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Saturday, July 31, 2010

A measure of productivity


An illusion of democracy

On first viewing the UK Coalition Government's plan to allow voters the chance to veto large rises in council tax appears to be an attractive one.

The idea is that residents would be asked to choose between the proposed rise and a “shadow budget”, which the council must also prepare within the defined limit. A no vote would leave councils having to refund taxpayers or give a credit at the end of the tax year.

Such a proposal would have a cost of course, not just in conducting the ballot but also in making adjustments to Council Tax bills following the referendum. It also undermines the idea of representative democracy, where Councillors and officers make informed decisions on the basis of information that is so detailed and voluminous that it cannot properly be conveyed to a large body of people is a short period of time. However, that can be overcome by ensuring that the S.151 officer has signed off all the options.

My problem with the proposal is that it is directive and it is limited in its scope. For a start it is imposing a one-size-fits all solution on local councils that prevents them from more effective consultation. If we are to involve taxpayers in decision-making at this level of detail then it is only right that we go out and talk to them properly about it, discussing with them how decisions are reached and why, what the limitations are and what consequences arise from taking a particular pathway. That is an informed choice, not the Pop Idol approach favoured by the government.

Secondly, why are we only offering two options? Some Councils might want to offer more. How does this work where there are multi-tiers of local government, including community councils? Do we have overlapping ballots taking place simultaneously? What are the rules on campaigning? Will Councillors be able to go out on doorsteps to promote a particular scheme or to defend vital but controversial decisions? How different do the two budget schemes have to be? Could a Council get away with presenting false choices? Who polices it? If it is the Electoral Commission then what level of expertise do they have that can stop them having the wool pulled over their eyes on financial matters?

And how do local elections fit into all this? I am certainly signed up to the view that democracy should not end at the ballot box but should be a continuous process of genuine consultation and accountability, but there are other ways of doing that than through referenda. Equally, why should people turn out to vote for local Councillors when they make the important decision themselves as to how much is spent and where?

Finally, if the Government are going to impose this requirement on local government, will they be practising what they preach? Will the Assembly's draft budget be subject to a Wales-wide referendum? Will the UK Government's budget go out to plebiscite too?

There are so many questions that surely it is too early to be enthusiastically embracing this idea. There is so much good practice that can be adopted at a local level that perhaps it is too early to be telling Councils that they have to adopt a particular scheme. Let us have the debate, but also don't allow the Government to close down the options in advance of that discussion.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Simplification is the key

Proposals by Iain Duncan Smith to sweep away Britain's complex system of benefits and replace them with a single payment to claimants have to be a significant and radical step forward. In fact it very much reflects an old Liberal Policy of working towards a citizens' income. I hope that the moderating and expert influence of Lib Dem pensions minister, Steve Webb is reflected in the final proposals.

Of course the devil will be in the detail and we have yet to see what that is. However, what we know so far is that the proposals seek to streamline and simplify payments, as well as improve incentives for the unemployed to swap life on benefits for work.

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is suggesting that the 51 benefits currently available to the unemployed, as well as income-related benefits for the low-paid, will be replaced with a single benefit covering all people of working age. It will also incorporate the cash currently paid out under Gordon Brown's flagship tax credits scheme, which would effectively be abolished.

The Independent says that payments will take into account claimants' circumstances, such as numbers of children and housing needs, and could be adjusted monthly using new computer software being developed by the Government.

At this stage the Government are just seeking to get a discussion going, though I predict that this will rapidly descend into a slanging match once Labour get their teeth into it. However, anybody who is serious about proper reform that seeks to make the system easier to access and which will not penalise those who wish to return to work will welcome this debate.

It is a sobering thought that the present system is so complex that even those administering it do not fully understand it. Although the bureaucracy around benefits has been cut since the 1990s, civil servants are still currently working from 14 instruction manuals containing 9,000 pages.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Recess visits

Having taken a short holiday last week I am now working through the recess, carrying out a whole range of visits and meetings both in my constituency and on behalf of my constituents.

I managed to make a day in the Royal Welsh Show last week, which gave me the opportunity to talk to a number of organisations. I also found myself walking past the cattle society stands but fortunately nobody recognised me or else I could have found myself embroiled in a long discussion on bovine TB.

On Friday I attended the 10th anniversary celebration for Swansea Care and Repair at the Liberty Stadium where we enjoyed an entertaining stand-up from the brilliant Kevin Johns. I then moved on to Bridgend and Maesteg, where I was holding advice surgeries.

There has also been quite a lot of correspondence and e-mails to catch up on, so I have spent a couple of days in the Assembly this week. However, on Tuesday I had a very enjoyable morning touring around Neath Port Talbot Hospital, before visiting a number of constituents to discuss various issues they have raised with me.

Yesterday, I visited the Cyrenian's day and health centre in the old St. Matthew's Church opposite Swansea railway station where I spent four hours with the homeless nurse. Jan is employed to work with homeless people around Swansea and carries out outreach work with rough sleepers, with users of the centre, clients of the Swansea Drugs Project and also workers in a number of massage parlours around the City.

She offers health advice and treatment, as well as a whole range of other services that we might otherwise access from hospital or our GP surgery. The most disturbing fact I discovered from her was that there are roughly 7,000 heroin users in Swansea but only 450 treatment places. An addict seeking treatment could wait 6 to 9 months to get a place though it seems a well-known shortcut is through the criminal justice system.

That cannot be right and I will be raising it again with the health minister. I will also be raising with her the prevalence of hepatitis B and hepatitis C in the City. Hepatitis is 100 times more infectious that HIV. Hep B can be prevented through vaccination, which is some of the work that Jan does but many get it anyway.

Their treatment can cost the health service many thousands of pounds, if their chaotic lifestyles enable them to access it. Missed appointments are common and the myriad of referral pathways do not always assist this. That is why Jan seeks to short-circuit that whenever she can but even then less than a third of those she guides through the system will complete their treatment.

The cost to the NHS in the future will be enormous as one in ten people can go on to become lifelong or chronic sufferers, at risk of developing fatal liver disease, such as liver cancer or cirrhosis.

The other eye-opener was at the Swansea Drugs project needle exchange where I learned that the biggest growth in demand for needles is coming from steroid abusers. This trend, along with associated drug use such as the anti-cancer drug bought over the internet from the far east to stop body builders developing man boobs, is growing in an alarming manner.

Many steroid users are working, well-organised and can afford their own needles but take advantage of the free exchange that is on offer. Unfortunately, there is no way at the moment of monitoring how people access this service. That will change in September when the Welsh Government introduce a Wales-wide needle exchange database.

The first statistics from that database will be interesting and might help to give a wider picture of drug abuse across Wales. I suspect that many of us will be shocked by what they reveal.

Lib Dems imposed swingeing cuts on Andy Burnham's gorgeous eyelashes

Some of the ludicrous claims about the Liberal Democrats made by Labour since we have gone into government have been encapsulated in a headline generating website here. There are hours of fun to be had. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Snoopers 'R' us?

This morning's Telegraph reports that Councils, police and other public bodies are demanding access to people's private telephone and email records at a rate of once a minute.

They say that public authorities asked for confidential communications data on more than 525,000 occasions last year including a 13 per cent increase in requests by town halls. They add that there were also errors in hundreds of applications leading to wrong phone numbers, emails or innocent people being monitored, according to the surveillance watchdog:

Sir Paul Kennedy, the interception of communications commissioner, also warned children and other members of the public could be at risk because of "very serious weaknesses and failing" in the way communications in prisons are monitored.

He said flaws or attempts to monitor too much could place the public, as well as other prisoners and staff, in harm's way.

The figures will fuel concerns over the use of interception powers by some public bodies under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which are mainly aimed at tackling terrorism and serious crime.

The Act gives authorities – including councils, the police and intelligence agencies – the power to request access to confidential communications data, including lists of telephone numbers dialled and email addresses to which messages have been sent but not their content.

No doubt there are times when adopting these powers are justifed but the exponential growth in their use is worrying and indicates that there needs to be more effective checks and balances in place as well as greater transparency and accountability. Let us hope that the UK Government will oblige.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Paul the Pyschic Octopus under fire

I am not sure what exactly Paul the Pyschic Octopus has done, other than to correctly predict the outcome of a few football games through a clever trick involving food and coloured containers, but somehow he has attracted the ire of the Iranians.

Apparently, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian leader, says Paul is a symbol of all that is wrong with the western world. The President accused the octopus of spreading "western propaganda and superstition.":

Paul was mentioned by Mr Ahmadinejad on various occasions during a speech in Tehran at the weekend.

"Those who believe in this type of thing cannot be the leaders of the global nations that aspire, like Iran, to human perfection, basing themselves in the love of all sacred values," he said.

He may well be right, but that is no reason to be rude about a dumb creature that cannot answer back.

The language of education - a pedant writes

I cannot pretend that everything I write is grammatically correct or properly spelt but I take comfort in the fact that I am not the only one.

Why do all the best typos happen in the reporting of education stories? This morning's Western Mail for example tells us that the director general of education in Wales has announced he is to step down from the role in September. He is the third to go in the last five years.

At least one teaching union wants stability in the post and suggests that we now need a director in charge who is going to stay and ensure that work is followed through. The paper quotes the union head as saying:

“The Assembly should be weary before they look for yet another outsider. We’ve got plenty of homegrown talent in Wales and perhaps they should be looking closer to home.”

Perhaps the Government should be tired of looking for outsiders or maybe just wary instead.

Meanwhile over at the South Wales Evening Post there is a more serious phenomenon, the destruction of plain English by educational professionals:

A Swansea Council spokesman said: "Careful consideration has been given to the needs of pupils receiving education through both the medium of English and the medium of Welsh.

"This has included an extensive stakeholder engagement as part of the Authority's Quality in Education (QEd) 2020 programme, and the authority is continuing to deliver the priority options identified through this process, as resources allow."

So in English: the council has spoken to everyone who has an interest in this subject, they have decided what is most important and will be changing things when they have the money.

Glad that is clear then.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Former Labour Chancellor admits he planned VAT rise

Labour's moral outrage at the planned increase in VAT was looking a bit hypocritical and shallow this morning after Alistair Darling admitted that he had wanted to raise VAT hinself so as to bring down Britain’s budget deficit.

According to the Western Mail, the now-shadow chancellor told BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “It’s no secret. I said at the time and, since Peter has actually spelt out in gory detail, I’m not going to deny what was patently true.”

Asked whether his proposal to increase VAT was a “battle” he wished he had won, Mr Darling replied: “Yeah, obviously.”

He continued: “The advantage of VAT is that it brings a lot of money, it would have allowed you to do a lot to take down the deficit but also given you money to spend on things that actually matter.

“It would have ameliorated some of the worst effects of reductions.”

Yet another example of Labour being caught out in a display of naked opportunism in their opposition to this rise.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Same old same old

If there is one thing that the constant and unremitting attack on the Liberal Democrats role in the coalition government has done, it is to distract attention in the mainstream media and elsewhere from the rather mediocre leadership debate going on in the Labour Party and their reluctance to face up to their own mistakes and flaws in government.

This article in this morning's Independent on Sunday sums up nicely the toxic legacy that Labour has not yet shaken off.

It is of course possible to excuse the fact that leadership contender, Ed Balls once accepted hospitality from notorious former media tycoon Lord Black (no relation by the way) as just more Westminster tittle tattle. However, Balls' links with the disgraced tycoon through the Bilderberg group and from having shared a plane with him, serve to underline the way that New Labour played the power game and were not so fussy on who they got into bed with.

As the paper points out the trips also sit uncomfortably with Mr Balls's condemnation of senior Tories including David Cameron, three years ago, for their "jet-set lifestyles". As ever with New Labour, it is do what I say not what I do.

This article by Henry Porter in this morning's Observer lays more serious charges at the door of four of the five leadership contenders (the ones who have a chance of winning). He argues that none of the four has a distinct political voice or character, because while they are not all Blairites they were all moulded by the Blair years:

A process of de-Blairification is required, which three years of Gordon Brown oddly never achieved, and one of those candidates needs to make the breakout speech that spurns the worst of New Labour's legacy. By this I don't mean a return to fundamentalist unelectability but rather a definite sense that the party is reverting to proper standards of conduct.

He continues: The problem of New Labour, so evident in the news of the last few weeks and in Peter Mandelson's book (now vanished in a blizzard of publicity) was essentially not ideological but one of principle and values. The candidates persist in talking about their own distinct values simplistically as a matter of brand management, but in reality they offer only what the Italians call sfumato, a blurring and blending of the old and the new, a seamless modification. None has reached the stage, vitally important to alcoholics and repeat offenders, of recognising and admitting to a room of glum faces that they have got a problem.

They believe they can finesse the record, yet some things are so serious they cannot be forgotten or ignored – Iraq, for example. Who doubts the truth of what Nick Clegg said when he classed the Iraq invasion as illegal, while being needled by Jack Straw as he stood in for David Cameron at prime minister's questions? Straw was at the heart of the decision to go to war and it seems mildly surprising that he showed his unembarrassed features in the Commons to confront Clegg just a day after the former head of MI5, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, gave her damning evidence to the Chilcot inquiry.

For an administration that made so much of its intelligence about Saddam's threat to Britain, it is astonishing how Blair's people ignored, or simply did not ask for, the advice of the head of MI5, who stated that there was a very limited and containable threat from Iraq and that there was "no credible intelligence that demonstrates that Iraq was implicated in planning the 11 September attacks". Lady Manningham-Buller's evidence was certainly useful but Carne Ross, the UK's expert on Iraq at the UN, claims in his article today that documents are being held back from Chilcot by the civil service and that the panel is in any case inept at cross-examination. This is deeply troubling and seems to suggest that New Labour's corruption entered, and apparently still remains, in Whitehall.

Porter argues that one or more of the Labour leadership candidates needs to come out and say what went wrong and why New Labour practised the great deceit on the British public, causing untold damage in Iraq and, as Lady Manningham-Buller suggested, to our relations with Islam. His conclusion is damning:

Defiance of the rule of law is not some negligible policy issue that can be forgotten as soon as the party has a new leader but is at the heart of the critique of the last 13 years, its many wild diversions and the attack on civil liberties, the last of which a rather testy Ed Miliband has begun to concede. Until one of them comes clean and makes that break, Labour will be unelectable as a party that can promise good government.

It is a reminder that no matter how much vitriol Labour pours onto the coalition government, no matter how tough the decisions that we will have to take to put right their financial mess over the next few years, Labour remains in denial about its own illiberal outlook, it flaws and its inconsistencies, the very faults that caused it to lose power in the first place.

Electing a new leader will not be enough. The Labour Party needs to admit to and atone for its record in government before it can even start to adopt a new narrative.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Tony Blair, Oil and Libya

There is a fascinating article in yesterday's Independent by Johann Hari setting out clearly the influence of BP over the previous Labour Government and how their financial interests drove the decisions that eventually led to the release of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi.

Of course, none of this is new, I blogged on it back in August 2009 following an article in the Sunday Times, which made similar allegations. They reported then that a prisoner transfer deal with Libya was explicitly linked to a multi-million-pound oil exploration deal involving BP.

Johann Hari does not pull any punches:

The oil company BP wanted to be able to drill down into Libya's oil, and tap the profits that would gush forth. Their then-CEO, John Browne, flew to Tripoli in the company of MI6 agents to find out what the dictatorship wanted in return for opening the country's wells. It was, of course, clear that they wanted Megrahi back.

BP has admitted it lobbied Tony Blair to exchange prisoners with Libya. They say they didn't specifically mention Megrahi – but there was no need to: there were no other Libyan prisoners of particular note in Britain.

Blair's administration was so intertwined with the oil company by this point that it was often dubbed "Blair's Petroleum". There was a revolving door between BP and Downing Street: BP execs sat on more government taskforces than all other oil companies combined, while many of Blair's closest confidantes went to work for the corporation. He gave two of its CEOs peerages, and slashed taxes on North Sea oil production. By 2005, he was talking to Lord Browne at Downing Street dinners about what he would do after he left office, with rumours circulating of a move to BP.

Blair responded to BP's lobbying with apparent pleasure. His Foreign Office Minister, Bill Rammell, assured Libyan officials that Blair did not "want Megrahi to pass away in prison". His Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, said a desire for Libya's oil was "an essential part" of this decision. So Straw began negotiating a prisoner swap agreement, and urged the Scottish authorities to release the convict. He told the Scottish Government in a leaked letter that it was "in the overwhelming interests of the United Kingdom" to let Megrahi go.

It is these links that the US Senate want to investigate but before we get carried away with the idea that America is able to take the morale high-ground here we should not forget, as Hari points out, that 1.2 million people died in the Iraq war, which was essentially about access to that country's oil supplies nor that American foreign policy has been driven by its energy needs for decades.

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

The question that really needs to be answered is how the SNP Government managed to get itself suckered into cooperating with this cynical and squalid deal. Perhaps Scottish Ministers should give evidence to the US Senate after all so that we can find out.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Speculation and innuendo

I have no idea whether the proposed electrification of the Swansea to London railway line will go ahead anymore than the next person, least of all the Western Mail's journalists. What I do know is that the Westminster Coalition Government is commited to electrification as a way forward, that public finances are in a bad way, having been trashed by Labour before they left office and that despite that the UK Government have determined to protect capital spending if they can.

In this context although the Transport Secretary appears to be laying out the ground for a disappointing announcement on this issue, we should not assume that the proposed electrification is dead and buried yet. After all Philip Hammond is really just stating the bleeding obvious.

That is the project to electrify the line had been announced in a cavalier way by the previous Labour Government, and that as usual they had floated an expensive and attractive project before an election so as to win votes without having any budget attached to it or any idea how to pay for it.

In the circumstances I think that the uncritical airing for Wayne David's views are regrettable because like other Welsh Nationalist Labour MPs (if they are going to call us Tories because we are in coalition then the same rules apply), he is shooting from the hip without any regard for his own culpability in the problems besetting this project.

The one part of this interview that should be highlighted is that Mr. Hammond has said that he is looking at ways of financing the project. He is also looking at longer franchises, which will enable operating companies to invest in improved services themselves. Given the financial mess bequeathed to us by Labour that must be a good second option to direct public funding.

Newport (Ymerodraeth State of Mind)

OK, so it's not Swansea but still.......

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Over-egging the badger pudding

I am still not quite up to speed on the blogging front after my short break, which may explain the heading to this post. However, I could not let this story go from last Monday.

I am on my way to the Royal Welsh Show myself this morning so perhaps I will get the chance to take the matter up personally, but the press release from the Farmers Union of Wales claiming that a badger cull would substantially reduce bovine TB in cattle defies belief.

They have published their own paper, which they say suggests that badger culling in north Pembrokeshire could reduce bovine Tuberculosis (bTB) incidences by around a third, and they say this could even be a significant underestimate:

The paper, prepared by the union's agricultural policy director Dr Nicholas Fenwick, uses computer modelling and the results of previous scientific studies to predict the outcome of badger culling in a number of areas.

It suggests that a badger cull in north Pembrokeshire could reduce bTB herd incidences by 30% during a five-year cull, and by 32% in a three-and-a-half-year period following culling.

They say: “This paper builds upon the modelling work done by the Independent Science Group in 2007 and looks at what would happen in a range of different situations if the results of the English badger culling trials were replicated in other areas.”

The work also highlights the fact that legislation to minimise the types of problems experienced during the English trials, such as obstruction and interference with trapping, is likely to add significantly to the positive effects seen in England.

So actually the English trials do not confirm their findings at all because they were interfered with? And do they expect the Pembrokeshire trial to be any different?

As has been pointed out by other scientists this “paper” is not peer reviewed by independent scientists and thus has no current credibility and let's face it, in promoting this research the FUW are hardly a disinterested party. The recent court ruling stipulates that before animals can be culled under the Animal Health Act a scientifically sound body of evidence is required.

The current data from the Independent Scientific Group does not suggest that culling badgers is effective. There is no other sound real data on this subject and thus the FUW model in isolation does not meet this requirement and hence cannot be used to push for a cull.

In actual fact the most up-to-date study by the ISG, after nine years of research, concluded that "badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB in Britain". Rather than suppressing the disease, killing badgers appears to spread it.

Even the Rural Affairs Minister only claimed a 9% reduction in bTB to the Court of Appeal, on which basis the court said that it could not be justified. In the face of that, isn't a claim of a 33% reduction overreaching just a little bit?

It is a good try but does not convince anybody other than those already committed to this dead end solution. Perhaps the FUW would be better off looking at the vaccination options being trialled in England and Ireland instead.

Update: The DEFRA data on the latest figures on bTB in cattle sourced here show “a 64% drop in cattle slaughtered” in Wales. For the first quarter of 2010 they are:

The Minister should be congratulated for securing such an improvement without having to resort to a cull.

Further Update: I am indebted to Dr. Dan Forman of Swansea University for drawing my attention to the final paper prepared by the ISG on the results of the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (released July 2010). A link to this peer reviewed information can be found here.

The paper concludes that there is no long term benefit of badger culling on the incidence on bovine TB in cattle. The authors of this work (all members of the ISG) conclude:

“Our findings show that the reductions in cattle TB incidence achieved by repeated badger culling were not sustained in the long term after culling ended and did not offset the financial costs of culling. These results, combined with evaluation of alternative culling methods, suggest that badger culling is unlikely to contribute effectively to the control of cattle TB in Britain."

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tweeting about Scientology

Just back from holiday, so what has been happening. Bizarrely, the biggest controversy on Twitter is about Scientology and the comments of my good friend Councillor John Dixon from Cardiff.

John has been found to be in breach of the code of conduct for expressing the view in a tweet that Scientology is stupid. His fate is to be determined in October but in the meantime many others have been expressing support for him and horror at what they believe is the wrong decision by the Welsh Ombudsman.

Here is John's appearance on Newsnight defending his tweet:

Friday, July 16, 2010

Badgers and the law

Do Ministers in the One Wales government talk to each other? I only ask because I have just caught up with the interview with First Minister, Carwyn Jones on BBC's Dragon's Eye last night.

When asked about the appeal court squashing his government's order to cull badgers in North Pembrokeshire, Carwyn made it plain that he fully supports his Rural Affairs Minister and his Counsel General and tried to shrug off a major setback by referrig back to the earlier High Court ruling which was overturned on appeal.

He also implied that the government had taken external and specialist legal advice on the Order and that therefore there was no need to question the quality of his own government's lawyers.

This is a direct contrast to what Elin Jones told the Assembly on Wednesday when she responded to a question from Nick Bourne by saying:

Since I have now conceded to the Court of Appeal the grounds that were raised during the appeal hearing that the Order should not have been an all-Wales Order and should have been specific to a hot spot, my ability to challenge and appeal the decision is limited. In fact, the advice that I have been given is that it is not open to appeal. I can confirm to you that the legal advice available to me in making the Order was internal legal advice.

So who is right? I think it is important that we are told.

Vatican gets it wrong again

As a former Catholic no doubt I am harder than most on the church I once worshipped in, but really, even the most ardent supporter of the Pope has to question the Vatican's sanity when they encourage headlines such as these.

Suggesting in a revised decree that the "attempted ordination" of women is one of the gravest crimes in ecclesiastical law and is on a par with the sex abuse of minors is not only disproportionately insulting and insensitive but also a major gaffe.

It explains why there was so little action taken for so long against child abusers within the church. They simply did not understand the gravity of the offence. Can these people really be let loose in the real world?

Spectator sport

I am listening to a radio discussion about Peter Mandelson's book about the New Labour project and in particular his claim that the Labour Party in Wales suffered electorally because they eschewed the Blair project and instead campaigned as old-style Labour.

Meanwhile, the BBC report that the former Labour leader Lord Kinnock has claimed that the ex-business secretary has become a "caricature" of himself:

"I had cause to say some years ago - when somebody asked me, either when Peter was coming in or going out of a cabinet job, I can't remember which - that my view of Peter was that he wasn't as good as he thought he was, and he was certainly not as bad as many people said he was.

"And I think that was a fair summary. The problem is with Peter, I really do believe - and I'm sorry about it in many ways, because he's got great capabilities, and he's been prepared to donate those capabilities to the cause of Labour - but the fact is, so much was said about him as, for instance, the Prince of Spin, and the Prince of Darkness, that he inhaled and he's actually come to believe that caricature of himself."

It is a good spectator sport but really, who cares?

Does the Finance Minister understand her brief?

I had a bit of a shock on Tuesday when the Minister for Budget and Finance made a statement on how she was to apply the cuts being imposed by the UK Government this year. This was not because of the way she was going to apply these cuts, that was perfectly sensible, but because of her apparent misunderstanding of the Holtham Commission recommendations on reforming the Barnett formula and in particular, the Barnett floor.

According to the Minister, these reductions will hit Wales harder than other parts of the UK because, as the independent Holtham commission has made clear, Wales is already underfunded by some £300 million per year. We recognise that action on the commission’s recommendation on Barnett reform will take some time. However, we will continue to press for the immediate introduction of a funding floor to prevent underfunding becoming worse. In the meantime, this underfunding for Wales makes these in-year reductions even more difficult to manage.

I felt it right to take her to task on these points:

I take issue with two points that you make in your statement. I think that there has been a lot of misrepresentation about the alleged £300 million underfunding that the Holtham commission has identified. If you read that report and its recommendations, it is clear that that £300 million will not be available just like that in one year. Even the Holtham commission recommends that we can only get to that stage over a period of time; if we were to bring into effect a means-tested funding formula, which would take some time to be put together and agreed, there could still be five, six or 10 years before we get the full benefit of that £300 million. Let us not pretend that we are short of £300 million this year, next year or even the year after, because it is not true. We know that the whole process of reforming the Barnett formula has to be one of securing the agreement of all parties to it. That is why the coalition Government has a commitment to carry out a Treasury-led review, which will get that agreement once we have got other constitutional issues out of the way.

I also take issue with your characterisation of the Barnett floor. You said on a number of occasions that that floor is necessary to protect us from further cuts, and you say in the statement that it is necessary to prevent underfunding becoming worse. If you actually read the Holtham report, you will see that it argues that the floor should be put in place to prevent the differential spending per head from converging, so that, at present, we spend more per head in Wales than is done in England. It is in place to stop that differential converging and equalising out, so as to give us the edge that we currently have and to compensate for the fact that the formula is not means-tested. That convergence only happens when public expenditure is rising, which is clearly not currently the case. Therefore, to characterise the Barnett floor as necessary to protect Wales from cuts from the UK Government or to protect Wales from underfunding is, in my view, a misrepresentation. We need to be clear about that. We also need to be clear that, although I support the Barnett floor and believe that it is a necessary precursor to proper reform, we cannot put it forward as a panacea for the problems that the UK economy faces as a result of the huge deficit and debts inherited from the previous Labour Government, or for the problems that will be visited upon the Welsh Government, the Welsh Assembly and Wales as a result of the profligacy and economic illiteracy of the previous Government.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Badger cull ruling: the aftermath

Within hours of the court verdict squashing the Welsh Government's badger cull order I raised in business questions the need for an immediate statement by the Rural Affairs Minister. This is the text of the exchange:

Peter Black: Could you arrange for a written statement on the plans for the Swansea to Ilfracombe ferry? You will know that the service was due to launch this year, but was cancelled due to the failure to secure a proper pontoon. Now the company has effectively advertised the boats for sale. I would be grateful if we could have a statement by the relevant Minister, outlining what interest and engagement the Welsh Government has had with the company and what work is being done to try to secure this service for next year.

I also repeat Nick Bourne’s request for a statement on the court case on the badger cull. You will be aware that the judgment went against the Government on all three counts. It was not only the fact that the Order was badly drawn up and not consulted on properly, but also that the whole scheme was based on a dubious premise. Given that statement and the apparent incompetence of the Government in approaching this, could we have an oral statement as soon as possible by both the Minister for Rural Affairs and the Counsel General so that we can be told what legal advice was being given and question those Ministers on their future approach?

Jane Hutt: The First Minister has dealt fully with your second question.

On the concerns that you raised about the south Wales to north Devon fast ferry, you will be pleased to know that ongoing discussions are taking place between Assembly Government officials and Severn Link and the latest proposal makes use of the promontory at SA1, although other landing options are still being considered.

What the First Minister had said earlier was this:

The Leader of the Opposition (Nick Bourne): First Minister, in response to a point made by Nerys Evans, you mentioned the situation regarding the badger cull and the intention of the Minister for Rural Affairs to make a written statement on the situation before the end of this term—in other words, within the next three days. Unfortunately, that will not give us an opportunity to scrutinise the statement or to discuss it as an Assembly until 20 September. I urge you to reconsider that point. I think that an oral statement should be made, although I understand that it cannot be done today. Given how important this is for the people of Wales, the agriculture industry and north Pembrokeshire—regardless of one’s opinion of whether there should be a cull or not, this is something that affects everybody in Wales, and affects those in rural Wales massively—a written statement does not nearly answer the need to have proper, effective scrutiny in this place and the opportunity for Members across the piece to ask questions.

The First Minister: The difficulty is that full consideration needs to be given to the implications of the judgment, particularly with regard to what happens next. We need to consider, for example, whether it would be possible to produce a new Order that is different in its terminology and coverage. That will take some time. It will not be possible to give a definitive view before tomorrow on what the Government’s position will be. It will take longer than 24 hours to absorb the judgment and, indeed, to consider the next steps. That is why the timing is not in our favour. However, as I said, the Minister will make a full written statement before the end of the week.

Nick Bourne: I have to say that I do not find that totally convincing. Once we knew that this case was in court, we knew that there were two potential outcomes in respect of the judicial decision. It was anticipated that it might go either way. There has therefore been ample opportunity to consider what the response could be. I come back to my original point: if a statement can be made on Thursday or Friday in writing, it needs to be made tomorrow, orally, so that we have an effective opportunity to scrutinise it and place on record our concerns. We will not otherwise be able to do that until the end of September. That is not satisfactory for the people whom we represent, whatever views we hold on the cull.

The First Minister: You have practised law, so you know that it is not possible to predict the decision that any court will make, particularly the Court of Appeal, because of the detailed reasoning that the Court of Appeal employs when it comes to a judgment. Until we are able to see a judgment and take a view on it, it is impossible to predict what view the Court of Appeal might take. It is possible to say that the Court of Appeal might dismiss the appeal, but we can never predict the logic for upholding the appeal and whether part of the appeal will be upheld and part of it not. The judgment takes some time to digest, and it takes some time to consider the next steps. That cannot be done within 24 hours.

Twenty four hours later the Rural Affairs Minister rose in the chamber to answer an urgent question on this matter, during which she appears to have ruled out an appeal. These proceedings can be viewed here:

Desperate times for Plaid Cymru

Plaid Cymru Assembly Members must be getting pretty desperate to find reasons to attack the Liberal Democrats if this example is any evidence.

Apparently, in a Radio Wales interview yesterday morning I appeared to rule out the introduction of a fair funding formula for Wales for five to six years, or so Plaid Cymru say. They have of course completely and deliberately failed to listen to a word I said.

More importantly though they are also guilty of misleading the electorate by claiming that the £300 million underfunding referred to by Gerry Holtham in his report could just be conjured up overnight. It could not be.

Assuming that the Government accepted the Holtham recommendations in full today, it could take up to a year to draw up a mutually acceptable means-tested funding formula and even then it would be implemented over a period of time with an appropriate transition arrangement. The upshot is that it might be six to ten years before the full benefit of the change came to Wales. That is acknowledged by everybody, even Holtham but not it seems, Plaid Cymru who want to play games and mislead on this issue.

For the record, this is the response to Plaid Cymru's press release as I sent it to the Western Mail:

This is a clear misrepresentation of what I said this morning and shows that Plaid Cymru are grasping at straws in their desperation to make an impact, any sort of impact.

What I made clear this morning was that there is a clear commitment in the coalition agreement to review the Barnett formula and that this reflects the longstanding policy of the Liberal Democrats to bring fair funding to Wales. However, even Gerry Holtham is clear that this cannot be done overnight and that it will be a number of years before Wales receives the full benefits of reform. That is putting to one side the time it takes to put a needs-based formula in place. Plaid Cymru are being disingenuous in pretending otherwise.

The comments attributed to me were unrelated to this issue and referred to the fact that irrespective of whether reform is instituted we face a long period of unprecedented retrenchment in public finances which will mean less money coming to Wales. In that context it is unrealistic to expect growth in the Assembly's health budget, even the Health Minister and key Plaid Cymru spokespeople acknowledge that. Is Gareth Jones saying that they are opposed to implementing the Holtham report as well?

The Western Mail did not subsequently use the story, I assume for obviouse reasons.

Update: In his evidence to Finance Committee this morning Gerry Holtham stated that he believed that it would take about 10 years for the full change to be worked through on a UK level. He also said that the Scottish Government was resistant to reform. So that will be the SNP blocking changes to the Barnett formula then?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Badger cull postscript

In questions today the Rural Affairs Minister revealed that government surveys had identifed between 1500-1700 badgers in North Pembrokeshire, which would have been culled if the court had not squashed her legislation.

Labour hypocrisy on VAT

I spotted this morning that Labour AM, Ann Jones had had a go at the Liberal Democrats for supporting the increase in VAT to 20% from next year. She is quoted in the Western Mail as saying:

“The decision to increase VAT completely blows out of the water any pretence that this is a progressive government acting in the interests of Welsh people.

“VAT hits low-income groups the hardest and will end up having a huge impact on thousands of vulnerable families and communities right across Wales. The Government needs to understand the depth of feeling there is against an unfair, ill-thought out tax hike like this that causes most pain to those that earn the least.”

She may well be right, though I would argue that VAT is not as regressive as she says and would also point out that it was Labour who maintained the level of VAT at 17.5% for their whole term of office and put it back to that level following the short period when it was at 15%.

However, the big question Ann and her Labour colleagues have to answer is why, if they are so opposed to this VAT increase, they did not vote for the Nationalist amendment last night, which would have scrapped it and why they did not manage to get all their MPs into the House of Commons for the final three line whip on this issue?

It seems principles are easy on paper but not so when it comes to putting them into practice.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

An own goal

An interesting letter appeared in this morning's Times from one Miriam Gonzalez. Normally, this would not attract any attention but some media commentators have felt the need to refer to it purely because the author is the wife of the Deputy Prime Minister. She would not approve:

Sir, now that Spain has won the World Cup and Iker Casillas demonstrated on Sunday that he is an outstanding goalkeeper regardless of whether his girlfriend, Sara Carbonero, watches him from the touchline or not, it may be time for you to eat a bit of humble pie. Trying to blame Sara for Spain's initial lacklustre performance while she was simply doing her job was not worthy of a newspaper that should treat women for who they are and not simply for what their male partners do.

Miriam Gonzalez
London SW15

Badger cull order squashed by court of appeal

Excellent news that the Court of Appeal have squashed the Labour-Plaid Cymru Government's order to carry out a badger cull in North Pembrokeshire. The BBC say that the appeal was allowed because it was wrong to make an order for the whole of Wales when the Government consulted on the basis of a Intensive Action Pilot Area (IAPA) which only supported a cull on evidence within the IAPA.

I am not clear what happened to the other two grounds for appeal but if they were not accepted then it is possible that the Minister could reintroduce the order. That would be the wrong thing to do. All the scientific evidence points to the fact that this cull would not have achieved the reduction in bovine TB rates claimed and may have led to an increase in the disease in outlying areas.

This does not mean that the threat of bovine TB should be ignored, Trials of a new badger vaccine are already underway in England and the Minister should look at this method of control as a matter of urgency. I will be urging her to initiate her own vaccination trial in the former-cull area alongside the cattle control measures she has already announced. Such a move would be welcome and from what I have been told would receive the co-operation of the whole community in North Pembrokeshire.

One final point: at the Government press conference earlier Carwyn Jones was asked if the Rural Affairs Minister should consider her position in the light of this judgement. He said that he did not think that was necessary. I disagree.

In my view the Minister has mishandled this from the start. Not only did she get the Order itself wrong, leading to this decision today, but she also embarked on a course of action in defiance of all the scientific evidence. She presided over unacceptable intimidation and action by the police and Welsh Government officials against the local population not seen in South Wales since the miners strike, and she succeeded in dividing a community against itself. She also sanctioned the destruction of a protected species in one part of Wales in contravention of the Government's owm missives supporting the environment and biodiversity. In my view she has no choice but to resign.

The UK Government need to take note of this. They at least are continuing one vaccination trial but if they do proceed with a cull as they threaten then they will put themselves on very sticky ground indeed.

Update: the judgement itself can be found here. Pembrokeshire against the cull report that all three judges found in favour of the Badger Trust on ground 3 - relating to the Order being applied to all Wales, when only evidence for IAPA was used as the basis for consultation and decision making.

Two of the three judges found in favour of the Badger Trust on grounds 1 and 2 in which they argued that the definition of substantial adopted by the WAG set too low a threshold, and that there was a necessity to carry out a balancing exercise between the harm to badgers and the benefit to cattle. All agreed the Order was quashed.

'On the view of the majority in this court as it appears in the following judgements it is not open to the Welsh Assembly Government immediately to make a fresh Order in the same terms but covering only the IAPA and to proceed forthwith with a badger cull there'.

So the option of just reintroducing a properly drawn order is not open to the Minster without substantially more work to address the other two grounds for appeal. This does have serious consequences for the UK Government.

Further Update: There is an excellent summary of the scientific and political issues on the BBC website here.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The meaning of life

According to the BBC today, a £40m super computer project is being launched that will give businesses and universities in Wales access to the most advanced computing technology currently available. High Performance Computing Wales will provide computers that can handle and analyse massive amounts of data at a high speed.

That is a lot of money so maybe I can help out. The answer is 42. Don't ask me what the question was.

Badger Cull decision

The latest information Pembrokeshire against the Cull have is that the verdict on the Badger Trust's Appeal against the Welsh Ministers' decision to cull badgers will be handed down at 10am on Tuesday, 13th July in the Royal Courts Justice, Strand, London. This is a change from the expected Cardiff location. However, further last minute changes cannot be ruled out - the notice says that any changes will be notified by 4.30pm on Monday 12th July.

Meanwhile, in the Assembly last Wednesday I pressed the case with the Minister for vaccination instead, with little success:

Peter Black: Minister, now that the cull of badgers in north Pembrokeshire has been suspended because of the court action, do you agree that this is an opportunity to revisit your policies on this issue? In particular, will you take note of the fact that there are currently trials of vaccinations taking place in England and Ireland? What have you done to look at vaccination as a possible alternative to a cull? Will you consider introducing a pilot scheme on vaccination in place of that cull as a way forward, given that, once the cull starts in north Pembrokeshire, it will not be possible to call it to a halt for several years because of the perturbation effect?

Elin Jones: I am not revisiting anything on my TB eradication policy until the Court of Appeal has fully deliberated and I expect its response next week.

So it is all down to the Court of Appeal then.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Labour in-fighting resumes

Today's Sunday Telegraph reports that Lord Mandelson is facing a bitter backlash from within Labour's ranks over the publication of his book, in which he lifts the lid on more than a decade of in-fighting at the top of his party:

Charlie Whelan, Mr Brown's former adviser, yesterday led the criticism of Lord Mandelson.

He said: "Peter ran the worst general campaign in Labour's history. Nobody knew what the message was at all. It was a disaster from beginning to end."

Mr Whelan, the political director of the Unite union, which is a major Labour donor, added: "Peter wasn't focused on the campaign at all. Clearly his only thoughts were for his book."

Another key ally of Mr Brown said: "Why on earth does Peter want to pick this moment to dredge up all this stuff from the past and divide the party again?

"We are just starting to hurt the Tories on cuts, we've got a leadership contest which is energising and unifying the party – and now this book comes out. It beggars belief."

With the first extracts of the book due to appear tomorrow – months before Mr Blair's – many Labour figures, including the party's acting leader, Harriet Harman, and Ed Balls, the shadow schools secretary, were nervously awaiting its contents.

Both were enemies of the peer at stages of their careers – although Lord Mandelson this weekend praised Mr Balls's qualities as a "leader".

In his interview, Lord Mandelson said Mr Brown had been "badly served" and added that Mr Blair had continuously had to fight off "an insurgency from next door" when he was at Number 10.

Lord Mandelson revealed that Mr Brown thought that he, Mr Blair and Lord Mandelson – New Labour's founding fathers – had "killed each other", such was the bitterness and intensity of the in-fighting.

Lord Mandelson admitted that relations between Mr Blair and Mr Brown had at times been "exceptionally bad".

Lord Mandelson, who said he would like to serve in a future Labour government in what would be an unprecedented third cabinet comeback, also appeared to level criticism directly at Mr Brown's record as prime minister for the first time – homing in on his attitude towards the deficit and planned cuts in state spending.

He said: "Where I think we made a mistake in government was in allowing ourselves to be characterised as indifferent to the deficit or in denial about the consequences as to what was happening in our public finances."

Of course, it could have been much worse, Mandelson might have published the book during Labour Conference as the new Leader makes his maiden speech. However, what I found the most interesting about this piece was the admission that Labour had got it wrong on the economy. Admittedly, it is couched in presentational terms, but it is only a small step away from owning up to the fact that Labour got it wrong in allowing a huge deficit to build up.

Stereotypes 'r' us

Much as I admire and respect the Judges who decided last week to overturn a UK Border Agency decision to send two gay men home to live "discreetly", hiding their sexuality from regimes in Cameroon and Iran, where they might face jail, public flogging or execution for their preferences, it might have been best if one of the Judges had not sought to show his understanding of modern UK lifestyles.

According to Eva Wiseman in today's Observer, Lord Rodger of Earlsferry then proceeded to put his foot in it:

Lord Rodger, who should probably have thought twice and, ideally, restrained from using the kind of stereotypes repeated by people far more ignorant than him, said: "Just as male heterosexuals are free to enjoy themselves playing rugby, drinking beer and talking about girls with their mates, so male homosexuals are to be free to enjoy themselves going to Kylie concerts, drinking exotically coloured cocktails and talking about boys with their straight female mates."

I wish he'd been given the opportunity to carry on. "Just as female heterosexuals are free to enjoy themselves playing netball, talking about periods, rearranging their Louboutin shoe collection into transparent boxes labelled with Polaroids of the heels inside, so female homosexuals are to be free to weave their own dungarees from cat hair, bring down the patriarchy by slyly impregnating themselves with stolen sperm and complain about the lack of tahini in their take-away falafel." At this point, I picture him punching the air and narrowing his eyes and chanting: "Freedom!"


Saturday, July 10, 2010

'The most liberal parliament in a generation'

Like many other Liberal Democrat politicians I have been the subject of what Nick Clegg describes as 'the collective bile' of the Labour opposition. Their strategy appears to be to try and destabilise the Liberal Democrat part of the coalition by playing on the unease felt by some activists at the difficult decisions we have had to make in government to get the economy back on track after Labour's failure left the country in the lurch.

Labour apologists argue that it was an international crisis and that it was all the banks' fault, but that ignores the fact that the recession did not hit every country in the same way, that our indebtedness, despite early Liberal Democrat warnings, and Labour's failure to properly regulate the banks, left Britain vulnerable to the disaster that befell us. It is a fact that Labour's legacy is a £22,400 debt for every man, woman and child in Britain. That has to be tackled.

As an activist myself, as well as a full-time politician and as somebody who has been in government, I understand that we have to take the rough with the smooth. We need to make decisions that we might not like for the best interests of the country and of course the one thing you quickly discover once you are in government is that you cannot do everything you wanted or go as far as you would wish for the same reasons.

The other point that all Liberal Democrats need to bear in mind is that we are in a coalition, something we are used to in Wales. We do not have the 326 seats we need to push through everything we promised in our manifesto. We have to compromise. That is the nature of coalitions. Our programme for government is what is in the coalition agreement, not what is in our manifesto and that is what we should be judged on.

This does not stop our opponents playing games of course. But when they ask me why I am still there, in the thick of it, supporting Nick Clegg, I can find no better answer than his interview in this morning's Guardian where he outlines why this is the most liberal parliament in a generation.

Nick spells out why we did what we had to on the economy:

Clegg won unanimous support to share power with the Tories even though the Lib Dems gave ground on the defining issue of this parliament in the coalition agreement. Clegg and Vince Cable, who had warned that early action to tackle the fiscal deficit could choke off the recovery, signed up to a faster and deeper programme of cuts.

The deputy prime minister dismisses the likes of Ed Balls who say the Lib Dems are risking a return to a 1930s downturn by endorsing Tory cuts.

Senior officials, led by the Bank of England governor, Mervyn King, were clear that unless an early statement of intent was issued, the markets would target the pound. "If we didn't assert control very quickly you would have something immeasurably worse than what we are doing now," Clegg said. "Instead of a government that was accountable to the people taking difficult decisions, you'd have even more unpleasant decisions taken by people who are not accountable at all."

But he also explains why the experience of government under these circumstances is worth it for our party:

To critics on the left, who say he has sold out his liberal principles, he says this will be the most liberal parliament in a generation. "You now have a government in a very short few weeks announce a programme for reform we have not seen in a decade or the early years of New Labour enthusiasm for reform.

"We have got a very dramatic push for rebalancing of the statute book away from state authority towards individual liberty. It has been talked about for years and now we are going to get on with it.Arguably, in my view, this is the most liberal parliament we have had in a generation or two, rebalancing the relationship between the state and the individual, defending not trashing civil liberties, political reform, internationalist in outlook, dedicated to greater green sustainability. There are really big signals."

This is real influence. It is what many of us have worked for all our political lives. More importantly, despite the barrage of criticism and childish gesture politics from Labour and their fellow travellers, it is political courage and relevance that is recognised by the voters.

Polls are fickle and unreliable indicators of support and best ignored even when we are doing well. That is a lesson we can take out of the General Election. But in terms of Liberal Democrat membership it is a fact that for every person who has left us, ten have joined.

It may not last of course. Government tends to have a corrosive effect on party membership and organisation, but I and others hope that at the end of this process we will be able to say not only that it was worth it, but that also we have changed Britain for good.

Friday, July 09, 2010

What Jacob Rees-Mogg did next

I cannot resist reproducing this blogpost by Tomos Livingstone in full. It is just priceless:

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the recently-elected Conservative MP for North East Somerset, arrived at Westminster with a reputation for being, well, a little old-fashioned.

Rees-Mogg, son of a former Times editor, famously stood in the solid Labour seat of Central Fife in 1997, where he attracted a good deal of press attention for taking his nanny with him on the campaign trail.

As he put it in a Mail on Sunday interview three years later: "I do wish you wouldn't keep going on about the nanny [...] If I'd had a valet, you'd think it was perfectly normal."

I'm sure Mr Rees-Mogg is doing his best to shake off this reputation for living in the past. But he hasn't done his cause much good with his first parliamentary written question to the Wales Office (the first of many, one hopes).

The MP enquires:

Whether her Department has a) commissioned and b) undertaken any research on the effect of Welsh Development Agency grants on the movement of jobs from i) England and ii) North-East Somerset to Wales; and if she will make a statement

Oh dear. As Wales Office Minister David Jones points out in his reply, the WDA was actually wound up in April 2006.

Still, for a man once described as "the last young British male to live as though he is in the 19th century", being four years out of date probably counts as progress.

Further gains on civil liberties

In yet another move that underlines the coalition government's desire to reverse the illiberal aspects of the last Labour Government, the Home Secretary Theresa May has announced that new restrictions are being placed on a controversial police power used to stop and search people.

The BBC say that the police will now not be allowed to use the power unless they "reasonably suspect" a person of being a terrorist. This follows a European Court of Human Rights ruling last month that the power to search people without suspicion under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 was illegal.

As if to further demonstrate how out-of-touch Labour remain, the Shadow Home Secretary Alan Johnson opposed the move saying that it will make the police's job harder. However, that is not the view of Alex Carlile, the government's independent reviewer of anti-terror legislation, who said Section 44 had been ineffective in combating terrorism, had caused community tensions and was used "arbitrarily and for incorrect purposes":

"Section 44 has given a lot of trouble and, in any event, it's now illegal," he told BBC Radio 4's The World At One.

"You don't have to search people to discourage terrorists, the evident availability of police officers in the area, obvious uniformed policing, is just as much of a deterrent."

The last word as ever should be given to Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, who have campaigned against the power for 10 years.

"It is a blanket and secretive power that has been used against school kids, journalists, peace protesters and a disproportionate number of young black men.

"To our knowledge, it has never helped catch a single terrorist. This is a very important day for personal privacy, protest rights and race equality in Britain."

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Hints but no clarity

This morning's Western Mail offers us a leaked report of a private meeting between the Welsh Local Government Minister and Labour councillors at the Welsh Local Government Association conference in Llandudno last month, where Carl Sargeant hinted that wholesale reorganisation was on the cards by 2016.

Up until now it has been the official position of the Welsh Government that it is against local government reorganisation. Instead it has encouraged councils to work together. Last week Carl Sargeant said he expected local authorities to cut costs by sharing top officers when existing post-holders retire or leave. He now appears to have changed his tune, but only off-the-record.

I have said before that there is a case to reorganise local authorities in Wales to produce bigger Councils and fewer Councillors, but only with the quid pro quo of giving them greater powers and the budgets over areas such as health, transport and community regeneration and ensuring that they are elected by the single transferable vote system.

I am prepared to say that up-front in the run-up to the Assembly elections and argue for its inclusion in the Welsh Liberal Democrat manifesto if I can get support in my party for this proposal. I believe that people should know what they are voting for.

What I would not be happy about is a party such as Labour failing to address this issue in their manifesto and prevaricating on it in the election campaign, only to go on and do it anyway once the votes have been counted. That is dishonest. There would be no mandate for such an approach.

If Carl Sargeant does want local government reorganisation then he should say so in public and justify his alternative during an election campaign. It is no good muttering about it in private meetings and dropping obtuse hints at Committee and in Plenary. Let us get this debate out into the open.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Coalition moves to deal with allegations on torture

The announcement by the Prime Minister this week of an unprecedented inquiry into evidence and allegations of British complicity in the torture and abuse of terror suspects is very welcome.

According to the Guardian this honours a promise while in opposition that he would set up a judge-led inquiry into mounting evidence, emerging mainly from court hearings:

The prime minister told the Commons he had asked Sir Peter Gibson – a former appeal court judge who privately monitors the activities of the intelligence agencies – to "look at whether Britain was implicated in the improper treatment of detainees held by other countries that may have occurred in the aftermath of 9/11".

He said that while there was no evidence that any British officer was "directly engaged in torture" in the aftermath of 9/11 there were "questions over the degree to which British officers were working with foreign security services who were treating detainees in ways they should not have done".

Though he did not point directly to a particular case, he made clear he was referring to evidence disclosed by the high court that MI5 knew about the abuse of Binyam Mohamed, a British resident held incognito in Pakistan in 2002 before being secretly rendered to jails in Morocco, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay.

Although there are concerns about moves to exclude the intelligence service from this inquiry I believe that this is an important step forward and will do much to repair the damage to Britain's reputation internationally.

Fiddlers, magicians and harpists at "extravagant" mayor's dinner

The South Wales Evening Post carries a report of a rather unusual Mayor's annual dinner staged by a Town Council with what appears to have been a very generous budget.

They say that cost of the annual Gorseinon Town Council event, which is believed to run to thousands of pounds and is said to have featured entertainment from magicians, harpists and fiddlers is to be discussed in private at its monthly meeting tonight:

Guests at the dinner, which was held on April 30, included the town mayor, mayors of neighbouring community councils, the Lord Mayor of Swansea, Gorseinon town councillors and other invited guests.

Councillor Jim Dunckley said he thought it was irresponsible of the council to exclude the public from the discussions about the event.

He added: "It's unbelievable that when the town council voted to cut funding for local charities and the children's summer play scheme, that money has been spent on magicians, harpists and fiddlers at this event.

"It's an extravagant waste of public money. And it's even more unbelievable that the town council is attempting to deny the public the opportunity to hold the council to account for this irresponsible behaviour. It shows total contempt for the democratic process."

The Council argue that the reason they are going into camera to discuss this controversy is not to avoid any further embarrassment but because it is a commercially confidential between them and the venue. I am not sure that a local government lawyer would agree with that interpretation.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Helping avoid homelessness

At a Conference to commemorate the third anniversary of the One Wales Government the First Minister cited his Government's mortgage rescue scheme as an example of success. I do not disagree, however Carwyn Jones' words ring fairly hollow in the light of subsequent changes to that scheme.

The Mortgage Rescue Scheme supports households threatened by repossession by enabling Registered Social Landlords to buy a part or full share in the property. The owner can then remain in their home as a tenant on affordable rent. A modest £9m budget has been used to good effect. The alternative is to put a greater strain on local authorities, costing more money and potentially putting families out onto the street.

However, the scheme has now effectively been limited to 'those applicants who are disabled and whose homes have been adapted to meet their needs'. This means that the extra £2 million that has been found to fund the continuance of the scheme is not available to the vast majority of those who need it.

A recent request for information has identified that of the 336 Mortgage Rescue Scheme applications approved by the Welsh Assembly Government since the scheme started in 2008, 16 were from households adapted for disabled people and thus eligible under the new criteria.

At that rate there is little danger that the Minister will overspend this budget again whilst many people will lose their homes who previously had been protected from repossession by this safety net.

Supporting local producers

This week sees the launch of the Welsh Assembly Government’s Food Strategy for Wales consultation paper so it seems appropriate to draw attention to the fork2fork website, which tells us where and when our next farmers’ market takes place, the location of our nearest farm shop, as well as case studies’ producers locally.

From August 2010 onwards the campaign will be launching a pledge to encourage people to purchase food direct from local producers. The fork2fork campaign is a two year information and awareness raising campaign to encourage people to buy direct from the producer. The project has received funding through the Rural Development Plan for Wales 2007-13 which is funded by the Welsh Assembly Government and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.

No need for knee jerk response

As we wait the outcome of the high court case to determine the legality of the Welsh Government's badger cull proposals, I am becoming increasingly concerned by the reaction of anti-cull campaigners to the forthcoming referendum on full law-making powers for the Assembly.

At the public meeting I attended in Pembrokeshire last month the assertion by one participant that if the Welsh Assembly cannot exercise the powers it currently has in a responsible way then why should he support the proposition that they have more, was met with overwhelming approval. Since then e-mail circulars from some individuals have made a similar point.

A recent message asserted that it is time to question the value of the Assembly to Wales and reported that the author had joined the say no in the referendum group. That is of course his right, however I would argue that it is a false analysis that suggests that just because you believe that a government has taken a wrong course then it should be denied the tools it needs to do a much-needed job.

The fact is that the badger cull is being implemented under existing secondary powers. In my view that is poor and badly-thought through legislation that deserves all the criticism that is being directed at it. However, just because a Minister takes a bad decision does not mean that we should throw the baby out with the bath water.

We live in a democracy where, in theory at least we elect politicians to govern on our behalf and have the right to chuck them out if they do not do what we want. We do not abandon democracy because we are not getting our way. If the Westminster Government introduces a cull in England will the same people be calling for the abolition of Parliament? No, they will be campaigning for a change of view. That is the approach here and it is the right approach in England too.

The Welsh Assembly exists is doing a valuable job in opening up our democracy, improving accountability and transparency and developing a distinctive agenda suited to our communities. It will get things wrong and has done. It will take us up legislative cul-de-sacs but at the end of the day it is our Parliament and has as its main concern our welfare and that of the whole of Wales.

It needs the tools to do the job it has been elected for so that it can deliver appropriate benefits for all of Wales. That means that it must have the full law-making powers envisaged for it by the 2006 Government of Wales Act.

It is for this reason that it would be a mistake to take out our anger at the Welsh Government on the institution itself and on the future of our fledgling democracy. This is a Ministerial decision and the appropriate response is to use all legal means at our disposal to overturn it not to undermine the democratic institution she serves in.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Putting who first?

Plaid Cymru AM, Nerys Evans' assertion in this morning's Western Mail that the Welsh Government's flagship Communities First anti-poverty programme should be scrapped if it does not shape up will certainly have many supporters around Wales.

The problem is that £214 million of public money has been spent without any clear outcomes and in some cases, with dubious lines of accountability. She is right that there needs to be a thorough evaluation but it is doubtful whether the Welsh Government is capable of carrying out that review with any degree of objectivity or of setting down adequate terms of reference for any independent arbiter.

That is not to say that we should abandon these communities. Instead the money and the responsibility for regeneration should be given to local Councils who are closer to the problem and better understand the solutions. Provided that they are set clear outcomes at which to aim then that must be a better way forward.

Dictating regeneration from the centre has not worked. It has led to a largely unfocussed and unwieldy programme that is failing to deliver results. It is not the role of government to micro-manage communities. It is time that Ministers faced up to that.

Accentuating the negative

Whilst I am catching up on yesterday's papers there was an intriquing article by Julian Glover in yesterday's Observer about Labour's reaction to the coalition government.

Mr. Glover argues that the two governing parties must steel themselves against the bitter rage of an ousted and out-of-touch Labour Party. He says: If hollow outrage is all Labour cares to offer, then reason and calm explanation must be the coalition's answer. Outrage fails in the end. It poisons rationality, it repels the moderate, it frightens the balanced. It lures zealots into a world where everyone inside thinks the same way and no one outside wants to enter. It is where Labour is going now.

But above all the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives must continue to explain their actions to the public:

The left is beginning to smell like sour yoghurt, a long moan against the world as it is and how the last government left it. The problem is not that Labour is heading towards interesting ideological isolation. The varied shades from pale pink to light magenta in which its serious candidates are painting themselves are not socialism. The problem is that the party is being bundled up in all sorts of shallow resentments and is assuming that the public will share this negativity.

UK politics is often characterised as a contest for the centre ground, but that misdescribes the nature of the quest. Centrism implies banality, but I don't think voters want their governments to be mundane. There is a willingness to endorse radical action if it is explained and if it looks practicable. It worked for the left under Attlee and Blair; it worked for the right under Thatcher; and it is working – so far – for this government.

That a large number of people oppose what you are doing, very strongly, can become a strength, so long as they are seen to be opposing something rooted in a kind of imperative. Eight years ago almost half a million people marched through London with the aim of blocking the hunting ban – and to their dismay, the public took the government's side. The miners' strike, the Iraq war – examples are legion. Half a million people and more will probably be marching against the budget cuts soon, and will feel just as strongly that their solidarity brings invincibility. They may be proved wrong.

Keep calm and carry on has become a cliche, but it is good advice for a government. Stay pragmatic and keep explaining, firmly, in moderate language and with courtesy. The left will howl at budget cuts that their own economic legacy makes necessary, just as the right will howl against political reform. That doesn't mean these things won't get through. The noisiest causes often fail.

There are 110 days until the spending review is published. That is not long to win people over to an understanding that the new government will be attempting a fair distribution of an unavoidable shock. But unless that case is made, the coalition endeavour cannot last.

It is a call for leadership. Let us hope that we are up to it.

Rolling back Big Brother

The influence of the Liberal Democrats on the UK Government was evident yesterday with the announcement that Home Secretary, Theresa May, has ordered that a national police camera network that logs more than 10 million movements of motorists every day be placed under statutory regulation.

The Observer says that her decision means that a "Big Brother" police database that currently holds a mammoth 7.6 billion records of the movement of motorists using more than 4,000 cameras across the country will have to be operated with proper accountability and safeguards:

Each entry on the database includes the numberplate, location, date, time and a photograph of the front of the car, which may include images of the driver and any passengers. These details are routinely held for two years.

The options being looked at by the Home Office for regulating the system, known as automatic number plate recognition (ANPR), include establishing a lawful right for the police to collect and retain such details as well as defining who can gain access to the database and placing a legal limit on the period information can be stored for.

Regulation is also expected to require the police to be more open with the public over the number and locations of cameras, with exceptions made for legally authorised covert police operations.

The current situation is unique in Europe and although these cameras assist in combatting crime the uncontrolled growth in their installation around the country does raise a number of concerns. Privacy campaigners believe that it amounts to the routine surveillance of millions of innocent motorists. Better accountability and transparency is therefore welcome.


Sunday, July 04, 2010

Labour attempt to rewrite history comes unstuck

I have commented before on Labour claims that they have been in favour of reforming the Barnett formula and implementing the Hotham report all-along, despite evidence to the contrary and thirteen years of inaction.

The worst example of this was Ed Milliband on the ITV programme Sharp End just over a week ago in which he claimed that Labour had promised to introduce a fair funding formula in their General Election manifesto. This was a claim which was repeated by the First Minister in the Senedd on Tuesday. It is not true.

In fact the manifesto promised nothing more than the status quo, defining 'fair funding' as the floor that was put in place by the Treasury to protect the Welsh budget against a decline in public spending. Welcome as that is, it is a nowhere near what Labour now say they support and which the other parties have been demanding for some time.

It is also worth re-iterating that reform of Barnett was also ruled out by the Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liam Byrne in February of this year and by Alistair Darling during the General Election

In this morning's Wales on Sunday, Labour leadership contender and former Treasury Minister Ed Balls has finally exposed this Labour post-election lie by setting out his party's real position on Barnett reform. He told the paper that there is no need to change the way that Wales is funded because people here already get too much in benefits.

Over to you Carwyn.

Lembit Őpik under fire

Poor Lembit. It seems that he can do nothing right. Having put his political career to one side for a bit to try stand-up comedy, the Wales on Sunday say that he is under-fire even from his new colleagues.

In this morning's paper the Father Ted star, Ardal O'Hanlon says "Whenever I see celebrities straying into stand-up comedy I feel it's disrespectful."

Well that is one vote lost in the campaign to be Mayor of London.

Observer loses its way again

Zero marks out of ten for this morning's Observer, whose usual geographical illiteracy is on show once more through them illustrating an article about polytunnels in Herefordshire in the dead tree version of their paper, with a picture of Tintern Abbey.

Admittedly, this is there because a High Court Judge quoted a Wordsworth line about the River Wye, but as anybody who is not chained to a desk in London pretending that they are in touch with what is going on around the UK will know, Tintern is in fact in Monmouthshire, on the Welsh side of the aforesaid river.

Still, nice work if you can get it.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

So what is all the fuss about?

As an exercise in self-indulgent, narrow-minded parochialism the controversy about the possible timing of the AV Referendum takes the biscuit. There is a world outside of Wales (and Scotland for that matter), perhaps those making all this fuss need to take note.

The idea that we could somehow partition off our own referendum and Assembly elections from the rest of the UK and stand aloof from the wider considerations of the UK Government is a separatist's wet dream. I am astonished that Labour are playing along with this outrage without realising that what they are actually arguing for is the removal of the Welsh political system from the Union.

I have heard people complain that they were not consulted and yet there has been no announcement yet. I have listened to supposedly grown-up politicians complain that Wales has been snubbed and yet we are not the only ones affected. This AV election will also clash with the Scottish Parliament elections and local elections across England.

The fact is that, just as we have had to think long and hard about the best time for our devolution referendum so the UK Government need to get it right for their plebiscite on AV. It may be possible to move the Assembly elections but let us not kid ourselves that we are doing so because of anything Nick Clegg is planning to announce. Talks were already underway to hold those elections in June so as to put a respectable distance between them and the Assembly powers' referendum.

As it is Rhodri Morgan may be right when he said on Radio Wales just now that we do not want to be last in a series of three voting opportunities. Perhaps we will have to clash with the AV referendum after all, and what is wrong with that?

There is a clear imperative to separate out the vote on powers for Wales from that electing the National Assembly. That is not because of any possible confusion from having more than one set of ballot papers, but because the issues and the arguments overlap. Both will be conducted with the same set of electors and in many ways the direction of the elections to the Assembly will be dictated by whether parties are pitching manifestos based on law-making powers or not.

The UK AV election is on a different set of issues and will be decided by a wider electorate. The two can be clearly separated. It is also good that having it on the same day as other elections may boost turnout and save money. After all this is an important change.

The argument that people will be confused or that returning officers cannot cope is just insulting. There is a long tradition for example of having General Elections and local elections on the same day. Yes, there was chaos in Scotland last time but that centred on badly designed ballot papers and a new electoral system being used for the first time.

In fact Wales held a dual election of this sort in 1999 when people voted at the same time for local councils and the Assembly. Everybody coped, there was no chaos. We had to wait a bit longer for the result but that was a small inconvenience.

I have said before that the respect agenda works both ways. In this case we need to respect that this is a decision to be made by the UK Government, just as the timing of the Welsh Assembly elections is a decision to be made here by the Welsh Government and the Secretary of State for Wales. Perhaps people just need to calm down.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Badger cull court case

Pembrokeshire against the cull have circulated a report of Wednesday's appeal hearing in which the Badger Trust are seeking to have the action ruled unlawful. I have reproduced it below but two points stand out for me.

Firstly, that the judges identified that the consultation on the order may be flawed as the Welsh Government only sought views on culling badgers in North Pembrokeshire for a trial period whereas the order is for the whole of Wales and enables them to clear the country of badgers indefinitely. There is now an application to make this the third reason for overturning the decision.

Secondly, the judges' asked the basic questions of, ‘are you ready to start culling?’, ‘what is your start date?’, ‘do you have a map of the cull area? Counsel for the Welsh Government were not able to answer any of these queries. In fact the government has consistently refused to put this information into the public domain on the grounds that it will compromise the security of their operation. It is instructive therefore that they are being told to provide it in open court.

This is the PAC report:

Yesterday's Appeal Hearing in Cardiff before Lord Justice Pill, Lady Justice Smith and Lord Justice Stanley was a fascinating affair - with some dramatic twists and turns. At the start of the day, there were two grounds of appeal by the Badger Trust to be considered. These were that the judge erred in law in holding:

1) That “substantially reduce” in section 21 (2) (b) of the Animal Health Act 1981 meant simply a reduction that was “more than merely minor or trivial”, and

2) That, once it arose, the discretion to make an order under section 21(2) could lawfully be exercised without considering the balance between the extent of the benefit in disease terms and the extent of the killing of wild animals required to achieve it.

However, it wasn’t long before astute questioning and reasoning by the judges raised a major anomaly that they suggested could give rise to an application by the Badger Trust for a third ground of appeal! They saw that the Welsh Assembly Government has passed an Order which applies to the whole of Wales and is unlimited in time whereas the consultation and decision to cull, and evidence provided in support of them, was based on an intensive action pilot area (IAPA) of approx 300 square kilometres. With such an Order in place there will be no requirement to justify or consult on any further decisions taken to kill badgers, whether in a target area or across Wales as a whole. The judges were refreshingly direct in their approach and language – one of them pointing out that in effect the Order (which is only secondary legislation) permits the extinction of the badger in Wales and is unlimited in time. If this is set as a precedent in law, it could lead to the extinction of badgers in the UK.

One of the difficulties in dealing with grounds 1 and 2 was that the information the Minister based her decision on sometimes referred to “an IAPA” and sometimes to all of Wales, and sometimes it was not clear which. For example, when the Order was drafted and passed was the expectation that there would be a 6 – 9% reduction in the rate of increase in bovine TB across Wales, or just within a defined pilot area?

So later in the day, David Wolfe, counsel for the Badger Trust, made an application for a third ground of appeal that “the Minister erred in law in making an Order for all of Wales having consulted on the basis of an IAPA and on the basis of evidence which at most supported culling in an IAPA”. Mr Corner, counsel for the Welsh Ministers, argued that this should not be allowed as it had not been a specific ground in the judicial review – but said if it were to be allowed, and he could see the judges were minded to do so, he would need more time to prepare evidence. He asked for an additional two weeks. The judges asked what further evidence there could be as surely they already had before them all the evidence relating to the preparation of the Order and the Minister’s decision to cull. They pointed out that the Welsh Assembly had asked for an expedited hearing because they had said they must start culling as soon as possible – and the court had adjusted its schedule to enable a swift ruling. There was then a pantomime-like exchange with the judges asking the most simple and basic of questions such as, ‘are you ready to start culling?’, ‘what is your start date?’, ‘do you have a map of the cull area?’ – counsel repeatedly turning round to whisper with Dr Glossop and then being unable to provide an answer! One judge in an attempt to get some information asked in the most direct, and graphic, way possible if they actually had their traps and ammunition ready.

There were no real surprises in the arguments around the meaning of the term “substantially reduce” – with the Welsh Assembly still contending that it should be taken to mean anything more than trivial or insignificant. The arguments about the need to conduct a balancing exercise between the harm to badgers and the benefit to cows (in this particular instance) were more revealing, and very pertinent in the light of the third ground of appeal. Is it enough to ‘take into account’ the fact that many, many badgers will be killed when deciding on this course of action, without conducting any actual balancing exercise which includes some quantification of the numbers of badgers to be killed or harmed and related disbenefits against the number of cows to be saved and related benefits? Counsel for the Welsh Assembly did not produce any evidence that such an exercise had been carried out, nor that the number of badgers potentially affected by the Order had been known and factored into their consideration. But without such a balancing exercise, and with the low threshold for the meaning of ‘substantially reduce’ that WAG wishes to be accepted, it could mean, as one judge pointed out, that just one cow was saved at a cost of exterminating hundreds of badgers.

We left the court at the end of the day with a clear timeline set out by the judges for receiving submissions on the third ground of appeal and for handing down their decision. The Welsh Assembly are required to provide a written submission by the end of next Monday 5 July, the Badger Trust then have two days to respond - and the judges will hand down their decision on the following Monday 12 July in Cardiff.

The lasting impression of the day – the Welsh Assembly are using a sledgehammer to crack a nut – and more and more people are questioning such heavy handed practice, and just where it could lead to in future. The more the Minister’s reasons for deciding to cull badgers are examined in these judicial proceedings, the more unconvincing and lacking any integrity they are revealed to be.

I have been sent the latest research on the long term effects of the cull by Dr Dan Forman, who is a member of the Conservation Ecology Research Team in Swansea University. He makes the point that the Welsh Government need to justify how they came to very different conclusions without the benefit of a full field trial experiment. He says that the Minister has verified that the Order in Wales is not an experiment:

All the most up to date peer reviewed models indicate poor cost for money, poor delivery of the aims and a failure to combat the disease in a meaningful and sustainable manner. Please can you submit all your models to peer reviewed journals so that the scientific community can reviewed the logic WAG has used This is the scientific process and as scientists yourselves and I would hope that you would all be accepting of the need for independent review and comment otherwise we (all scientists) might as well just make things up as we please.

The full research article can be read here. I have reproduced the abstract below:

Background: In the British Isles, control of cattle tuberculosis (TB) is hindered by persistent infection of wild badger (Meles meles) populations. A large-scale field trial—the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT)—previously showed that widespread badger culling produced modest reductions in cattle TB incidence during culling, which were offset by elevated TB risks for cattle on adjoining lands. Once culling was halted, beneficial effects inside culling areas increased, while detrimental effects on adjoining lands disappeared. However, a full assessment of the utility of badger culling requires information on the duration of culling effects.

Methodology/Principal Findings: We monitored cattle TB incidence in and around RBCT areas after culling ended. We found that benefits inside culled areas declined over time, and were no longer detectable by three years post-culling. On adjoining lands, a trend suggesting beneficial effects immediately after the end of culling was insignificant, and disappeared after 18 months post-culling. From completion of the first cull to the loss of detectable effects (an average five-year culling period plus 2.5 years post-culling), cattle TB incidence was 28.7% lower (95% confidence interval [CI] 20.7 to 35.8% lower)inside ten 100 km2 culled areas than inside ten matched no-culling areas, and comparable (11.7% higher, 95% CI: 13.0% lower to 43.4% higher, p = 0.39) on lands #2 km outside culled and no-culling areas. The financial costs of culling an idealized 150 km2 area would exceed the savings achieved through reduced cattle TB, by factors of 2 to 3.5.

Conclusions/Significance: Our findings show that the reductions in cattle TB incidence achieved by repeated badger culling were not sustained in the long term after culling ended and did not offset the financial costs of culling. These results, combined with evaluation of alternative culling methods, suggest that badger culling is unlikely to contribute effectively to the control of cattle TB in Britain.

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