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Saturday, October 31, 2009

On that poll

Having been away for a week there is a lot to catch up with, not least the YouGov poll that was rather inconveniently published early on in my holiday. Much of the reporting of this poll has been verging on the hysterical in my view, but then as there are so few polls published for Wales who can blame the media and the on-line commentariat for acting like they have just discovered an oasis in the desert.

I am traditionally very sceptical of polls anyway. They are a snapshot of a moment in time and often proved wrong. More to the point past experience shows that to get any level of accuracy in Wales you need a sample bigger than the standard 1000 plus voters. As evidence of this I point to the 1985 Brecon and Radnorshire by-election in which nearly every constituency poll was way out.

The point is that despite being a relatively small place, Wales is diverse and difficult to read as a whole. Even more foolish in my view is to try and extrapolate Welsh constituency results from the figures. The point is that in all forty Welsh seats there is all to play for and the fact that the Welsh Liberal Democrats got 12% as opposed to the 18% they had in the actual votes in 2005 does not mean that Ceredigion and Brecon and Radnorshire are lost.

They are the last two seats I would seek to predict on the basis of a national poll especially when the European Elections saw a swing to the Lib Dems in both from the previous comparable election i.e. the 2004 European Election and especially when there are very important local factors in play in both seats. Equally I would suggest that uniform Labour to Tory swings in seats like Swansea West and Newport East would not happen. Instead anti-Labour votes are more likely to go to the Welsh Liberal Democrats, underlining the problems of seeking to extrapolate in individual constituencies from a national poll.

I cannot find the poll on-line but I suspect that if there was an ITV NOP poll for Wales in 2004 then it came nowhere near to predicting the outcome of the 2005 election here. I do not expect this poll to be anywhere close for 2010 either. What I do think is that those predicting the demise of the Welsh Liberal Democrats as a result of these figures may well have to eat their words.

In particular I would note that in the absence of a Wales-wide media the ratings for the leaders very much shows better recognition for those who are ministers and who therefore have a higher profile. I also note that for all the crowing of Plaid Cymru bloggers, they appear to have deliberately overlooked one important finding of the poll. That is, that if the poll is taken on face value the nationalists will actually lose seats at the next Assembly elections and will be lucky to make any advance next year. This is not a good poll for Plaid Cymru either.

So much for the effectiveness of Plaid Ministers and so much too for the bizarre assertion by one blogger than it is a tactical mistake to criticise Plaid Cymru in government because that just draws attention to the fact that they are exercising power. For goodness sake get over yourself. Good government depends on good and constructive opposition and that is something that the Welsh Liberal Democrats in particular are commited to delivering. And we are doing so.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Blogging will be light

Will be back posting regularly in November.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

BNP fact check

I don't want to harp on about Nick Griffin's appearance on Question Time, after all that is the only thing the mainstream media can talk about, but I did want to draw attention to this page on Channel Four's website.

They have fact-checked the BNP's pronouncements on the programme and concluded like the rest of us that he was being economical with the actualité:

the claim

"Guided tours in the Lake District have been cancelled because only English people, white people, were going on them."

Nick Griffin MEP, BBC One's Question Time, 22 October 2009.

The analysis

Griffin's statement's met with cries of "nonsense", and nonsense it appears to be. A Lake District National Park spokesperson said tours had never been cancelled.

The BNP pointed us to recent reports of a £1.7mn government-funded project to get more people from minorities to visit the Lake District and other national parks. But if anything, the project should mean more rather than less call for Lake District activities.

The sources
Asian Image: Plan to boost ethnic minority visitors to Lake District

There is much more where that came from.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Lynch mob?

In my years in politics I have occasionally had a bad media experience where either I have completely messed up or as happened on at least one occasion, the interviewer ambushed me with a set of questions on a different subject to that which I had been summoned to talk about. Obviously, such experiences are disconcerting but you move on. It is all part of the job and there is no point making a fuss.

I have absolutely no sympathy therefore for Nick Griiffin who has now decided that his appearance on Question Time on Thursday was unfair. He is telling anybody who will listen that it is his intention to lodge a formal complaint saying he had faced a "lynch mob". He claimed that the normal format of Thursday's programme was changed and it should not have been held in London:

In a press conference on Friday, the BNP leader said he would be making an official complaint to the BBC about the programme, saying its normal format had been "twisted" so that it focused solely on his views.

"That was not a genuine Question Time, that was a lynch mob," he said.

He challenged the BBC to ask him on the show again and to allow a wider range of subjects to be discussed.

He also claimed the audience was not representative of the UK as a whole as levels of immigration in London meant it was "no longer a British city".

Mr Griffin's fellow guests on the show said his performance had exposed his real views and the true attitudes of the BNP.

Lib Dem home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne said Mr Griffin had been "taken aback" by the hostility of the audience which showed most people in the UK wanted "nothing" to do with his views.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw, also on the panel, said Mr Griffin had been subjected to proper scrutiny and his performance had been "catastrophic".

Griffin is playing with the big boys now and he has to take the rough with the smooth. He has been subjected to real scrutiny and he was found wanting. This fuss is just so much displacement activity to try and divert attention from his disastrous performance. With a bit of luck he may never recover from the humiliation.

Friday, October 23, 2009

On that BNP Question Time experience

For all my arguments that the BBC had no choice but to engage with the BNP and that in a democracy we need to debate with and expose fascists, I could not help but feel uneasy watching last night's Question Time.

The first part of the programme was everything I expected it to be, with some very experienced politicians and the awesome Bonnie Greer dismantling the BNP leader, his views and his policies. In many ways that was always going to be a one off as was demonstrated when the panel got onto wider issues. It was then that the odious Griffin came across as just another politician, albeit a fairly incoherent and shallow member of the political class.

The fact that demonstrations took place outside the studios was a sign of a healthy democracy, but the extent that some took their protest to was not and played into the BNP's hands. Peter Hain and others argue that we should not provide a platform for fascists but in my view their premise is based on an under-estimation of the intelligence of the electorate.

Yes, there were some who may have sided with Griffin because he was being 'picked on' but most people would have listened to the arguments and understood why the BNP have no credible policies on any of the major issues facing our country today. They would also have seen how Griffin's views are based on a flawed analysis of British history and a poor understanding even of his own ancestry.

Of most interest was the view, ably articulated by Chris Huhne that the majority of people who vote for the BNP are not racists but voters who have real issues with the way that the system has treated them, their family and/or their friends. In these cases their dissatisfaction is reinforced by the misinformation put about by the BNP, which was very effectively answered last night.

As Chris Huhne said, where parties like the Liberal Democrats campaign on these issues and address people's concerns directly, as they have done in Burnley then the BNP can be rolled back and defeated. I agree with him. The real problem in tackling the BNP is that there are not enough Liberal Democrats around the country to do the job properly.

Another 'yes' vote?

As the date for the publication of the All Wales Convention report on the powers of the Welsh Assembly draws nearer then speculation grows stronger as to what it will say. This morning's Western Mail is convinced that there will be a very clear recommendation to hold a referendum as early as next autumn and that the Convention will suggest that a 'yes' vote is likely.

I have no reason to doubt that suggestion and nor would I want to, but it does leave very little time to get an effective all-party 'yes' campaign up-and-running and no matter how much we might want to dismiss his views, there are always the doubts of the Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain to take into account.

Mr. Hain matters because for a referendum to take place we need to get the approval of Parliament. If he stands in the way of a unanimous vote of the Assembly to go ahead with a plebiscite then it will not happen and the million pounds or so that have been spent on Sir Emyr Jones Parry's talking shop will have been poured down the drain.

I have argued from the beginning that the Convention was a displacement exercise designed to kick difficult decisions into the long grass so as to avoid internal party divisions, principally within the Labour Party. Now that it is due to report it seems that nothing has been resolved on that front and that a rearguard action is already being fought to prevent open splits.

The problem is that whilst Sir Emyr Jones Parry has been touring Wales sharing curries with people, any opportunity that was there to actually go out and convince people of the case to utilise the full powers offered by the Government of Wales Act 2006 has been missed.

Political campaigns, as was proved in 2007, are dynamic entities and differ considerably from the sort of snapshots of opinion taken by the Convention. Small and often subtle events can change the public mood and no matter where you start from, if you do not make your case effectively then you will lose.

That is why a 'yes' campaign was always more important than a Convention, and why two years or more has been wasted on this expensive delaying tactic. Of course the publication of the report will give the media and the chattering classes something to talk about but where it matters, in the pubs, supermarkets and post offices, it will fly by unnoticed.

In one respect Peter Hain is right, we are no nearer winning a referendum now than we were in 2007, simply because we have not even tried to convince people to vote for the outcome we all desire. That should not stop us calling the vote for a years time, but it does underline how much work still has to be done and how close the outcome is actually going to be.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

DNA database falling down says report

Arguments in favour of expanding the DNA database held by the Police have been undermined today by a report in the Guardian newspaper.

They say that a report on the database covering the years 2007-08 shows that crimes cleared up as a result of a match on the DNA database fell from 41,148 to 31,915 over the period. At the same time the number of DNA profiles on the database – already the largest in the world – rose from 4.6m to 5.6m. Duplicates mean that the police database now holds details of 4.89 million individuals. The database's running costs have doubled to £4.2m a year.

Now this is not an argument against the use of DNA to solve crimes, it is still an extremely effective tool for the prevention and detection of crime, but it does underline the case against a universal database. The more data that is held then the bigger the chances of mistakes, false positives and duplication, undermining the efficacy of the system.

It also supports the case to remove the profiles of innocent people off the system. DNA databases are most effective when they are properly focussed and targeted on the most likely suspects or as a one-off exercise concentrated on a particular crime and its vicinity. There is no need to hold the profiles of those who have been acquitted of crimes or have not even been charged with one.

Maybe the Home Office will finally get the message. Or maybe not!


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

BNP lose the plot!

If Nick Griffin's appearance on the Television last night is anything to go by then tomorrow night's Question Time performance will be very entertaining. He was almost wild-eyed and frothing at the mouth as he accused everybody of being against him and compared highly respected Generals with Nazi war criminals.

The man has clearly lost the plot (if he ever had it) and has allowed some modest electoral success to distort his sense of reality. The Daily Mirror also report that the BNP successfully managed to libel Welsh Secretary Peter Hain, yesterday as well:

In an email to BNP supporters, Mr Hain, a leading campaigner against South Africa’s racist apartheid regime, was branded a “former bank robber”.

The MP was arrested on suspicion of bank theft in the 1970s but acquitted and was widely believed to be the victim of a plot to frame him by the South African authorities.

Mr Hain said last night: “What they said about me is libellous and I know a lot of campaigners want to drain the BNP’s finances with legal action.

“But I have got more important things on my mind at the moment.”

Many of us thought that the BNP would implode eventually once subjected to scrutiny. It is a bonus that it has happened so soon.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

What is the message?

The Welsh Conservatives are in the Western Mail this morning with the startling news that more than a quarter of the average council tax bill goes on paying council workers’ pensions. They say that the cost of these pensions in Wales was £354.8m in 2007-8 and that this accounts for around £272 for every household in Wales – some 27% of the average band D council tax bill.

Now the first thing to note is that the revenue from Council Tax actually amounts to a small part of the total income of a local authority. So although £354.8m is a lot of money it is actually about 5% or less of the total amount of money spent by Welsh councils.

Secondly, I am not clear what point the Tories are making. Do they want to cut the pension entitlement of this group of workers, most of whom are paid below average wages? I think we should be told.

Victory on DNA?

The government has announced that it is dropping its current proposals to retain the DNA profiles of innocent people on the national database.

The Guardian says that the Home Office has announced that its plan to keep the DNA profiles of those arrested – but never convicted of a crime – for between six and 12 years depending on the seriousness of the offence has been dropped from the policing and crime bill that is going through parliament. A European court ruling in December found it was unlawful to keep the DNA details of 850,000 innocent people indefinitely on the national database.

However, campaigners cannot afford to relax. Although the Government is obviously trying to conform with the European court ruling they have not said what will happen to existing DNA samples of innocent people held by the police. Chief constables have already been warned by the Home Office to ignore the European court ruling and carry on adding the DNA profiles of the tens of thousands of people they arrest to the national database.

Secondly, the Government backdown does not appear to be on a matter of principle but because they were likely to lose the vote in the House of Lords and needed to get the legislation through before the Queen's speech. We still await the Government's final proposals on how they will address the European ruling. Until then we cannot claim anything but a temporary victory.


BNP hit by another leak

This morning's Guardian reports that details of the BNP's rank and file UK membership are expected to be posted on the internet today. It will be the third time that this has happened to the party in recent years:

The apparent disclosure of a membership list will add to the controversy surrounding the party. The Guardian has seen the list, but could not verify its authenticity. It appears to show that:

• The BNP had 11,560 members as of April this year, including one peer.

• The party appears to have benefited from a surge in female recruits – one in eight party members are now women.

• The highest concentrations of members are in Leicestershire, Lancashire, Derbyshire and Lincolnshire.

Already speculation has started on Twitter as to the identity of the peer whose name appears on the list, whose publication coincides with the appearance of Nick Griffin on Question Time this week and a forthright letter from former military chiefs which warns that the armed forces are in danger of being hijacked by far-right groups.

The former generals have complained that political extremists have no right to share the armed forces' proud reputation by using images of Winston Churchill and wartime insignia as part of their campaigning.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Bits and pieces

It has been a very busy week, not helped by losing a day on Thursday due to travelling to London for a very sad funeral. I had intended to blog more on Conference but was taken ill on Saturday night and as a result lost Sunday as well, so I was limited as to what I could do.

Today was equally as busy, with meetings all day and most of the evening. As it is I am now engaging in displacement activity to avoid getting on with re-writing a speech I need to deliver tomorrow night. So this is just a quick summary of some of the highlights of the Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference.

By far the most significant debate was that on free prescriptions. It was a real debate with genuine views on both sides and even the vote on the amendment at the end was close. It is not the sort of debate that happens that often in the other party's conferences.

What is important is to acknowledge that things change, and as a result parties have to adapt. The Welsh Liberal Democrats would not have gone down the route of free prescriptions. Instead we would have extended the list of long term illnesses that are exempt from such charges.

This formed the basis of Kirsty Williams' private members legislation in 2003. The cost would have been about £20 million. So, assuming that this would be the position we might go to the savings that might be made by abolishing free prescriptions would have been severely limited.

I doubt also whether any government, even a Tory one, would restore prescription charges at the English level, again eating into the savings. And of course there would be the cost of putting back the expensive means-testing apparatus that was there before.

Essentially, therefore getting rid of free prescriptions would have been a complex business that would not have brought the savings in the Welsh budget that others anticipate. And that judgement is before we begin to consider the health benefits lost and the problems of removing a benefit from people, even millionaires (some of whom would get free prescriptions under any regime due to long term illness).

No party can survive in 2009 on policies written in 2003. The decision on Saturday was not a u-turn or even a change of mind, it was adopting a policy fit for the present circumstances.

The other highlight for me was Kirsty's speech, which was outstanding. I believe that a video will be available on Freedom Central soon so that you can all enjoy it. Kirsty set out her vision for the Welsh Liberal Democrats and set the tone for the General Election ahead.

Of course none of us were expecting the Wales on Sunday front page regarding Lembit's column in the Daily Sport (don't worry the link is safe) the next day, but although I disagree with her on the significance of Lembit's 'weekly contribution to political debate', Kirsty is entitled to express her view and Lembit himself was relaxed about it.

The party is in good heart and we genuinely feel that we can hold our existing four seats and add to them whenever it is that Gordon Brown goes to the country. The Conference was an important stepping stone towards that aim, though we have also started to put in place key policy planks for the Assembly elections the year after such as the motion on funding personal care that was also passed on Saturday.

Lost in showbiz

Alex 'Mahatma' Salmond has defended the decision to release the Lockerbie bomber as being in tune with the principles of Mahatma Gandhi, the celebrated champion of non-violence.

According to the Guardian he told the SNP Conference at the weekend that Arun Gandhi, the Indian leader's grandson, recently visited Scotland with the aim of establishing a reconciliation centre at a Scottish university. "One of the things he told me is that his grandfather's philosophy is much misunderstood," said Salmond. "His resistance was not passive but active, his dedication to non-violence a strength not a weakness. Sometimes someone has to break the cycle of retribution with an act of compassion. That is what Kenny MacAskill did and we should all be proud of him for doing it."

The comparision has been quite rightly ridiculed: Scottish Labour justice spokesman Richard Baker said: "Alex Salmond is losing his grip on reality. I am staggered that anyone would mention Kenny MacAskill in the same sentence as Mahatma Gandhi."

The difference is of course that Gandhi led a passive active resistance against colonisation, whereas Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi is a convicted killer who should have served out his sentence or seen through his appeal to prove his innocence. Salmond really is lost in his own self-publicity.

BNP on Question Time

Peter Hain's opposition to the BNP Leader's appearance on Question Time is principled and informed by his own experiences fighting apartheid. Many of us share his outrage at the position taken by this racist party.

However, there comes a time when we must bow to the inevitable and work with others to use this event as an opportunity to show the BNP up for the obnoxious, intolerant and out-of-touch party that they are.

My only doubt is that we are putting too much store in the ability of Griffin's fellow panellists to deliver the comprehensive thrashing we are all hoping for.

It is unfortunate that Mr. Hain has now taken to issuing threats of legal action unless the BBC suspends Griffin's debut appearance. Mr Hain argues that the BNP is “an unlawful body” because its whites-only membership rules breached discrimination legislation. Yet unfortunately for him that matter has been kept out of the courts by a promise to amend the BNP constitution.

The latest faux pas by the BNP itself though offers the Question Time panellists something else to work with. The Times reports that a posting on the BNP’s website has hit out at the two ethnic minority members of the panel. They have derided Bonnie Greer, the writer and broadcaster, as a “black history fabricator”, and said that Baroness Warsi, the Conservative spokeswoman for community cohesion, who is of Pakistani origin, was a “product of Tory affirmative action”.

With a start like that any chance of Nick Griffin making any sort of favourable impact on the audience must be receding very quickly indeed. If indeed there was such a chance in the first place.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Not the West Wing

Hopes that the run-up to the General Election might see a series of debates between the three main party leaders have run into the mire as Labour and the Conservatives pursue their own agenda as to what they want to use the discussions for.

The Sunday Telegraph reports that after only a few weeks of negotiations, David Cameron has rejected the idea of a series of debates between all three party leaders. Gordon Brown has proposed up to six debates while the Liberal Democrats are demanding three three-way debates:

Mr Cameron has proposed the most slimline option, involving one debate with all three leaders. But Mr Brown has told broadcasters he wants at least six. He and Mr Cameron would go head to head in one, Mr Brown would face Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, in another while Mr Cameron would face Mr Clegg in a third. Then there would be three more debates between Mr Brown and Mr Cameron focused on a different issue each time, such as the economy.

In addition, both Labour and the Lib Dems are pressing for a separate debate between the Chancellor Alistair Darling, the shadow chancellor George Osborne and the Lib Dem treasury spokesman Vince Cable, as well as a foreign policy debate between the Foreign Secretary and opposition foreign affairs spokesman.

One broadcaster involved in the negotiations described the situation as "madness".

"The detail is bringing it down. The danger is it will continue getting bogged down and at this rate may never happen."

The insider said the situation was so bad that at least one television company had proposed that the debate take place in the next few weeks as a way of ensuring it went ahead.

If this 'insider' thought these negotiations were going to be easy then he is being very naive indeed. There is no tradition of leadership debates in the UK, because we do not operate a Presidential system. That does not mean that such debates are not desirable, just that somehow those organising them are going to have to break through self-interest to get them off the ground.

This is not America, but even there there are negotiation stalemates and game playing in setting the terms of the debates. That was so even on The West Wing. The difference in the USA is that people expect the debates to take place so there is a moral imperative to reach an agreement. Whether that is so here we will have to see.

Changing history

If truth be told Wikiedia is not exactly a reliable source of information and it certainly would not be a port of call for any reputable historian to establish facts. It is also the case that politicians and political parties often alter their own entries or those of others to reflect the message they want to send. I have certainly corrected my own entry to remove what I consider to be inaccurate comments placed there by members of other parties, but I have never sought to do the same to others.

So the controversy about the changes made to the entry of Michal Kaminski, the Polish politician who now leads the Tories in the European parliament, is fairly unremarkable in itself. Where it does take on significance is in the detail as to who changed the entry and what their motives were.

All the other parties seem fairly clear that the balance of probabilities point to somebody within the Conservatives as the person who removed details of Kaminski's previous membership of the far-right National Revival of Poland party from Wikipedia:

The information was deleted on 25 June by someone using a computer connection directly traceable to the House of Commons. The European Conservatives and Reformists Group, which Kaminski leads and in which the Tories are founder members, was formed on 22 June.

Also on 25 June, alterations were made to the Wikipedia page on Edward McMillan-Scott, the Tory MEP who raised concerns about Kaminski, and was then expelled from the party. The changes – designed to portray McMillan-Scott as a europhile – were made from a computer with an internet IP address named "Strasburg".

On the morning the change was made, McMillan-Scott had voiced concerns for the first time in a newspaper interview about the Tories' European partners, saying that he was unhappy with their extremist links.

If this is the case then obviously the fuss about Cameron's new European grouping and the expulsion of McMillan-Scott is causing anxiety within the Conservative Party. Could the higher echelons be regretting taking the decision to withdraw the Tories from the European People's Party? Could the deep concern of US Government officials about Cameron's direction of travel be perceived as having an impact on his credibility as a future Prime Minister?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Irony failure

There was a fascinating letter in yesterday's Western Mail from a Robert Haines of Pontypool attacking Kirsty Williams for wanting to bring value for money to our efforts to attract jobs to Wales. He wrote:

I have nothing but contempt for our so-called MPs who on the one hand praise individuals who bring investment into Wales, then criticise them for their expenses (Welsh civil servants paid for football kit and children’s textbooks on expenses, October 14). How do they expect our men and women who move to foreign countries to live?

It costs more to live abroad and the expenses highlighted in your front page article are most certainly not excessive compared with Westminster.

I call this nit-picking and it’s about time the likes of Kirsty Williams moved into the 21st century and realised we have to speculate to accumulate investment in Wales.

She ought to start caring for the people who work for Wales not ridicule them.

Well, yes! Nobody is complaining about legitimate expenses but there comes a point where we have to question whether some of the expenditure recorded should really be borne by the public purse. More importantly is the second report into International Business Wales that Mr. Haines does not appear to be aware of.

That is the one that says that the civil servants Mr. Haines is supporting are failing to do their job in making an impact in key overseas markets such as the USA, hence failing to bring the investment to Wales that we all want. Perhaps that should be the key indicator in evaluating whether these expense claims can be justified or not.

On tour

It has been a busy few days not least because I spent Thursday at a funeral in London, causing me to re-organise my diary.

I managed to get back in time to attend an event in the Senedd on 'Mediation in public law", which was interesting and then to Gilfach Goch for a public meeting on wind farms.

In many ways this was not a typical anti-wind farm meeting. The 70 residents present largely recognise that turbines are a legitimate part of the energy mix and accept that some will be located near their village. However, what they are not happy about is the 150 turbines planned by the Welsh Government for the North Glamorgan area and in particular the three or four wind farms set to be built on the hills above their homes, effectively encircling their village against the advice of planning consultants.

My view, expressed to the meeting, was that it is time to revisit Technical Advice Note 8, the Government planning document that designates areas around Wales where wind farms can be constructed, so that it takes account of other technologies. We need to invest in tidal lagoons and biomass as well as other alternative means of generating power and policy needs to take account of that.

The case for alternative energy is overwhelming but the Government has failed to take people with them. They have failed to talk to communities about their plans or to ensure that if turbines are erected near homes that local people should gain clear community benefits paid for out of the profits.

Yesterday, on my way to Wrexham, where we are holding the Welsh Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference, I stopped off at the Institute for Rural Health at Gregynog in Mid-Wales to talk about the implementation of health policy in rural areas. I had a fascinating conversation looking at the pressures that sparsity puts on the provision of services and the people who live in 'deep rural' areas.

I came away better informed and with ideas that need to be raised with the health minister over the next few months.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Shortsighted cuts

Over on the Institute of Welsh Affairs blog the organisation's Deputy Director argues that the 5 per cent cuts to higher and further education institutions contained in the Welsh Government's draft budget are shortsighted.

She points out that apparently they are not cuts but ‘efficiency savings’: 'Other departments are looking to make ‘efficiency savings’ of around 1.6 per cent so I am left wondering why higher and further education institutions are able to make further savings, especially when university settlements in recent years have also entailed cutbacks.'

She continues: The Assembly’s Enterprise and Learning Committee’s report into the Economic Contribution of Higher Education identifies the sector as having a huge multiplier effect on the economy. For every £1 million you invest in Higher Education, the economy gets £5.3 million back. According to the Holtham Commission, Wales has 17 per cent more students per head than England which means that we should have a good source of future income from our student population.

Wales’s 25 further education colleges and institutions provide 80 per cent of all post-16 qualifications in Wales. The majority of these courses are part time which enables students to work whilst studying for a qualification. Wales has consistently been shown to provide a better standard of Further Education than England which gives Wales a real head start in the provision of skilled workers to the business community. This may be why further education colleges are over-subscribed across Wales.

She is absolutely right in arguing that we should be investing in people's skills during a recession not making it more difficult for them to get the training and education they need. But will the Welsh Government listen?

More allegations in Labour leadership contest

Whilst the rest of the Welsh media are keen to find out more about the three potential First Ministers, the Western Mail is concentrating on stirring things up a bit.

I am a bit behind with my reading due to having spent so much of this week 'on the road' but note that Thursday's edition of the paper is saying that Unite, the biggest union in Wales has been accused of “jumping the gun outrageously” in its support for Welsh Labour leadership candidate Edwina Hart:

On Saturday, Health Minister Mrs Hart and her rivals Carwyn Jones and Huw Lewis are due to be interviewed by Unite’s political committee to see which of them the union will back.

Yesterday, however, a Unite source contacted the Western Mail to say lay officials of the union were being telephoned by their full-time counterparts and told the union was backing Mrs Hart.

They were told to encourage their members to vote for her in the leadership election and in some cases asked to arrange meetings where members could meet the Health Minister.

Under Welsh Labour rules, trade unions and other affiliated organisations like the Fabian Society have one third of the votes in the current leadership election.

I heard on one of the political shows last night that in the Labour Deputy Leadership contest the all-member ballots in the unions followed the recommendation of their leaders without fail. If that happens in Wales too then on the basis of her previous background, her contacts and the support she has amongst full time officials I believe that Edwina Hart will win that part of the electoral college.

The Welsh Labour leadership contest is getting closer by the minute.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

On badgers

As is reported here, on Tuesday I tabled a motion with Labour AM Lorraine Barrett to annul the Welsh Government's legislation that will enable a badger cull in North Pembrokeshire.

My reasons for doing so are twofold. Firstly I believe that there needs to be a vote on this controversial measure before it goes ahead. Assembly Members cannot allow it to go through by default.

Secondly, I believe a cull is contrary to the weight of the scientific evidence. The Badger Trust have produced a useful document on this which can be found here.They say that Northern Ireland had a similar rate of bovine TB to Wales just four years ago, but has virtually halved it without killing a single badger.

In contrast, over the same period, the Republic of Ireland has exterminated thousands of badgers and failed to dent its massive bovine TB problem, even though badgers are now virtually extinct in livestock areas.

The Independent Scientific Group in England carried out a ten year study, which included trials of badger culling. They concluded that culling could make no meaningful contribution to bovine TB control. Their research has been published in international, peer-reviewed journals and the authors had analysed in detail, every possible culling option before reaching their conclusion.The Badger Trust say that 'the Randomised Badger Culling Trial in England took ten years, cost at least £50 million, was statistically robust and provides every possible piece of scientific evidence that might be obtained by killing badgers.

I agree that the cull that is proposed forms part of a comprehensive package of measures but it is a superfluous part. Badgers are by no means pleasant creatures but they are a protected species. The Government's action will encourage others to take matters into their own hands no matter what the Minister may say.

Furthermore the cull area has no hard boundaries, a pre-requisite of any cull. There is nothing to stop badgers moving in and out of the cull area, nor for that matter are there any proposals to deal with other animals that carry TB.

The Business Committee on Tuesday will determine the date of this debate. It needs to take place before 15th November. Only if the motion to annul is defeated can the cull go ahead.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


I spent some time last month with the Presiding Officer and officials giving evidence to the Assembly's Finance Committee on the Commission's budget. This is the amount of money that is needed to run the Parliamentary side of the Assembly.

The Finance Committee has produced its report together with a number of useful recommendations. However, when I looked at the list of witnesses on page six I am missing. This is despite speaking on a number of occasions as is evidenced by the record of proceedings.

I have been airbrushed out of this particular piece of history :-(

The cost of democracy

Today's Times reports that Hammersmith and Fulham Council have written to Mark Thompson, the BBC Director-General asking him to move Question Time from Television Centre, in White City, West London, over fears that thousands of protesters will picket the building because of the appearance of BNP Leader, Nick Griffin.

The programme takes place on Thursday 22 October and will feature Baroness Warsi, the Tory spokeswoman for community cohesion and social action, Bonnie Greer, the black writer and broadcaster, Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, and Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman.

The paper says that Unite Against Fascism, which regularly demonstrates against the BNP, has said that it will try to blockade Television Centre to prevent Mr Griffin gaining access next Thursday.

Demonstrators also plan to hand out leaflets to BBC workers as they arrive at the building in the morning, urging them to stop work for the day in protest.

The Metropolitan Police expects up to 1,000 protesters to descend on the area and is considering using the controversial “containment” tactic that was deployed against G20 activists earlier this year to hem in the crowds. The cost of policing the event could run to tens of thousands of pounds. Lyn Carpenter, director of residents’ services at Hammersmith and Fulham Council, wrote: “A major demonstration, prompted by your programme, represents a significant threat to public safety and, inevitably, it will be our residents whose lives are most adversely affected. The council does not feel that the TV Centre on Wood Lane is an appropriate venue, given the circumstances.

Frankly, the facilitation of peaceful protest is what our democracy is all about. But also, in no way should those protests be allowed to stop this programme going ahead. This is a test of the maturity of our democracy. There are some very strong views on both sides but in no way should a legitimate debate be prevented from taking place. Equally, we should not shy away from alllowing opponents to express their views in a non-violent way.

It is a test for the Police too. They need to show that they can police demonstrations like this without infringing the rights of the protestors. I just hope that all parties can deliver on the night and in particular that the debate itself shows up the BNP for the nasty racists that they are.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Row grows over gag

The row over the Guardian being gagged from reporting a Parliamentary Question due for answer this week due to court proceedings has been growing apace since #trafigura and #CarterRuck became trending topics on Twitter last night.

The Guardian is now reporting that within the past few hours the legal firm, Carter-Ruck, has withdrawn its opposition to the Guardian reporting proceedings in parliament that revealed the existence of a previously secret injunction against the media by oil traders Trafigura.

Labour MP Paul Farrelly put down a question yesterday to the justice secretary, Jack Straw. It asked about the injunction obtained by "Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on 11 September 2009 on the publication of the Minton Report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura".

The Guardian say that it was due to appear at the High Court at 2pm to challenge Carter-Ruck's behaviour, but the firm has dropped its claim that to report parliament would be in contempt of court.

The BBC report that Liberal Democrats were particularly prominent in challenging this ruling:

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg wrote on the social networking website Twitter he was very concerned about the issue.

His party's parliamentary spokesman David Heath tabled an urgent request to Commons Speaker John Bercow to ask Justice Secretary Jack Straw for a statement on the prevention of reporting of parliamentary proceedings.

Lib Dem chief whip Paul Burstow also requested, under Commons standing orders, an urgent debate on "the freedom to report on Parliamentary proceedings".

Despite the fact that legal proceedings have been dropped this matter should not be allowed to rest. Parliamentary privilege needs to be protected from such moves in the future as the last bulwark of freedom of speech in this country.

Monday, October 12, 2009


A bizarre article appears on the Guardian website:

The Guardian has been prevented from reporting parliamentary proceedings on legal grounds which appear to call into question privileges guaranteeing free speech established under the 1688 Bill of Rights.

Today's published Commons order papers contain a question to be answered by a minister later this week. The Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, or where the question is to be found.

The Guardian is also forbidden from telling its readers why the paper is prevented – for the first time in memory – from reporting parliament. Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret.

The only fact the Guardian can report is that the case involves the London solicitors Carter-Ruck, who specialise in suing the media for clients, who include individuals or global corporations.

The Guardian has vowed urgently to go to court to overturn the gag on its reporting. The editor, Alan Rusbridger, said: "The media laws in this country increasingly place newspapers in a Kafkaesque world in which we cannot tell the public anything about information which is being suppressed, nor the proceedings which suppress it. It is doubly menacing when those restraints include the reporting of parliament itself."

The media lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC said Lord Denning ruled in the 1970s that "whatever comments are made in parliament" can be reported in newspapers without fear of contempt.

He said: "Four rebel MPs asked questions giving the identity of 'Colonel B', granted anonymity by a judge on grounds of 'national security'. The DPP threatened the press might be prosecuted for contempt, but most published."

The right to report parliament was the subject of many struggles in the 18th century, with the MP and journalist John Wilkes fighting every authority – up to the king – over the right to keep the public informed. After Wilkes's battle, wrote the historian Robert Hargreaves, "it gradually became accepted that the public had a constitutional right to know what their elected representatives were up to".

I am intrigued. Is it just the Guardian that has been gagged or are they the only ones who want to report it?

Update: The Commons Order Paper containing Questions for Oral or Written Answer beginning on Tuesday 13th October is here.

Fire sale

The decision of the UK Government to try and raise some quick cash by selling off assets such as the Dartford crossing, the cross-Channel rail link and the Tote over the next two years is an act of desperation. Worse than that it is an irresponsible act that will result in key Government assets being sold for less than their real value.

Vince Cable is absolutely right to describe this policy as fundamentally flawed. He has pointed out that the Government's timing is all wrong. They are proposing to "sell off in very depressed markets, under very depressed markets for land and for shares." In the House of Commons he went further and called it a government car boot sale.

There is nothing wrong with realising assets at the right time but Gordon Brown keeps getting it wrong. He sold off Britain's gold reserve at a cut price, now he is proposing to do the same with other assets as well. Nothing could better highlight Labour's mismanagement of the economy.

Expenses again!

Do they never learn? All the media this morning are reporting that MPs are openly challenging the authority of the independent auditor charged with investigating expenses abuses at Westminster. A number are claiming that the civil servant charged with the inquiry has strayed beyond his remit.

The Guardian records that John Mann, the MP who has led calls for a thorough overhaul of the allowances system, raised concern that Sir Thomas Legg's audit of expenses had become too broad, and warned that this might trigger lawsuits that could drag on through the "entirety of the next parliament".

The MP for Bassetlaw, who has been publishing his own expenses in full since 2004, warned that many MPs – faced with paying back sums of up to £200,000 – may "go to ground" rather than pay immediately, and then challenge the legality of the repayment demands.

And now the BBC are reporting that former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has been told to apologise in the House of Commons for breaching expenses rules. However, she does not have to pay back the money she received as a result of designating her sister's house in London, which she shares, as her "main home" and then claiming second home allowances on her Redditch family home. She has though paid back the money wrongly claimed for watching films and sporting events "over the basic subscription".

In many ways it is regrettable that this issue has reared its head again. It does nobody any good that politics, which remains a noble and worthwhile pursuit, is being undermined in this way. But it needs to be settled and MPs need to show that they understand public anger and are prepared to eat humble pie to respond to it. It now looks like it will take a General Election to sort this out once and for all. The sooner the Houses of Parliament change their rules the better.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Challenging the BNP

The Independent on Sunday report on a rift growing within the Cabinet about how to best tackle the BNP, following the decision by BBC Question Time to invite Nick Griffin onto their programme:

Peter Hain is to make a formal complaint to the BBC Trust over the appearance of the British National Party leader, Nick Griffin, on BBC1's Question Time next week. This follows what insiders described as a "robust" meeting between the Secretary of State for Wales and the show's executive producer, Ric Bailey, during the Labour Party conference.

Mr Hain said yesterday: "I fundamentally disagree with the BBC's decision. I fully understand why colleagues feel they have to appear, but I certainly wouldn't appear with a racist, fascist representative – I think it gives them legitimacy."

But Peter Sissons, a former chairman of Question Time, attacked the Labour minister yesterday: "Instead of bleating to the BBC Trust, why doesn't the great campaigner offer to go on the programme and dismantle the BNP's policies himself?"

No matter what we think about 'no platform' policies there is no doubt in my mind that Peter Sissons represents a significant body of public opinion. Peter Hain can of course choose to excuse himself from debating directly with the BNP on the basis of his principles but most people will ask what he is afraid of.

Whether we like it or not the BNP have full time elected politicians. The policy of no-platforming them has failed. If we are to properly tackle them we have to engage them in debate and demonstrate why their views have no place in our country.

A further news story in the Mail on Sunday however, shows what can happen when robust challenge is not present in programmes featuring the BNP (or indeed any other politician). Radio One's Newsbeat programme has come under fire for allowing two leading BNP activists to make unchallenged 'racist' statements on a news broadcast.

The activists claimed black England footballer Ashley Cole was not 'ethnically British' and spoke of him 'coming to this country' - even though he was born in East London:

BBC guidelines, which govern all the Corporation's output, set strict criteria on the use of anonymous sources.

The rules say: 'With an anonymous source... we must give the audience as much information about them as is compatible with protecting their identity, and in a way that does not mislead the audience about their status.

'We should normally identify on-air and online sources of information and significant contributors, as well as providing their credentials, so that our audiences can judge their status.'

The interview was also an apparent breach of National Union of Journalists guidelines which say that when interviewing representatives of racist organisations, 'journalists should carefully check all reports for accuracy and seek rebutting or opposing comments. The antisocial nature of such views should be exposed'.

But Newsbeat did not disclose any details about its BNP interviewees' backgrounds other than their first names and ages - and now refuses to discuss the reason behind the decision.

Reporter Debbie Randle, who interviewed the men, did not question them about their roles in the party or ask them about any previous controversy.

I think the lessons here are clear. The BNP may have forced themselves onto our airwaves by their limited electoral successes but impartial broadcasters cannot use that as an excuse not to ensure that listeners have full information about the people who are being interviewed nor should these people be given an easy ride.

As politicians we are used to being challenged on our views all the time. The BNP need to get used to that too. Indeed it is our duty to force that debate if we are to expose their lies and the misinformation on which they campaign.

Controlling the message?

This morning's Independent on Sunday poses the question as to whether Tory donor and tax-exile, Lord Ashcroft has been buying up online influence in a bid to "shore up" his own position with David Cameron's party and ensure that he is not frozen out once the Conservatives are installed at No 10.

Lord Ashcroft has recently purchased PoliticsHome and ConservativeHome causing some high profile resignations from the former's expert "political panel", which releases opinion surveys.

Amongst the resignees are Andrew Rawnsley, a columnist for The Observer, who quit as editor-in-chief, claiming that the site's editorial independence was incompatible with Lord Ashcroft's arrival: "I became editor-in-chief on the basis that PoliticsHome was dedicated to being a non-partisan site clearly independent of any party both editorially and financially. I do not believe that can be compatible with being under the ownership of the deputy chairman of the Conservative party."

About 40 "political panel" members have now made the decision to resign, with more thought to have privately stopped working for the site.

The paper points out that Lord Ashcroft's millions have been crucial in funding Mr Cameron's campaign to target resources at key marginal seats. The party has received almost £4m donated from the peer's firm, Bearwood Corporate Services, since 2005. However, Lord Ashcroft's refusal to answer questions about his tax status has been problematic for Cameron.

The higher profile that he has now bought himself can only help to focus more attention on these issues.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Taxing dilemma

The Taxpayers' Alliance, scourge of politicians and public authorities everywhere, an organisation that knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing, has found itself the centre of controversy today with the revelation that one of its directors does not pay British tax.

The Guardian has learned that Alexander Heath, a director of the increasingly influential free market, rightwing lobby group, lives in a farmhouse in the Loire and has not paid British tax for years.

The admission, made by Matthew Elliott, the TPA's chief executive and founder, is potentially embarrassing for the Conservative party, which has close links to the group that claims to be "the guardian of taxpayers' money, the voice of taxpayers in the media and their representative at Westminster".

At the Conservative party conference in Manchester this week, the TPA's influence was underlined when David Cameron and George Osborne followed its recommendations for freezing public sector pay and capping civil servants' salaries at the level of the prime minister, unless approved by the chancellor.

Senior Labour figures said the admission that a TPA director does not pay British tax "should ring alarm bells" about the group's influence on the debate on tax and spending. The group has also campaigned against green taxes, quangos and town hall pay.

Quite how anybody will be able to take this organisation seriously in future hangs in the balance. Perhaps all the newspaper editors who have relied on the Taxpayers' Alliance for headlines in the past will think twice in future before taking their copy unquestioned.


The Guardian reports that George Osborne's already precarious hold on economic credibility has slipped still further following an enormous gaff by him and his staff. The shadow chancellor's claim that he would save £13bn by raising the state pension age has been challenged by the respected thinktank that provided the basis for his figures.

The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) said the shadow chancellor's proposed saving, outlined at the Conservative party conference this week, would take five years longer than estimated and fall £3bn short.

NIESR said Osborne's team had made a mistake in their calculations, misreading a paper written by the thinktank earlier this year. Osborne's aides originally based their calculations on a NIESR document in the House of Commons library.

However, it does not end there. The paper says that David Blanchflower, respected economist and former member of the Bank of England's monetary policy committee, has criticised the Tories' financial plans, saying they had the potential to push the UK economy into a "death spiral".

"We are in the midst of the worst recession most people alive have ever experienced, or will probably ever experience," Blanchflower writes. "Lesson one in a deep recession is you don't cut public spending until you are into the boom phase. The consequence of cutting too soon is to drive the economy into a depression. The Tory economic proposals have the potential to push the British economy into a death spiral of decline."

The Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, Lord Oakeshott summed it up. He said: "This saga of incompetence shoots to pieces his claims to be a responsible chancellor."

Those old familiar headlines

It would not be a Welsh Labour leadership contest without allegations of a stitch-up and the Western Mail obliges us this morning with precisely that. It feels like 1998 all over again.

The paper tells us that ordinary members are being blocled from putting tough questions to the three candidates. Instead the one hour question time at each of the five hustings will be moderated by two party officials:

One party member contacted us to say: “So much for reaching out to the people of Wales. Another missed opportunity to re-engage voters. Tories had the media into the open primary for Totnes, for goodness sake. Questions to be submitted beforehand? I’m afraid that they will never learn that we are now in a more open political environment.”

Another party member told us: “It seems we’ve still got the same old control freakery. Whatever is wrong with just letting party members ask questions themselves? We’re supposed to be electing a party leader, and all these candidates should be able to think on their feet. Sometimes when someone asks a question you think of a follow-up. It seems this is being done to stifle debate.”

In response a spokesman said that “The system being used in Wales is seeking to ensure fairness for all candidates and has been used in previous internal elections such as the party's deputy leadership campaign.”

Well that is OK then. After we all know what a huge success the deputy leadership campaign was in boosting Labour support.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Let the music do the talking

David Cameron left the stage yesterday to the sound of the Monkee's hit 'I'm a believer' though one wag suggested that 'Daydream Believer' might be more appropriate.

Now, according to one tweet I have seen Huw Lewis has just launched his campaign to succeed Rhodri Morgan as leader of the Welsh Labour Party to the sound of Bruce Springstein's 'Born to Run'.

Nobody appears to have adopted Alice Cooper's 'I want to be elected' yet. It can only be a matter of time.

Out and about

I had a really good morning today visiting the Youthworks project in Tondu in Bridgend. They are attached to environmental group Groundworks but are chiefly concerned with social inclusion.

They have been doing valuable work with disconnected yougsters in some of the County Borough's most deprived communities for some time now, working with young people who have dropped out of school or have lost their way to help them fulfil their potential. They also provide an alternative curriculum provision for pupils who have dropped out of school, utilising their energy in landscaping work and building projects and teaching them skills at the same time.

I was particularly impressed at the passion with which the team approach their work and the commitment to their cause.

As ever with these sorts of projects funding is a critical subject as is the way that all the agencies such as the local Council, the Welsh Government and the UK Government work together. The fact that this does not happen often enough and that funding streams such as Communities First are sometimes used to build up empires that duplicate existing provision rather than add value to it can be a problem. There is no doubt that youth support work is under-funded and that should be addressed by taking a more holistic approach to the grant regimes that are already in place as well as bolstering existing grant provision.

Thoughts on the day

It is a mark of just how bad George W. Bush was that Barrack Obama has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just for doing the job of President of the United States of America properly. It was terrible timing on his part though to choose this day to bomb the moon. Let us hope that the Clangers survived the attack.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

National Poetry Day

As it is National Poetry Day again and as T.S. Elliot has been voted the UK's favourite poet I have reproduced one of his that I particularly enjoy.

T.S. Eliot - The Naming Of Cats

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn't just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there's the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey--
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter--
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that's particular,
A name that's peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum-
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there's still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover--
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

Champagne Tories

It is difficult to know if the Tories have had a good conference or not as it has been so dull. However by one of their self-imposed yardsticks they failed miserably. Party chiefs had tried to enforce an edict against triumphalism at the conference by discouraging the drinking of champagne, however as The Times reports things did not quite go to plan:

Several senior Tories – including David Cameron – have ignored a champagne ban imposed by Eric Pickles, the party chairman, who said that delegates should not be seen to be celebrating during a conference dominated by plans for cuts in public spending.

“I want to see less champagne bubbles and more bubbling activity,” Mr Pickles said. But Alan Duncan, the shadow prisons minister, and Michael Howard, the former party leader, have been photographed clutching champagne flutes. Mr Cameron was snapped accepting a glass at a Spectator party, but afterwards said that he had learnt his lesson. “He’s had a good talking to,” his wife Samantha said.

Meanwhile, a Tory activist has been arrested after he was accused of stealing a £150 bottle of champagne at the party’s conference in Manchester. The paper tells us that Philip Whittington, 27, was later released without charge after claiming it had all been a mistake and he was happy to pay for what he had drunk.

A £150 bottle of champagne? It is nice to see the Tories identifying so closely with recession-hit Britain.

Tories and the vigilante state

Whatever David Cameron does to make the Tories look more modern they just cannot help themselves in reverting to type especially when it comes to law and order.

One of the initiatives announced at the Tory Conference this week is to give more power to the Police to alert communities to dangerous criminals in their midst. Somehow blaming the Human Rights Act, Dominic Grieve, said: "Under Labour, the rights of criminals have been put before the rights of law-abiding citizens. A Conservative Government will free the police, probation and prison services to name offenders where necessary in order to protect the public and prevent crime."

What is not clear is when exactly that becomes necessary. As Justice Secetary, Jack Straw said: "The outcomes of court cases are already on the public record. Courts are open so that justice can be seen to be done. Police are able to use this information to inform the public, and regularly make announcements about wanted criminals."

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said: "As the Conservatives well know, there is nothing in the Human Rights Act that prevents Crimewatch being aired or the identification of dangerous offenders at large.

"It is a thoroughly good idea to provide reassuring guidance for the police service but a thoroughly bad idea to perpetuate dangerous myths about the law to grab headlines at a party political conference."

So what this proposal amounts to is either a bit of populist fluff to appease the Tory faithful or a real suggestion that once they have served their sentence, criminals will be hounded from community to community and not given a chance to reintegrate and reestablish their life.

It is a sure fire way to encourage reoffending and promote vigilanteism. It is a disturbing glimpse of a future Tory state.

The use of language part three

The Minister for Education Life Long Learning and Skills, Jane Hutt is a glass-half-full sort of person. So when she was confronted with an Enterprise and Learning Committee report on the economic impact of higher education, which concluded that higher education has huge potential to improve the Welsh economy, she seemed unphased as to how the 5 per cent cut in the higher education budget would contribute to that agenda.

In fact the cuts are an opportunity for colleges to "to prioritise their funding accordingly, and I will give them the levers to do so. That is part of the challenge of this budget."

I wonder if the Principals and Vice Chancellors will see it in that way?

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Best Labour Leadership campaign video yet

Huw Lewis shows his mastery of YouTube videos.

Disappointment on Welsh Language

There is more in the media this morning on the disappointment felt by many campaigners concerning the outcome of the Assembly Government's bid for powers to legislate on the Welsh Language. Frankly, I am not surprised at their anger.

The final Legislative Competence Order is a real dog's breakfast. Westminster have tied up the Minister's room for manoeurve and tried to draft the measure for us. The arguments over the level of government funding that would be required before an organisation is required to embrace bilingualism is a valid one but it should be determined by the Assembly when it legislates not by Parliament. The CBI should be talking to us not MPs as the power should reside in full with the Assembly.

The reactions are predictable: Menna Machreth, chair of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, said: “The Wales Office and Welsh Assembly Government have decided to block the people of Wales from gaining access to the Welsh language. What difference will this measure do to the day-to-day lives of people in Wales? The Wales Office and Assembly Government prefer to please large corporations and anti-Welsh elements within the Labour Party instead of making a real difference to the Welsh language’s status in Wales.”

Whilst Plaid Cymru politicians have focussed their fire on further delays in the approval of this LCO, namely its referral to the Welsh Grand Committee next Wednesday:

Plaid Cymru AM Leanne Wood called for this “pointless” meeting to be scrapped. She said: “This process has now been ongoing for the past two years, and the last thing the language needs now is more needless delays... Both an Assembly committee and a Westminster committee have looked at this issue at length and had their say. We must now get on with it, and let the Welsh Government legislate as soon as possible.”

Down here in the bay the cracks in the One Wales Government are visible though all the anger is being directed at Westminster, Peter Hain and Labour MPs.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Huey and the News

Huw Lewis has a campaign website at long last and it is really rather good. Looking through I found at least one sentence that might cause some comment and some real highlights in the mythbuster section.

We are told that Huw lives in Merthyr Tydfil with his wife Lynne Neagle (Assembly Member for Torfaen) and their two children James (7) and Sam (1). So that is the home in Penarth dealt with then.

In the mythbuster section he tackles head on some of the charges that have been levied against him. He is a lifelong devolutionist, who cut his political teeth organising for a “Yes” vote in Scotland while an Edinburgh University student in the late 1980’s. Huw's opposition to the coalition is widely exaggerated and he believes that the One Wales agreement should continue.

Huw is also a supporter of the Welsh Language, regularly attends the National Eisteddfod with his family and is a Welsh learner. He also believes that he can win back West Wales for Labour. Finally, he deals with the myth that he once had a chart hit with the single “The Power of Love”
- he never did. That was Huey Lewis.

*For the record, Huw stopped finding the Huey Lewis and the News gags funny about nine years ago, and always preferred this track anyway."

Sloganising and the budget

The publication of the Assembly budget yesterday gave the first indication of the impact of the new financial climate on Welsh services. Frankly, it is going to be tough and it is going to get tougher.

All the mainstream parties recognise that and the debate, when it takes place in November will centre around different priorities and how we should best use the resource we have to alleviate the impact of the recession on Wales, whilst shoring up public services as best we can.

However, Plaid Cymru appear to be taking a different tack. They seem to think that Wales can buck the trend so that whilst the UK Government cuts the budgets of all their departments we would emerge unscathed. Their finance spokesperson is quoted in the Western Mail as saying:

“The independent commission tasked with looking at how Wales is funded said that the Welsh budget cannot be cut any further before a fairer funding formula is in place.

“The London parties need to take heed of this warning and give guarantees that this will be the last time that the Welsh government has to use its reserves to protect public services.”

I agree absolutely with Plaid Cymru that Barnett needs to be reformed. Indeed the Welsh Liberal Democrats are the only other party to have consistently argued this and the only UK party to contain a proposal in their 2005 General Election manifesto to put it into effect. However, we have to be realistic here, important as Welsh public services are they are no more important than those in England. And an independent Wales would not help either because we would be struggling to cope with a huge structural budget deficit from day one.

Frankly, I had hoped that a spell in Government might have knocked this sort of gesture politics out of Plaid Cymru. Do they really expect to be taken seriously by arguing that Wales should be exempt from cuts. This is not standing up for Wales it is making us a laughing stock amongst UK Government Ministers and undermining the credibility of Plaid Ministers.

Plaid cannot stand back and argue that managing the crisis is nothing to do with them. By all means point out as we do that it is Labour's mismanagement of the economy that has contributed to the mess we are in but voters will expect politicians to be realistic and to offer solutions, not slogans.

Fighting for Wales in this way just undermines us. It is in tough negotiations tempered by realistic expectations that the real work is done. And yet these people expect us to take them seriously enough to include them in a debate between potential Prime Ministers.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Job vacancy

As my PA/Caseworker is due to go on maternity leave just before Christmas, I am advertising for somebody to stand in over a six month period, for three days a week, Tuesday to Thursday inclusive.

Details can be found here. Shortlisted candidates are likely to be interviewed on Friday 20 November and would be working with me from 14th December 2009 to 16th July 2010.

Debating the future of Britain

It has been argued elsewhere that we do not have a Presidential system and that therefore the series of Leaders debates that now look like taking place are at odds with our Parliamentary system.

The Prime Minister after all is not directly elected but is appointed by the Queen once she is satisfied that he or she can command a majority in the House of Commons, or has the best chance of forming a government if there is no overall control.

However, things change and although the unwritten British constitution remains the deciding factor, the nature of 24/7 media coverage has effectively focussed people's minds on the top job. Even though there are more regional variations in party support than there has ever been before, it is the leaders who are the ones who command all of the attention in a General Election.

The introduction of Leaders' debates is a natural extension of that trend and marks a significant step towards a more Presidential system. It is not something I welcome but it is where we are.

David Cameron has intervened in the debate as to who should feature in these debates to suggest that Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond would not be welcome. By implication I suggest he would not want Elfyn Llwyd or Ieuan Wyn Jones participating either.

Quite apart from the fact that Alex Salmond and Ieuan Wyn Jones will not be standing for Parliament, these debates are supposed to be between candidates for Prime Minister of Great Britain, as such parties such as the SNP and Plaid Cymru who are not fielding enough candidates to win that prize have no place participating in them. Nor do parties who have no MPs and no realistic chance of winning such as the BNP and UKIP.

By all means stage separate debates amongst the party leaders in Wales and Scotland but in this particular instance we should be clear, this is a United Kingdom election and as such debates between Prime Ministerial candidates should feature UK-wide parties alone.

More European woes for Tories

As if to add fuel to the fire the Daily Telegraph reports this morning that David Cameron's decision to pull Conservative MEPs out of the centre-right European People's Party grouping, in June in order to fulfil a pledge made during his leadership campaign in 2005, caused consternation amongst Conservative leaders across Europe.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is said to have told Mr Cameron: "C'est fou, il se fait mal à la tête," meaning "It's stupid, you're giving yourself a headache", whilst the decision also went down badly with other mainstream European leaders including Angela Merkel of Germany, who threatened to withhold co-operation from the Conservatives. Ms Merkel's Christian Democrat Union party recalled its London representative Thomas Stehling to Germany in protest at the move.

The paper says that European leaders were not alone in expressing their amazement at the move. President Barack Obama is understood to have raised the issue when he met Mr Cameron last summer at the House of Commons during his visit to Britain. He is said to have expressed surprise that Mr Cameron intended to divorce himself from the EPP group, which contains France, Germany and Italy and form a new alliance with the Poles and other smaller Eastern European states.

Margaret Thatcher, when she was Prime Minister was said to have spent most of her time in Europe at odds with other leaders, many of whom were socialists or on the left. David Cameron has managed to achieve that distinction before he even assumes office and the people he has alienated are his natural allies on the right wing of politics. Nice job!

It does not bode well for a Cameron Priemiership at all.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Interesting times in Labour leadership contest

With Edwina Hart and Huw Lewis already declared as candidates to succeed Rhodri Morgan as First Minister it was only a matter of time before Carwyn Jones threw his hat into the ring as well.

And sure enough earlier this afternoon, Carwyn's website appeared on-line together with a video, shot with a handheld camera Hill Street Blues style, and a new twitter account in English and Welsh. No sign of an on-line presence from Huw Lewis yet.

At about the time that Carwyn Jones' first tweet appeared drawing attention to his website, Leighton Andrews, who I believe is involved in running his campaign retweeted a message from Daily Post Correspondent, Tom Bodden:

RT@tombod Carwyn Jones has taken an early lead in the Welsh Labour leadership election - online poll at http://www.dailypost.co.uk/ #NextFM

And indeed at that time Carwyn had over 70% of the votes cast so far. At the time of posting he has dropped back to 55%. Shortly after Edwina Hart's official twitter feed posted a retweet from somebody called Sam Knight:

RT @samknight Fix website polls if you want to but success will come if you really engage with people and give a vision for the future. Agree

And then followed it up with:

For the record. We took a genuine snapshot of yesterday's @WalesOnline poll at the time. We have a policy of non interference on polls.


We do however, encourage participation from all genuine supporters

I think that there is a clear implication in these tweets that may need to be addressed by the Carwyn camp. Perhaps everybody should calm down. After all nominations have not even closed yet.

Update: An anonymous contributor points out that Sam Knight is a Huw Lewis supporter. So both camps are questioning why it was that Carwyn Jones secured such a strong early lead in some on-line polls.

Tories feel backlash on Lisbon vote

David Cameron's confused policy on Europe became more opaque yesterday with the overwhelming vote in Ireland in favour of endorsing the Lisbon Treaty.

The Independent on Sunday reports that the Tory leader heads into his party conference facing an increasingly bitter row over Europe and a new poll showing half of voters are uncertain over what he stands for.

They say that the start of the Conservative conference in Manchester looks set to be overshadowed by escalating demands for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty after Ireland voted decisively in favour of EU reform:

Mr Cameron yesterday refused to bow to right-wing demands for a vote under a Tory government in any circumstances – even if the treaty is ratified across Europe. So far he has promised a referendum if Lisbon has not been accepted in every EU state.

The most senior elected Tory in the UK, Boris Johnson has also joined in. He believes that British voters are entitled to a referendum on the European Union treaty, even if it has already been ratified by the time the Tories win power. That is further than David Cameron has so far agreed to go.

Of course the Tory stance on this issue has been nonsense from the start. Having given us the Maastrich Treaty, which ceded more sovereignty and power to Europe than any subsequent agreement, the Conservatives have sought to use the Lisbon Treaty as a proxy to undermine Britain's membership of the European Union. There is no tradition in Britain of referenda on Treaties as there is in Ireland and nor should there be.

Nick Clegg took some stick for suggesting that the real vote that the British people should have was over whether we stay in Europe or not, but that was the effective purpose of Cameron's argument.

The Lisbon Treaty changes the way that the European Community is run to accomodate its increased size and also introduces greater accountability to the directly elected European Parliament. Any British plebiscite would have been turned into a proxy vote on our membership of that institution, so why not be upfront in the first place and offer that choice?

What is most interesting about this affair is the way that Cameron's accomodations on Europe are slowly being unpicked by the right wing of his party. The reasonable moderate face of Toryism that he has tried to develop is falling apart already and he has not yet won an election.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Because I do votes in the ballot box

I have said before that I do not take much notice of opinion polls but actual votes in the ballot box are a different thing. It is not that local council elections prove much in relation to voting intentions at a General Election but it does show that when that contest comes, it will be by no means a two horse race.

In Council by-elections on Thursday there was no sign of a post-conference "Brown bounce", whilst the Tories were hit by a huge surge to the Liberal Democrats.

An analysis of the five wards fought both times by all three major parties put the Liberal Democrats first in a projected national line-up on 36.3 per cent, with the Tories on 32.1 per cent and Labour on just 21.6 per cent.

Labour made one gain from independent in its traditional Doon Valley, East Ayrshire, stronghold but even here there was a net swing to the SNP.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats gained from the Tories at Droitwich South West, Wychavon District, Worcestershire, and from independents in two Norfolk districts, at Wroxham, Broadland, and Walsingham, North Norfolk.

Party Poopers

Of course the Conservatives will not see it like that and the impact on the electorate will be minimal but nevertheless the presence of two prominent east European allies of the Tories, who are at the centre of a bitter row over their far-right links, at their annual conference in Manchester next week was bound to cause a row. Whether that row will overshadow their conference is doubtful but it will still prove an irritant for party chiefs.

David Miliband, the foreign secretary, has accused Michal Kaminski, the rightwing Polish leader of the Conservatives' caucus in the European parliament, of having an antisemitic and neo-Nazi past. He also said the rightwing Latvian party led by Roberts Zile, For Fatherland and Freedom, was guilty of celebrating Hitler's Waffen-SS.

The Guardian says that leading Jewish figures have condemned the invitation, describing the actions of the Latvian party as "vile". They add that the two men are to take part in a conference fringe meeting on the future of Europe. Both strongly deny the charges levelled by Miliband.

Whatever the merits of the new Conservative grouping in the European Parliament, and I can see few, it raises fundamental questions about Cameron's judgement. The new group was formed because of Cameron's need to keep Euro-sceptics on board but immediately raises doubts as to what would be the Tory Leader's priorities in government. Would he put party unity first or the interests of the Country? Can he really justify forming an alliance with such parties when he is trying to re-position the Conservatives to appeal to mainstream British opinion?

Friday, October 02, 2009

The passion of Gordon Brown?

According to the Guardian, the Prime Minister will campaign “passionately” in favour of a move to the alternative vote system if a referendum on electoral reform goes ahead. They report on an interview last night in which Mr Brown committed the party to back this system because he believes that it is fairer than the “first-past-the-post” system currently in use. Asked whether he “passionately” believed in and would be “urging people to vote for” the electoral reform, Mr Brown replied: “Yes I will”.

Maybe it is because I am a Liberal Democrat that I find this so bizarre. In actual fact the Alternative Vote system barely registers as a fairer system than the one that we are using currently. It actively reinforces the position of the bigger parties and produces a significantly less proportional result than other forms of PR.

But if Gordon Brown is so passionate then why has he waited so long to act? Could it be that he faces imminent defeat at the polls? Labour have had a commitment to reform since 1997. They do not need a referendum, just a manifesto pledge. The more that one examines the PM's words the more that it looks like an attempt to triangulate his position to prevent Labour voters deserting them for the Liberal Democrats.

There is no principle in these words, there is no chance of reform in the route that Labour are taking, there is no fairness in the proposed system and the only passion is the desire to hold onto power. Labour are a busted flush and their proposed new voting system is a red herring that does not even command the support of the majority of their MPs.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Labour do not get democracy

This morning's Guardian reports that the Schools secretary, Ed Balls has ordered a review of provisions to tackle racism in schools that will consider whether to ban BNP members from becoming teachers. In my view, for reasons I have explained before, this would be a retrograde step:

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

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

I took issue with the NASUWT at the Liberal Democrat Conference for their campaign to prevent members of the BNP working in schools but I had hoped that a Government Minister might take a wider view. It seems that the essentially illiberal nature of new Labour has struck again.

If Ed Balls goes ahead with this ban he will be opening up a can of worms and giving the BNP even more credibility as the anti-politics, anti-establishment party.

Riders and runners

I have been in Committee all afternoon but according to the BBC, Rhodri Morgan has made the long awaited announcement that he is stepping down as First Minister after the budget has been passed on 8th December.

It is clear that there are three possible contenders for the top job but talking to some people today there appear to be some doubts as to whether Huw Lewis has enough people to nominate him. I was told that some pressure has been brought on a couple of AMs to abandon him and that at least one has switched sides.

This may of course just be another piece of gossip in the Cardiff Bay bubble but still, it will be interesting to see how the Labour group of AMs divide in terms of nominations.

Rhodri Morgan to announce retirement today

It is understood that Rhodri Morgan will tell a joint meeting of the Welsh Labour Executive and Labour AMs today that he is to stand down as First Minister in December, once the Assembly budget has been passed and his successor elected.

The formal announcement will come at 2pm after which the timetable for the election to succeed him will be revealed. I suspect that the new First Minister will be elected by the whole Assembly in the last week of term, just before we break for Christmas.

Update: This morning is the first meeting this Assembly of the First Minister's Scrutiny Committee. It will also be Rhodri's last. Somehow I think the timing is a little out.

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