe in the hope that this might work but no, Facebook says Abertawe is in England as well. The Western Mail says if that you key in Caerdydd, Facebook recognises this as being within the UK, but I do not live in the capital City and do not want to be identified as such.

A number of Facebook groups have sprung up to protest, the most populous of which is 'I live in Wales NOT England - get fb to change it back!!!', which has 2,120 members. But do the powers that be listen to these groups? This needs to be corrected now.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Full powers needed on Welsh Language

Plaid Cymru's multi page collection of caveats and excuses currently masquerading as the Welsh Language Legislative Competence Order will come under scrutiny tomorrow from their own supporters when Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, the Welsh Language Society, holds a rally outside the Senedd in Cardiff.

Unfortunately, I am not able to attend but I did contribute towards the cost of their newspaper advert and fully support their cause. The fact is that the way that the LCO is currently drafted will severely tie the Assembly's hand when legislating on the Welsh language. It will leave MPs with a veto on the way that legislation is framed and prevent Assembly Ministers from fully implementing their agenda, no matter what it is.

There is no logical reason why the Welsh Assembly should not have full authority to decide policy on the Welsh language. This is an area that naturally falls into our competence. The present compromise is a recipe for more conflict between Cardiff Bay and Westminster and a denial of the principles of devolution.

More pressure on the Speaker

The BBC website is reporting that Liberal Democrat Home Affairs Spokesperson, Chris Huhne has joined those calling on Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin to go over the fiasco behind the publication of MPs' expenses:

Mr Huhne told the BBC: "I think Michael Martin will have to go. I don't think he's the right person to do this job."

Speaking on BBC 2's Newsnight, Mr Huhne said: "Whatever his virtues in the past, the truth is we need new leadership to make sure we grapple with this issue.

"I think that the Speaker needs to be a reformer who's going to be determined to sweep the stables clean."

I understand that the no confidence motion is gathering support and may be debated shortly.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The real face of the BNP

Despite all their attempts at reinventing themselves in the hope of winning a seat at the European elections the BNP cannot help themselves. Their racism and bigotry rises to the surface every time.

According to yesterday's Daily Mirror, their leader Nick Griffin went on Nicky Campbell's BBC Radio 5 Live breakfast show on Tuesday and claimed that the Gurkhas are "mercenaries" who should not be allowed to stay in Britain.

The leader of the far-right British National Party said: "We don't think the most overcrowded country in Europe, can realistically say, 'Look, you can all come and all your relatives.'

"When the Gurkhas signed up - frankly as mercenaries - they expected a pension which would allow them to live well in their own country.

There was no acknowledgement of the fact that the Gurkhas had put their lives on the line in defence of this country and the freedom that allows Griffin to spout his objectionable views. The BNP leader went on to disparage some of England's finest footballers:

Griffin also claimed football stars Rio Ferdinand, Theo Walcott and David James are not English. And when Campbell asked if he would let his daughter bring a black man home, he said: "I would be disappointed."

If this demonstrates anything it is that allowed to express themselves freely in this way the BNP will show their most objectionable face everytime. It could be the first instance of a political party drowning in their own oxygen.

Hat Tip to The Cynical Dragon

The battle for Blaenau Gwent...

...or the tale of two Aluns.

I am told that the battle for the Labour nomination to fight Blaenau Gwent at the next Assembly elections is hotting up.

Apparently, there are 12 potential candidates including Mid and West Wales Assembly Member, Alun Davies and now, former Culture Minister, Alun Pugh.

This could be the next must-watch election battle (after the European of course).

Dissing the Speaker

It is difficult to gauge exactly how much momentum there is in the House of Commons behind the motion to no confidence the Speaker, however one suspects that once it reaches the floor of the House all bets are off on the outcome.

Liberal Democrat MP, Norman Baker summed up a growing view of Michael Martin a few minutes ago on Radio Wales. He said that over the last few years the Speaker had blocked change, had blocked Freedom of Information requests and had swept reform under the carpet.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Top up Fees Protest

The Welsh Liberal Democrats held a debate today on top-up fees in an effort to persuade the Labour and Plaid Cymru One Wales Government to change its mind on the decision to abolish the tuition fee grant for Welsh students in Welsh universities.

Plaid Cymru of course have a manifesto commitment to protect students against additional fees, they have reneged on that promise. The debate today was a chance for individual Plaid Cymru AMs to stand up for their principles. Alas they failed students once more as, with two notable and honourable exceptions, they supported the Labour line.

Just before the debate a group of students came to the Senedd to make their views known. Many of them feel let down by the NUS Wales leadership who have failed to mount an effective campaign against top-up fees. All of them feel betrayed by Plaid Cymru's abandonment of its policy on this issue.

There are further posts on this issue on the Freedom Central blog.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Time to sack the Speaker

The Guardian website is reporting that the Speaker of the House of Commons is facing a no confidence motion following his woeful and disgraceful performance yesterday. Michael Martin used his statement to censure a number of MPs who attempted to speak out against his handling of the row over parliamentary expenses and allowances:

Martin initially advised in a ­statement MPs consider "the spirit of what is right" when claiming expenses.He then turned on Kate Hoey, Labour MP for Vauxhall, who questioned the decision of Commons ­authorities to call in the police to investigate leaking to the Daily Telegraph.

Waving his finger, Martin said: "I just say to the honourable lady: it's easy to say to the press this should not happen. It is a wee bit more difficult when you don't have to give quotes to the Express – the press rather – and do ­nothing else. Some of us in the house have other responsibilities [than] talking to the press."

Martin's voice shook as he concluded. He was also forthright in slapping down the Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker, who has pushed for transparency. He asked whether the Commons commission would bring ­forward release of MPs' expenses rather than wait for publication in July. The Speaker said: "Another individual member keen to say to the press whatever the press wants to hear … it is wrong for the honourable gentleman to say the Commons has done nothing."

Asked on Radio 4's PM whether Martin was the best person to defend the interests of the Commons, Hoey said: "Clearly he thinks he is. Let's say I just wish we still had Betty Boothroyd."

Now Tory MP Douglas Carswell has said he would canvass for signatures for what would be the first no-confidence motion in a speaker in more than 300 years. He is quite right to do so in my opinion.

I have defended the speaker in the past on a number of issues but have always been critical of his attitude towards allowances and expenses and in particular the fact that he and the Commons Commission that he chairs have been a major obstacle to the transparency and accountability that is so necessary to the way that MPs operate.

Yesterday he showed that despite the very understandable public outrage about the behaviour of MPs and the failure of the House of Commons authorities to put in place proper and proportional rules and regulations he is still does not comprehend what all the fuss is about. I think it is now clearly time for him to go and let somebody else take over who is more sensitive to public opinion.

The things they say

On BBC Radio Wales this morning a ten year child from Swansea was being interviewed. He has been invited to a party at the Senedd today to mark the Assembly's own tenth anniversary celebrations as he was born on 12 May 1999, the day of our first meeting.

When asked what he was hoping to get for his birthday he said an ipod. Ouch!

In this morning's Western Mail, David Williamson reports on Rhodri Morgan's speech last night at his own party to commemorate the tenth anniversary of our inaugural meeting. He told the assembled audience that a Tory Government at Westminster might well lead to a majority Labour Government in Cardiff Bay. He also hinted at the possibility of a coalition with the Welsh Liberal Democrats after the next Assembly elections.

David Williamson reports it thus: And in a series of comments guaranteed to send tremors through the Assembly, he raised the possibility of a Liberal Democrat return to government and warned that future partners could not be taken for granted.


Monday, May 11, 2009

The wrong reaction

Everywhere you look today all that can be seen are articles on MPs' expenses. The Daily Telegraph has turned its attention to the Tories with revelations that the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales claimed for dog food, Oliver Letwin claimed £2,000 for repairs to his tennis court, whilst David Willetts billed the taxpayer £115 plus VAT for workmen to replace 25 light bulbs at his second home in west London.

With the Tories implicated in this scandal too (and who knows there may be revelations about the Liberal Democrats and assorted Nationalists next), it must be difficult for the Taxpayers' Alliance to know who to support anymore.

The Times though has the most interesting take on this mess with an allegation that Labour MPs are plotting to suppress the future publication of expense claims. If any are doing so then they would be completely bonkers. If there is one lesson that can be drawn from this whole affair then it is that transparency imposes a discipline that is unrivalled by any other system. I very much doubt if the allegation is true.

It seems that the rationale behind this story is that there are plans to bring in a private-sector company to run the expenses department in the Houses of Parliament. Apparently, senior Labour figures have told the paper that the future privatisation of the Fees Office to process claims would exempt receipts from publication under Freedom of Information rules.

This is of course just the sort of misinformation and nonsense thrown up by opponents whenever any service is threatened with privatisation. In this case it is easily put to rest. The Freedom of Information Act applies to the body responsible for the information not the persons administering it. Thus even if the Fees Office were privatised the company carrying out their function would still be obliged to provide information on request.

The fact that anybody is even contemplating such a manoeuvre however shows the sort of siege mentality that is developing amongst some MPs. They really need to get a grip. Any attempt to withdraw back inside their shell of secrecy will just add to the contempt felt for them by the public.

More nonsense still from Lord Naseby, a former Commons Deputy Speaker, who has urged Gordon Brown to hold an urgent general election to save the “foundations of democracy”. Quite how this will help when the prevailing public mood is a plague on all your houses is difficult to see. There are some individual MPs who deserve to be punished for their excesses but the root problem here is the system. In general it is the rules that need to be urgently reformed not those subject to them.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The heart of the problem

Frankly there is just too much information out there to even begin to keep track of all the expense scandals surrounding MPs at the moment. I have said before that this mess is their own doing.

If MPs had been more transparent and accountable earlier, not sought to block Freedom of Information requests and not looked like they had something to hide by trying to stipulate what could and could not be published then they would not now be facing at least another week's worth of revelations in the Daily Telegraph and all the consequences of that.

It seems that some have still not learnt the lesson if this article in today's Sunday Times is anything to go by. The paper reports that the Commons Speaker, Michael Martin, is said to have delivered an extraordinary outburst against his critics who are demanding reform of parliamentary pay and expenses.

Martin, a former sheet metal worker and shop steward, allegedly told a senior MP: “I have been a trade unionist all my life. I did not come into politics not to take what is owed to me.”

The Speaker has so far refused to speak in public about the expenses scandal. However, the MP said Martin made his revealing outburst when he challenged him to take a more active role in reforming the lax allowances regime. “He saw his role simply as a shop steward defending MPs’ Spanish practices,” said the MP.

The Speaker denies that he made this comment though it sums up the attitude of many MPs. He is under pressure to stand down at the next election but appears reluctant to go: One MP warned that there may be a bid to unseat Martin in the autumn. “We handed him the bottle of whisky and the revolver, but he appears to have thrown away the gun and drunk the whisky,” the MP said.

The final betrayal?

The Home Office civil servant who was sacked for leaking documents to Tory frontbencher Damian Green has been abandoned by the party despite the fact that he believes he was offered a job in return for his cooperation.

The Observer reports that Christopher Galley was arrested and lost his Home Office position after leaking documents to Mr. Green, the shadow immigration minister: He says Green promised to look after him "if things went wrong". Last night a Conservative source said Green did "emphatically not" offer Galley a job. "It is just not true."

The paper says that on 16 April, Galley sent Green an email warning that he would probably be sacked from his £25,000-a-year post. He wrote: "Sorry to keep pestering you, but as I am likely to be out of work soon, do you know of any job vacancies doing anything, for anyone, anywhere?" Galley received a reply four days later in which Green offered only his good wishes.

Nice to know the Tories have not changed.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Automatic pilot

The BBC carry news that the airline airline Easyjet has asked council officials for permission for its pilots to marry couples on flights.

OK, but who will be flying the plane?

Parliament lags behind

On the epolitix site yesterday was less controversial news about Parliament than is currently dominating every newspaper and media outlet, namely their reluctance to engage with on-line democracy.

The site says that a report of the Commons procedure committee has accused Ministers of lacking the will to implement an e-petitions system on the Parliament website. They have called on the government to think again about its failure to take the project forward:

The cross-party committee expressed regret that the government had not approved funding to support the development of an effective system for online engagement with the public.

The report concluded: " We very much regret that the Government has changed its mind and now appears to lack the will to see this project through to its conclusion."

The criticism comes amid continued embarrassment for the government over the use of petitions on the Number 10 website.

A petition calling for the prime minister to resign has now received over 50,000 signatures and is the most popular petition currently open on the website.

In many ways this is two sides of the same coin. Westminister MPs are in trouble over expenses because they have failed to embrace transparency and accountability. They are out of touch with ordinary electors because they have remained wedded to old traditions and failed to engage with new forms of media to interact with the electors they serve.

Both the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament have led the way in the use of new technology to engage voters. A visit to the Assembly's website will find a high quality TV channel where you can watch live debates in the Senedd or browse searchable archive material of Plenary sessions and committee meetings.

We have an e-petition system that genuinely feeds into the government system. On the 10 Downing Street site you sign a petition and then get an e-mail to tell you that your views are being ignored. In Wales the petition is considered by a dedicated Assembly Committee who may take evidence on the issue, conduct their own inquiry, refer it to another Committee or ask the Minister to respond.

In each case they will monitor progress and seek to get an outcome, though that is not always possible. The system has been so effective that in one instance it is to lead to a change in the law on taxing plastic bags.

On Tuesday, to mark the tenth anniversary of the Assembly's first Plenary meeting we will be relaunching our website with a new interactive front page and the introduction of an innovation, moderated open forums on which registered users can debate the issues of the day and even the future of the Assembly itself. It is an important step forward and one that demonstrates best practise in how to engage voters in my view.

We are also going to use our website to publish a monthly account of Assembly Members' expenses from July this year. We have already led the way in how we handle this issue. The full account of all claims by AMs since 1 April 2006 are already on-line for everybody to see. There was no dragging of our heels as in Westminster, we opted for full disclosure as soon as possible and intend to step that up with a monthly update.

Perhaps if Westminster had adopted that principle earlier they would not now be mired in the quicksand of leaked expense claims and daily embarrassing revelations and politics would be much healthier as a result.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Poverty of achievement

Yesterday's announcement that Wales is in fact going backwards in its ambition to eradicate child poverty is a major blow for the Labour-Plaid Cymru Government but even more so for those families and children who are being condemned to living below the poverty line.

Statistics released by the Department for Work and Pensions show that the number of children living in poverty in Wales is the highest of any UK nation – and is rising. After housing costs are taken into account, 32% of children in Wales were in poverty in 2008, defined as living in households with less than 60% of the UK median income.

The figures for England, Scotland and Northern Ireland were 31%, 24% and 26% respectively. A year before, the figure for Wales was 29%. Excluding housing costs, the 2008 figure for Wales was 27%, for England 22%, for Scotland 21% and for Northern Ireland 24%.

As Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader, Kirsty Williams says: “These statistics are a huge blow to the fight against child poverty in Wales and this proves the lack of action and firm commitment from the Labour-Plaid government in tackling this issue. It is unacceptable that the percentage of children living in poverty in Wales has gone back to the levels it was five years ago.

“How has the Scottish Government managed to get more children out of poverty, while this Welsh Government has managed to put more children back into poverty?

“What is even more worrying is that these statistics reflect the situation before the recession hit Wales. I dread to think what the full impact of the recession will have on child poverty. This is more than just a missed target for the Labour-Plaid government. It’s a missed opportunity for thousands of children in Wales. Child poverty is social injustice at its worst.”

On Dragon's Eye last night Helen Mary Jones made the perfectly valid point that the tools needed to achieve a reduction in child poverty are not in the hands of the Welsh Government. That of course has not stopped them taking the credit when it looked like they were making progress.

The UK Government failed to put the resources into achieving this objective and ducked the necessary changes to policy that is required. The Welsh Government too has not fully commited its resources to what is supposed to be a priority.

Ministers will no doubt point to the Family and Children Measure currently going through the Assembly as a sign of their commitment but apart from one or two ideas this amounts to little more than a series of duties for public sector bodies without the money to carry them out. It is an empty nod towards their ambition rather than a full scale tilt.

Ministers in both administrations and of both parties really do need to do better.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Naughty Schoolboy

Questions to the Finance Minister in the Welsh Assembly yesterday were fairly hard-hitting with opposition politicians seeking to get to the bottom of how the Government are going to deal with a £400 million cut in their budget next year.

Throughout the session the Minister argued that the Government needed to be agile in the face of a difficult economic situation, that the Government could accomodate the cuts through efficiency savings despite evidence to the contrary and continuously stonewalled any attempts to get more detail. It was summed up by this exchange in which the Minister adopted a tactic first tried by the First Minister yesterday of going on the attack as the best form of defence:

Nick Ramsay: Members of the public will take that as a 'no’ to my answer. Clearly, the Minister is not prepared to be honest as to where he considers these efficiency savings will fall. I agree with him that devolution can be a tool to address the economic situation that we face today, but our concern is that the Assembly Government is clearly not using that tool effectively or taking the decisions necessary.

Finally, Minister, do you agree with your own former Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain, who said that the reason we now face this dire economic situation in Wales is because your Government failed to make the necessary efficiency savings over the past 10 years? They would have alleviated the situation that we now face.

Andrew Davies: Peter Hain is on record as complimenting me and the work that we are now doing as a Government on the efficiency saving agenda; he actually compliments us on the work that we are doing. I will come back to the point that had it been left to your party, we would not be having this debate in the Chamber, because you would be making the decisions at Westminster, and you would be dictating to public service providers. Therefore, these are really crocodile tears on the part of your party, the so-called defenders of local government. We, on this side of the Chamber, know what local government had to put up with when your party was in government from 1979 to 1997.

That led to a very effective put-down by Conservative AM, David Melding:

David Melding: Minister, after hearing your remarks about Peter Hain’s excoriating criticisms of the Welsh Assembly Government in this area, and that you accept those as a warm endorsement of your policies, I can only surmise that, when you were asked to visit the headmaster’s study as an errant schoolboy, you went along expecting to be asked to help run the school. [Laughter.]

It was the best line of the day and not one that the Minister is going to live down easily.

On IT literacy

Now I am not the most IT literate of people but even I know that hard drives retain information you think you have deleted and that the only safe way to dispose of it is to smash the thing with a hammer.

I was less than assured this morning therefore to read that researchers have found sensitive information for shooting down intercontinental missiles as well as bank details and NHS records on old computers. You would think that if people are able to work out how to intercept and destroy a scud missile then they would also be aware enough not to auction their computer on ebay whilst it still contained sensitive information.

Actually, the list of data found by the researchers is quite disturbing and underlines the need for proper education and protocols. The BBC tell us that the same computer hard disk as contained the missile data also revealed security policies and blueprints of facilities at the US defence group Lockheed Martin, and personal information on employees.

A disk from France included security logs from an embassy in Paris, while two disks from the UK appear to have originated from a Scottish NHS hospital trust. The disks had information from the Monklands and Hairmyres hospitals, part of Lanarkshire NHS Trust, and revealed patient medical records, images of x-rays, medical staff shifts and sensitive and confidential staff letters.

Another disk, from a US-based consultant, formerly with a US-based weapons manufacturer, revealed account numbers and details of proposals for the $50bn currency exchange as well as details of business dealings between organisations in the US, Venezuela, Tunisia and Nigeria. Personal correspondence was also found from a member of a major European bank.

Now doesn't that make you feel better about a National ID Database?


Ministers bottle DNA reform

So in the end UK Ministers showed their true colours and did the bare minimum to comply with the ruling of the European Courts.

The proposal to keep the genetic profiles of hundreds of ­thousands of innocent people are to be kept on the national DNA database for up to 12 years in a decision which seems to be designed to sidestep the European human rights ruling that the "blanket" retention of suspects' data is unlawful.

Jacqui Smith's plans to keep the DNA profiles of innocent people who are arrested but not convicted of minor offences for six years. This proposal also applies to children from age 10 who are arrested but never successfully prosecuted:

But the proposals fall short of those expectations and contrast sharply with the situation in Scotland, where only the DNA profiles of suspects arrested for serious violent and sexual offences are retained for a maximum of five years.

Human rights groups, and opposition politicians united tonightin expressing dismay that the Home Office had rejected that option and predicted a race to the courts to challenge the new policy.

"The government just doesn't get this," said the shadow home secretary, Chris Grayling. The Liberal Democrats' Chris Huhne added: "This is an undignified rearguard action designed to give as little as possible."

Liberty's Shami Chakrabarti said: "Wholly innocent people – including ­children – will have their most intimate details stockpiled for years on a database that will remain massively out of step with the rest of the world."

It is estimated that the number of innocent people on the database has risen to 925,000 since December's ruling. The Home Office really are just trying to get away with doing as little as possible when they should be focussing resources and their energy on catching criminals, rather than persecuting the innocent.


Wednesday, May 06, 2009

On swine flu

The Health Minister came to the Assembly this afternoon to give us an update on the position in Wales with regards to swine flu. As yet there have been no confirmed cases in Wales and those cases in England have mercifully been spared the sort of illness that has been evident in Mexico.

This is not to say that we should be complacent. The World Health Organisation is still on the verge of declaring a pandemic and it is expected that more cases will emerge before the crisis is over.

What it does mean is that we need to keep the issue in perspective whilst maintaining constant vigilance and taking the maximum precautions. Quite what this article in this morning's Western Mail is going on about then goodness only knows.

They have found the usual suspect to accuse the Welsh Government of reacting too slowly to prevent the spread of swine flu after it emerged that warning leaflets are being sent out in Wales a week later than in England. They say that deliveries of the flyers giving advice on how members of the public can help prevent the spread of the disease began in England and Scotland yesterday but the Welsh Government admitted that leaflets would not be delivered until next week.

As the Minister confirmed today the Assembly's information leaflet is already available on-line and on posters, there is a national advertising campaign and a National Swine Flu Information Line. In fact the Welsh Government's leaflets will be delivered to homes in Wales before some areas of England.

This sort of easy scare story does nobody any credit. It generates a sense of panic and urgency when there is no need for one. Swine flu is very serious but we need to take appropriate and timely action not give people the impression that the crisis is worse than it is.

Young Farmers do it with humour

My Party leader has drawn my attention to some fine examples of Young Farmers' sense of humour on a website illustrating some of the T-shirts they designed for their annual bash in Blackpool.

I quite liked this one but there is a whole selection there for your edification and delight. I don't think there is anything funny at all about swine fever or the proposed badger cull in parts of Wales but I think it is important sometimes to keep a sense of perspective.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Gordon Brown and an unfortunate backdrop

With Labour spokespeople touring the Country warning about the danger of the BNP you would have thought that the Prime Minister would be more careful as to the backdrop of any photos he poses for.

This photo is taken from the BBC website and shows Gordon Brown talking to pupils at Prendergast Hilly Fields College in South London. It is possible to clearly see three swastikas on the wall behind the Prime Minister, presumably from some school project.

Thanks to Charlotte Gore for spotting it. I think that the PM needs to replace his media handler as soon as possible. Tony Blair's minders would never have allowed him to pose for this photo.

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