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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Will Wales get its share of new affordable houses?

Gordon Brown's announcement yesterday that he will find an additional £2.1 billion to put into building affordable homes has posed a bit of a dilemma for the Welsh Assembly Government. Journalists were told that this money will mean an extra 20,000 homes will be built over the next two years on top of the 90,000 already in the pipeline but what will be the impact for Wales?

How we assess that depends on two things: is this new money and what will be the Welsh Government's Barnettised share of it? The Guardian indicates that the answer is not the one that the Welsh Deputy Housing Minister might hope for:

Half the extra £1.5bn will come from the Department of Communities and Local Government, and the other half will be redirected from other parts of Whitehall. The Home Office and Department for Transport were identified by the business secretary, Lord Mandelson, as the most likely targets for further savings.

So with the exception of relatively small sums coming from the Home Office it looks like there will be no extra money coming to Wales as the Assembly will already have benefited from a Barnett share of the money the first time it was allocated.

This leaves Wales having to play catch-up with its own resources and a target of 6,500 net new affordable homes by 2011 that is looking increasingly unattainable. In the first year of this Assembly they only managed 600 new homes as measured by their own methodology.

Those looking to Gordon Brown's announcement to make a difference in Wales will therefore be disappointed, though I suspect that many will also be relieved that we will not be subject to the discriminatory allocation policies that seems to go with the money.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Forever delayed

Gordon Brown's position of being in denial about future public spending cuts was reinforced today with news that the next Comprehensive Spending Review will be delayed until after the General Election.

This enables the Government to try and maintain the fiction that expenditure will continue to rise throughout the post-recession years, even though their own forecasts suggest differently. It will also enable them to avoid any questions on detail. Instead they will say that this will be dealt with as part of the CSR. On the other side of the equation the opposition will be able to do the same.

Understandable as it is that any new government will want to have all its options open on assuming office, none of this is much good for the cause of transparency.

The long awaited publication

The new searchable database of Assembly Members claims under their allowances system can be found here.

The media have been salivating over this for days now so we will see what emerges. However, if Westminster had been as open and as transparent as this from the start then they would have taken much of the sting out of their own problems.

The Sir Roger Jones report on reforming AM's allowances is due out a week today, at around 2.30pm I believe.

Old slogan watch

Peter Hain has just been on Radio Wales and has described Gordon Brown as a 'serious politician for serious times'.

You cannot keep a good slogan down.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Why we should not ban the BNP from our classrooms

Nick Cohen sums up many of my thoughts in the Observer today on moves by trade unions and some Government Ministers to ban members of the BNP from working as teachers. It is worth quoting it extensively:

As statements of basic principle never win you friends in England, I will state the theoretical objection that it is unjust to penalise men and women for their political views without further evidence of wrongdoing only briefly and move on to the practical difficulties.

According to its membership records, there are about 12,000 BNP members. Finding and firing them would be a task the like of which Britain has never undertaken before. As Stalin's armies imposed dictatorships across Europe, George Orwell warned the 1945 Labour government about the dangers of employing real and potential Soviet agents in the Foreign Office. It followed his advice, but outside the diplomatic corps and security services, British McCarthyism was a puny phenomenon.

He concludes:

Assuming it can unmask them, that is. For finding out who is a BNP member is nowhere near as easy as it sounds. When the list of members appeared on the net last year, many on it complained that they had nothing to do with neo-fascism. If Labour instigates a purge of the public sector, it will need tribunals to ask the victims of dismissal: "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the British National party" and weigh the veracity of their denials.

Instead of adopting the methods of the witch-finder, ministers could try behaving like politicians. They could abandon selective anti-fascism and notice that many of the supposedly left-wing thinkers and trade union leaders who urge them to sack BNP members have been happy to share platforms with the reactionary ultras of Jamaat-i-Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood, as indeed have Jack Straw and many another Labour grandee.

Opposing sectarianism equally without regard to colour and creed would not only be principled, but would have the additional advantage of reducing racism in the white working class.

The current double standard is the result of a version of multiculturalism, which has placed a sinister and ignorant emphasis on race and religion. Immigrants, and particularly their children, have not been acknowledged as full British citizens, but stuffed into boxes labelled "the blacks", "the Muslims", "the Hindus" and seen everyone from the local council to the BBC treat unelected and sectarian "community leaders" as their authentic representatives. Idiotically, the proponents of multiculturalism forget that the working class could play the same game, label itself as "the whites" and insist that society must uncritically "celebrate its diversity" as well. Given the scale of the folly, we should be grateful that the BNP vote remains so small.

The chances of ministers correcting past errors are long. But I live in the hope that in its dying days, Labour will grasp that you don't defeat opponents by briefing lawyers and quangocrats, but by fighting the battle of ideas as if you meant to win it.

Nick Cohen is absolutely right. These sort of witch hunts achieve nothing apart from creating martyrs, underlining the anti-establishment credentials of those they seek to penalise and driving the potential targets underground.

Objectionable as they are the BNP are a legitimate party. We must fight them by exposing the bankruptcy of their ideas, by putting in place solutions to the problems they exploit and by campaigning hard on the issues in the communities they are targeting. Their creed has no place in the classroom but teachers must be judged on their behaviour and their teaching methods not on the labels they wear.

The sort of purge of public service employees being promoted by some is not just un-British but undemocratic. As ever in these things one should judge the appropriateness of our views and actions by imagining the situation being reversed. Would we be happy if the BNP were in power and using our actions as a precedent to sack those on the left from employment? No we wouldn't and nor should we be content with this idea to treat the BNP membership in that way either.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Know your Welsh

Am I the only one who finds this story about a shopkeeper in the Isle of Wight evicting two ladies from her shop for speaking Welsh a bit bizarre?

Holidaymakers Rosemary Dean and sister Ann were told to stop talking in Welsh and told: “Speak English instead.” They were then asked to leave Grange Gifts in Shanklin High Street on the Isle of Wight:

Lifelong Welsh-speaker Mrs Dean, 60, of Ammanford, Carmarthenshire, said: “It was unbelievable.

“We were just talking in Welsh about the price of goods in the shop and the woman behind the counter shouted at us to stop.

“There was no warning, she just launched into us.

“She got really angry and admitted she was discriminating against the Welsh.

“It was the day before we were due to return home and we had had a lovely time up until then and everyone on the island had been really welcoming.

“It put a real dampener on our holiday.”

Mrs Dean has reported the incident to the Welsh office of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

She said: “I became determined after the outburst to take the matter further because no-one should be prevented from speaking in their own language and be treated like that for doing so.

“It is clearly a breach of our human rights.

“My sister, who now lives in Bath, and I are proud of speaking Welsh, which is our first language.

“But if we speak to an English person we do so in English because we certainly don’t wish to appear rude.

“We were purely speaking to each other and banned for doing so.”

Shop manager Sue Pratley admitted that she asked the women to leave over the language bust-up.

She said: “I made a comment to them that I wished they would speak English. But she took issue with that and said I should learn to speak bloody Welsh.

“I don’t want to go into detail about what happened. I did ask them to leave.

“I welcome all creeds and colours and running a shop you get a lot of abuse. Mostly you just take it but sometimes you do retaliate.”

I suppose you had to be there to know what really happened but it does seem strange that a gift shop proprietor might object to other languages being spoken in her shop. After all I am, sure that she gets a lot of visitors from the continent. It is also the case that most Welsh speakers I know will revert to English when faced with somebody who can not understand them.

It is just as well really that the Welsh Language LCO will not stretch so far as to protect the rights of Welsh speakers when elsewhere in the UK.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Why so quiet on IT consultancy?

Freedom Central has already covered the payment of £10,000 by the Plaid Cymru MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr to his National Party chair and Plaid PPC for the adjoining seat for IT consultancy. There is no suggestion that anything untoward took place but unlike other stories about legitimate allowance claims this one was tucked away inside the Western Mail, who have failed to follow it up by asking the obvious questions.

We have been told that this money was paid to supervise the installation of a new computer system in the Ammanford office of Adam Price. By definition that is a fairly small operation. Even combined with Rhodri Glyn Thomas' office as suggested I suspect that we are talking about four or five staff at most. In addition the majority of those staff, if not all would have use of either the Parliamentary network or that belonging to the Assembly, together with the software associated with them.

There is of course a strong case to set up a separate network unconnected to official channels to run applications to pursue the legitimate work of MP and AM and I have no problem with money being spent on this. However, £10,000 seems rather a lot of money and I think that it is only reasonable that questions are asked as to what exactly Adam Price got for it. The consultancy time purchased appears to be more than adequate to perform the stated tasks. So was additional work carried out and if so what?

We are also told that the tasks involved unifying the casework staff of Rhodri Glyn Thomas and Adam Price. If that is the case was Assembly money paid out to Mr. Dixon as well? If so how much? Would this increase the number of hours of consultancy paid for? If so then what work was carried out in that time?

As a taxpayer who helped fund this work I believe that these are legitimate questions to ask. It does not matter who did the work, what matters is whether we got value for money.

Plaid Cymru advisor warns of impact of Labour cuts

The Western Mail site has just gone into time travel mode again and won't display any items later than last week, but I thought it was important to highlight the latest musings by Plaid Cymru guru Dr. Euryl ap Gwilym, even though they are pretty depressing.

The good doctor says that according to Treasury forecasts the amount of money the Assembly will have to spend will increase nominally in the current year and in 2010-11. That of course amounts to a real term cut. In subsequent years it gets worse.

Dr. ap Gwilym says that there is sufficient information in the Budget Red Book to come to an informed estimate based on two key statements by the Chancellor. These are that (1) UK current expenditure will grow at 0.7% per year in real terms from 2011-12 onwards and that (2) public sector net investment will move to 1.25% of GDP by 2013-14. As the current level of investment is 2.2% this means a 17.2% real cut in the amount available to the Assembly to spend.

His conclusion is that between 2011-12 and 2013-14 there could be a total loss of £2.2 billion from Wales' budget.

Now that could be a problem. It would of course mean some very difficult decisions. It will almost certainly have a major impact on key services including education and health that could not be mitigated by 'efficiency savings'.

Above all it means that the next Assembly election will be fought on manifestos seeking to manage these cuts and lessening their impact rather than previous efforts that have sought to spend increases to produce distinctive benefits (sometimes called gimmicks) for the people of Wales.

We will not know the actual situation until after the next public sector spending review which will be post the General Election but whatever happens this evidence is testimony to the impact of the current recession and the future problems it is storing up for us. Above all we cannot let Labour assume the moral high ground because they face the same issues as everybody else.

It is not just Tory cuts that we need to worry about but the impact if Labour's policies as well.

Tugging on my heart strings

MPs on the Welsh Affairs Select Committee have complained that the Legislative Competence Order which seeks to devolve more powers over the environment to the Assembly is so complicated, that they are struggling to understand it:

Wales Office Minister Wayne David conceded the LCO was “quite laborious to read”, but added that complexity did not entirely explain the delay.

“It’s the most complicated LCO that has come forward so far, and a great deal of negotiation has taken place across a whole range of different departments,” he told MPs on the Welsh Affairs Select Committee.

“It also has to be said that this was one of the first LCOs put forward by the Welsh Assembly Government, and, unlike now, there was no attempt to get the support of government departments.”

The LCO contains a long list of exceptions to the proposed powers for the Assembly, and even contains some “carve-outs” – exceptions to the exceptions.

Alun Michael, the former Assembly First Secretary and MP for Cardiff South and Penarth, asked the Wales Office to “provide something that’s much simpler for us poor mortals to understand”, while Ynys Mon MP Albert Owen queried why the order did not use simple terms such as “recycling”.

My heart bleeds but actually, this is quite serious. Not because the complex negotiations that led to the current document has left politicians on both sides of the Severn Bridge struggling to properly scrutinise it but because it underlines serious flaws in the current settlement.

It has taken two years to get the LCO to this stage and yet we are still some way off devolving the powers contained in it (which include a tax on plastic bags) to the Welsh Assembly and we have not yet even had the chance to make any actual laws yet. The original idea of devolving general areas of policy within which the Assembly can work to legislate has long gone by the board.

We are now embroiled in putting together what can only be described as a series of agreements or treaties between competing interests that enables MPs and Ministers in particular to virtually dictate in detail what we can and cannot legislate on. That is not devolution, it is control freakery run rampant.

I feel like I am repeating myself but this is important. The present system of legislative competence orders is not fit for purpose. It is time consuming, it is expensive and it is debilitating.

The referendum when it comes (and it cannot come too soon) is not about giving extra powers to the Assembly, it is about dismantling this bureaucratic nightmare and letting us get on with our job by utilising the full range of responsibilities contained in Part Four of the Government of Wales Act 2006 in accordance with the will of the voters who put us there. Now that would be devolution.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Attracting attention

If there is one thing that can be said for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats it is that they are both setting the agenda and attracting a lot of publicity in recent weeks. That has led to an editorial in yesterday's Financial Times discussing the party's prospects for gaining power and influence after the next General Election.

I am not that keen to get into a discussion about election tactics to do with hung Parliaments as I believe our primary aim should be to get our basic message across to voters about what we will do with power and let them decide the outcome. That is acknowledged by the paper who go on to say some quite nice things about us:

Of the big national parties, only they opposed the war in Iraq and only they have consistently opposed Labour’s illiberalism. Thanks to Vince Cable, their economic spokesman, the Lib Dems have also been prominent in the debate on the financial crisis.

At the moment, they are also leading the debate on the country’s fiscal dilemma. Whereas the main parties continue to exchange bromides, the Lib Dems have made the bold, if contentious, decision not to support renewal of the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent.

Offering clarity when others prefer obfuscation is a valuable public service. Even if the Lib Dems do not win, they flush out the inconsistencies of their opponents. In their eagerness to become one of Britain’s governing parties, the Liberal Democrats must avoid becoming risk-averse. Their ultimate selling point is they are not like the other parties.

The backlash against FOI

Surprise, surprise, the Guardian politics blog reports that ministers and senior civil servants are now saying that the Freedom of Information Act was a bad idea.

The evidence comes from a report from the Constitution Unit at University College London. The authors interviewed civil servants, special advisers and former ministers (on condition of anonymity) to ask them what they thought of FoI:

What's interesting is that, although the respondents were generally in favour of FoI in principle, they were strongly opposed to the way it was operating in practice.

Here are some of the key quotes.

From a former minister:

Overall I have a sense of disappointment about FoI. Perhaps I was naive – but I had seen it as a significant step forward to making us a more literate democracy. But the reality is that FoI is just seen generally as a means of attacking the government, whether the request be from an interest group or a journalist. I would have hoped that people would begin to appreciate the complexities of government through knowing more. But there has not been much evidence of that. I still think it is fundamentally a good thing. But I am disappointed.

From an official:

I am afraid I am very negative about the FoI. It is used a lot in my area by pressure groups who are opposed to what we are seeking to do. There are a lot of "fishing trips", trying to get information which they can use in public, or even in the courts, to undermine our policy. And they will use any information received very selectively to support their own aims ... So in the future, I'll be making sure that there is nothing for them to get at. Part of our problem is that we have had a lot of internal material and our record keeping has been good. But I've told my team to make sure in future we minimise what we write down and minimise what we keep. So we'll be getting rid of emails quickly and we won't worry if the record is incomplete, so long as it contains nothing we wouldn't want to see released.

It is rather sad that what should be a public right to know has produced such a defensive and reactionary response from those in Government. If anything their views should underline the case to strengthen the existing Freedom of Information legislation rather than weaken it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Legal challenge to the BNP

All of the papers are reporting that the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) are considering taking legal action against the BNP over its "apartheid-style" membership policy that bars membership to black, Asian and Jewish people. Apparently, the BNP's membership rules state that members must be "strictly defined" as "indigenous Caucasian and defined ethnic groups emanating from that race".

Its website also states that anyone wishing to work for the party must submit a membership number, which the commission believes breaches race legislation. It is also concerned that BNP candidates elected to office do not intend to offer equal treatment to all members of the public that they represent, which would also amount to a breach of race laws.

Nick Griffin's response to the month he has been given to respond to the EHRC's warnings typify the lack of understanding that he and his party have of equal opportunity law. He denies that the BNP are in breach of the Race Relations Act: "This has got nothing to do with colour, this is about ethnicity," he said. "Because the English, the Scots, the Irish and the Welsh are historically white, does not mean being white is the marker."

Meanwhile, the Western Mail (which appears to have lost control of its own website today) highlights another faux pas by the BNP leader. They report on an interview Griffin gave to Channel Four News in which he claims that there is no such thing as a 'black Welshman', apparently contradicting his previous assertion that the issue is not to do with colour. Welsh he said is about 'people who live in Wales since the end of the last Ice Age.'

He claims that his party is here to 'act for the indigenous people of these islands.' Yet by his definition all of those people would be descendants of immigrants who have settled here since the last Ice Age and many of them would be coloured. The BNP are not just offensive, they are confused as well.


Half remembered quotation from the radio this morning:

"If every American dairy farmer cut their emissions by 12% then it would be the equivalent of taking half a million cars off the road."

Apparently, the key to success is in the feed for the cows.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Lord of the Dance

He may be nearly 70 but you have to hand it to Rhodri Morgan, he can dance. No comment on the rest.

YouTube have taken the video down for terms of use violation. Surely the dancing on the part of politicians was not that bad. I cannot think of any reason why they should do this.

Update 2: Walesonline to the rescue. The video can be seen here

The things that they say part three

First Minister's Questions are being taken by Ieuan Wyn Jones today as Rhodri Morgan is off to Washington DC for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival which this year will celebrate Welsh culture. There will be a major trade mission featuring 80 Welsh companies running alongside the festival.
Commenting on his trip the First Minister was keen to stress that it would not be 'too druidic and bardic'. He said: "We've tried to weave the two (culture and technology) together under this overall banner of sustainability...The Irish always had this clash between the Leprechauns on the one side and the hi-tech imagery of contemporary Ireland."

Rhodri Morgan intends to point to the 'so-called miracle on the Hudson' when an airplane crash landed in the river in New York and passengers waited for rescue on wings that had been manufactured by Airbus in Broughton.

He said: "They were all standing on Welsh wings. That's part of our brand now, in the same way that having two Nobel prize-winning scientists on the staff of Cardiff University is part of Wales' brand now."

Meanwhile, a glossy booklet lands on the desks of all Assembly Members entitled '2009 World Class Wales' complete with an optimistic forward from the First Minister. A few pages in a quote is highlighted beneath a photo of an engineered product produced in Wales. It says: 'Financially, Wales is affordable. Put simply, land costs less and salaries for skilled software developers can be up to 30% lower than other parts of the UK. Staff retention levels are also among the highest in the UK; whilst costs are 20% lower.'

Can we make our minds up please? Are we promoting Wales as an economic success story or a low-wage economy?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Strange bedfellows

The Conservatives have finally unveiled the other members of their new grouping in the European Parliament and it seems that initial suspicions that they would marginalise themselves by their choices and reduce their and Britain's influence have been confirmed.

The full list of parties is:

Belgium: Lijst Dedecker (LDD), one MEP
Czech Republic: Civic Democratic party (ODS), nine MEPs
Finland: the Centre party (Keskusta) sits in the Liberal (ALDE) group but one of its MEPs is now joining the Tories' new group
Hungary: Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), one MEP
Latvia: Latvian National Independence Movement (TB/LNNK), one MEP
Netherlands: Christian Union (Christen Unie), one MEP
Poland: Law and Justice (PiS), 15 MEPs
United Kingdom: Conservative Party, 26 MEPs (including an Ulster Unionist)

According to the Guardian Poland's opposition Law and Justice party has the second largest number of MEPs in the new group, with 15. It is run by twin brothers Jarosław and Lech Kaczyński, and has members who have expressed anti-gay and anti-German views.

Latvia's For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK party, which is represented by just one MEP in Europe, is also part of the new coalition. For Fatherland and Freedom merged with the Latvian National Independence Movement (LNNK) in the 1990s, but the Tories today listed the party as the Latvian National Independence Movement, rather than under its better known name of For Fatherland and Freedom.

The party has raised eyebrows in Britain due to the views of some its members, who see the Latvian Legion – the Latvian units of the Waffen SS – as brave patriots who fought against Stalin's Soviet Union.

Let's hear it for Cameron's new modernised Tory Party.

The triumph of new media and social networking

Quick points

Not had much time to blog until now and I am a bit overwhelmed at how quickly the news agenda is moving. So here are a couple of quick points whilst I wait for the outcome of the second ballot for Speaker of the House of Commons:

1. Pressure to hold the Iraq War Inquiry in public appears to be having an impact. According to the Guardian Ed Balls has said that it would be a "good thing" to hold some of the Iraq war inquiry in public, whilst the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw has also indicated that he would be prepared to give most of his evidence to the inquiry in public. The paper says ministerial sources have suggested that Gordon Brown is preparing to accept parts of a Conservative motion to be debated on Wednesday that the inquiry "should be wherever possible be held in public".

This is a good thing, although I would suggest that Brown's position became completely indefensible when it transpired that it was Tony Blair who had urged him to hold the independent inquiry in secret because he feared that he would be subjected to a "show trial" if it were opened to the public.

2. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson has now lost a third Deputy Mayor. Ian Clement, has been forced to quit over the misuse of a corporate credit card just days after his boss publicly stood by him. That brings the total of embarrassing departures from the Mayor's Office to five:

In July last year, Ray Lewis resigned as deputy mayor for young people the day after Johnson was forced to launch an independent inquiry into allegations of financial irregularities and inappropriate behaviour against him following a spate of media reports.

A month later, another of Johnson's deputy mayors, Tim Parker, who also served as chair of Transport for London, stepped down after it was decided that he held posts with too much responsibility for an unelected official.

Other mayoral departures include the mayor's chief political adviser James McGrath, whom Johnson was forced to sack after he suggested that older African-Caribbean people ought to move to the Caribbean if they were unhappy living in a Tory-controlled London, and David Ross, who quit as Johnson's Olympics adviser last December, 24 hours after the tycoon was forced to step down from Carphone Warehouse for failing to declare that he had used shares worth around £162m as security against personal loans.

Accident-prone doesn't cover it, and yet Boris remains as popular as ever. Londoners elected a likeable buffoon with no administrative experience so I suppose they cannot complain when that is what they get.

Good in a crisis

It is that time of year again when the National Lottery singles out some of the exceptional projects that it has funded and asks people to vote on the best of them. Already I am getting e-mails from the shortlisted candidates asking me for my vote and to spread the word about their good cause.

I will most probably resist the temptation but with one exception and that is Gofal Cymru's Community Crisis House. This scheme is pioneering an alternative to hospital admission for people in mental health crisis. It is an important element in the recovery model of mental health care, that seeks to help people recover from their illness within familiar settings rather than relying on drugs to control it.

The Crisis House is just an ordinary, four-bedroomed house. Individuals, referred by health services, have their own bedrooms and share a community living area and kitchen. Being in a comfortable, non-medical environment makes a big difference and nine out of ten people are able to avoid hospital admission and return home after just seven days.

In addition to medical support from NHS staff, Crisis House staff try to help residents identify the factors that led to their crisis, which could include housing, employment, education, physical, emotional and social aspects of their lives. Advice on relevant issues, such as healthy eating or accessing social networks, is provided, and each resident leaves with a pack of information identifying useful services and other support options.

Support and information is also provided for family and friends, who say they much prefer the homely setting. Gofal Cymru is working to raise awareness among policy makers of the importance of community crisis prevention, and is hoping to pave the way for more Crisis Houses to open in Wales.

Update: I have now voted for Ferndale Skate Park in the best sports project category and Mencap's Partner in Politics scheme under the Best Charity/Voluntary project category.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Yet another piece on the election of a Speaker

With less than 24 hours to go before we discover who the new Speaker of the House of Commons will be, the New Statesman is reporting that Labour whips have been ringing round MPs and actively instructing them to vote for Margaret Beckett to fill the role.

They say that this amounts to the abandonment by Labour of its unofficial support for the Tory rebel John Bercow:

Sources say the whips' message is: "It doesn't matter about not having another Labour Speaker - we need someone who will serve the party's interests". This contradicts the message being given out publicly by ministers, including Jack Straw on Sunday, who have emphasised the need for a "non-partisan" approach to this contest, which comes in the wake of the expenses scandal and unprecedented alienation from Westminster among the electorate.

The fact that whips are involved at all, furthermore, hugely undermines the idea that the Government has understood the need for a fresh approach to Parliament, in which MPs are empowered to be more independent from the executive. "How can you say we will have a fresh approach with this strong-arming going on," one said.

The NS has also learnt that Mrs Beckett herself has been phoning waverers this weekend, outlining the case for electing her. One MP who will be voting for another candidate, and told Mrs Beckett so, was given the stark warning: "Well I've won this."

If that is the case then machine politics will have won once more and the future of politics in this country will receive a severe setback.

And discontent within Conservative ranks too

Conservative Home has a very frank post about what is going on within the Parliamentary Conservative Party. It seems that things are not exactly hunky dory there and that David Cameron has upset quite a few of his fellow MPs:

The Parliamentary Conservative Party is very unhappy. The anoymous letter earlier this week was one sign of discontent. David Cameron got another taste of his MPs' anger when he addressed them all on Wednesday. In terms of electoral politics this discontent may not matter much for now. Cameron will continue to command public support for the most draconian action against MPs. "He could shoot us all and the public wouldn't think it enough," one joked. But MPs have long memories and Cameron will need their support in tougher times. The gallows humour going around the Commons tea room is that MPs have gone from lobby fodder to cannon fodder.

"I don't need to have behaved illegally or immorally to see my career end in humiliation. Cameron would throw me overboard without a moment's hesitation," one MP said. "But," he continued, "he'll need us to be loyal to him one day but he's not showing much loyalty to us."

Cameron's heavy handed but inconsistently applied discipline is storing up problems for him in the future. In particular the fact that backbenchers are being deselected for misdemeanors but Shadow Cabinet Members like George Osborne are not being punished for what some view as equally poor misjudgement is fostering discontent.


There is an interesting synthesis today between this article by Andew Rawnsley in the Observer and reports of further Cabinet splits in the Sunday Times.

Rawnsley discusses the Tories' dilemma as to how specific they should be on where their cuts in public spending should come and what the consequences for them and the country will be. He points out that only Kenneth Clarke amongst the Shadow Cabinet has any real experience of how bad it will get but he also points out that this is not just a problem for the Conservatives:

The deficit is now soaring towards £1 trillion. Everyone, except, apparently, Gordon Brown, understands that a squeeze on public spending is coming, the like of which has not been seen since Thatcher's first term. No one now active in the front rank of British politics, with the exception of Ken Clarke, has any concept of the excruciating levels of pain that will be inflicted on spending departments. Senior Treasury officials whisper that their current Labour masters, their anticipated Tory ones and Whitehall as a whole are all in denial. In fact, even those Treasury officials have yet to get their heads round it. There is no institutional memory within the Treasury about what it is like to have to conduct spending negotiations which impose real cuts on departments. The civil servants are all too young. None of them has ever done it. Nor is there any experience in the rest of Whitehall of how to shrink a budget. They only know how to preside over growth. Those who lead public services are braced for a crunch. The unions are preparing their defences. The voters tell pollsters that they know cuts are coming. But there's a big difference between anticipating the blade and feeling the slice.

He suggests that these forthcoming cuts pose an acute dilemma for both the Tories and Labour: Do they decide to be candid about what is in store at the risk of losing votes before the election? Or are they dishonest with the country now and guarantee that they are reviled if they find themselves in power after the election? But he also picks up on discontent about the position of the Labour Government and suggests that they need to change tack:

What Labour can't convincingly deny is that they would have to cut too. In the event that Gordon Brown pulls off a Lazarus-like recovery and wins the next election, he will face the same challenge. You do not need to gaze into the crystal ball to see Labour cuts; you just have to look in the Red Book. Mr Lansley's figures came from the Treasury's own forecasts of spending and debt repayment.

The prime minister has got back on his trusty old war horse of "Labour investment versus Tory cuts" in the belief that it helped win the elections of 2001 and 2005. He does not seem to have noticed what is obvious to everyone else: the horse that he is flogging is not only dead, it is beginning to smell.

One former Treasury minister, who worked there alongside Mr Brown for some years, thinks it will prove to be a strategic error for Labour to persist with the line that it won't have to cut as well. "No one believes it," says this former member of the cabinet. The independent experts don't believe it, the media don't believe it, Whitehall doesn't believe it and the evidence of the opinion polls is that most voters don't believe it either.

The government has enough problems with trust without making claims about future spending that are simply incredible.

What he suggests instead is that Labour acknowledge the inevitable and argue instead that they will protect the vulnerable from the worst excesses of these cuts in a way that the Tories will not.

This fits in very nicely with the report in the Sunday Times that highlights further disquiet within the Cabinet about the Prime Minister's tactics. They say that the Prime Minister was challenged at a session of the full cabinet last week after he insisted Labour should fight the general election on a platform of more public spending in contrast to Tory “cuts”:

Cabinet colleagues fear the strategy is “too crude” and are concerned that the government has not been candid enough about the challenges posed by Britain’s £175 billion budget deficit.

Among those who spoke out at Tuesday’s cabinet was Yvette Cooper, the work and pensions secretary, who is normally regarded as Brown’s most loyal female minister. Alistair Darling, the chancellor, warned that Brown’s central assertion that a Tory government would cut spending by 10% was based on flimsy extrapolations.

A cabinet source told The Sunday Times: “We should be putting balls in the back of the net, but we are missing every shot against the Tories.” According to one source who was present, Brown was visibly irritated at the way he had been undermined, and brought the meeting to an early close, avoiding further debate.

This of course goes to the heart of Gordon Brown's problem, he is no longer credible on the economy. Last weeks Prime Minister's Question Time was a case in point. The PM insisted that capital spending was going to increase year-on-year right up to Olympics despite the fact that the Government's own projections show that not to be the case. A whole series of Labour backbenchers were lined up to ask planted questions so as to highlight Andrew Lansley's 'gaff' that the Tories would cut spending by 10% across the board. Yet none of this Labour bluster was believable or even likely.

The fact is that most people understand that the recession will bring painful cuts even if none of us are prepared for how difficult that process will be. For the Prime Minister to continue to charge at the issue like an out-of-control bull just leads many of us to believe that he is more interested in scoring party political points than governing.

There are strong arguments in favour of a centre-left approach to managing this process over that which will inevitably be adopted by the Tories, but whilst Gordon Brown remains in denial then he and his party will cease to attract the confidence of the country and trust in politicians will continue to plummet.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The next Speaker?

I confess that I am more than marginally less excited at the outcome of the election of the next Speaker of the House of Commons than I am at the prospect of the Lions winning the next test or Andy Murray winning Wimbledon. Nevertheless it is all happening on Monday and there are plenty of people chipping in with their two-pennies worth.

From what I can see the front runner is John Bercow, who despite being a possible closet socialist is actually a Conservative MP. He has the support of lots of Labour MPs but very few Conservatives. I also know of at least one Liberal Democrat who is going to vote for him despite the fact that one of her colleagues is running for the job and seems eminently suited to do it, so much so in fact that she broke a 19 month blogging sabbatical to tell us that Bercow is the man for her.

The prospect of John Bercow becoming Speaker has sent many Conservatives into a lather. Some of them such as Nadine Dorries are even telling tales about him and throwing around threats. Ms Dorries apparently dislikes the Buckinghamshire MP because he is 'elitist' and corrects the grammar of Conservative MPs from under his breath whilst in a sedentary position in the Commons chamber. Perhaps you are getting a sense of why I am losing the will to care who wins this race.

Ms. Dorries is mostly annoyed with John Bercow however because he ridiculed her rather sad attempt to amend the law on abortion. She says on her blog: I shall make my commitment to guarantee, by any means at my disposal, that should John Bercow become Speaker, I will do my best to make sure that it is one of the shortest served appointments in the grand, and glorious, history of that coveted chair. I am sure he is shaking in his boots.

By far the most unlikely candidacy however is that of Margaret Beckett, unlikely because it seems she might actually win it. Sandra Gidley sums up why the former Leader of the Labour Party would be a disaster in this role:

As a woman I would have loved to have felt able to vote for Margaret Beckett who has always been competent in her Ministerial roles. But, a reformer she is not. She voted against the Robin Cook reforms and has no recorded appetite for reforming Parliament for the better. She is almost seamlessly woven into the fabric of the place and this is why she has been gathering support from some of the Senior Labour Whips and the Tory old guard.

This morning's Times backs up that judgement. They report that Mrs Beckett was the only candidate who failed to respond to repeated requests from them to produce unredacted expenses. The other candidates agreed to hand over their unredacted expenses, although some said that they would not be able to do so until Monday, the day of the ballot for Speaker, for practical reasons.

The paper also reveals that Mrs Beckett’s candidacy appears to be gathering momentum. They say that they have learnt that Nick Brown, the Labour Chief Whip, was canvassing Tory MPs over whether she would have their support before she stepped down from the Government at the start of the month. She stands to pick up sizeable support from Tory MPs desperate to stop Bercow if she makes it to the last four, as well as considerable Labour votes.

Personally, I would be unhappy if we had a third successive Labour Speaker. I think that it would be unhealthy for one party to dominate a non-partisan post like this for so long, however I cannot bring myself to raise any enthusiasm for any of the Tories either. Rather predictably, if I had a vote I would cast it for Alan Beith, not least because as well as being a reformer and a good Liberal, he is also a Welsh speaker.

In which I buy the Daily Telegraph

Sucker as I am for marketing gimmicks I broke the habit of a lifetime this morning and actually bought the Daily Telegraph just so that I could get a copy of their mega 68 page pull-out guide to every MPs allowance claims. My local newsagent even had a sign on the door telling people about the offer, though the anticipated rush to get the information had not materialised.

Thus it was that I read the lead article about the over-claiming of Council Tax with mounting incredulity. It is not that I found it difficult to believe that MPs might act in such a way, we have already established several times over that they do, but that the system that is operated by the House of Commons authorities so blatantly encourages it (not that this is any excuse).

The paper has calculated that MPs over-claimed by comparing their expense claims for council tax with publicly available records on the council tax banding of their designated second home:

In total, more than 50 MPs are thought to have profited from the dubious claims. Eighteen have already privately repaid over-claimed council tax to the Commons fees office, including the Labour MPs Linda Gilroy and Michael Meacher.

Some MPs claim round figures – usually £150 or £200 a month – for council tax; others make 12 monthly claims even though their annual bills are divided into 10 instalments.

Until last year, Parliament only required receipts for expenses of more than £250 per month so many MPs did not bother submitting council tax bills before making claims.

When the rules were changed to require documentation, several MPs reduced their claims and were not questioned over previous council tax payments they had received.

The "phantom" council tax claims will add to the growing concerns over the policing of the parliamentary expenses system.

What sort of professional accounts department operates a system so open to abuse? What sort of person would even put in a claim for the reimbursement of Council Tax without checking it is accurate and without proper documentation?

It seems to me that this was not just abuse on a large scale but that it was actively sanctioned by the system that the Parliamentary authorities put in place. I hope that the Police are going to investigate this as well.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Ministers with egg on their face

Two Welsh Government Ministers have ended up with egg on their face this week after overstretching themselves in their respective portfolios.

First up is Economy and Transport Minister, Ieuan Wyn Jones who has now come to an agreement with the Assembly's Finance Committee over important information they needed to complete their review on transport. The Minister had refused to give a document to the Committee that they had requested and they threatened to subpoena him.

Incredibly, Mr. Jones had decided to treat the Committee's request as a Freedom of Information application but has now admitted that he was wrong to do so. An Assembly Government spokesperson is quoted as saying: “The Deputy First Minister has said that, subject to the agreement of the Ministerial Assembly Group, he will share the final report with the committee in July when the Transport Plan is announced."

Second up is the Finance Minister, Andrew Davies who has an item in tonight's South Wales Evening Post in which he accuses Swansea Council of selling off the family silver. The Council has sold off more than £60 million of assets over the past four years, which it is worth pointing out amounts to a modest boost to the authorities coffers of about £15m a year.

Mr. Davies refers to the fact that the Council faces a £146m bill to bring the City's schools up to scratch and challenges the authorty's leader to explain where all this money has gone. Unfortunately, for him things are a little bit more complicated than he seems to understand.

For a start £29.3 million of this money comes from the sale of housing revenue account assets which means that it is ring-fenced for housing and cannot be used for schools. Furthermore, Welsh Government rules say that the Council can only spend 25% of these capital receipts, the remainder has to be used to pay off debt. This reduces the total amount of money that might be available for schools to £30.7m or just over £7.5m a year.

The Council Leader more than adequately deals with Mr. Davies' remaining criticism. He points out that some of the sale of assets have taken place in joint ventures with the Welsh Government; that, as with the Langand Bay Beach huts, some of the money has been reinvested in the area where it was raised from; that some of the sales were of surplus and dilapidated buildings such as the old Dynevor School (closed by Labour); and that the Council has in fact opened two new Primary Schools in the four year period referred to.

There is also the legacy of neglect that the present administration inherited from Labour including a closed Leisure Centre, a dilapidated Central Library and a neglected Guildhall. All of these have been addressed by the Welsh Liberal Democrat-led Council.

Councillor Chris Holley also points to the Welsh Government's own lack of commitment to schools in the Swansea area pointing out that we have not had our fair share of funding. Carmarthen, for example, with a population of 130,000 has received £13 million for education, whilst Swansea with a population of 230,000 only got £1.4 million.

The question therefore is why did the Finance Minister not understand this? It is not the sort of detail I would expect the man in the street to be aware of but a Government Minister, who is responsible for a £15 billion budget should have a better grasp of the technical details, especially with housing. I hereby nominate the Swansea West AM for the new (and admittedly invented) award of boob of the week.

An interesting admission

When the Speaker gave his valedictory address to the House of Commons this week he was adamant that MPs were architects of their own misfortune by failing to support reform when they had the opportunity just under a year ago.

At that time a package put together by Liberal Democrat MP, Nick Harvey was rejected by a majority of 28. The vast majority of MPs – 146 of the 172 – who voted to keep the allowance, described as the “John Lewis list”, were Labour, including 33 ministers.

It was widely reported at that time that opposition to reforms was led by Don Touhig, a former minister, and driven through by Labour backbenchers. A comment in tonight's South Wales Evening Post by Gower MP, Martin Caton (whose name I cannot find in the list of those who voted on the key amendment) says that "I have gone against the party whips and called for greater transparency with MPs' expenses."

So what exactly has been the role of Labour Party whips in maintaining this appalling system of expenses and has the Prime Minister been aware of their activities? Surely, we should be told.

Paint it black

I finally got around to looking at the expenses of the seven MPs who represent constituencies within my region last night and found a lot of....black. From what I see in this morning's press, on blogs and elsewhere my experience is not unique.

What were the Parliamentary authorities thinking? This must be their most spectacular own-goal yet though there is some close competition. What saddens me most is that this fiasco is being overseen by a small group of MPs who should know better and who should have provided better oversight. Perhaps they need to follow Speaker Michael Martin into retirement. If it had not been for the Telegraph we would not have know about the abuses at all as these details would have hidden many of them. All the Parliamentary Commission have achieved is to undermine the reputation of Parliament and of politics still further.

Despite the blackness there were still one or two gems that caused a wry smile to cross my face and, in one or two instances led me to bury my head in my hands in despair. The Western Mail and the BBC have details of a few bizarre and in some cases indefensible claims by Welsh MPs.

For a start we have Ogmore MP and minister Huw Irranca-Davies who has now agreed to pay back £127 claimed in an "indefensible" error for whisky used as a raffle prize. He also sought reimbursement of donations for the poppy appeal to the Royal British Legion (two photocopies in the same period) a further claim for £60 for a wreath to the same, £25 claimed as a contribution to the Xmas lighting (shopkeepers cannot claim their donations back), £240 for tiles for his bathroom and of course, £700 for the garden in his London flat in May 2007, supposedly necessary because of a broken elbow sustained in April 2007.

Monmouth MP David Davies paid nearly £2,000 to a haulage company called Burrow Heath, based in Newport, for the production of newsletters and other promotional material. The company is no longer trading but belonged to his family. Mr Davies said that the work was done at short notice and at cost value, and neither he or any of his family made any profit from it.

There is also the bizarre and the absurd with Lembit Őpik claiming for “the mother of all wigs” and the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne claiming £47 for two copies of a DVD of his own speech on 'Value for Taxpayers'Money'.

My interest is in the Communications Allowance and I have not yet started to look at that in detail. However, I have noted that my own MP, Sian James paid £2197.25 for her website and photos. That is about ten times what my website cost and I do not claim that back. She also has claims in for newsletters and postage that promote her work. That is not allowed in the Assembly and quite right too. Again, I send out similar materials but I pay for them myself.

The Gower MP, Martin Caton is rather more parsimonious with his allowances but I still found an invoice for £634 in his communications allowance to pay for 10,000 full colour 'called to see you today' leaflets. He must have a lot of time on his hands to be able to knock on 10,000 doors personally. Surely, this expenditure is marginal party political.

I am sure that I will find a lot more over the next few days. Meanwhile the latest batch of Assembly Members' allowances are due to be published on 29 June with monthly disclosure thereafter. There will be no black.

We will also be publishing our review into allowances on July 6th and initiating changes to make them more acceptable and more transparent. Perhaps Parliament would like to follow suit.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

BMA criticises Tories

After what I said yesterday about the 'producer interest' I think it is worth making it clear that although the view of the British Medical Association on health matters is significant it should not be the deciding factor in the determination of policy.

Thus the fact that the BMA have openly criticised the Welsh Conservative's decision to press for the re-introduction of prescription charges is an important intervention but needs to be judged in a wider context. Nevertheless in this particular instance I think they are right.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats did argue against the introduction of free prescriptions. Our view was that we should be extending the categories of the long-term sick who would be exempt from paying instead. That position has remained our view up until recently and technically we have still not changed our policy.

However, circumstances change. It is more difficult to undo a policy such as this than it is to oppose its introduction, whilst an examination of the actual experience reveals that some of our fears about the policy were unfounded, not least that there would be systematic abuse, a rise in the number of prescribed medicines and problems on the border. In fact there is no evidence that any of that has happened to any significant extent.

As a result we held a consultation at our spring conference on the way forward. All of the responses, together with the outcome of an indicative but non-binding vote favoured maintaining the status quo. It is my intention therefore to come back to Conference with a motion recommending that we now support free prescriptions in Wales. There has been no dissent on this position within the group or anywhere else within the party that I have been aware of.

In moving their motion yesterday, the Conservatives illustrated better than I could the problems with introducing charges. They argued that 93% of prescriptions were free on the old system and that it was only right that those who could afford to do so should pay. However, they also argued that the list of exemptions should be extended.

The upshot of all this would be that the number of people who would actually be paying would be very small but the costs of administering an exemption system and means-testing would be quite significant, abuse would be a major problem and the sort of revenue the Tories anticipate raking in from the change completely unrealistic and almost cancelled out by the extra costs. It would also be true that even on the Tory system a millionaire with a long term illness would still get his or her prescription free of charge.

They were unclear on the price that would be imposed on a prescription or the amount of money it would raise. I think we can dismiss their figure of £30 million as completely unrealistic. If they are going to cost their manifesto on the back of an envelope as well then we will have a very interesting Assembly election.

And then there is the impact on health of reintroducing a charge. The argument that people are put off purchasing all of the medicines prescribed by a doctor because of the cost is actually quite a strong one, particularly when their income puts them just above the threshold for a free prescription. The Welsh Liberal Democrats are in the process of moving-on on this issue, I think it would benefit the Welsh Conservatives if they did the same.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Defending the producer interest

I am normally a great fan of Assembly Committee reports however the one published this morning on the Welsh newspaper industry has taken a wrong turn up a cul-de-sac in my view.

The all-party committee has attacked councils who use taxpayers money to produce their own newspapers. They say it is not an appropriate use of public funds and may undermine local commercial newspapers especially as council papers take advertising revenue off them. What nonsense.

I am not surprised that newspaper editors and journlists themselves may have given evidence to the committee to this effect, they after all have an interest, but the Committee itself has a duty to take a wider view.

A Council-produced newspaper can save a local authority hundreds of thousands of pounds each year in advertising revenue as they will use their own publication for job adverts and legal notices. That is consistent with the efficient and effective use of public money.

It strikes me that the internet and the recession are the biggest threats to the future of local newspapers, not the activities of the local council. It is important to maintain local newspapers but the traditional business model on which they have built their success is no longer applicable. They need to rethink their approach.

Welcome for Clegg statement on Trident

I thought I would take this opportunity to welcome the statement yesterday from Nick Clegg that the Liberal Democrats now believe that Britain should not renew Britain's Trident nuclear deterrent system with an equivalent modernised system.

This will of course have to be ratified by the Party Conference, which is where the Liberal Democrats make policy, but I suspect that there will be little difficulty in getting that through. This is the right decision politically, economically and strategically.

Clegg is absolutely right to assert that this decision makes sense in the context of rapidly deteriorating public finances and because the case for such a powerful nuclear deterrent in the post-cold war world is "a complete fiction".

It also positions the Liberal Democrats as a radical party not afraid to take tough decisions to bring our budget under control and who recognise the new realities of the international situation. We cannot afford to spend up to 10% of our defence budget on such weapons whilst our conventional forces remain under-pressure.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The on-going fiasco of the government's housing LCO

The One Wales Government opened another chapter on their abortive attempt to gain powers over affordable housing today when they announced that they are going back to the drawing board and starting from scratch.

The previous attempt to draw down powers was introduced just under two years ago and was heavily criticised by Welsh Liberal Democrats and the legislative scrutiny committee for its lack of ambition. It was scuppered when the Secretary of State for Wales took up the suggestion of a Plaid Cymru Special Advisor and inserted a veto for himself in the instrument, meaning that any attempt to abolish the right to buy would require UK Government consent.

A joint committee of both Houses of Parliament determined that this clause might be ultra vires and as a result the Liberal Democrats in the Lords, led by former Brecon and Radnor MP, Richard Livsey called it in for debate on the floor of the House. It was quickly pulled altogether.

Now the Government has tried again and this time they have taken our advice and gone for a broader approach. They are now seeking the widest possible powers to preserve the stock of affordable housing, to modernise social housing and to enable councils and other bodies to deliver the maximum possible number of affordable homes.

Perhaps this time they will listen more and work with the opposition to get it right. After all, it has been two years and we have got nowhere. It is little wonder that the Deputy Minister told Radio Wales earlier today that the system does not work but, as I have said previously, she must bear some of the blame too for not being ambitious enough in the first place.

Referendum is forever delayed

Alison Goldsworthy reported from the Compass annual conference on Freedom Central on Monday that a senior Plaid Cymru figure had suggested that a referendum on the further transfer of powers to the Welsh Assembly was ‘frankly unlikely’ in this term of office.

Now the reborn Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain has backed that judgement up with an interview in the Western Mail in which he suggests that the target date of 2011 promised in the One Wales agreement for a referendum is not really on the cards.

I am sure that there are many Plaid Cymru members this morning wondering why they signed up for a pact with Labour especially when many only did so because they were promised that this was the only way to secure that early referendum.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Whither the licence fee?

This morning's Guardian reports that one of Lord Carter's last acts as a Minister will be to publish a report, which includes proposals to take back some of the licence fee from the corporation and use it to pay independent production companies for regional news shows on the ITV network, which can no longer afford them. The cost has been estimated at between £40m and £100m.

This is good news for Wales where successive reports have argued that the £130m digital dividend money available to the BBC should be redirected to guaranteeing a level of plurality in news and current affairs coverage that properly reflects the Welsh way of life and the devolution settlement. The only question will be whether we get the £25 million that we have asked for or just a Barnett share of this money that is likely to come to a significant smaller amount.

There are of course some difficult philosophical issues with this approach. Firstly, I do not accept the argument of the BBC that they alone are entitled to the proceeds of the licence fee or top-slicing it in this way will impact upon the quality of their services. This dividend was raised for a one-off project and is not currently used for programming, as such it is open for reallocation, though there is a case to say that perhaps we should just cut the licence fee and give the money back to viewers. Secondly, the BBC licence fee is already top-sliced and spent outside the Corporation, notably the £100 million or so that goes to S4C. The principle has been established, all we are doing now is negotiating whether it should be applied in this case.

The main issue though has to be what effect such a subsidy will have on ITV itself. We will effectively be creating a second publicly funded public service broadcaster, in competition with a much better funded rival. This is not a reason to avoid this course of action but it does raise questions of accountability.

There are already tried and tested lines of accountability for how the BBC spends the licence fee, will there need to be something similar for ITV? The vast majority of viewers also have a sense of ownership over the BBC to the extent that a small minority of them seek to use the fact that the Corporation is publicly funded to try and censor what they screen. Will the same apply to ITV? What role will Ofcom have in delivering accountability for how this money is spent and regulating the publicly-funded side of ITV's operations? All of this needs to be addressed.

Finally, it is likely that this recommendation, if followed through, will lead to a wider debate on the existence of the licence fee itself. Is it still fit for purpose? Does the rise of digital inclusion, broadband and satellite TV stations outside of UK jurisdiction mean that it has become an obsolete way of funding public service TV? Should the licence fee be abolished altogether and the BBC funded by direct taxation instead? At least then we could be assured that the money had been collected on the basis of ability to pay.

It is time for a debate and hopefully Lord Carter's paper will instigate that discussion. However government must ensure that contributors are not restricted to the usual suspects. Let us hear what ordinary licence fee payers have to say as well.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Is a u-turn imminent on ID cards?

This morning's Times suggests that the new Home Secretary, Alan Johnson is about to perform a spectacular u-turn on the government's flagship ID cards policy. They report that he has launched an urgent review of the £6 billion scheme:

The home secretary told officials that he wanted a “first principles” rethink of the plan, which was launched by Tony Blair following the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and has since been championed by Brown as a way of fighting terrorism.

“Alan is more sympathetic to the civil liberties arguments than previous home secretaries,” said an insider.

“He is genuinely open minded. He wants to see all the evidence and then he will make his decision before the end of the summer.”

Whether he goes ahead and actually abandons this scheme has yet to be seen but if he does so he could knock £2 billion or more off the Government's spending plans as well as make many Labour backbenchers and civil liberty campaigners very happy.


Have the Government learnt nothing?

Nick Clegg strikes a blow for transparency and accountability this morning with his demand that any new inquiry into the Iraq war should be open, wide in its remit and should report speedily.

He was speaking in the light of indications that the Prime Minister is going to announce the inquiry on Tuesday and that its structure would be "similar but not identical" to the Franks inquiry into the 1982 Falklands war, which was held behind closed doors. It is reported that the Tories are broadly happy with a Franks-style investigation:

Last night, as families of the dead said they would march on Downing Street if any of its deliberations were kept secret, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg stoked the controversy saying he would boycott the entire investigation if it was not open, wide in its remit and did not report speedily.

Clegg told the Observer that, unless those in charge were granted full access to all documents, could subpoena witnesses, had a remit to look back to events at least a year before the war began and reported within months, the inquiry would be seen as a sham.

He said: "If it does not have this kind of remit, my party will not back it or participate. We are talking about the biggest foreign policy mistake since Suez. To lock a bunch of grandees behind closed doors in secret and wait for them to come up with a puff of smoke, like the election of the pope ... would be an insult."

Clegg added that the inquiry could be held on the lines of an open Commons select committee that the public and press could attend. "This inquiry is an acid test for all of Gordon Brown's talk of reforming British politics," he said.

"If he holds it all or partly in secret and kicks the eventual report into the long grass, it will be a betrayal of all those families who lost children serving in Iraq. They need answers, not another Whitehall stitch-up."

The Labour MP, Alan Simpson, chair of Labour Against the War, agreed. He told the Observer that Brown's strategy of using the inquiry as part of a personal political fight-back and to win favour with his backbenchers was in danger of backfiring spectacularly. "If it is done secretively, it could be the final nail in his coffin," he said. "We need no less rigorous an examination on this than we had on the far less important issue of MPs' expenses. A secret examination would be worthless."

Let us hope that the Prime Minister and the Conservatives take note.

Stray words

The gremlins have been at work this morning if this item on the Sunday Times website is anything to go by. Reporting on the latest opinion poll the paper has turned the Conservative Leader and his Shadow Chancellor into market gardeners:

Even so, 33% of people named Cameron and George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, as the politicians they trusted most to raise their and their family’s standard of fingers in the earth and nothing tastes better than a strawberry or tomato you have just picked.

Almost reminds me of that famous Spitting Image sketch where Thatcher is ordering food for herself and the Cabinet - vegetables anybody?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Choosing the next Speaker of the House of Commons

Freedom Central has already highlighted the excellent post by Paul Flynn, giving the inside story on the candidates for Speaker, but what are the qualities that we, the voters, should expect of the person who assumes this role later this month.

The MySociety website puts forward a set of three Principles that they believe are important and which they want all candidates for Speaker to endorse, before the election takes place. These are:

1. Voters have the right to know in detail about the money that is spent to support MPs and run Parliament, and in similar detail how the decisions to spend that money are settled upon.

2. Bills being considered must be published online in a much better way than they are now, as the Free Our Bills campaign has been suggesting for some time.

3. The Internet is not a threat to a renewal in our democracy, it is one of its best hopes. The House of Commons should appoint a senior officer with direct working experience of the power of the Internet who reports directly to the Speaker, and who will help Parliament adapt to a new era of transparency and effectiveness.

I agree with all of these as they will open up the process of government and make it more transparent and accountable. I would like to add a few of my own though including embracing the principle of a right to know in respect of any requests for information and the wholescale reform of the way that the Commons works so as to exclude the ability of MPs to have second jobs and to improve attendance at Committees.

Feel free to add more in the comments.

Who is the Mayor of London?

I only ask because the Facebook URL has been grabbed by or on behalf of Ken Livingstone.

I am just checking to see that I have not had an Ashes to Ashes style accident and slipped back into the past.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Mobile Phone directory opt-out

There has been some consternation about the new mobile phone directory which enables people to find the number they want.

The service is being run by Connectivity (http://www.118800.co.uk/) which has bought lists of 16 million phone numbers – around 40 per cent of those in regular use in the UK – and addresses, which are typically used in the premium rate industry, to set up its service.

Connectivity insists it is 'privacy friendly' because it will not give out mobile numbers, but instead act as an intermediary to put users in touch with whoever they are searching for.
Instead, operators will find and dial the target's number and ask whether they are prepared to receive the call. If the target (you) doesn't answer their phone, then they'll send you an SMS message with the callers Name & Phone number for you to respond to. For either transaction Connectivity is going to charge the Enquirer £1.

If you are not happy at having your mobile number on this database then you can opt out here.

Hat Tip: Bridget Fox

The white supremacist and the BNP

This morning's Guardian has an interesting article on links between a white supremacist who killed a security guard at a Holocaust memorial museum in the US and the British National Party.

The papers says that James Von Brunn, a longtime antisemite, had attended meetings of the American Friends of the British National party (AFBNP), which was set up to raise funds from far-right activists in America:

Mark Cotterill, who ran the US-based organisation before it folded in 2001, said: "He did attend meetings. I have just checked my database and he is down as 'meetings only', so he was not a major donor, although he may have put some money on the plate when it was passed round."

The AFBNP treasurer, Todd Blodgett, also told the Washington Post that he and Von Brunn had attended fundraising meetings in Arlington County. The BNP leader, Nick Griffin, spoke to at least two AFBNP meetings and said the money raised by the organisation made a "significant contribution to the BNP's [2001] general election campaign".

Yesterday a spokesman for the party said: "You get a lot of people coming to meetings but I don't think you can blame us for that. Even if he did go to meetings, it was nothing to do with us."

However, anti-racism campaigners said Von Brunn's links to the BNP underlined its extremist agenda. "It is clear that Nick Griffin is at the centre of an international network of white supremacists," said Dan Hodges, of Searchlight. "The BNP must explain the full extent of his organisation's links with this antisemitic gunman."

Plaid Leader in trouble again

Having blogged yesterday on Freedom Central about Ieuan Wyn Jones' shortcomings as a Minister I was not expecting yet another controversy to flare up about him so soon. However, this morning's news is once more reporting on his reluctance to be scrutinised on the job he is allegedly doing.

This time it is the Finance Committee who, having been frustrated over a period of four months in their efforts to get important information out of the Transport Minister on his roads programme, are now threatening to subpoena him to get their way. This is the first time this power has been considered by any committee of the Assembly and I think it is fair to say that it was never envisaged that it would be used against Ministers, who would normally be expected to cooperate with scrutiny arrangements.

Claims by Plaid spin doctors that this is all politically motivated can be shot down in flames by the cross party support for this threat. Members of the Government parties are the most vociferous of all the AMs in their call for the Minister to be held to account. It really does lead one to question whether Ieuan Wyn Jones is up to the job he has taken on. Plaid Cymru may be in government but do they know how to govern? On the evidence so far it seems not.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Underfunded services

Gwynedd Council has become the latest Welsh Local Authority to predict massive cuts in its budget over the next three years. They have said that they are considering how to save £16m over that period. The Welsh Local Government Association have said that all Councils will have to chop tens of millions of pounds from their budgets and that further cuts may be necessary in the longer term.

All of this is inevitable of course given the way that the UK Government used public cash to prop up the banks and to bale out the economy. They are cutting the Welsh Government's grant and those cuts will be passed on to services. It is also clear that none of this is down to mismanagement on the part of individual Councils. They rely on central funding for most of their money so they are particularly vulnerable to changes in that income stream.

What is not inevitable is how the Welsh Government wields the axe. In the past Labour and Plaid Cymru have bolstered services they fund directly at the expense of local government. Thus they have not passed on all their grant increase to councils. That has consequences for the level of council tax and for local services. The calculation made by Ministers is that they can blame councillors for any consequential cuts.

That sort of short-sighted thinking cannot be allowed to prevail. Councils deliver some key frontline services that deserve the same sort of protection as health and transport. Nobody is asking for special treatment, just a level playing field.

Easy targets

A number of people have commented how it is that despite the exposure of a great deal of abuse of the allowances system by many MPs it is only those lower down the hierarchy who are being deselected or punished by the respective party's 'star chambers'. So how will David Cameron react to the latest revelations about his Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne?

This morning's Times reports that Mr. Osborne “flipped” the designation of his official second home from his London residence to his constituency home after taking out a £450,000 mortgage on the property.

They say that the Shadow Chancellor bought the Cheshire farmhouse close to his constituency ten months before winning the Tatton seat in June 2001.

Instead of taking out a mortgage on the property he funded the purchase by increasing his borrowing on the London home where he and his wife had lived since 1998.

After his election he designated the London house his “second home” with the Commons authorities, even though it was his main residence, so that he could claim the mortgage interest payments on his expenses.

Two years later Mr Osborne took out his first mortgage on the house in Cheshire and made that his official second home. He has since claimed up to £100,000 of taxpayers’ money to cover interest payments on the farmhouse, which is situated on the edge of Peak District National Park.

The arrangement also enabled Mr Osborne to reduce the loan on his London home, which he later sold for £1.45 million, to less than £200,000.

To be fair I should report Mr. Osborne's reaction to these allegations. He said that he had made no personal gain from the flip and that there was no impropriety or suggestion of wrongdoing. He said that after being elected an MP he had been advised by the Commons’ Fees Office to declare the London house as his second home so that he could claim expenses for his mortgage interest payments until he was able to change his loan arrangements.

Still, as the Times points out, this does pose a dilemma for his leader. Will Cameron refer George Osborne to be investigated by the Conservative Party? We will have to see.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

What is going down in Wales?

Spotted coming out of a lift in the Welsh Assembly less than an hour ago, the Welsh Conservative's Head of Media, their new MEP, Kay Swinburne and John Bufton, the new UKIP MEP for Wales.

It is nice of the Welsh Tories to take UKIP under their wing so early after the election. Who knew they had so much in common? Perhaps the Conservatives have ambitions of getting a second MEP after all.

The Great Reformer?

My first reaction on hearing that Gordon Brown now wants to introduce proportional representation for Westminster elections was that after 12 years what he was proposing was too little too late.

It seems to me to be very peculiar timing to announce a reform such as this, tied into a referendum, when there is virtually no chance of introducing it before a General Election he seems certain to lose and when his motives will be rightly questioned. It could be portrayed as a last ditch attempt to save his political skin by changing the rules or a cynical attempt to cosy up to the Liberal Democrats and the Nationalists in the event of a hung Parliament.

The Prime Minister's timing sucks and so does the form of Fair Votes he is proposing. The Alternative Vote, with or without a top-up list is not proportional and does not deliver improved outcomes for the electorate. Gordon is posing as the great reformer but in actual fact on this issue he remains as immersed in the conservative mainstream as he and the Labour Party have been for some time.

That is not to say that we should not welcome some movement towards our agenda. This is an opportiunity for the Liberal Democrats to push hard at the boundaries the government have set themselves on this issue. We should be buoyed in that endeavour by the other parts of our proposals that the government have adopted and which, actually stand out as more prominent priorities for the PM than electoral reform.

Gordon has also promised some movement towards an elected House of Lords but as with electoral reform he is only offering to look for cross-party consensus on the issue. Instead, we are told that the Prime Minister will use today's announcement to outline a new bill to clean up parliament that will include a legally enforceable code of conduct for MPs, an end to parliamentary self-regulation, and greater powers for backbenchers to scrutinise laws. It is possible that MPs found to be in breach of financial aspects of the code could be subject to recall by their constituents, a means of triggering a fresh election, a key Clegg proposal.

As ever this is the politics of the possible and as practical politicians we will need to make compromises but it strikes me that an opportunity is being missed too. Most people accept that Parliament should not police itself, so why should it be allowed to dictate the way that it is reformed. We have a chance to engage with a disenchanted and disillusioned electorate and allow them to run this agenda, not through referendums but genuine consultation and empowerment.

Unlock Democracy are promoting a Citizens’ Convention (Accountability and Ethics) Bill to do just that. Perhaps Gordon Brown can take the politics out of this debate and demonstrate just how much of a reformer he is by backing that initiative and while he is at it, throw down the gauntlet to the so-called 'man-of-the-people', David Cameron to do the same.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The search for plurality in broadcasting

The publication of a report by the Communities and Culture Committee today, looking at Welsh broadcasting is an important step forward in the fight to secure choice and diversity in the provision of Welsh news and current affairs, as well as to ensure the proper representation of Wales in mainstream television and radio programming.

The recent merger of ITV Wales with an English region and severe cutbacks in the provision of Welsh news on that network has left the BBC as a near monopoly provider. ITV have been hit by a 20% fall in advertising revenue in the first three months of the year and their public service broadcasting licence will expire in 2010

No independent network could match the level of resources the BBC puts into this but it is important that there is some competition so as to ensure that there is more than one voice on our airwaves commenting on Welsh public affairs.

The Committee has very sensibly taken a staged approach. As a long term objective they want to create an independent body with a budget of around £25m to commission news and other programmes on ITV. They say that the cash could come from a levy on commercial broadcasters, Lottery funding, funds currently used to prepare for the digital switchover and public money from the Welsh and UK governments. They envisage that ITV would provide slots in its schedule for programmes commissioned by the new body.

In the short term they want to make use of S4C and the very vibrant independent sector in Wales to commission English-language programming. It is a sensible first step but will be dependent on the goodwill of S4C and the availability of funding.

The whole problem with this review lies in the fact that responsibility for broadcasting lies with Westminster. I think it is reasonable to question UK Minister's commitment to plurality in Welsh broadcasting. Is it even on their radar?

I know that the Heritage Minister takes a far more active interest in this than his predecessor and raises these issues regularly in Whitehall but we are now getting to the point whereby the only way that these sorts of recommendations can be taken forward is if the responsibility and the budgets for broadcasting are devolved to the Welsh Assembly. If that does not happen then I fear that ITV Wales and the alternative service it provides will disappear very quickly.

Monday, June 08, 2009

The verdict in Wales

It was a long night. It was made longer by the fact that the All-Wales count took place in an unheated hangar/cow shed/factory unit (delete as appropriate) on the edge of Haverfordwest. One suspects that if the electorate had known of its availability earlier they would have voted en masse to detain all the country's politicians there indefinitely.

For despite all the political earth-shaking events of the night there was no doubt that the overwhelming verdict was one of a plague-on-all-your-houses both in Wales and across the UK. People turned out to vote against the government and to cast their protest against the political system and the biggest beneficiaries of those trends were UKIP and the BNP. The Conservatives cleaned up on what was left but then that was the most predictable outcome of the whole event.

In Wales there is no doubt that the night's biggest losers were Labour. They lost 12% of their vote and their second MEP to UKIP. More significantly they failed to secure a majority of Welsh votes for the the first time since 1918 watching the Conservatives slip past them to top the poll, something that party has not done here since the mid-nineteenth century when only land-owners had the vote (OK, I may have exaggerated a bit there). However, the Tories achieved this with only a modest increase in their vote and failed to win the second seat they had hoped for.

Plaid Cymru put on a brave face. They had spent a significant part of this campaign talking up their chances. They believed they could top the poll, they were confident they were going to beat Labour and win a second place. However, despite a one per cent uplift in their vote and some solid wins in their heartland areas they failed to meet all of their objectives. It was yet another election for them when the hype failed to be met by reality.

And yes, it was not the best of nights for the Welsh Liberal Democrats. We came fifth again despite a miniscule increase in our vote and missed out on a seat because of the UKIP surge. However, we took comfort in our strong performance in areas where we hope to do well in future elections.

There was a 5.3% swing for example from Plaid Cymru to the Welsh Liberal Democrats in Ceredigion, enough to give Mark Williams a 1500 majority. We matched previous European performances in Brecon and Radnor, which have seen us go on to win the subsequent General Election in that seat and we won Cardiff Central for the first time ever in a European Election. We also turned in very strong second places in Swansea West and Newport East that must surely set us up for future success in those seats in future General and Assembly elections.

Only in Montgomery did we fail to meet our expectations and there we just missed out on second place by a few hundred votes to UKIP. We have failed to win this seat at all previous European Elections by similar margins and yet went onto secure significant majorities at the General Election. We certainly did not suffer the collapse there our opponents predicted and we continue to be confident that we will retain the seat whenever Gordon Brown decides to go to the country.

It is true that people are now voting differently in different elections and it is difficult to extrapolate from one to another. However, I believe that the Welsh Liberal Democrats made solid progress last night. As well as our targets we either held our vote steady or increased it across most seats in Wales. This was a result we can build on and a cause for optimism rather than despondency,

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