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Monday, August 31, 2009

Rise of the career politician

Research by the New Local Government Network think tank using biographical information provided by the candidates and their parties has revealed that a quarter of new MPs after the general election are likely to be career politicians with little experience of business, public service or the professions.

The Telegraph reports that one in four can be described as a “career politician,” having had paid employment working in Parliament, or worked as an adviser to a senior politician whether as an employee or volunteer. Only 11.7 per cent of candidates have worked in the public services, including 2.6 per cent in health care. The piece has almost a wistful air about it as if it were harking back to the time before universal suffrage when gentlemen entered Parliament and indulged in political debate in between tending their country estates.

Disturbing as the research is I should say that I am not surprised and I am astonished that anybody else is. That is because it takes a particular type of person to be a successful full time politician and they need to have or acquire a skill-set unique to that job.

Given the exposure which politicians are subject to, together with the necessary accountability and transparency that comes with the job, then why would anybody who is successful in another field want to switch? Many still do and most make a success of it but they make up a minority of candidates and MPs.

The attractiveness of the job has lessened for many people precisely because of the expenses scandal. It is right that the system has been exposed and needs reforming and people are also correct to be angry at what has happened but not many of them will go through the necessary process to stand themselves.

The other reason why the breed of professional politicians is growing is the first past the post electoral system. Because there are so many safe seats then those who want to become MPs see that the best way to do so is through working within the party of their choice. They will get experience of the Parliamentary system, make contacts in high places, immerse themselves in politics and in doing so get the secure tenure they are after.

It is an apprenticeship in the same way as one might serve an apprenticeship in any other closed shop profession and in that sense it is churning out politicians rather than professionals with an interest in politics.

A more open electoral system such as the single transferable vote that breaks the grip of the parties on Parliamentary seats will reap benefits by opening up the political process and allowing a wider choice of candidates. That does not mean that there will be any less of a political class but it will ensure that the parties do not have a monopoly on it.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Spoofing Chris Grayling

Labour candidate Alex Hilton explains how he spoofed claims by Tory Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling that Britain is turning into 'The Wire':

On Wednesday 26th August 2009 I was chuckling over the silly things Conservative MP Chris Grayling had said about Britain becoming like the TV show, The Wire. It occurred to me to wonder whether the opposite proposition might be amusing. So I imagined a US politician complaining that the US is becoming more like a fictional UK TV show.

This train of thought led me to many minutes of tittering to myself. Clinton complains that Wyoming is becoming like Last of the Summer Wine! Obama bemoans the similarity of Santa Monica to Strictly Come Dancing!

Then I decided that it would only take a few minutes to clone the Mayor of Baltimore's website and have her suggest that Grayling's comments really were just as silly as her comparing Baltimore to the UK crime drama Midsomer Murders.

The video itself is genius:

By the way has anybody ever explained to Mr. Grayling that The Wire also features cynical politicians? It is a work of fiction, get over it!

The plot thickens

Suggestions by Wales on Sunday columnist Matt Withers that Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, may have been a bit out-of-his-depth in making the decision to release Lockerbie bomber, al-Megrahi can be seen in a new light by the revelation in this morning's Sunday Times, that perhaps the British Government had a bigger involvement in the matter than they or the Scottish Government are prepared to admit.

The paper tells us that leaked ministerial letters have revealed that the British government decided it was “in the overwhelming interests of the United Kingdom” to make Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi eligible for return to Libya. Apparently, this decision was made after discussions between Libya and BP over a multi-million-pound oil exploration deal had hit difficulties. These were resolved soon afterwards.

The Sunday Times says that the correspondence makes it plain that the key decision to include Megrahi in a deal with Libya to allow prisoners to return home was, in fact, taken in London for British national interests:

Two letters dated five months apart show that Straw initially intended to exclude Megrahi from a prisoner transfer agreement with Colonel Muammar Gadaffi, under which British and Libyan prisoners could serve out their sentences in their home country.

In a letter dated July 26, 2007, Straw said he favoured an option to leave out Megrahi by stipulating that any prisoners convicted before a specified date would not be considered for transfer.

Downing Street had also said Megrahi would not be included under the agreement.

Straw then switched his position as Libya used its deal with BP as a bargaining chip to insist the Lockerbie bomber was included.

The exploration deal for oil and gas, potentially worth up to £15 billion, was announced in May 2007. Six months later the agreement was still waiting to be ratified.

On December 19, 2007, Straw wrote to MacAskill announcing that the UK government was abandoning its attempt to exclude Megrahi from the prisoner transfer agreement, citing the national interest.

In a letter leaked by a Whitehall source, he wrote: “I had previously accepted the importance of the al-Megrahi issue to Scotland and said I would try to get an exclusion for him on the face of the agreement. I have not been able to secure an explicit exclusion.

“The wider negotiations with the Libyans are reaching a critical stage and, in view of the overwhelming interests for the United Kingdom, I have agreed that in this instance the [prisoner transfer agreement] should be in the standard form and not mention any individual.”

In the light of this information the attack by some Labour politicians on the SNP Government for releasing the Lockerbie bomber looks a bit two-faced. Gordon Brown's silence on this matter together with the outstanding questions about UK Government involvement always left open the possibility that this sort of deal had been struck.

Surely, it is now in everybody's interests to have all the paperwork on this 'compassionate release' made public including details of any communications between Westminster and Holyrood about this issue so that we can judge for ourselves whether we have been told the full story or not as to why al-Megrahi was set free.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

On a federal Britain

One of the other books I managed to finish on holiday was David Melding's 'Will Britain survive beyond 2020?' It was a fascinating experience demonstrating the very impressive range and depth of David's knowledge of Welsh history, politics and culture. This is not intended as a review, more as some random thoughts on the book itself.

David is particularly exercised by the concept of dual national identity. Indeed in the introduction he seeks to define how that operates, stating that 'although British national identity has been associated mostly with political institutions and symbols, it has had a cultural dimension too.' He goes on: 'For Britishness to remain coherent it must now accomodate the explicit political character of Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and, perhaps sooner than we think, England.' David talks about the accomodation he himself made during the time of the 1997 referendum: 'I still considered the spheres of Welshness and Britishness distinct and not overlapping. My Welshness was in essence cultural, my Britishness political.'

I was fascinated by one passage where David talks about the demise of the unitary state, but not the union, which he says can be seen as an adventurous journey rather than a fixed destination. The union as a process, not an event!

For me the significant weakness of the book is the attempt to claim federalism as an important strand of Tory thought. There is no doubt that David himself is a federalist and that it is possible to find some quite prominent Tories who have referred to it as an option at some stage or another in their writings and speeches but I always get the impression that it was rather mentioned in passing or as a least worse option to the break-up of the union. Tories are above all else pragmatic and often will adopt ad hoc responses to unwelcome events to try and maintain the status quo. That does not amount to a coherent Conservative philosophy however.

Fundamentally, it seems to me the history of the Conservative Party has been one of fighting a rearguard action in an attempt to maintain a unitary state. It is to David's credit that he seeks to use conservative thought to fit the current circumstances of asymetric devolution and put forward proposals as to how the union can adapt to survive but he faces an uphill struggle to convince his colleagues of the legitimacy of his views.

The book particularly focussed my thoughts on present Liberal Democrat policy which has been for some time the sort of federal state that David now advocates that the Tories should support. Our policy has been based on the regionalisation of England, which of course is a valid option but does not seem to have any support amongst voters and would be difficult to implement. David makes an excellent case for an English Parliament and argues that checks and balances could be written into the constitution to ensure that England would not overly dominate a Federal Union. This would include the House of Lords becoming an elected Federal second chamber.

It is clear that it would make sense to revisit Liberal Democrat policy along these lines by updating our commitment to federalism so as to make it fit into where we are now starting from. It also appears that it would be far easier to get general acceptance for an English Parliament within a reformed UK constitution than we would for regional parliaments.

An uphill battle for Tory female candidates

I blogged this morning on Freedom Central about Tory AM Jonathan Morgan's piece on Wales Home calling for the modernisation of the Welsh Conservative Party. In this article Jonathan argues that it is time that his party addressed its overwhelming male image by positively discriminating in favour of women candidates.

A reference to my blog piece on my facebook page produced a curious response from at least one former Conservative candidate:

Felicity Ann Ledgerwood Elphick As an ex candidate (female) I have decided it is not worth my while battling against odds to get a good seat. I asked to be taken off the parliamentary list a year ago. Having no been reelected for a seat I nursed and worked hard in for 4 years I realised that women are just there to fill an unwinnable gap unless you are in the Media or under 35.

Perhaps things are worse in the Welsh Conservative Party than even Jonathan imagines.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Why are we in Afghanistan?

Whilst on holiday I managed to do something I have not done for a long time, actually read some books cover-to-cover. One of those books was Paddy Ashdown's autobiography. I relate this because of the current controversy over the presence of British troops in Afghanisatan.

Back in late 2007/early 2008 Paddy was being considered as the UN Special Representative in Afghanistan until President Hamid Karzai made it clear that his government considered the former Liberal Democrat leader to not be an acceptable candidate for that post.

Paddy's analysis of the situation is instructive and must raise questions for everybody as to what exactly the objectives of the UN force are in Afghanistan and whether they are achievable. He put his views into a confidential minute that is reproduced in the book:

1. We do not have enough troops, aid or international will to make Afghanistan much different from what it has been for the last 1,000 years - a society built around guns, drugs and tribalism. And even if we had all of these in sufficient quantities we would not have them for sufficient time - around 25 years or so - to make the aim of fundamentally altering the nature of Afghanistan achievable.

2. In 5-10 years it seems very probable that troop numbers and aid in Afghanistan will, at best, be half what they are now. The international communities will have other priorities, and Afghanistan will no longer be top of its agenda.

3. So our task now is to shape our actions towards the kind of Afghanistan which can be managed on these diminished resources.

4. This will be an Afghanistan in which:

5. We may, if we are really successful, be able to diminish the effects of the above, but we will not be able to eradicate them.

He continues by suggesting that we have to abandon the notion that we can make Afghanistan into a well-governed state, with gender-aware citizens and European-standard human rights. It raises expectations we cannot fulfill and wastes resources better deployed elsewhere. A better governed state is the limit of the achievable.

On the military side we also need to understand that we probably cannot defeat the Taliban - probably only the Afghan people can do this. And at present, especially in the south, they do not seem ready to do so. Nor can we force them. They change their mind on this in their time, not ours. The best we can do is to give them space, help where we can and hope for the best.

He concludes that the realistic aim in Afghanistan, with current resources, is not victory but containment. Our success will be measured not in making things different but making them better, not in final defeat of the jihardists, but in preventing them from using Afghanistan as a space for their activity.

It is a sobering assessment. The question is do the governments who continue to send troops to the region understand this as well or are their expectations unrealistically higher?

So what has been occurrin'?

The headline of this post is my last attempt to impersonate David Cameron visiting Barry but it sums up how I feel as I acclimatise myself after a week abroad in the sort of heat I hope not to revisit for some time. Still I feel more relaxed than I have been for some time, though that feeling will quickly dissipate.

The first shock for me was the statistics for this blog. The last post I made before going away was about the shrine to Torchwood's Ianto that has appeared in Cardiff Bay. Over the next eight days this blog received 5,422 hits, most of them looking for that post.

The BBC reported that the Plaid Cymru Economy and Transport Minister, Ieuan Wyn Jones managed to spend £15 million on research for a proposed M4 relief road around Newport before it was scrapped as "unaffordable". The jury is of course still out as to whether that is a reasonable amount of money to shell out on an abortive project. I suggest that it may well form the basis of a scrutiny session or two and a report from an Assembly Committee when we return after the recess. You never know, the Deputy First Minister may even show up to be questioned on the subject.

The whole country was cheered by the outstanding performance by the England and Wales Cricket Team in the fifth test against Australia to regain the Ashes. Personally, I missed the last few wickets as the occupants of the bar I was in for some reason insisted on watching Chelsea beat Fulham 2-0 first, and as a result we just caught the celebrations following the fall of the last Australian wicket.

What is worse is that all the commentators and newspapers insisted on shortening the name of the winning team to just England and there was even a huge St. George's flag superimposed on the outfield. It is enough to make any sane Welshman demand that Wales have their own cricket team, except that they already have. The team is just not good enough to compete at that level. Still, when England lose the Ashes down under in two years time we can pretend we have nothing to do with them.

The news that seems to have been dominating all the blogs was the release of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds. Quite apart from the outrage this decison has caused it also proved to be a fairly substantial stick with which Labour politicians in particular could use to beat the SNP, but also a quite convenient weapon to attack the UK Government both for the silence of the Prime Minister on the matter and alleged deals between UK Ministers and the Libyan Government.

For what it is worth I believe that the decision was the wrong one. Quite apart from the fact that I have been suspicious of prisoners who are released due to serious illness since Ernest Saunders staged the first ever recovery from Alzheimer's disease I very much regret that it has led to the withdrawal of the appeal against al-Megrahi's conviction because I believe that this was the only opportunity for victims and their families to get the whole truth about what actually happened that night. I also believe that there is a good chance that al-Megrahi may be innocent but if that is the case then this sort of decision is not the way to proceed. His innocence needs to be proved through proper process. Now he will die as the Lockerbie bomber and many questions will remain unanswered.

If al-Megrahi is guilty then he deserves to die in prison for his crimes. Compassion is an important feature in any judicial system but there are times when it can be exercised in such a way as to frustrate justice and in my view this was such a time. That has been underlined by the speculation of secret deals that just makes the decision look shabby. If there were deals and pressure from the UK Government then we need some transparency and accountability. If there were not then there needs to be a review of the protocols that govern the relationship between the Scottish and Westminster Governments. This may have been a devolved decision but it clearly has foreign policy implications and we need to be assured that these were taken into account as well.

Having performed a spectacular u-turn on student top-up fees the Labour-Plaid Cymru Government face further problems in the field of higher education with a warning from HEFCW that some universities in Wales may have to cut courses in future years due to assembly government cutbacks. One university pro vice-chancellor warned that less popular courses may have to be cut and, further in the future, universities themselves could even close.

Meanwhile over on Adam Price's blog the man who wants to be Plaid Cymru leader was busy throwing yet more ideas into the air in the hope of getting a few column inches. This time it was the subject of data centres and how Wales is the ideal location for them. He is right. In fact I raised this issue with the real Plaid Cymru leader some time ago and even arranged for one of my constituents, who has expertise in this matter, to meet with the Economy Minister's officials. If nothing has yet been done on this yet then it will be Adam's party who we will be asking questions of.

When Swansea first introduced CCTV it was the Conservatives who were leading the way in pushing for it. The City Council agreed to fund the measure but in doing so put in place a code of conduct that sought to protect the privacy of innocent citizens who were being filmed. Even then it was clear that the measure displaced crime and that the cameras themselves are only as good as the back-up provided by the police.

Now an internal Metropolitan Police report has questioned the effectiveness of these cameras. Britain is one of the most monitored countries in the world, with an estimated four million cameras nationwide. There are more than one million of these in London alone. Yet according to the Met for every 1,000 cameras in London, less than one crime is solved per year. Each case helped by the use of CCTV effectively costs £20,000 to detect.

For one Tory at least this indicates that it is time to reassess their use. Clwyd West MP, David Jones writes on his blog: 'Whilst there is some evidence of its usefulness as a crime deterrent in such areas as car parks, the value and ethicality of its routine deployment in many other public areas must be in considerable doubt.

We need an urgent national debate as to whether, for a return on investment of less than .1 per cent, we British are content to be subjected to more intrusive surveillance than the citizens of North Korea.' Who am I to disagree?

Liberal Vision though have a different take on this issue. They highlight a passage in the Met report that says “Potential change of Government - the Conservatives are not CCTV friendly - we need to start showing that we are targeting serious crime.” They conclude that the Metropolitan Police are intending to spend the next 9 months focusing on ways to “meet targets” and win over politicians, rather than get on with the job of policing the streets and solving crime.

Finally, the Independent reports that secret plans to reintroduce hunting foxes, stags and other animals have been drawn up with the backing of senior Conservatives. It seems that their plans include the creation of a Hunt Regulatory Authority (HRA) to police the behaviour of hunts. So not only are the Tories going to pander to their core vote by sanctioning the return of a cruel and unnecessary sport in defiance of public opinion but they are going to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds of our money on a new Quango to regulate it. It introduces a whole new dimension to the concept of subsidised sport.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A tribute to Ianto

Those mourning the loss of Ianto Jones on the last series of Torchwood may be pleased to know that there is a place where they can express their feelings. A small shrine has grown up in Cardiff Bay in front of the wooden building that serves as the back door to the Torchwood facility.

My favourite is the card that purports to be from Captain Jack and just says simply 'you were so close to getting the hang of the job'.

The shrine is already becoming a tourist attraction as can be seen from these photos. There is even a 'Happy Birthday' banner which went up on the date of the character's birthday.

This will be the last you will be hearing from me for a bit but, unlike Ianto, I plan to be back. Don't stop visiting.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A confusion over status?

Liberal England comments on the continuing row over Prince Charles' role in scuttling Richard Rogers' plans for the Chelsea Barracks site by pointing out that in many instances the Princes' criticism of architectural schemes very much reflects a long-standing rift between public taste and expert opinion.

That though does not answer the wider questions about Charles' influence (and nor has Jonathan Calder attempted to) and how it is exercised nor does it offer any understanding of how accountable the Prince is for using his position in this way.

Judging by this article in The Times the chances of greater transparency on the way the heir to the throne operates are remote. They report that the Government plans to change the Freedom of Information Act to grant the Royal Family exemption from scrutiny.

One example that campaigners say will now become obscrured from the public gaze is the way the Prince of Wales exercises his role as President of the National Trust. On taking over from the Queen Mother they say he sought the power of approval over architectural projects:

'He also requested that his advisers be allowed to examine plans for a £14.5 million headquarters in Swindon. After one adviser told the project team that he did not like the triangular design proposed for the site of a former Victorian engineering foundry, a senior royal aide allegedly warned that the National Trust should change it or risk losing the Prince’s patronage.'

They report that the Prince also attempted to have the French architect Jean Nouvel removed from a £500 million project beside St Paul’s Cathedral. The Royal Family is currently excluded from the Freedom of Information Act, but some documents can be released on the ground of public interest. This will no longer be possible under the new rules. The Ministry of Justice say that the change is to “ensure the constitutional position and political impartiality of the monarchy is not undermined”.

However, if the Prince is using his position to lobby Ministers or to influence development then surely any correspondence and documentation should be disclosable in the public interest. As a member of an unelected unaccountable monarchy Charles has to have regard to his constitutional position and we need to be able to scrutinise whether he steps outside acceptable boundaries or not.

Bizarre claim of the day

Yesterday's claim by Wales Office Minister, Wayne David that the LCO process is working well and is an enhancement to the devolution process has to be one of his most bizarre. What planet is he inhabiting?

When he says that the system can be improved upon he is grasping at straws. The process is flawed because it depends on the co-operation of two different sets of Parliamentarians with competing aims, both working to further their own interests. It is astonishing that we have managed to get seven LCOs onto the statute book.

More seriously, LCOs are just a bad way of making law. They are time-consuming and expensive and once all the deliberations are over we still don't actually have anything to show for it in terms of changes to the lives of those people we are elected to serve.

If this is the silly season then Mr. David has jumped into it with both feet.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

An unfortunate invitation

Whilst I was writing that last post I had an e-mail inviting me to an International Conference in Washington DC on Swine flu. If only...

The e-mail was headed: "International Swine Flu Conference adds more breakout sessions"!

Not the best choice of phraseology.

A free market

This article in this morning's Western Mail shows that even local Councils are subject to the laws of supply and demand when it comes to recruiting their staff.

It is not a new problem of course. All Social Service departments are struggling to recruit social workers, especially in the field of children's services and as a result many are having to rely on agency staff. In some cases this has had an impact on the performance of the department itself due to a lack of consistency of service and organisation.

Social Workers of course are on national pay and conditions so Councils have had to be canny to compete for their services. This has led to the introduction of 'market supplements' to recruit and retain staff. Those councils who have gone down this route have done so reluctantly and only maintain these supplements for as long as they have to. Nobody likes doing it, it affects budgets and uses up limited resources, everybody complains about the arrangement but Councils feel they have no choice.

In many ways it is the law of economics. Social Workers are in short supply therefore their price goes up. So what Newport Cabinet member, Peter Davies is doing complaining about an 'artificial market' defeats me. It is no more artificial than the market for any other good or service. He is right on everything else of course except for one thing, the idea that the Welsh Government should intervene and stop it.

Now, far from it be for me to suggest that Rhodri Morgan should not sit Canute-like on the shores of some imaginary sea and try to reverse an unstoppable tide, but honestly what can the Welsh Government do and should they be interfering anyway? If they ordered councils to stop paying supplements, if they had the power to do so even, then many of the social workers concerned will vote with their feet and go and work in England where they are still being paid. And what sort of Conservative demands that the Government interfere in market forces anyway? Should be not be taking responsibility for his own portfolio?

This also highlights a fundamental philosophical difference between the Liberal Democrats and some other parties. We believe that Councils are democratically accountable to those who elect them not to a higher body and, subject of course to improving the voting system to make it fairer and more accountable, would only envisage the Welsh Government interfering on matters of proprietry or statutory regulation. The Tories it seems want to have Councils micro-managed from above. They are not alone in that.

One of the problems of devolution is the increased expectation that it is for the Welsh Government to sort out every problem. I have been as guilty as others in this. However, sometimes it is not appropriate that a Welsh Minister interfere. There are other levels of government that have their own accountability and where appropriate it is these paths that need to be followed if we are to maintain our democratic systems and maintain real accountability.

A crowded field

Just when you thought that we were deep enough into the silly season to avoid politics, the Western Mail tries to kick-start the Wales Labour leadership contest again.

This time they have featured an in-depth interview with Education Minister, Jane Hutt who must surely have blotted her copybook with the fiascos she has presided over regarding the underfunding of the Foundation Phase and Further Education. Surely, nobody has overlooked the fact that it is her reorganisation of the health service that is currently being dismantled by one of her leadership rivals, Health Minister, Edwina Hart.

Jane seems to be setting her stall out as a more sensible version of Harriet Harman. It is all about creating a more equal society. During the summer she has been reading The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. But you will not find her demanding a balanced leadership ticket. She wants to trust people and offer them a stake in the running of Wales. Quite whether her colleagues are ready to do the same for her has yet to be seen.

Is it me or is the field to succeed Rhodri Morgan getting a bit overcrowded? The Western Mail itself has identified four candidates, Huw Lewis, Carwyn Jones, Jane Hutt and Edwina Hart. In addition nobody is clear as to whether Finance Minister, Andrew Davies is still interested. If he is then he is playing a canny, almost invisible game.

My understanding is that each candidate needs the support of six AMs to get on the ballot paper. That means that realistically there can only be three candidates. My betting is that those three will be Huw Lewis, Carwyn Jones and Edwina Hart. All we need now is for Rhodri Morgan to fire the starting gun so that this phoney war can be brought to an end.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Government mishandling swine flu in England

Last week I published this post about what happened to a friend of mine when she became ill whilst on holiday in England. She is now back home and diagnosed with a viral infection. Her GP told her that if she had taken Tamiflu as recommended by the swine flu helpline then it would have had an adverse impact on her health.

This episode is particularly relevant today in the light of the headline in today's Guardian which records that the government rejected advice from its expert advisers on swine flu, who said there was no need for the widespread use of Tamiflu and suggested that the public should simply be told to take paracetamol:

An independent panel set up by the Department of Health warned ministers that plans to make the stockpiled drug widely available could do more harm than good, by helping the flu virus to develop resistance to the drug.

But ministers pressed ahead with a policy of mass prescription, fearing the public would not tolerate being told that the millions of doses of Tamiflu held by the state could not be used during a pandemic, one of the committee members has told the Guardian.

The paper says that there are now calls for the national helpline to be shut down to stop hundreds of thousands of doses of Tamiflu going out in an unregulated way, which could render it useless when a more dominant strain returns in the autumn.

Experts are arguing that antivirals should only be given to those in high risk categories, like pregnant women or people with existing respiratory illnesses. This is in fact the position in Wales where low risk groups are being advised to go to bed with paracetamol and plenty of fluids.

It is appalling that the UK Government has allowed their own public relations concerns to get the better of them and authorise drugs to be issued by untrained non-medical staff on the end of a telephone hot line on the basis of a tick sheet interrogation. They are just storing up problems for themselves when swine flu returns as a second wave in the winter.

Given the relative number of cases of swine flu compared to previous flu outbreaks it is just ludicrous to argue as the Government has done that the health service is under excessive pressure and that this justifies their present policy.

Meanwhile, there is a less than helpful headline on the front page of this morning's Western Mail which seeks to draw comparisons between an as-yet untested and unlicensed swine flu vaccine and the MMR vaccine. There is a long discussion about risks and disputed warnings but the net effect is to suggest that people should beware being innoculated against N1H1.

Presumably, these warnings would also apply to the annual flu jab that has been administered by doctors for years as well as to a whole host of other vaccines. As Dr Brendan Mason, a consultant epidemiologist at the National Public Health Service for Wales tells the paper "there are downsides to any vaccines – people may suffer an allergic reaction. But the benefits of the vaccine massively outweigh any side effects. The benefit is just huge and anything that undermines confidence worries me.”

I understand that there is a sizeable minority who are suspicious of science but that is no justification to undermine the basis of modern medicine where vaccines have been used successfully for a long time to successfully eradicate a large number of harmful diseases. Personally, I very much regret the way that the media has treated this story, which appears to me to be irresponsible.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The hidden scandal of unfunded nursing care - correction

A few days ago I blogged on the case of Marjorie Eyton-Jones from Benllech, Anglesey, whose family recovered more than £165,000 in nursing fees which were wrongly paid. I suggested that the judgement was a landmark case that could have wide-ranging ramifications for the National Health Service and hopefully beneficial implications for families in the same situation as those of Mrs Eyton-Jones.

However, I have now been contacted by her family's solicitor who has pointed out that the decision was not made by the court, therefore no judgement was made. This was not clear from the news reports and I based my conclusion on a conversation with a BBC researcher which turns out to have been misleading.

The solicitor tells me that this case is one of many her firm, Hugh James, have been able to seek reimbursement from the Health Authority following their failure not to assess or to assess inaccurately using restrictive guidance (another example was her client Jane Czyrko who was also interviewed on Radio Wales). The firm currently act for over 750 families in Wales and England.

The fact that this case has been settled out of court like the many others before it means that there is no precedent that can yet be relied on by these 750 families or others who have not yet taken their case this far. That is unfortunate because it means that we will continue to get inconsistent outcomes and that families will need to fight all the way to get what they should be entitled to.

I will take this up with the Minister as I had originally intended and press her to introduce some clarity into this process but it will be a much longer haul without a definitive judgement to rely on.

More health service problems for Cameron

And whilst we are on the Tories, today's Observer has cast further doubt on the ability of David Cameron to distance himself from Daniel Hannan and his anti-NHS rhetoric.

They say that several key Tory shadow cabinet members put their names to a manifesto criticising the NHS and calling for it in effect to be dismantled:

The Observer can reveal that leading Tory MPs – who include Cameron's close ally Michael Gove – are listed alongside controversial MEP Daniel Hannan as co-authors of a book, Direct Democracy, which says the NHS "fails to meet public expectations" and is "no longer relevant in the 21st century".

Others listed as co-authors in the book, published shortly after the 2005 general election, include shadow cabinet members Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt and frontbencher Robert Goodwill. Clark and Hunt were unavailable for comment last night.

Gove is also one of a group of more than 20 Tory MPs and MEPs who are cited as supporters of Hannan's views in another book, The Plan: Twelve Months to Renew Britain, published in December last year, in which Hannan and Tory MP Douglas Carswell describe the NHS as "the national sickness service".

Both books call for the NHS to be replaced by a new system of health provision in which people would pay money into personal health accounts, which they could then use to shop around for care from public and private providers. Those who could not afford to save enough would be funded by the state.

Some Tories have argued that this policy is not seeking to dismantle the NHS but rather to widen choice and enable those who can afford it to buy a better service. However, the reality is that what they are arguing for is a two-tier health service in which the poor get second rate treatment, whilst the introduction of a market economy within the NHS will lead to it being broken up, with state-provided care being unable to compete with higher quality and better funded private provision.

There really does need to be some clarity now as to what exactly is Conservative Health policy and whether, once they are in government, free-marketeers like Hannan will be permitted free range in delivering these sorts of reforms.

The new green Tories?

We have already seen the spectacle of David Cameron, the cyclist, being followed to the House of Commons by a car carrying all his stuff, now we have further evidence that the greenness of the new cuddly Tory party is just skin deep. Questions are also raised about how donors are kept at arms length from the policy making process in the Conservatives.

The Independent On Sunday report that one of the 10 multi-millionaire businessmen regularly funding David Cameron's private flights has boasted of how he helped to shape the Conservative Party's energy policy.

They say that the Tory leader has used the personal plane of Yorkshire steel magnate Andrew Cook 10 times in the past two years, including six occasions in the month before June's local and European elections. Mr Cook's firm, William Cook Holdings, makes equipment for high-speed rail travel, which is one of the most prominent policies of a future Tory government:

Mr Cook is among 10 rich businessmen with a combined fortune of £3bn who provided 60 flights by private jet and helicopter totalling more than 20,000 miles – the equivalent of a return flight from London to Sydney. The revelation gave the impression – together with the row over Alan Duncan's complaint about MPs' "rations" and MEP Daniel Hannan's attack on the NHS – that Mr Cameron is struggling to throw off the old image of the Tories as the "nasty party" with close links to the super-rich. Mr Cook, who is worth £80m, told The Independent on Sunday that he had "expressly" told senior Tories two years ago they needed a coherent energy policy. While tidal power and carbon capture and storage are backed by environmentalists, the suggestion that a future Tory government's policies are being shaped by rich donors will cause concern in some quarters.

In an email to the IoS, Mr Cook wrote: "My experience as an industrialist in an energy intensive industry has given me a certain special knowledge of energy matters. I am a wealthy man and I support David Cameron and the Conservative Party. This is why I give them money and lend him my plane to travel around the country. My express words to them when I commissioned the policy were: 'You need an energy policy because the lights will start going out in five years and this will be on your watch.' That was nearly two years ago."

Mr. Cook is right of course that the Tories need an energy policy but how can the Tory leader justify so many short haul internal flights on private planes whilst at the same time extolling a greener future for our country?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Tories ahead in money stakes

An analysis of the latest Electoral Commission data on political donations on epolitix has concluded that Conservatives preparing to fight the next general election are ahead in the amount of cash they have raised.

Top of the list was Conservative MP Chris Grayling, who declared a £40,000 non-cash donation from Denbies Wine Estate. He was closely followed by the Tory PPC for Sutton and Cheam, Philippa Stroud who declared £31,500 in cash donations, £22,500 of which was registered late.

The site reports that only one Labour MP, David Lammy, received a cash donation compared with two Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne. However, six Conservative MPs - including Liam Fox, William Hague and Nick Herbert - were amongst those declaring cash donations in July.

They point out that the shadow Treasury team of Greg Hands, David Gauke and Mark Hoban declared over £68,000 between them in non-cash donations from professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The gathering storm

Just when Cameron thought he had got away with it another Tory MEP has waded in to back Daniel Hannan in his rather appalling views of the National Health Service.

This time it is Roger Helmer, who told the BBC: "Now we all love the NHS, but I think we all know in our hearts that it is no longer the envy of the world. If the Americans came to me and said, 'Would you recommend us taking up a system just like the British NHS?', I think I would have to say 'No'."

The question we now have to ask is how representative these two MEPs are of the Conservative Party at large? Is Cameron struggling to keep the lid on a bigger right wing revolt against the new cuddly Tory image?

Have these two men opened a door for Gordon Brown to stage a comeback and begin to claw back the Tory lead? Or is this just summer madness that will be forgotten by the time we get to Conference season?

If the voters do decide to punish Cameron for Hannan then Gordon Brown will need to perform above and beyond anybody's expectations to consolidate that advantage at Labour Conference. It is a big ask but not beyond the realms of possibility. Maybe the next General Election is not a foregone conclusion after all. Let us hope so. A Tory landslide would be a disaster for this country.

Friday, August 14, 2009

What will the fallout for the Tories be from the Dan Hannan affair?

As if he did not have enough problems with his own party, David Cameron was forced to break off from his summer holiday to stress Tory support for the NHS after Dan Hannan, a Conservative MEP, told American television viewers that “he wouldn’t wish it on anyone”.

Hannan's comments have unleashed a Twitter phenomenon in which over 11,000 people have tweeted in defence of the British health service using the hashtag #welovetheNHS. But it is not so easy for Cameron to disown Hannan. After all the MEP's controversial remarks were made before he was re-elected as a Conservative member of the European Parliament at the top of their regional list and he was subsequently invited to give the keynote speech at the Conservative Spring Conference.

The things that are being said about the NHS in America are both bizarre and obnoxious. In this video* one appalling American commentator even suggests that our health service is a breeding ground for terrorists. I am deeply offended by that suggestion.

That a leading Conservative might want to associate himself with this anti-NHS campaign is puzzling and inexplicable. He is not just talking down Britain but also reminding people about the problems that the health service suffered under previous Conservative Governments. That might be a problem too far for Cameron's charm to smooth over.

*Hat Tip: Daran Hill

Another visit

I spent an interesting afternoon yesterday with the Royal College of Nursing having a tour of the Accident and Emergency Department in the Heath Hospital in Cardiff. It is not a facility I am familiar with, being based in Swansea, so it was interesting to get a different perspective.

When I arrived the A and E was reasonably quiet but it can get much busier at weekends and in the winter. There is a booking system for patients brought in by ambulances but at busy times it is not always possible to receive all the patients and ambulances can be seen queueing outside with patients waiting on trolleys in the corridor. That is not a good picture and clearly some thought has to be given to how we can minimise those occurrences.

The overall impression I came away with was of a dedicated and hard-working staff doing their best to deliver the best possible service for patients. I was particularly impressed with the paediatric A&E and with the two assessment units and marvelled at the feat of engineering involved in installing the new helicopter pad. Apparently, whenever it is used all the traffic has to be stopped around the hospital for half an hour, causing tailbacks on nearby roads.

There are a number of issues I have taken away with me for further thought not least the GP-led service adjacent to A&E which seems to be under-resourced and the various issues that continue to arise all over the NHS by the present shortage in middle grade doctors. There is also the fact that wherever I go there appears to be unanimity on the value of walk-in centres as a means of taking pressure off accident and emergency facilities. Why progress is so slow on introducing these in Wales so far I do not know.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The hidden scandal of unfunded nursing care

The BBC report on the outcome of a six-year legal battle, in which a family has succeeded in recovering more than £165,000 in nursing fees which were wrongly paid.

Marjorie Eyton-Jones from Benllech, Anglesey, who had Alzheimer's, was admitted to a home on the Wirral in 1998, but had to pay for her care. Her family was forced to sell her home to fund the nursing fees until her death at the age of 88 in May 2007.

The judgement is a landmark case that could have wide-ranging ramifications for the National Health Service and hopefully beneficial implications for families in the same situation as those of Mrs Eyton-Jones.

I have acted on behalf of a number of constituents in the past who have been in a similar situation. They have had a relative suffering from a long-term illness such as Alzheimer's, which has necessitated residential care. To pay for this they have had to sell the relative's property and use up his or her savings.

In these cases the Local Health Board has argued that despite the fact that the patient needs 24 hour care because they are in a residential home as opposed to a nursing home then the NHS is not responsible for the cost of that care. It is an argument that has been shown up to be erroneous by this judgement.

Anybody who leaves hospital should receive a continuous care assessment, which establishes their nursing and personal care needs. Any nursing care needs identified by this assessment should be paid for by the NHS. Members of the family are entitled to be present at this assessment. The problem is that most do not know of this requirement and are in any case preoccupied by other matters. Often these assessments do not take place.

Like everything else these days the root cause of these assessments being overlooked is money. The NHS is responsible for paying for nursing care, local authorities often pick up the bill for social and personal care. Thus the outcomes of these assessments can often be significant in determining who pays.

What is missing here is clarity. It seems to me that there is no clearly understood definition of nursing care and personal care. Locak Health Boards might say that there is but it is difficult to believe that they are right when they argue that care that is delivered in a nursing home can be funded but identical care in a residental home cannot.

Familes who are in a similar position to that of Mrs Eyton-Jones now need to ask their local health body to carry out a continuing care assessment and take on funding the nursing care of their relative. That however is not enough. The Government needs to act too.

Ministers must now offer some clear guidance to families and to health and social care professionals on what can and cannot be funded so that there is no confusion in future. We cannot expect relatives to have to resort to lengthy and expensive court action every time there is a dispute.

I would hope too that there could be some increase in the maximum amount of capital a patient can hold before being charged for care and that some resolution procedure can be put in place to sort out disputes on payments between local councils and health bodies. I have already written a motion for the next Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference on this issue.

This court case means that doing nothing is not an option. Once the Assembly reconvenes I will be seeking answers from the Health Minister as to how she will be responding to it. I hope that members of other Parliaments and Assemblies will be doing the same.

More on swine flu

Further to my post last night I have found a Welsh Government graph that puts the current swine flu outbreak into perspective.

Letting the side down

The Guardian reports that David Cameron is today planning to deliver a public reprimand to Alan Duncan for complaining about MPs being "treated like shit". However, it is not believed that he is going to sack his Shadow Leader of the Commoms. This reflects what I have said earlier that the Tory inner circle appear to be immune from effective discipline on expenses misdemeanors.

Mr. Duncan's claim that well-paid MPs are being "forced to live on rations" just goes to show how many of them do not 'get it'. The public are mad not just because of the abuse that has taken place but also because of the lack of contrition and understanding being shown by many MPs.

The question David Cameron needs to ask is how many other Tory MPs (and those in other parties) harbour the same thoughts as Alan Duncan?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The English disease

A friend of mine has been taken ill whilst on holiday in England. The hotel my friend was in tried to get a doctor to see her but because one of her symptoms was flu-like she was refused and told to ring the swine flu hotline.

She does not have swine flu but because she had no choice she rang it and was told to take tami-flu. Effectively she was told to take an inappropriate drug by a call centre operator who has had about half an hours training, has no medical qualifications or experience and was working from a tick sheet. It is farcical.

She was not well enough to to get to the nearest Accident and Emergency Centre, which in any case was an hour's drive away and even if she had wanted to take Tami-flu she could not do so because it is stored at the same place.

For all the genuine and justifiable concern about swine flu it is a fact that it has not yet reached the levels of previous flu epidemics such as that in 2000. And yet in England the Government have decided, against World Health Organisation guidelines, that the health service cannot cope with it and has passed responsibility for dishing out limited stocks of important medicine to a call centre.

I was mildly critical that the Welsh Health Minister did not sign up to this initiative at the time but on reflection she has been proved right. In Wales there are clear guidelines for anybody who suspects that they have swine flu but if they need to see a doctor they can and drugs are only issued by medical professionals. That is the way it should be.

It may well be that in due course the Welsh health service cannot cope and when that point arrives we will have to resort to other measures but that has not happened yet and nor should it have done in England. The methods they have adopted could lead to inappropriate treatment being made available to somebody who is ill whilst others, like my friend are denied treatment altogether.

I am astonished that English Ministers have taken this course of action. It is almost as if they panicked and opted for a call centre to make it look as if they are doing something. Policy driven by the demands of the media rather than by the evidence and the facts.

Supporting the Post Office

Over at David Jones' blog, the Clwyd West Conservative MP writes about his experience at renewing his car tax online.

David relates that on entering the DVLA website, he was surprised to be informed that those who 'tax or SORN on-line or by phone this month' will be entered into a free prize draw for one of three brand-new SEAT Ibiza Ecomotive cars.

Naturally the MP is shocked that, given the current fragile state of the UK motor manufacturing industry, the DVLA is not offering British cars as prizes.

I have a more fundamental question though: why did David not renew his car tax at his local Post Office and support the retention of a vital community asset?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The true progressives?

The BBC report an interview with Tory Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne in which he makes the extraordinary claim that the Conservatives are now the progressive force in British politics:

He said they planned to reform public services such as schools in a way which could achieve necessary spending cuts without harming frontline services.

He also cited the open primary held in Totnes to select the Tory candidate.

Mr Osborne told BBC Radio 4's Today that while he had never ruled out tax rises he had "no plans" and had had "no discussions" about VAT rising to 20%.

He added that people should not be "over-taxed" because of Labour's "overspending".

In other words he has come out with a series of meaningless soundbites and stuck a label on them. Until the Tories come up with some detailed policies to explain how precisely they are going to reform public services, save money and still give the British public want they want from schools, universities and hospitals then I think we are entitled to be a bit sceptical about the claims they make for themselves.

There is nothing progressive about George Osborne and the Tory party, indeed the tone of his comments hark back more towards Thatcherism than they look forward to a modern enabling economy for the 21st Century.

Another acronym

Darrell Goodliffe and Jane Watkinson have cross-posted a piece on political symbols and colours, starting with the Liberal Democrats. They remind those of us who are political anorak-enough to notice these things that that the Conservatives once used red and that the old Liberal Party favoured blue. Indeed as late as the 1970s the Liberals in Ceredigion were I believe campaigning using the colour blue.

They say that the main determinant of early political colours appears to be closeness to local landed interests or a desire to affiliate with local communities (hence Labour’s early dalliance with Catholic green). However, what caught my eye was the information that the Liberal Democrat bird, affectionately known as Libby owes its name to an acronym. That was something I did not know.

When Paddy Ashdown first launched it at a rally in London that I attended it was being sold to us as the bird of freedom. In fact I still have the design guide that was produced explaining how to use the symbol, what typefaces to use and explaining the pantone for the gold colour, all of which has evolved since then into something slightly different. However Darrell and Jane relate that Libby actually stands for “Life Is Better Because Of You”. Is that really true?

Mid-week music madness

Helen, my caseworker, proving that it is not just sorting out tax credits and benefits that she is good at. Apparently, this is a live version of the band's single.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Phoney war

It is summer, it is the silly season, so nobody was really surprised at headlines over the weekend that the Tories planned to put VAT up to 20%. Equally it is natural that the Tories have denied it is true or have they?

Knocking down reports that an "emergency budget" was being drawn up as a Conservative government's opening salvo, Andrew Lansley, the shadow health secretary, said there had been no discussions about the tax rise at a senior level. But the shadow foreign secretary William Hague – described by Cameron as his "deputy in all but name" – was more circumspect, stopping short of categorically ruling it out.

Though a VAT rise to 20% would be politically unpopular, the Tories were reported to be considering a swift budget in the first few weeks of a new adminstration, with the virtue they could plausibly blame painful economic decisions on the outgoing government. An increase to 20% would raise £10bn.

Hague told Sky News: "There are no plans in existence in the Conservative party for such a VAT rate and you can't ask George Osborne to write the 2010 budget now, given the shocking state of the nation's finances."

All the parties need to explain how they are going to get us out of the mess we are in and the Tories are no exception. However, the more Cameron and Co. prevaricate the more we are going to make up our own stuff about them.

In particular it will be recognised that VAT is a regressive tax that hits the poorest and middle income earners the hardest because they spend more of their wages than the rich. If VAT is to be the Tories get out of jail card and partially used to fund a reduction in inheritance tax then effectively they will be asking some of the hardest pressed families in Britain to effectively fund a tax cut for the 3,000 richest people in Britain and their estates.

How does that fit in with Cameron's compassionate conservatism?

The Sun apologises

When The Sun gets it wrong then it really gets it wrong:

IN an article published on The Sun website on January 27 under the headline 'Gollum joker killed in live rail horror’ we incorrectly stated that Julian Brooker, 23, of Brighton, was blown 15ft into the air after accidentally touching a live railway line. His parents have asked us to make clear he was not turned into a fireball, was not obsessed with the number 23 and didn’t go drinking on that date every month.

Julian’s mother did not say, during or after the inquest, her son often got on all fours creeping around their house pretending to be Gollum.

Also, quotes from a witness should have been attributed to Gemma Costin not Eva Natasha. We apologise for the distress this has caused Julian’s family and friends.

Good mental health

Last week I spent a very interesting day with Mental Health Social Workers in the City and County of Swansea learning more about the work that they do and the excellent service they provide in conjunction with the local Health Trust.

The team is a fully integrated one with mental health nurses and other professionals working alongside social workers on a common caseload. There are officers based in the Police Station and the courts to provide assessments and to take referrals, whilst duty officers take regular self-referrals or calls from friends and relatives asking them to consider the well-being of somebody they believe to be in need of help.

I sat in on a team meeting as well as a case review and visited a number of establishments around the City including a residential home in Mumbles that offers short and long term beds as well as respite care.

I also travelled up to Create in Manselton, where patients are rehabilitated back into the community by working on a number of projects. There is a landscaping business there, a catering business, a project that works with digital photographs and also one which builds computers from scratch for sale to the Council and other customers. The building also has a fully equipped training suite that is available for hire.

The Cwmbwrla Day Centre nearby is fairly similar with a range of therapeutic activities on offer to users including dry-stone walling and arts and crafts.

I finished off my day with a visit to the Orchard Clinic in the City Centre where I was given a tour of the facilities and also had an interesting discussion about the under-resourcing of treatment for eating disorders. This is one issue that I intend to take back to the Assembly with me when we resume after the summer recess. Despite the very good work by Bethan Jenkins on this and the £2 million put into the service by the Health Minister, there is still not enough resource to employ the dietitians that are needed.

The other issue I will be asking the Minister about is the lack of emphasis on mental health in primary care. If we are going to adopt the recovery model in which patients are helped to overcome their health issues whilst being rehabilitated in the community then GPs need to employ some mental health expertise to work with them in their health centres. At present they largely act as a referral point passing on patients to hospitals and other health professionals working in secondary care. That needs to change.

The overall impression that I came away with from my day was of a cohort of hard-working and dedicated professionals with a genuine interest in and concern for the welfare of their clients. Clearly, the demand on their time is immense and I am grateful that they were able to accommodate me for a day so that I could see for myself the work that they do and get a better understanding of the enormously complex and difficult field that they work in.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

My favourite blogposts and nominations

As part of the Lib Dem Blog of the Year Awards 2009 Liberal Democrat Voice have set us all a meme to list our favourite posts since 1 September 2008 so as to assist others in nominating for the category of best posting on a Lib Dem blog.

I do not believe that I have anything on this blog of sufficient quality to compete in this category and cannot come anywhere near reaching the level of last year's winner from Alix Mortimer but nevertheless I have trawled my blog and found a few that may be worth reading through again:

First up from September 2008 is this post in response to a BBC journalist who blogged in Welsh about the Liberal Democrats in which he repeated almost verbatim every myth and smear directed at my party by our opponents as if they were fact. I was irked to say the least:

If there is a consensus in Wales it is not a liberal one. It is a paternalistic, state-knows-best, politically-correct blanket, smothering individuality and innovation. The Welsh Liberal Democrats have tolerated and co-operated with this view for too long and in doing so we have allowed our values to slip. It is for this reason that Vaughan Roderick is fundamentally wrong. By embracing our liberalism we can underline our distinctiveness and break that consensus once and for all.

In the same month I was tempted into responding to an anonymous comment to outline precisely what it is that a Regional Assembly Member does:

Of course none of this will satisfy those who want rid of me for their own reasons or just believe that the Assembly is a waste of money and should be abolished. Being a full time politician is not like any other job that I have done. It is challenging and it is hard work. I am often tired but that is something I have learnt to live with, because whenever I feel that I cannot go on something comes along to make it all worthwhile and that is normally news that a constituent I have been helping has won their appeal, got the house they have been trying for or just had their problem sorted out thanks to my intervention.

At the end of the day helping people is what I am there to do and nothing beats the feeling when it all works out for the best.

In November 2008 we had just started the contest for leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats and I set out my stall as a supporter of Kirsty Williams:

The one advantage Kirsty does have is her ability to unite the group behind her. By instinct she is a conciliator and has always been at the centre of efforts to resolve disagreements within the group. In fact the present leader relies on her to do this job as he is not comfortable with it himself.

In December 2008 I courted controversy by inviting the poet Patrick Jones to read his poetry at the Welsh Assembly after the launch of his new book was cancelled by Waterstones due to protests by Christian fundamentalists. This blog entry recorded what happened. For some reason the excellent Western Mail video has been deleted by YouTube:

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

In January 2009 there was a more partisan blog asking 'what Plaid Cymru are for' as well as a more routine post dealing with some of the day to day work that I undertake as an Assembly Member.

I have written numerous posts on the proposed referendum to give the Assembly full law-making powers in the fields of responsibility defined by Part Four of the Government of Wales Act 2006. This one however, in March 2009 is the closest I have come to being able to define what is at stake in that referendum and why claims that we are asking for full law-making powers is just playing into the hands of the 'No' campaign:

We will not be going so far as to create a Scottish Parliament-type of institution nor will we be even going as far as the Richard Commission envisaged, what we will be doing is voting 'yes' to an effective law-making government that is accountable solely to the electorate for delivering its democratically mandated manifesto.

Oh, yes and from the same month a comment on the sort of cultural imperialism we have to put up with in Wales whenever a London-based journalists are forced to cross the Severn Bridge:

It must be really difficult working for the Guardian, especially when the editor insists that his reporters abandon their safe desks in the heart of the English metropolis and rough it in the provinces. If he did it more often then the paper's arts correspondents might discover that Britain has a rich and diverse linguistic and cultural tradition, not all of which is delivered through the medium of the English language.

In April the Welsh Liberal Democrats exposed the hypocrisy of Labour and Plaid Cymru Assembly Members in speaking on behalf of students and lecturers against cuts in further education when they in fact voted for the measures. I blogged on it here and our very effective video can be found here:

Today, there was a well-attended demonstration outside the Senedd against these cuts. A number of backbench Government Assembly Members spoke in support of the protestors including Helen Mary Jones, Rhodri Glyn Thomas, Alun Davies and Joyce Watson. They told the protestors that they opposed the cuts in further education. It was a Damoscene conversion.

On 11 March the Welsh Liberal Democrats tabled a motion to Plenary that read: the National Assembly for Wales calls on the Welsh Assembly Government to re-examine its financial support for post-16 education. Amongst those voting against that motion were Helen Mary Jones, Rhodri Glyn Thomas, Alun Davies and Joyce Watson.

The sheer hypocrisy of their stance is breathtaking.

In June 2009 I blogged in support of Nick Cohen in the Observer on why the BNP should not be banned from our classrooms:

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.

Finally, in July I posted on the threat to biodiversity from the importation of plants and species into a foreign environment:

Meanwhile, the Sun reports on another troublesome immigrant. They say that Britain is being invaded by killer chipmunks. We are told that the animals, who are described as vicious, disease-riddled rodents, have escaped or been released into the wild by traders or domestic owners terrified of infection. In addition the UK is apparently on high alert in case a wave of the vermin, which have wreaked havoc in France, pours through the Channel Tunnel.

The chipmunks are an ideal target for The Sun because of their promiscuity. The females can have up to 16 babies a year, so the population will be growing fairly rapidly. If they could claim benefits then the story would amount to a 'perfect storm' for the paper.

The question as to who is going to win the prize of Liberal Democrat Blog of the Year is already the subject of much speculation on the blogosphere and on Twitter. There is consensus that three bloggers in particular are in the running. These are Charlotte Gore, Mark Reckons and Costigan Quist. However there are many more excellent Liberal Democrat blogs out there including Liberal England, Sara Bedford, Stephen Glenn, Jenny Rigg and Jane Watkinson to name but a few. It is a crowded field of exceeding high quality and I have no idea who might win. though I nominated Charlotte Gore just because she dropped so many hints all over the place.

Last year I won the award for Best blog from a Liberal Democrat holding public office, it is still on my mantlepiece. That is another tough field though I have nominated Adrian Sanders as an MP who has been blogging for some time on My Space, who has a loyal following, is not afraid to innovate and take risks and who deserves some recognition for his work.

I would also like to see the new Welsh Liberal Democrat collaborative blog Freedom Central get shortlisted in the category of Best new Liberal Democrat blog (started since 1st September 2008), however I would not expect it to win.

Update: after this post by Charlotte Gore I am seriously reconsidering my support for her to be blog of the year on behalf of kittens everywhere.

Delicious Irony

Two stories from the Observer here:

David Cameron's new alliance in the European Parliament hit fresh controversy last night when it emerged that its Polish leader had spoken out in favour of the Lisbon Treaty, which the Tories say would be a disaster for Britain and Europe.

The revelation is likely to shock Conservative eurosceptics, who believed that the new European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR), headed by Michal Kaminski, which includes the 25 Tory MEPs, was being set up by Cameron specifically to campaign against the kind of federal Europe that they insist the Lisbon Treaty would create.

and here:

McDonald's, the US burger giant, is set to become the only branded restaurant at Britain's Olympic venues, prompting fury from restaurateurs and environmentalists who say that food on offer should reflect regional foods and London's ethnic mix.

The irony here is not the failure to reflect regional foods but the fact that the Olympics are meant to promote healthy lifestyles.

On mobile phone masts

Personally, I welcome the proposal to make all mobile phone masts subject to full planning permission and I cannot see the validity of the phone companies' argument that to do so will somehow prevent them improving coverage across Wales.

It is not as if they are doing much now to make it easier for customers to use their mobile phones in Wales' many blackspots, whilst their reluctance to share masts and to allow roaming between operators actively disadvantages their customers and the communities they are meant to serve.

The current planning system of "prior approval" for masts is confusing for councils, companies and residents. It is already the case that a mast over 15 metres (49 feet) requires planning permission whilst those smaller than this still need a prior approval period of 56 days and even then they can be called in for planning approval.

It would benefit everybody to treat all masts equally regardless of size and will enable local Councils to adopt consistent policies regarding placement, scale and sharing that can be used as the basis for negotiation between the community and the phone company if need be, as well as introducing clarity into the process.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Engaging with the electorate

It is unlikely that even the Tories can afford to repeat the Totnes open primary experiment too often. The cost was estimated to be about £50,000. However, there is no doubt that the exercise gave the eventual winner a head start in contesting what is effectively a marginal seat at the next General Election.

That does not mean though that other parties should rule out doing something similar in the future. Indeed the challenge is finding a form of selection that is much more inclusive and representative than the present party-based method whilst, at the same time, being affordable.

David Miliband's idea, published in Tribune of widening the party franchise is therefore worth serious consideration. He suggests emulating the model pioneered by the Greek socialist party, Pasok, in which sympathisers can register as “friends” and then take part in selection contests:

“The traditional political structures of mainstream political parties are dying and our biggest concern is the gap between our membership and our potential voter base,” he writes.

“We need to expand our reach by building social alliances and increasing opportunity for engagement and interaction with our party.”

He adds: “We say we want to listen to our voters, why not a system of registered voters as in the US to create the basis for primaries?”

All the major parties have seen a fall in their membership base and this is one way to widen engagement in a structured and affordable manner as well as to restore confidence in politicians by giving people a greater stake in who the candidates are. The Liberal Democrats should not leave it to other parties to take the lead on this.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Leaked reports

According to the Independent Gordon Brown has been accused of hushing up an internal report claiming his government is wasting as much as £2.5bn a year in defence spending:

The report by Bernard Gray, a former Ministry of Defence aide, is thought to accuse the Government of squandering the money by making a number of incompetent procurement decisions. Ministers refused to release the 300-page report last night, which they said was only a draft version.

It had been due to be published last month. However, at the last Prime Minister's Questions, Gordon Brown announced that it would now not appear until after the recess.

Channel 4 News believes that the review states that the Government can only afford two-thirds of the defence equipment it has ordered. They say that huge costs have been incurred when some major projects, such as new aircraft carriers, were delayed but that workers still had to be paid while the work was on hold.

Mr. Gray is understood to have recommended major reforms of how the MoD budget is managed, including the adoption of a fixed budget so the department can plan ahead. The privatisation of Defence Equipment & Support, which handles procurement, is also suggested.

A circular argument

Norther Ireland's Finance Minister, Democratic Unionist MP, Sammy Wilson, is in hot water again. He was previously criticised when, as environment minister, he denied that humans were responsible for global warming.

Mr. Wilson has accused anti-racism groups of exaggerating the scale of the racism to gain public funding. He claimed there was an "anti-racism industry". In return he has been accused by the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities of playing into the hands of racists.

Irrespective of the merits of each side of the case I do detect a bit of a circular argument in these exchanges.

A political partnership

So, when Harriet Harman suggested that the Labour leadership should be gender-balanced was that because she envisaged her husband, Jack Dromey joining her in Parliament?

Do we have the beginnings of the dream ticket to succeed Gordon Brown and Harriet herself as Leader and Deputy Leader?

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Questions over security of ID database

Mark Pack links to this item in Computer Weekly, which reports that nine staff have been sacked from their local authority jobs for snooping on personal records of celebrities and personal acquaintances held on the core database of the government's National Identity Scheme.

The report says that they are are among 34 council workers who illegally accessed the Customer Information System database, which holds the biographical data of the population that will underpin the government's multi-billion-pound ID card programme.

They also provide some details on the breaches by council workers:

What is especially worrying is that they say that this may just be the tip of the iceberg. Many of the breaches were discovered after sample checks, raising concerns that other breaches may gone undetected.

It seems that over 200,000 government officials have access to the database, including staff at 480 local authorities, and numerous government departments, including the Department of Work and Pensions, HM Revenue & Customs, and the Courts Service. The Child Support Agency uses the database to trace missing parents.

Clearly, this project amounts to more than just a collection of information to back up an ID card scheme. It is being used widely for a large number of applications and possibly being linked to other databases as well. With so many people having access to it there must be huge concerns about security and confidentiality. The Government needs to start providing more assurance on that aspect whilst at the same time being more open and transparent about how the data is being used.

A level of oversight to provide accountability is essential in my view. It cannot be right that this sort of database is administered from behind closed doors without those on it having the ability to check the information it holds on us and how it is being used.


Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Whose agenda?

Browsing the internet over lunch I inadvertently strayed onto the Daily Mail's website to find that not surprisingly they have taken a critical line on Harriet Harman's equalities agenda. Now I am not a great fan of the Labour Deputy Leader and some of her ideas but let's get a sense of perspective.

According to the newspaper teaching pupils that it is wrong to assault women and about the need to form healthy relationships is part of some evil feminist agenda. They go further. A drive to reduce violence against women and young girls is apparently 'controversial'. How exactly? In actual fact the programme aims to educate 'children and young people about healthy, nonviolent relationships', which is slightly different to the way it is being portrayed by the paper.

The initiative is opposed by Cameron's new cuddly Tories and also by a family lobby group called ParentsOutloud. Their spokesperson thinks that PSHE classes are in danger of being 'hijacked by pressure groups'.

She added: 'I do not really want my youngster to be indoctrinated with these things. There will always be those who want to cram our school curriculum with social issues that need to be taught by parents and society.'

Never has so much hot air been generated by so many reactionaries about such an important initiative. Do any of these people live in the real world?

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Twenty per cent on Twitter

In responding to a message on Twitter I have just worked out that there are now twelve Assembly Members with Twitter accounts.

Including myself these include Leighton Andrews, Bethan Jenkins, Jonathan Morgan, Darren Millar, Nerys Evans, Kirsty Williams, Huw Lewis, Jocelyn Davies, Carwyn Jones, Leanne Wood (twice) and Jeff Cuthbert.

Not all of them are active or use it on any regular basis but clearly they or their staff see the social networking site as useful although two have never posted a single tweet.

Are there any more out there?

Update: Make that 13, there is Carl Sargeant as well. And the uncharacteristically quiet Dai Lloyd as well makes 14.

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