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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

It was the Sun wot dun it

Both the media and, it seems a lot of Labour Party apparatchiks are running around like headless chickens today at the news that The Sun has abandoned Labour and is supporting the Tories. Or to be more precise it is supporting the Tories in England in Wales. In Scotland the paper is backing anybody but Labour in the hope that they do not alienate too many of their readers. It is a principled stance then?

Given the deeply illiberal and kneejerk agenda set out by Gordon Brown in his speech yesterday, including bringing back the poorhouse for single mothers, this is something of a surprise. After all wasn't the Prime Minister's speech written to appeal to papers like The Sun?

Still at least Labour still seem to have the half-hearted approval of the Daily Mail. I am sure they will be very happy together.

More on NHS debt

The Welsh Health Minister followed up her 42 page missive lastw week, in which she claimed the virtual eradication of debt within Wales' National Health Service, with a further announcement yesterday writing off £47 million of historic debt at two of Wales' largest NHS organisations.

She wiped out the £40 million debt that would have been inherited by the Hywel Dda Local Health Board from its predecessor organisations comprising the Hywel Dda NHS Trust and the Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire LHBs. She has also told the North Wales NHS Trust that it will no longer have to pay off the £7 million it owes, sparing the new Betsi Cadwaladr LHB from additional cuts on top of those already planned.

However, there is no mention of the money owed by the Wales Ambulance Trust, who are failing to meet their targets, are in desperate need of more investment and yet have to find £40 million over the next two years in savings.

I raised this issue with the First Minister yesterday and quoted back at him the passage from the Health Minister's mammoth letter in which she said: NHS Trust debt has reduced considerably over the last two years from £42.8m in 2006-07 to £8.1m in 2008-09. However, all he had to say for himself is that he did not recognise the £8.1 million figure. Do government ministers ever talk to each other?

At a Royal College of Nursing event on emergency care yesterday it was made very clear to Assembly Members that problems at Accident and Emergency Units are building up. In many parts of Wales there are just not enough acute beds and staff are unable to move patients out of A&E to suitable care fast enough. They also said that patient transport is not available when it is needed to make use of beds in nearby hospitals.

As a result ambulances are starting to queue outside hospitals in greater numbers and for longer periods and we have not yet hit the pressures brought by the winter period! This has an effect on ambulance response times and may well lead to better performing areas such as North and South West Wales falling behind on their targets. That can only impact on patient care.

Writing off the debt of new LHBs is welcome but the Minister really needs to get to grips with problems faced by the ambulance service and emergency care very soon. She has assumed direct control of the NHS in Wales and the buck stops with her.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Because I don't do polls

Those who say the Liberal Democrats had a bad conference must be pretty stunned by a series of polls that show us challenging and, in one case overtaking Labour for second place. These polls are only snapshots of course and no doubt will balance out over the Conference season however the latest is worth noting for its historical significance. It was 1982 when an opinion poll showed the Liberal Democrats (or our predecessor parties) ahead of Labour:

Tory 36%
Lib Dem 25%
Labour 24%

It is also worth noting what happens when this is fed into Electoral Calculus. That site allocates seats on this share of the vote at 327 for the Tories, 209 for Labour and 82 for the Liberal Democrats.

Electoral Calculus is of course flawed and I would expect the Liberal Democrats to do slightly better than that if they polled these figures in a General Election but nevertheless the trend is correct.

Labour can come third in the popular vote and still be the second largest party by a mile. If that does not show up the injustice of the electoral system then what will?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Molehunt abandoned

The decision of the Speaker of the House of Commons to abandon the hunt for the person who leaked details of MPs' expenses is an important symbolic act. It sends out a message that it is not the leak that is important but the reform of an unjustifiable system.

As Mr. Bercow says: "A witch-hunt of this kind is wrong in principle and offers the impression that MPs, not taxpayers, are the victims in this expenses affair, a view that is manifestly mistaken." He is absolutely right.

We still have to await the outcome of the House of Commons' own inquiry into their expenses system of course, but I know that the Speaker is not sitting around twiddling his thumbs. He is in Wales this week to see what the Assembly Commission has done to introduce greater transparency and accountability into its systems and how we are implementing the report by Sir Roger Jones and his group.

The Speaker will also be looking at other measures taken by the Commission to deliver a modern and outward-facing democracy. I will be meeting him at some point to talk about the IT side and in particular our e-petition system, forums and Senedd TV. Could some of these ideas be appearing in the House of Commons anytime soon? We will see.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

More of the same

It is just like being back in the 1970s and 80s. First we have the prospective Tory MPs working as lobbyists or public relations consultants on behalf of businesses and other interests and now allegations of the Labour Party plotting to parachute Trade Unionists into safe seats in return for substantial donations to their election campaign fund.

In the instance the Sunday Times claims that Jack Dromey, the husband of Harriet Harman, was to be installed as candidate for a seat Labour has held for 55 of the past 60 years, in an agreement with his trade union. At the same time as the deal was struck, the union gave £1m to party funds.

Another good reason to reform party funding.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Prescott on Harman

The Independent reports that John Prescott has launched an an outspoken attack on Harriet Harman and blamed a lack of talent for Labour's failure to communicate a clear message to the public:

He warned that Gordon Brown was being poorly advised and that Lord Mandelson was the only major figure left organising the Labour fight behind the scenes. "There is no direction in campaigning – we are drifting," he said. "You ask yourself, why did we get in the Gurkhas situation? That would never have happened before. So there's a feeling in the party that, somehow, we're not getting a grip on it. There is something lacking."

He accused Ms Harman, his successor as deputy Labour leader, of spending too much time championing equalities issues. "I think the deputy leadership role is for going out and campaigning," he said.

"I suppose, if I was being honest about it, I think too much of the emphasis has been on female rights, which I have supported all my life, and we're not getting other messages across. Most of it is about the equality issue. It is very important, but it is not our biggest campaigning issue, whatever they say about it."

Shades of Bartlett

As an aficionado of The West Wing I was fascinated to read this morning that Gordon Brown is going to use his conference speech to promise patients cancer tests within one week of referral. He is going to pledge to divert £1 billion over five years from building new hospitals to buying diagnostic treatments that will guarantee a patient’s right to a test and results within seven days. Anyone who does not get the test and results in seven days would be entitled to go to a private provider free.

In the 55th episode of The West Wing, President Bartlett demands that a passage ambitiously promising a crusade to cure cancer within 10 years be included in his State of the Union speech. However, for political reasons the crucial passage is excised and the pledge never made.

Clearly, the Prime Minister's promise is a bit more realistic (some might say less ambitious) but a noble one nevertheless. His problem though is that he is just addressing England and not the whole of the UK, though I doubt if he or his spin-doctors have considered that. They will no doubt hope that the citizens of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland do not notice that small detail and expect the promise to apply to them too.

The key part of this promise is that it is being paid for by money already commited in the capital programme of the English NHS. In other words it is not new money and that means that the devolved nations will not get a Barnett consequential. If Stormont, Holyrood or Cardiff Bay wish to follow suit (and they should) then they will have to find the money from their own resources.

So, unless Gordon Brown is clear that he is only making the promise for England, then he will be building up expectations elsewhere that most probably cannot be met. For Wales, with poor survival rates for cancer, that is a major blow. We desperately need that kind of investment and people will very reasonably want to know why England is getting it and not us.

Unless the Health Minister has an announcement of her own up her sleeve for next week, she will be fielding questions on this for some time. That is devolution.

Friday, September 25, 2009

A redefinition of debt

The first week of the new Assembly term is barely over, Rhodri Morgan is still firmly ensconced in post and an e-mail plops into my in-box containing a 42 page letter from the Health Minister and candidate for the top job, Edwina Hart detailing all her accomplishments over the summer recess.

Tucked away on page 22 is a small section on NHS debt which boasts that 'NHS Trust debt has reduced considerably over the last two years from £42.8m in 2006-07 to £8.1m in 2008-09. All debt held by NHS Trusts (except the Welsh Ambulance NHS Trust) has either been repaid or extinguished, so that this will not be a burden for the new Local Health Boards to repay.'

She continues: 'Some Local Health Boards have received brokerage funding in previous years which is recoverable by the Welsh Assembly Government in line with previously agreed Financial Recovery Plans. This currently totals £29.6 million.'

This raises a number of questions. Firstly, why has the Welsh Ambulance Trust not had its debt written off in the same way as other Trusts? This is particularly important given the problems they are having meeting their targets and the need to deliver, whilst at the same time cutting £40 million from their budget over a two year period. It is as if they are being asked to fight on behalf of patients with one hand tied behind their back.

Secondly, if repayable brokerage funding is not debt then what is it? It is clear that some local health boards between them owe £29.6m. That means that the total debt is £37.7 million not the £8.1 million claimed.

Finally, I have to take issue with the impression this section gives that everything is hunky dory as regards the finances of the Welsh NHS. I don't have easy answers to the problems faced by the new LHBs but it does seem that they are being set an impossible task from the start.

According to this morning's Western Mail, the new Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University LHB with be starting life with a £30 million budget gap. Across Wales the new LHBs face having to chop £200 million off their budgets in the first few years. That will lead to service reductions, bed closures and bigger queues for treatment. I believe that they have been told that they cannot use compulsory redundancy as a management tool to effect this change.

The brave new world of NHS reorganisation looks very much like it might founder on some pretty severe financial rocks.

Twittering for democracy

If there is one thing that I would warn any aspiring MP or Assembly Member to watch out for it is the hoards of academics and opinion surveyors who continually beat a path to the door of all elected representatives seeking information and views to fill up their latest academic treatise or commissioned project.

Sympathetic as I often am, there are only so many hours in a standard working day and I need to use all of those for meetings and helping my constituents. For some reason these researchers rarely work the sort of hours I do so holding interviews before 9am or after 6pm is not normally a an option.

The results of their work though are often interesting from an anoraky point of view and ocassionally enlightening too. Thus this research on the University of Plymouth website gives some indication as to which party's MPs are best embracing new technologies.

Their research has revealed that nearly 67% of all tweeting MPs belong to Labour ahead of 18% for the Liberal Democrats, with the Tories relegated into third place with just 12%. When you factor in the proportion of MPs that each party boasts, they say it is clear that the Lib Dems are leading the way when it comes to embracing the popular social media site.

And yet, putting it into perspective overall, just 51 of the 645 MPs are classed as regular Twitter users. They have concluded that women MPs are more likely to tweet and that 43.1% of tweeting MPs are either Government Ministers or Official Opposition spokespersons.

They have also commented on the use of Twitter from the Commons' chamber and the nature of MPs' tweets.

Same old same old

Revelations in today's Times that 28 Conservative prospective candidates, who have a good chance of becoming Tory MPs, are working as lobbyists or public relations consultants on behalf of businesses and other interests, and that more than a quarter got their jobs after being selected to fight seats, indicate that Cameron's promises of a brave new world after the next election look like a distant fantasy.

The paper says that several acknowledged that they had set up meetings for clients with Shadow ministers, MPs and officials and that more said that they had been asked to provide advice on the party’s direction. A few admitted to having pressed clients’ cases to Tory frontbenchers:

The disclosure challenges David Cameron’s promise to usher in a “new politics”. More than a fifth of his 150 candidates most likely to win seats for the first time will have done public affairs work, although a handful have since left the industry. By contrast, only seven Labour and three Liberal Democrat prospective candidates with realistic hopes of victory have jobs in public affairs or communications.

The influence of paid consultants was thrown into sharp relief this year when President Obama announced that he would block the revolving door through which lobbyists moved in and out of US administrations. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives have issued any such edict.

Francis Maude, the Shadow Cabinet Office Minister, said last week that lobbyists could face statutory regulation if they did not volunteer more information on clients and consultants. “Greater openness and transparency is needed to help ensure high standards in public life,” he said.

However, that openness and transparency appears to be missing in Conservative ranks already and they have not even won an election yet.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Is there trouble ahead?

I went to the Fresher's Fair at Swansea University today with Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader, Kirsty Williams where all the political parties had quite conveniently been grouped together in the same area.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats stall was sandwiched between the Socialists and the Tories, with Plaid Cymru at one end and Labour a few stalls away in the opposite direction. As usual it was quite lively and very noisy with students showing lots of interest in joining or finding out more about the Liberal Democrats.

Shortly after I left to go to a conference on homelessness in Llanelli I am told that the Labour candidate for Swansea West arrived to assist the Labour students. My informant tells me that a heated argument ensued in which it was suggested to the prospective MP that he was a liability and was not welcome at this particular event.

Has the impending loss of Swansea West caused some friction to develop amongst the brothers and sisters?

And so to Brighton

With the Liberal Democrat Conference behind us the media circus moves onto Brighton and a Labour Conference that promises to see the retirement of one leader (no, not that one) and a continuing crisis for another.

Whilst the Welsh press will no doubt be hanging on every word of the soon-to-be-departed First Minister and monitoring the activities of the three possible successors, everybody else will be watching Gordon Brown to see if he can survive yet another crisis and start to rebuild the electoral support he has squandered in his time as Prime Minister.

Certainly, one former Cabinet heavyweight and usual suspect, Charles Clarke is already warning of disaster. The former Home Secretary said yesterday that Labour could lose 150 seats at the next election and be out of power for a generation. He urged Mr Brown to use the excuse of poor health to step down for the sake of his own “dignity":

In a scathing attack, he described Downing Street under Mr Brown as “the weakest I’ve ever seen,” with No 10 less effective than under John Major, the last Conservative prime minister.

He told the London Evening Standard: "Are we just going to stand by and watch the whole Labour ship crash on to the rocks of May 2010?"

Later, in a speech to Progress, the veteran MP attacked Blairite colleagues in the Labour Party who he said had given up trying to oust Mr Brown and were pinning their hopes on winning the election after next.

Mr Clarke said that the assumption that Labour would quickly return to power having lost it in 2010 was ill-conceived, as the party faced the loss of as many as 150 seats and could be eliminated as an electoral force.

“Our leadership is weak, uncertain, tactically unsure and lacks vision,” he added.

If Bournemouth was occasionally traumatic for the Liberal Democrats, then Brighton promises to be doubly so for Labour.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Speculation grows

All of the Welsh media are reporting the decision of Finance Minister Andrew Davies to stand aside from the race to succeed Rhodri Morgan this morning and to back Edwina Hart instead. Remember you read it here first.

It now looks like a three horse race for the top post with Edwina Hart all but confirmed, Huw Lewis and Carwyn Jones. All that is needed is for Rhodri Morgan to announce that he is to stand down this weekend. Here is the Senedd, the tension is palpable.

Serving the local electorate

The report of the Councillor Commission Expert Panel for Wales that can be found here has one or two sensible suggestions but also some rather silly ones too. The panel is packed with Labour and Plaid Cymru place-people as well as one or two others who might be considered independent, but the fact that none of the opposition were represented is surprising especially when the report seeks to make recommendations for all political parties.

You have to ask yourself why Welsh Liberal Democrats, Conservatives, UKIP, Greens and other parties would want to implement recommendations that are being imposed on them by Labour and Plaid? Of course we will consider them but it is hardly a good start for the report is it?

The panel is rightly concerned about getting more women and ethnic minorities engaged in politics and elected to local Councils, but I am not clear what will be achieved by recommendation one in which local authorities are asked to undertake equality monitoring amongst candidates standing for election and all newly-elected councillors including community and town councillors. After all they will not be in a position to influence anything and this is the sort of job that could be done retrospectively by a good researcher.

They suggest that consideration should be given to introducing a legal separation of the executive and non-executive functions of the council with separate funding streams that would protect the central provision of members’ services and yet has this not been in place since 2000? Admittedly, scrutiny is under-resourced in almost every Council but funding is tight and is going to get tighter.

A lot of things in the report are already being done including training and councillor support but there is always room for more. I do think that people have to understand that there is only so much training that a Councillor can do before it starts to impinge on his or her other work. Most are after all part-time and some have proper jobs so they need to manage their day to fit in all the meetings and ward work they have to do. Often seminars and training are used by some Councils to keep Councillors occupied so that they do not cause so many problems for the Executive.

By far the most controversial proposals are that local authorities should make arrangements to support councillors to publish (as a minimum on the website) an annual report of their work both in their communities and within the council and that a commmunication allowance should be available to councillors which could be used to fund communication with their electorate. They also suggest effective job descriptions for Councillors. All of that is palpable nonsense.

It is not up to Councils nor a panel of Plaid and Labour politicians to dictate to Councillors how they do their job. As long as members keep within the code of conduct that is a matter for their electorate. Equally, the idea that scare public resources should be used to reinforce incumbency and provide individual propaganda on the taxpayer is unacceptable. I have opposed it for MPs, it does not happen in the Welsh Assembly and it should not be allowed at a local level either.

I very much hope that when the Minister considers this report that he does so selectively and seeks to build a consensus around the better proposals rather than try to impose the whole package on us unamended.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A question of trust

I don't tend to talk about opinion polls much on this blog. They are of course, a snapshot of one moment in time and tend to distract from the issues that really matter, however I am going to make an exception just this once.

My change of mind has nothing to do with a new poll showing the Liberal Democrats storming into government (I wish) but rather with one that reveals some interesting views amongst the electorate that reinforces my own instincts.

In fact the polls have been remarkably steady over the last six months or so for all of the parties and it will be interesting to see if the Party Conference season can cause any shift in public opinion. This one by in today's Guardian however, explores some of the attitudes behind the voting intentions.

They have found that an overwhelming majority of voters think Labour is failing to tell the truth about the state of the public finances. They say that this suggests the government has come off worst from a week of squabbling between the parties over the deficit, and Gordon Brown's admission that spending cuts will be needed:

Even Labour supporters do not trust their party: only 36% of current Labour supporters, and just 26% of its 2005 voters, think the government is telling the truth about debt.

By contrast 36% of all voters believe the Tories, 32% believe the Lib Dems and 33% believe no party. Unlike Labour, a clear majority of each opposition party's supporters trust what its leaders have to say.

This question of trust on the issue of the economy is going to be key at the General Election. It is why Vince Cable is such a big asset to the Liberal Democrats. It is also why Gordon Brown needs to turn around that particular indicator if he is to avoid an overwhelming defeat when he eventually goes to the country.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A solution offered

The row that has simmered all summer about the decision of the Assembly Commission to stop producing a fully bilingual record of proceedings of Plenary meetings has generated a lot of heat and very little light. No more so than today.

The Assembly Commission met this afternoon and offered a compromise. Not only did we agree to reinstate the bilingual record, though on a 3 to 10 day basis rather than within 24 hours, so as to deliver a more cost-effective service, but we also extended the present service by agreeing that in future all committee records in which legislation is discussed and scrutinised will also be bilingual.

The Commission also agreed to look at the use of Welsh by the Assembly in anticipation of the review of its Welsh Language Scheme in 2011. However, according to the BBC this is still not enough to satisfy some Assembly Members.

The projected £250,000 saving associated with the original decision has all but disappeared. As a result the Commission will have to look for more savings in-year to meet our obligations to the Welsh public to deliver a cost-effective service.

The £200,000 cost of the revised service could pay for 15,000 flu jabs. More to the point think of the benefits it could bring to the development of Welsh if that money was given to community groups promoting the language instead.

At the end of the day it is a matter of priorities, but those who wish to push the matter further need to think carefully. They have won a battle and have got most of what they wanted plus more. That includes the fundamental review the BBC say they want. The signatories of this motion are in danger of looking foolish and of alienating the public.

So long and thanks for all the fish

Well it was good whilst it lasted but now I have to get onto the road, leave Liberal Democrat Conference behind, and get back to Cardiff Bay where I have an Assembly Commission meeting this afternoon discussing, amongst other things, the future of the bi-lingual record of proceedings for Plenary meetings.

The Presiding Officer has already trailled that there may be a compromise on this issue and Betsan Powys has had a stab at guessing what it may be. I am not in a position to comment until after the meeting especially as decisions have not yet been taken.

I attended the first Liberal Democrat press conference yesterday at which Kirsty Williams dealt with questions on the St. Athan debacle and also on Nick Clegg's announcement that a Liberal Democrat Government, which has delivered a proper Parliament for Wales, will then proceed to merge the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Office into one Cabinet post as part of a general scaling down of big Government that will save £1.82 billion. This time they asked us first.

It seems to me that this sort of reform will resonate amongst voters and assist us in selling difficult decisions on public spending by demonstrating that politicians are prepared to take some of the pain as well. Also it is just ridiculous to have so many UK Ministers when Liberal Democrats are commited to enabling the Nations and Regions of the UK take many more decisions at a local level and on a democratically accountable business.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A clarification on tuition fees

Because there is understandably much interest in Wales on the Liberal Democrats' position on tuition fees it is worth making a few points:

1. The official policy of the party is to abolish tuition fees and that remains the position of Nick Clegg, he has said so at this Conference. The issue is one of timing and ensuring that we have a funded manifesto in place that adds up and is credible. It is impossible to say at this stage what will be in that manifesto because things are changing so quickly, however we intend to abolish tuition fees when we are able.

2. Irrespective of that Nick Clegg has given a guarantee that the manifesto will contain the best package for students of any of the political parties.

3. All of this applies to England only. Student finance is a devolved matter and irrespective of what is decided by Nick Clegg and his team, it is up to the Welsh Liberal Democrats to put forward our own solutions based on the money we have available.

Obviously, if England decides to abolish tuition fees it will make our job easier. We will get a Barnet consequential which will enable us to pay for their abolition here too and we will not be competing with English Educational Institutions for students on a different basis.

Naturally, it will be much more difficult to reinstate a budget line which Plaid Cymru have abolished in defiance of their own promises but we are looking at what we can do and will make our intentions clear in our 2011 Assembly manifesto. The Welsh Party also remains commited to abolishing tuition fees and improving student support.

Strangest story of the day

In what must be the strangest story of the day so far the Sunday Times reveals the exact extent of the break-down of comradeship within the Labour Party as they slide towards a decisive election defeat:

Labour party staff could be forced to undergo DNA tests in a bid to uncover who tampered with ballot boxes during a row over selection for a safe seat.

In a move that has been labelled “bonkers” by insiders, Ray Collins, Labour’s general secretary, wants to collect samples from all workers at the party’s Victoria Street headquarters who could have been involved in spoiling ballot papers in the bitter contest for the constituency of Erith and Thamesmead.

Among the candidates running for selection was Georgia Gould, 22, the daughter of Lord Gould, one of the architects of New Labour. The selection process was marred by claims that she was being “parachuted” into the safe seat by the Labour party machine and being given unfair help by powerful figures including Alastair Campbell and Tessa Jowell.

A hustings in April had to be called off after seals were broken on a ballot box containing postal votes at party headquarters.

And in a sign that perhaps money is short for the party of government they plan on using kits purchased on the internet to take the DNA samples, in the hope of finding a match with samples from the spoiled papers.

It seems that it is not just civil liberties that have been abandoned by Labour but natural justice too.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Day One at Liberal Democrat Conference

The Fulbright dilemma

Since I heard Adam Price's announcement that he is to stand down to undertake a year-long Fulbright scholarship in the United States before returning to take up a seat in the Assembly and assume leadership of Plaid Cymru I have been puzzling about the timelines.

Presumably he will be taking up his place as a student next month, will return a year later and then seek selection for an appropriate Assembly seat for the 2011 election. If this is the case who will be representing Carmarthen East and Dinefwr in Parliament between October and the next General Election?

The public spending war

With the battle lines drawn around future public spending plans the start of the Liberal Democrat Conference sees Nick Clegg issue a brutal warning about the future. He tells the Guardian that bold and even "savage" cuts in government spending will be necessary to bring the public deficit down after the next election.

He sets out plans that include a long-term freeze in the public sector pay bill, scaling back future public sector pensions, and withdrawing tax credits from the middle class. It is a direct challenge to the party's grass roots many of whom are prepared to give the leadership latitude on this issue but nevertheless do have some red lines over which they will not cross. What is important here is that Clegg and Cable respect those red lines so as to take the party with them.

Meanwhile, new figures show that whereas the Liberal Democrats are prepared to set out in some detail how they will put the country's finances back on a level footing, it seems that the Tories are all talk and no trousers:

The Liberal Democrats also attacked Tory spending plans last night, claiming that Treasury documents released under the Freedom of Information laws revealed £53bn of unfunded Tory promises. "The Tories try to talk tough on spending cuts, but in reality they haven't a clue," said a spokesman, Lord Oakeshott. "With over £50bn of uncosted spending commitments, they are not fit for government."

The Tory response is very much a non-denial, blaming the Treasury for releasing the figures rather than trying to refute their own financial progligacy. Let hostilities commence...

Friday, September 18, 2009

Off to Conference

As I prepare to set off to Bournemouth for the Liberal Democrat Conference I was interested to read Daran Hill's piece on Wales Home on prospects for our party here at the next General Election. It is a fair and well-balanced piece that is worth a read. His conclusions very much reflect my own when I wrote on this topic on Freedom Central earlier this week.

Unfortunately, I am not going to be at Conference long as I have to leave Bournemouth early on Monday morning so as to get to an Assembly Commission meeting in Cardiff. At that meeting we will be discussing the Commission's budget, the implementation of Sir Roger Jones' report on AMs' expenses and of course the row over the bi-lingual nature of the record of proceedings for Plenary meetings.

Another Plaid dilemma

Sometimes it is difficult to coordinate policy in a UK context, especially when the legislative and administrative competence for decisions quite properly lie with Westminster as with defence, foreign affairs etc but the impact of those decisions will be felt on the position of a devolved legislature. Misunderstandings occur and people make mistakes.

However, when differences are confined to the boundaries of one devolved nation and amount to the leadership of a particular party being openly opposed to the position taken at their conference and in their manifesto then it becomes much more noticeable.

Thus, the unlikely alliance of Ieuan Wyn Jones and Dafydd Elis Thomas to promote nuclear power must really rankle with those in their party who worked so hard to get Plaid Cymru to adopt an anti-nuclear stance.

In the party's 2005 general election manifesto, Plaid said it "does not support new nuclear power stations, particularly as civil nuclear power fuels nuclear weapons development; is heavily subsidised; and cannot safely dispose of the highly toxic waste".

Its 2007 assembly election manifesto said while Labour had confined itself to wind farms in a limited number of area, Plaid pledged to "bring clean secure energy to communities across Wales by supporting a range of alternatives including marine power, micro generation and fuel cell technology".

Yesterday, Dafydd Elis Thomas publicly backed a new reactor for Wylfa B on Anglesey.

Honest disagreement of course is fine but surely Plaid Cymru should now stop trying to pretend that it is an anti-nuclear party.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The sound of silence

When unemployment fell in Wales compared to England there were many vocal Plaid Cymru bloggers and others claiming credit on behalf of their party leader. He was being hailed as an economic miracle worker or better despite the fact that the figures themselves were illusory.

In fact the actual number of people in real jobs as opposed to the those registered as officially unemployed, and those who were economically active both fell.

Well now that unemployment in Wales has risen by 7,000 over the three months to July, bringing the total to 116,000, at a rate slightly above the UK average should we be blaming Ieuan Wyn Jones?

Of course not. But maybe Plaid Cymru's cheerleaders will be a bit more circumspect over what they claim for their Ministers in future.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A philosophical disagreement

Interesting article in this morning's Western Mail about a new service in which drug addicts in Swansea are to get advice on subjects such as “how not to overdose” sent to their mobile phones. What is most interesting is the difference in attitude between two high profile and key Tory spokespeople.

On the one hand the regions Conservative Assembly Member Alun Cairns, says: “The cascade of drug information might be useful provided it’s not presented in a way that gives the impression that drugs are acceptable or tolerated. Information about drugs should always contain the information that drugs destroy lives and can kill you.”

His colleague and Conservative Swansea West PPC, René Kinzett takes a more realistic view: "The image many of us have of illegal drug users is of hopeless down and outs not likely to have a mobile phone who are beyond help. But the reality is that many drug users are people we work with or meet in our everyday lives, people who are family members or with other responsibilities.

“There could be a knee-jerk reaction against using public resources in this way. But anything that keeps users informed of the latest health information and keeps them safe can only be a good thing.”

I suppose you could argue that these two views are not mutually exclusive but I am not so sure. Personally, I think René is more in touch with what is going on in Swansea and elsewhere. Maybe the two should get together and coordinate their efforts more.

A Liberal Democrat cock-up?

As has already been discerned on a number of blogs the rather Welsh Liberal Democrats' chaotic response to Vince Cable's Reform pamphlet setting out proposals for tackling the fiscal crisis was not planned. It has been described as a cock-up and actually that is not far from the truth.

Contrary to some claims the Welsh Party was consulted on the contents of the pamphlet, however when it was sent to us it did not contain the suggestion that the St Athan project should be scrapped. It seems that this was added later and at a time when our staff member was on holiday. That though, does not excuse the fact that those responsible for the pamphlet did not check the changes with us.

There are a number of points that need to be taken into account. Firstly, although the Welsh Assembly Government has been active in building up cross-party support for this project and lobbying for it, the final decision rests with Westminster. This is a matter Welsh Liberal Democrats might be consulted on as regards policy but it will be the Federal Conference that makes the final decision. There is no snub here. At the end of the day all parties (including Plaid Cymru) are subject to the whims of the UK Government on this issue.

Secondly, Vince Cable may well be the Liberal Democrat's Shadow Chancellor and our economics guru but in our party he has one vote in the policy process just like everybody else. That is not the end of the story of course because being in the position he is, Vince has a lot of influence and will be listened too. Nevertheless, he is not guaranteed to win every fight and that is why the status of his pamphlet is so important.

It should be noted that the pamphlet is not published by the Liberal Democrats nor is it official policy. For that to happen it must go before Conference and be passed in a vote, very much like the motion that was passed by Plaid Cymru on St. Athan last weekend. Whether we go into the General Election with this proposal is dependent on our manifesto process. That is in the hands of the democratically elected Federal Policy Committee. I am not seeking to dodge the issue just to bring some perspective to the subject.

Thirdly, the reaction of the other parties has been predictable and who can blame them. They have been presented with an open goal. However, all of these politicians are going to have to start setting out their own plans for public expenditure in due course and that is going to involve decisions that are equally as difficult and possibly more unpopular than anything contained in Vince's paper.

Finally, we have to acknowledge that things change. Back in January 2007 the case for St. Athan was overwhelming. It still is but the question that needs to be asked is 'can we afford it?' Vince Cable has offered a personal view and it is our duty to consider whether he is right or not. I happen to think that he is wrong and that this project is worthwhile pursuing. It would have been nice to have been asked before he passed judgement.

Labour, Conservatives and Plaid Cymru may well have different priorities to Vince and to the Liberal Democrats but the debate is underway. Twelve years of irresponsible economic management has left the country facing huge levels of debt and the need to rebalance the budget and pay-back most of the money we have borrowed. How we are going to do that is a discussion that needs to be had and the final decision will rest with the electorate.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Prince of Wales' charity under investigation

The controversy over the Prince of Wales using his position to influence planning decisions took a new turn today with confirmation that the Charity Commission has asked the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment to explain its relationship with the heir to the throne.

Their investigation is prompted by concerns that the charity has gone beyond its remit as a registered charity and tried to influence a number of planning decisions and a complaint that it is acting as his “private lobby firm”:

The Prince has already clashed with the architect Lord Rogers of Riverside, who said that the Prince’s controversial intervention in the Chelsea Barracks project had created a “dangerous precedent”.

Qatari Diar, the developers, withdrew their planning application for a £3 billion housing project on the site in West London after the Prince criticised Lord Rogers’ glass and steel design as “unsympathetic” and wrote to the Emir of Qatar to complain. He also asked the Qatari ruler to consider an alternative design by Quinlan Terry, a classicist whose work he favours.

When the plans were dropped in June, a spokesman for the development said that the foundation would be among the stakeholders asked to discuss any new submissions.

Lord Rogers said that the Prince had abused his power. “I think that anyone who uses his power due to birth breaks a constitutional understanding,” he said.

Hank Dittmar, the chief executive of the foundation, has denied allegations it was acting in breach of charity law. He says that although they value the Prince's input the charity makes its own decisions.

Nostalgia not what it used to be

The Guardian's latest promotion idea has to be the coollest yet. They are giving away reprinted editions of old children's comics. We have already had Jackie, The Beano and Roy of the Rovers and today we have the Bunty Summer Special from 1972.

I used to deliver all of these as a teenager and I can recall that some of the attitudes reflected in the comic strips seemed a little dated even then. This morning's Bunty though is like stepping into a time warp.

One story has a lawyer assessing a girl's femininity to see if she is eligible to receive an inheritance. After the girl leaps onto a chair in the presence of a mouse he concludes "That was really feminine behaviour! I like an old-fashioned girl who needs masculine protection!' Another comic strip is based in a girls' school where pupils are being taught how to be good housewives.

What would Harriet Harman say?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Body Language

The consensus in the media, on the blogs and elsewhere from Plaid Cymru's Conference last weekend is that Carmarthen East and Dinefwr MP, Adam Price took Llandudno by storm.

His speech which can be found here and here (David Jones MP please note) is certainly impressive, hitting all the right notes for a nationalist audience, providing a personal narrative, touching upon some totemic symbols such as Tryweryn and Rebecca and firmly positioning Plaid Cymru on the anti-Tory, socialist left.

In fact Adam was so good that people stopped talking about the earlier, woeful performance of his Leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones, so in that respect it had a double benefit for his party.

In fact one could be forgiven for thinking that Adam Price was the leader not Ieuan.

No doubt members of Plaid will be queuing up to tell me that none of this matters, that I am being picky and negative and a whole host of other insults as well, but even they cannot deny the body language on show from the party's Parliamentary leader, Elfyn Llwyd on yesterday's Politics Show.

Mr. Llwyd grew visibly irritated that the interviewer repeatedly quoted from Adam Price's speech in her questions to him. So much so that at one point he virtually pointed out that as the leader in Westminster he has his own views and 'could we please talk about those instead.'

Is it the case that Adam's over-weaning ambition and his stature as the great-Nationalist-hope is starting to irritate some of his more senior colleagues?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Cat of the day

is Archie. Currently resident at Llys Nini animal centre, he has the voice of a small fog horn that proudly declares he is ready to be waited upon and is competing to win Whiskas for life and to appear on their packaging. Help a homeless cat make good by voting for him here.

This is a public service announcement on behalf of Llys Nini which is currently full to bursting and in need of responsible people to adopt pets

Mummy worship returns to Swansea

The Wales on Sunday reports that chanting mummy worshippers have returned to plague a South Wales museum. They say that the mummy-obsessed visitors deserted Swansea Museum after CCTV cameras were introduced five years ago. But now they are back, sometimes spending hours prostrated before the remains of Tem Hor, a mummified priest who lived on the banks of the River Nile in Egypt more than 2,000 years ago:

As testimony to an enduring but rather extreme fascination with Egyptology, the mummy worshippers – many wearing robes and head-dresses – STROLL into the display room containing Tem Hor’s bandaged body and involve themselves in “unusual practices”.

Exhibitions officer Roger Gale said: “They were quite a problem before we introduced the security cameras but now they appear to have come back.

“They occasionally come to the museum on weekends and just seem to want to be in the presence of Tem Hor.

“They tend to bow low in front of the mummy case and mumble what appear to be prayers or incantations.

“The problem is they can appear quite menacing because they tend to wear strange clothes, behave rather oddly and want to stay for a long time. The display room containing Tem Hor is not big and they put other people off.

“We usually manage to get them to leave and it’s something we are keeping an eye on.”

He said Egypt and Egyptian remains appeared to have a strong lure to some people with many films dedicated to ancient Egypt, mummies and curses all adding to the mystique.

“It’s hard to say whether they are members of a sect or just individuals with particularly strong feelings for our mummy.”

The paper says that the nearby Egypt Centre in Swansea Museum, which also has an extensive display of ancient Egyptian remains, has also been plagued by mummy worshippers:

One woman visitor claimed to staff, who are specially trained to deal with mummy worshippers, that she was the mother of a mummified baby who died 2,200 years ago. After approaching visitors to tell them she was also possessed by a dog god, she was eventually persuaded to leave.

And in another particularly embarrassing incident, a woman chanted before a display case of dusty Egyptian death masks, explaining: “They’re possessed by trapped ancient spirits. I must release them.”

The female visitor ignored requests to be quiet and it was only when staff at the Egypt Centre explained these particular artefacts were the modern creations of local schoolchildren taking part in a competition that she made her excuses and left.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Reforming the ambulance service

I have been thinking all morning about proposals by the Plaid Cymru Health Spokesperson, Helen Mary Jones to dismantle the Welsh Ambulance Service and pass responsibility instead to each of the seven new Local Health Boards. I have to say that I am still undecided as to whether it is a good idea or not and, in a way this blog post is me thinking out loud.

My first reaction to the idea was 'oh no, not another reorganisation', and it is true I think, that for Plaid Cymru in particular, the first port of call when looking for solutions to health problems is to restructure bodies. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but we do have to recognise the cost and in particular the disruption to the service, the uncertainty and loss of morale amongst staff and, to a certain extent patients, and the fact that people's eyes are taken off the ball, meaning that continuous improvement is put on the back burner. There is also a financial cost.

All of these minuses need to be weighed against the benefits and a value judgement made as to what is best for those working in the health service but, more importantly for those who rely on it for good health, namely the patients.

In the case of the ambulance service the problems are massive and are proving difficult to crack. Targets of responding to 65% of urgent calls within eight minutes are being consistently missed in some parts of Wales, especially the South East, whereas they are being met elsewhere. Rural Powys in particular is performing at unacceptable levels, whilst Gwent is not far behind them.

The reasons for this are many and cannot solely be attributed to the Ambulance Trust. In particular there seem to be problems at Accident and Emergency Departments in Gwent, where ambulances can be kept waiting for an hour or longer to deliver patients, largely as a result of a shortage of acute beds in the area. There has also been underinvestment in the service and an unacceptable requirement from the Health Minister that it improves whilst at the same time cutting £40 million from their budget of around £140 million over a two year period.

In Powys, the sparse geography of the county is a big problem, but that is exacerbated by the fact that ambulances are frequently directed into neighbouring counties to make up numbers there. As a result a critically ill patient can wait well over eight minutes for an ambulance or paramedic to arrive.

One of the reasons why the service is better in some parts of Wales than another is due to the history of the Trust. It was created by effectively stitching together separate ambulance services into one. North Wales therefore, where the service mostly hits and exceeds targets, has the advantage that the previous organisation invested in ambulances and staff with the result that there are sufficient numbers of both to cope with demand. However, despite that I understand that there were still ambulances queuing outside Ysbty Gwynedd this summer.

All of these issues contain reasons why more local control might be more beneficial. It may mean that local managers would also be responsible for meeting ambulance response time targets and that as a result blockages at the hospital end could disappear. More likely though the same problems would re-occur, simply because they are structural not managerial and need Government investment to overcome.

Local accountability may also ensure that Powys' problem of having its ambulances reassigned elsewhere could be avoided but then we would need to buy new vehicles and staff them to accomodate that. Why cannot that happen now?

In essence it seems that the main advantage of Helen Mary Jones' proposal is better co-ordination and management on a holistic basis at a local level. That in itself is not a bad thing and may well help. But whichever structure is adopted the Minister still needs to get the basics right. That means tackling the shortage of acute beds, investing in upgrading equipment and ensuring that there is enough of it and there are trained personnel to staff it, and making sure that the trust is working to realistic financial targets and is properly resourced.

Whether she can do all of that whilst at the same time conducting an expensive, time-consuming and distracting reorganisation is questionable. That is why Helen Mary Jones' proposal may be the right one in the long term but at this stage it is most probably premature.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The leadership campaign starts...perhaps!

If the campaign to replace Rhodri Morgan as Welsh Labour Leader and First Minister has not yet officially started then it is doing a good impression of having done so.

Real Labour contender, Huw Lewis has spent a considerable amount of time over the last year building up support and credibility to the extent where he is now being quoted as second favourite by Ladbrokes at 11/4. Huw is staging a Wales 20:20 event today entitled 'The Future of the Left' in which the star speaker is Jon Cruddas MP.

The Western Mail rightly interprets this as a heavyweight endorsement that will enhance the credibility of Huw's bid to lead Welsh Labour. It also helps to keep Huw's profile high in the month that Rhodri is expected to announce his retirement.

In the meantime, the Deputy Minister for Regeneration, Leighton Andrews has let it be known that he will be acting as campaign manager for frontrunner, Carwyn Jones if and when a contest takes place. This news was greeted with some stoicism by the Huw Lewis camp:

A source close to Mr Lewis last night made light of the news about his rival’s leadership campaign. He said: “An endorsement from your campaign manager is like dancing with your own sister. It might be fun for a while, but it really doesn't get you anywhere in the long run.”

It is a statement that is worthy of the First Minister himself.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Welsh Tories and PR

Conservative Home reports on a new book by Vernon Bogdanor in which he records that during the coalition discussions in Wales in 2007:

'There had been serious negotiations between the three non-Labour parties – Plaid Cymru, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats – with a view to forming a "rainbow" coalition. But these negotiations foundered, in part because the Conservatives would not countenance the introduction of proportional representation for local government elections. The Welsh Conservatives were, apparently, prepared to consider this proposal, and David Cameron, the Conservative leader at Westminster, was prepared to allow them to do so, but the shadow cabinet would not hear of it.'

There is no doubt that there was a fairly weak commitment to PR in the All Wales Accord. The three parties agreed to seek the power to change the system of elections for local government and to hold a national referendum on the use of the single transferable vote early in the term of the Assembly for implementation in 2012. However, one of the stumbling blocks for many Welsh Liberal Democrats was over the level of commitment from the Tories to this pledge.

Many of us questioned the need for a referendum, when that had not been necessary in Scotland, whilst we were also sceptical about which side the Tories would campaign on in such a plebiscite. As I discovered later, although the Welsh Tory manifesto contained a commitment to holding local referendums on changing the voting system on a Council by Council basis, a number of their AMs seemed unaware of this.

As a result when I brought forward a proposal for a Legislative Competence Order to draw down the powers that might implement this Tory manifesto promise, the Conservative Group abstained en bloc. It seems that only a handful of their AMs actually supported us having that power even though they had been elected on that basis.

We also knew that the LCO process was going to be lengthy and worried about the priorities of a government, which included a party historically opposed to reform. Would a referendum be a priority and could it all be done in time for the boundary commission to put in place workable wards for the 2012 local council elections? I, for one, did not think so.

In the end the apparently flaky Welsh Tory commitment to this small advance in democracy was accepted on the basis of a confidential letter from their leader Nick Bourne in which he gave his personal guarantee that he would do everything in his power to bring it about. I wonder in the light of events if he would have been able to do so.

An effective answer to the BNP on question time

A letter in yesterday's Guardian offers an effective answer to the BBC's decision to invite Nick Griffin of the BNP onto Question Time:

If the BBC is to invite the BNP on to Question Time, might I suggest that the other political parties all send non-white Britons to represent their point of view, to further emphasise how extreme is the BNP view of the country. Also, it is likely that the BNP would in turn "refuse to share a platform" with such people.

Andy Hunter

Well worth a try in my view.

Ginger group

The BBC report on a weekend to mark all things ginger, paid for by the local government in Breda, a city in the south east of the Netherlands. This is the fifth year this event has been held and it attracted 3,000 redheads and 7,000 non-ginger spectators:

But the initiative is firmly with the redheads. And there is much common ground. Men and women sporting a spectrum of ginger, from strawberry blonde to rich ochre, swap stories of being picked on in the playground, discrimination in the wider world - a family in Newcastle claimed they were driven from their home because of anti-ginger abuse in 2007 - and the whys and wherefores of raising a ginger brood.

Walking round the city, redheads smile and laugh with one another. Since this is a celebration of gingerism, an army of hairdressers, makeup artists and cameramen have been drafted in to prepare for the fashion shoot, treating redheads like celebrities. The dermatologist's class - redheads tend to have very fair skin - is so popular it has to move to the main part of Breda's cathedral to accommodate all those who want to attend.

Mr Rouwenhorst marvels at the innate connection between members of one of the most genetically distinctive yet disparate groups in the world.

"When people come together as redheads, they just look at each other," he says. "They have a certain bond. And I think this whole event will some day expand to multiple events, maybe across the world. I think the ginger community will start."

I like a man with ambition.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

More from North Wales

My limited tour of health facilities in North Wales continued today with a visit to the North Wales Cancer Centre, which was very impressive. I had an interesting discussion about some of the more controversial cancer drugs that have not been approved by NICE and also looked at some of the preparation work that needs to be put in before undertaking radiotherapy to the head and neck.

The one constant in all of these visits has been the utter and total dedication of the staff who deliver health services at the front line, however I have also heard wherever I have gone that the service is underfunded and that staff are being stretched to the limit.

In this instance there are clear problems due to the inability to recruit sufficient junior doctors meaning that more senior doctors have to cover, often travelling halfway across North Wales to do so. There was also a shortage of nurses on the wards and as I was warned a very high bed occupancy rate that is causing problems right across the service.

In the afternoon I was taken around the operating theatres in Glan Clwyd Hospital, fully gowned up. I saw the new urology theatre that is to open soon and even observed some operations from within the theatre including key hole surgery on an enlarged bowel.

There is some scepticism about the Assembly Government's intentions towards this hospital, which had huge amounts of asbestos incorporated as part of its construction and in many people's view needs to be replaced. Indeed the Health Minister even came to the hospital and announced that a replacement will be built on the same site but since then I have been told that the scheme has been quietly dropped. Something to ask about when I get back I think.

The other issue around Glan Clwyd is the lack of any High Dependency beds, which means that operations often have to be cancelled at the last minute. Although there are Intensive Care beds these are often filled up by patients who could manage with a less intensive level of care. In some cases patients have turned up on the day only to be told that there are no beds available for post-operative care and sent home. That is very distressing especially when the operation is on a cancerous tumour.

Although there are discussions about putting in a business case for these High Dependency beds these talks appear to be at an early stage and given that Glan Clwyd is a leading centre for some types of surgery that can be a problem for patients and for the hospital itself.

A hoax

When I blogged on the petition on the Downing Street website which calls for those who advocate independence for Wales and Scotland to be jailed for treason one of the comments gave some very good reasons why it might be a hoax.

Now, according to the Western Mail its lack of authenticity has been confirmed. A spokeswoman for True Wales Rachel Banner is quoted as saying: “This is a mickey-take. We believe in freedom of speech.”

Downing Street have been alerted but they have left it up for now along with the its eleven signatories, who include Henry VIII, William Wallace and Edward Longshanks.

Funny, I did not know they had the internet in those days.

Myths reinforced

In my discussion with GPs yesterday I was told that although the French do not go in for binge drinking their alcohol consumption was significant and that it lead to more health problems than in the UK. I was told that a health study comparing Belfast with Toulouse confirmed this.

As a result I went onto the web but could only find this:

The PRIME Study was begun in 1991 and recruited 10,600 men aged 50 to 59 years in the WHO MONICA Project centers of Belfast, Lille, Strasbourg and Toulouse. Although drinkers in France and Northern Ireland consumed almost identical amounts, the pattern of consumption was different. In Northern Ireland beer and spirits were the staple beverages, whereas in France it was predominantly red wine; in France, 90% of men drank at least one unit per week versus 61% in Northern Ireland. Frenchmen drank evenly throughout the week, whereas in Northern Ireland two thirds of the consumption took place on Friday and Saturday nights. In the 5-year follow up of PRIME in France, the usual cardiovascular protective effect of increasing consumption (up to 45 units per week) was shown and the level of significance for trend in consumption was highly significant (p = 0.006); in Northern Ireland, this pattern was less consistent and did not attain significance. It remains a matter of conjecture whether in Northern Ireland the beneficial effects of alcohol consumption were annulled by a pattern of drinking that increases blood pressure, a well-established risk factor for heart disease, or whether the protection in France resulted from the consumption of wine along with food.

There is more information if you stump up $4.95 but I am not really that motivated to pay to have my myths reinforced. If anybody does though please let me know if there is anything significant in there.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The name that should not be mentioned

I spent this afternoon at the Technium OpTIC in St. Asaph looking at the innovative ways that North Wales Universities are working with educational institutions in London, Cambridge, and the United States and with the Welsh Assembly Government to turn intellectual and academic advances into commercial applications.

The first thing that strikes you as you approach the Technium is the huge curved solar panel that dominates most of the front of the building. It is the largest in Europe and can be seen at the right of the photo.

I then had a fascinating two and a half hours exploring the many exciting developments being worked on in the Technium, the most memorable of which was the development of digital holographics and the technology to grind lenses for the new European super telescope to be based in the Chilean Andes.

This account does not do justice to all I saw, including a million pound diamond cutting tool that can cut patterns into metal drums to within a few microns and a company developing flexible dye based solar panels.

Before this visit I spent the morning with North Wales GPs talking about health issues around the NHS reorganisation. One of the first things I established was that the name of the new North Wales LHB is very unpopular. The Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board is not a name we use around here I was told though the main objections are to the size of the new body and the fact that some unpopular cuts are already being made as they try to come to terms with a very large structural deficit.

One of the big issues of concern is the number of bed reductions in the area without any proper consultation. Eighty beds have gone in Wrexham and 50 in Rhyl whilst I am told that the LHB is looking for another 40 beds to close in an attempt to reduce their projected £17 million deficit this year. The new LHB will be seeking to cut their budget by 7% year on year over the next three years without compulsory redundancies.

The rationale for the lack of consultation is that these are management actions but they are having an impact on the service. Bed occupancy is running at 95-99% which means that there is no slack in the system to cope with crises and the risks of MRSA increases. I understand that a safer level is around 80% occupancy. There have also been ambulances queuing to off-load patients outside Ysbty Gwynedd in August, an unprecedented occurrence I am informed.

Some medical professionals in the North feel that those planning the future of the NHS have no experience of delivering medicine at the front line and that this is showing in their decisions. If there are going to be less beds then what is the strategy to put in place alternative provision and how much extra cash will be going into that. They do not know because they have not seen any evidence of such planning.

They believe that North Wales' demography needs a new approach based on a good network of low-tech Community Hospitals, properly financed and resourced to which GPs can refer patients who need care but should not be taking up acute beds in District General Hospitals. These hospitals could accomodate patients in need of terminal care, oncology, intraveneous care and respite near to their families. It would of course be expensive but maybe we should be looking at a long term strategy of investment towards these aims within projected budgets.

The Government's strategy has been to take the pressure off hospitals by investing in primary care and it is true that if they are given room and are listened to then GPs can be quite innovative. If we are going to extend primary care then we will need to increase the number of GPs. There has been no increase in Wales for 10 years yet in England there has been a 16% increase.

The right to offend - revisited

The New Statesman blog has an interesting piece on an announcement by Trevor Phillips, the Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission that 'there will be new work on .... hate crime against learning-disabled people, religion and belief, and age discrimination.'

The author wonders what is afoot: 'The problem is that the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 already goes considerably further than that in its references to "threatening" words, behaviour, written material and public performance of a play. As Liberty warned at the time: "Criminalising even the most unpalatable, illiberal and offensive speech should be approached with grave caution in a democracy."'

He concludes: 'This is the real worry about further "work" in this area: that well-meant legislation on hate crimes ends up giving force to a new right not to be offended that has not, and should not have, any place on the statute book.'

That statement is absolutely correct. I already have form on this of course and as a Liberal and a Democrat will defend to the absolute limits the right of somebody to offend others within the limits of the law. But what if the bigots and the politically correct get their way and restrict our rights to exercise these freedoms through changes to the law?

Civil disobedience and protest are one avenue, and that is a right we may exercise as well provided we are prepared to take the consequences for our actions. But before that we have to be alert to any proposals and stand-up against those who might take away our liberties. This is not a threat that can be taken lightly.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Who has really been snubbed?

Judging by the prominence given by the Western Mail to former Plaid Cymru Leader, Dafydd Wigley's decision to withdraw his candidacy for a seat in the House of Lords anybody would think that a major political earthquake had taken place.

Dafydd Wigley is an honourable man and a talented politician. If anybody should be in the House of Lords then he should. However, nobody has a right to be there, least of all a minor Nationalist Party with ideas above its station or at least that is how it may be viewed in Westminster.

Indeed the comments of the Cabinet Office say as much: “We cannot comment on individual cases, but Plaid Cymru did not follow the correct procedure. They made unsolicited nominations. The procedure is that from time to time the Prime Minister makes political appointments to the Lords by seeking nominations from party leaders.”

What irks me the most about this whole affair is the way that Plaid Cymru assume that their interests are synonymous with those of Wales and that this is reinforced by the comment piece attached. It is complete nonsense. Plaid's hubris and that of its Parliamentary leader is unbounded.

Yes, it would be nice to have more Welsh Lords and yes, that would also help the passage of Legislative Competence Orders. But all our experience indicates that the biggest obstacles to LCOs sit in the House of Commons and amongst Whitehall civil servants and their Ministers. That is the logjam that needs breaking and no number of Welsh peerages will make a dent in it.

Elfyn LLwyd is right on one thing, the process of nominating members of the House of Lords is farcical and open to abuse. A fully elected second chamber that reflects the constitutional changes that have taken place in Britain since 1997 is essential.

In the meantime perhaps we should reflect that Wales has not so much been snubbed as deeply embarrassed at the ineptitude of Plaid's Parliamentary leadership in failing to secure a peerage for an outstanding statesman such as Dafydd Wigley.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me!

The Spin Doctor column in today's Wales on Sunday starts off with the lament that there really is nothing going on this week so, taking their clue I will shamelessly rip off one of his 'non-stories'.

It seems that a petition has been lodged on the Downing Street website which seeks to have Wales become a county of England. The petition which has eight signatures says:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to prosecute any person or organisation that promotes the breakup of the United Kingdom, including promoting independence for Wales or Scotland or reunification of Ireland, under the Treason Act 1531, which offence to be punishable by imprisonment for a minimum of 5 years.

The originator claims to be Dave Rees of True Wales and if you agree then you have until 21 April 2010 to sign it here, after which you will get a nice e-mail from the Prime Minister's office acknowledging your views and offering reasons why Gordon Brown is going to ignore you.

The rationale for this petition as spelt out on the website is interesting too:

The nationalist movements in Wales, Scotland and Northeren Ireland are fundamentally opposed to the constitutional status of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northeren Ireland. Their drive towards independence represents a direct attack on the stability and sovereignty of the state and their actions should be considered as acts of sedition, and should be prosecuted under the Treason Act 1531.

Having all your opponents arrested for treason is one way to win a referendum on enhancing the powers of the National Assembly for Wales. It is not very original though.

P.S. The petition calling on the Prime Minister to resign has stalled on 70,615 signatures, which is still the size of a small English constituency.

Saturday, September 05, 2009


The BBC offer a solution to an age-old mystery by reporting research published in the New Scientist, that suggests that women have a genetic aversion to dangerous animals, such as spiders.

The research says women are born with character traits that were ingrained in our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Researchers say that as child protectors, they have to shun animals that threaten them or their young off-spring. Previous research suggested women were actually up to four times more likely to be afraid of creatures like spiders:

The new research was headed up by developmental psychologist, Dr David Rakison, from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, 10 baby girls, and 10 baby boys were subjected to a number of pictures of spiders to gauge their reactions.

First the babies were shown a picture of a spider with a fearful human face, followed by images of a spider paired with a happy face - alongside an image of a flower twinned with a fearful face.

The results showed that the girls - some as young as 11 months old - looked longer at the picture of the happy face with a spider than the boys, who looked at both images for an equal time.

The researchers concluded that the young girls were confused as to why someone would be happy to be twinned with a spider, and were quick to associate pictures of arachnids with fear.
The boys, it seems, remained totally indifferent emotionally.

Mr Rakison attributes this genetic predisposition to behavioural traits inherent in our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

Men, he purports, were the greater natural risk takers, the ones who took greater risks were more successful when going out to hunt for food.

With women, in their role as natural child protectors, it made sense for them to be more cautious of animals such as snakes or spiders, Mr Rakison adds.

By contrast, the research concludes that modern phobias such as the fear of hospitals - or that of flying - show no differences between the sexes.

Previous research has shown that almost 6% of people have a phobia of snakes, with nearly 4% scared of spiders.

However, of that percentage, four times are likely to be women than men.

Do these scientists actually get grants for this sort of research?

Over-egging the pudding

In the phoney war between the end of the silly season and the reconvening of the Assembly, it seems that the BBC's Welsh Affairs Editor, Vaughan Roderick has been proving the power of the blog in setting the news agenda. I was amused therefore to find this little gem, which deserves to highlighted.

Vaughan reports that a recent Plaid Cymru publication in the Vale of Glamorgan takes cheek to new heights. He says that the spinning is a good as in a a laundrette:

In a leaflet, Plaid Cymru boast of coming 'equal first' with the Tories and Labour in the European elections. That is certainly not true in the core vote. Maybe they are referring to the fact that the three parties won one seat each. If that is the case why leave out UKIP?

The leaflet goes on to claim that Plaid Cymru was 'within 750 votes of coming 2nd in the Vale of Glamorgan. That is factually correct. This is the result:

Tory 7611
Labour 4025
UKIP 3718
PC 3275
LD 2138

Isn't the party forgetting a few things? Like the fact that it came 4th, for example.

I wonder if there was a bar chart!

Friday, September 04, 2009


Putting aside the issues involved in the decision of the Assembly Commission to cease producing a fully bi-lingual record of proceedings, it seems that there is an on-going attempt to re-write history.

In his blog, the BBC Welsh Affairs Editor, Vaughan Roderick reports:

In the meantime Chris Franks, Plaid Cymru's representative on the Commission, claims that he opposed the plans from the beginning but that the Commission's records failed to note that. Mr Franks has met Claire Clancey today to declare his opinion that "this matter isn't over."

In fact the decision was unanimous so there was nothing to note. It is funny how time plays tricks on some people's minds.

Change for change's sake

The article by Huw Irranca Davies in yesterday's Western Mail calling for a referendum on changing Britain's voting system within the next few months is a strange one.

Mr. Davies has been around long enough to know that you cannot just launch into a referendum. For a start you need an Act of Parliament to authorise it, you need a clear position to be voted on and the approval of the Electoral Commission for the question and you need a campaign to try and win it. He has none of those things.

The only conclusion that can be drawn then is that Mr. Davies was attempting to define a position in the hope of pulling others in behind him. Unfortunately for him his ideas are so conservative and unimaginative that he has little chance of that happening.

The Minister thinks that our current first past the post system should be replaced by a proportionate voting system but the method of voting he has in mind is straight alternative voting, where we retain the existing single member constituencies but allow people to number the candidates in order of preference so that, after transfers, the winner must get 50% of the vote.

It is marginally better than what we have at present but not much. It is not a proportional system nor will it give Mr. Davies the party advantage he thinks. That is because non-aligned voters tend to go with the flow when expressing second and third preferences and at present the Labour Party are not benefiting from that sort of support.

More importantly straight AV reinforces the stranglehold of the big parties on the electoral system and mitigates against independents.

Mr. Davies argues that he would not support the more proportional single transferable vote because he says he wants to retain the constituency link. Yet STV does keep a constituency link it is just that an MP would need to share his constituents with others, often from different parties, and that is the crux of his objection.

Like many other Labour and Conservative MPs, Mr. Davies is not comfortable with pluralism. His objective is to shore up his position not to share power nor to give a genuine voice to the disenfranchised voters in his constituency who do not vote Labour. In other words, his call for a referendum is just another example of tribal politics from a politician who is struggling to come to terms with the decline in traditional allegiances amongst voters.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Missed promises

As the current Assembly term passes the halfway mark and we start to move towards the next elections the chickens are coming home to roost on the many ambitious targets and aspirations in the One Wales coalition document.

Already we have seen that the pledge to build a net 6,500 new affordable homes is off target, being 1,100 short at the halfway point, but also some of the other pledges such as free laptops have not yet got off the ground, whilst the first time homebuyer's grant has mutated into something else altogether.

Something that deserves much greater scrutiny as we approach the elections is the myth that is being spun by Plaid Cymru and one or two media commentators of the Deputy First Minister as some sort of economic guru, helping Wales to buck the trends and pulling us out of recession.

I have already looked at this on Freedom Central where I pointed out that the figures that show that there was a quarterly fall in the number of people out of work in the three months to June do not add up. That is because the actual number of people in real jobs as opposed to those registered as officially unemployed, fell by nearly a whole percentage point in the same quarter, whilst those who are economically active (meaning they are over sixteen and contributing to GDP) also fell, by 0.8% leaving Wales the third worst place in the UK.

It is a point taken up by Dylan Jones Evans on his blog two weeks later. He points out that the statistics being relied on by Ieuan Wyn Jones' supporters do not measure the actual level of employment or unemployment and are merely extrapolations from a sample of respondents to the Labour Force Survey. He says that in contrast to Labour Force Survey unemployment, the number of those registering for Jobseekers Allowance in Wales continues to rise and is 35% higher than a year ago.

Now the BBC report that a One Wales pledge to get 80% of adults of working age in Wales into employment is unlikely to be met. A cabinet report identifies that schemes to put more people in work will meet only half the shortfall as the employment rate stands at 69.7%. Only now is the government considering the need for a strategy with the Department of Work and Pensions.

The Welsh Government has been rightly praised by many people for its ProAct training scheme for companies in danger of making redundancies. At times it has seemed as if this is the only policy that they have to combat the recession. The BBC however points to an independent report commissioned by the Wales Employment and Skills Board, which advises the Welsh government, and which concluded that many employers in Wales were confused about the various schemes to put unemployed people back in work.

Once more the One Wales Government have been caught out working to random targets without any clear action plan as to how they are going to achieve them. If there is an economic guru there then maybe it is time he or she made themselves known.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Finding savings in public spending

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has argued that abolishing Child Trust funds would save the UK Government about £500 million a year and could be “one of the less unattractive options” when decisions about spending cuts are made.

Carl Emmerson, deputy director of the IFS, said that, with around 800,000 children born each year, abolishing the funds would make a “small but not insignificant” contribution to the £26 billion public spending cuts estimated to be needed by 2013/2014.

The Liberal Democrats have always opposed this scheme as an effective bribe that will have little impact on outcomes for children and young people. The money cannot be accessed until a child is 18 and even then it will be so small as to be virtually worthless. There is little evidence that the existence of the funds has encouraged savings by parents on behalf of their children as was originally hoped.

It is difficult to see what the point of the fund is. It is hardly an 'investment in social mobility' as the Institute of Public Policy Research argues.

Our view is that the money is better invested in early years education as the best way to make a difference to the lives of young people. Research shows that if children receive the best possible start to their informal and formal education then they are more likely to fulfil their potential in later life. That is the best way to invest in social mobility.

Diplomatic language

So in the end the al-Megrahi affair boils down to the UK Government exercising power without responsibility.

The Prime Minister did not want the Lockerbie bomber to die in prison but he did not have to make that decision. Instead, Labour have let a naive SNP government take the fall for UK diplomatic manoeuvrings.

Yes, the decision was devolved but there were clear foreign policy implications that could not be ignored and were clearly beyond the competence of Scottish ministers.

By remaining silent publicly and giving the nod and a wink privately, the Prime Minister and his government were effective parties to the release of a terrorist who should have served out his time in prison.

Now he needs to answer questions about his part in this affair and for the talks with the Libyan Government that paved the way for the release and which allowed Mu'ammar al-Qaddāfī to publicly celebrate the decision as the triumphal end-point of long-protracted negotiations.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The impact of inadequate affordable housing provision

This article in today's Western Mail makes two key points that need to be noted. Firstly, the lack of affordable housing in rural areas has wider implications than forcing young couples and others to seek accomodation elsewhere. It can lead to the loss of important facilities such as the village primary school as well.

Secondly, those who say that England have more effective policies on closing rural schools should take note. According to the figures in this article rural schools are just as likely to close over the border as they are here.

Government rules to take account of the special circumstances of rural areas are important, as are any additional grants that can be made available, but at the end of the day decisions are made for educational reasons and on an assessment of how sustainable a school is. That is why the best way to make such a school viable is to ensure that there is sufficient affordable housing locally to keep young families in the area.

It is not an easy subject and not an issue that is being addressed effectively by every Welsh Council, but it is a lesson that needs to be driven home as Local Development plans come up for approval and Councils draw up their housing strategies. Rural exception sites and the conversion of existing buildings and empty houses into homes for rent, together with a comprehensive affordable housing plan are essential components of all such strategies.

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