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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Vince Cable may abstain in tuition fees vote

The Guardian reports that Vince Cable, who is the cabinet minister in charge of tuition fees, has said that he is prepared to abstain in a key vote on the government's policy if that is what fellow Liberal Democrat MPs decide to do as a group.

That is of course allowed under the coalition agreement but whether it is enough to head off a revolt by Liberal Democrat MPs, who are threatening to vote against the proposals is yet to be seen.

The paper says that the party's 57 MPs are in talks this morning in a bid to find a solution to the "difficult" situation created by the proposals, amid growing grassroots pressure from within their own ranks to abide by their pre-election pledge.

My view remains unchanged that the pledge given by individual Liberal Democrat MPs not to support an increase in fees means that they should oppose these measures. I accept that there may be different considerations for Ministers. I was pleased this morning when the Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader, Kirsty Williams, made it clear that if she were an MP then she would vote against.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Bah, humbug!

My neighbours have started to put up their tree and decorations, Sky has launched a Christmas channel and all the news media have started talking about the huge amounts of money due to be spent today on-line. And yet it is not even December.

They reckon that on-line shoppers are set to spend a total of £537m today in what is predicted to be the busiest internet shopping day of the year. That will prove to be a massive boost for the economy but not so much for the poor high streets, who now seem to be the destination of choice for last minute presents and pre-Christmas bargains.

Meanwhile plans for my own combined Christmas shopping spree and decoration hanging on December 24th are well advanced. Well, I have pencilled the date in my diary anyway.

Internal party rivalries

Just when people were thinking that Welsh Conservative Leader, Nick Bourne was getting a grip on his group, they appear to be in disarray once more with the sudden and unexpected resignation of shadow health minister, Andrew R.T. Davies.

Nobody, least of all the Western Mail, seem to know why Andrew has resigned. There is some mention of him being intensely ambitious but that is it. I cannot help but feel that the return of former Tory health Spokesperson, Jonathan Morgan as Chair of the Health and Local Government Committee has something to do with it.

Maybe Andrew felt threatened or possibly he felt that he should have had that chairmanship for himself. Either way this is turning into another difficult week for Nick Bourne.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Expect all-round embarrassment and increased tension

The imminent publication of millions of classified cables between Washington and US embassies around the world by the website Wikileaks promises to provide hours of entertainment as the Obama Administration seeks to limit the damage done by frank assessments of their friends and allies.

The Independent on Sunday says that it understands that State Department correspondence between London and Washington covers a catalogue of sensitive diplomatic issues, including the release of the Lockerbie bomber, Britain's contribution to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Conservatives' position on the economy before the election.

They suggest that some of the embassy cables echo the criticism of the Tories' stance on the economy in opposition, questioning their approach to the credit crunch, including their opposition to Gordon Brown's decision to bail out banks with taxpayers' money. They may also offer candid assessments of Mr Brown, his premiership and his chances of winning the election.

One UK Government source is quoted as saying that the files will be "far more embarrassing" to members of the former Labour government, adding "There are quite a lot of references to Gordon Brown being perceived as weak and unstable."

I am not sure as to when these cables will be published but I understand that it will be very soon.

Social Media as a driver of policy

The Independent on Sunday contains a fascinating article this morning on the sort of reforms that Ed Miliband wants to introduce to bring the Labour Party into the 21st Century.

Headlining the article is the idea that the party will turn to social networking sites for things to put into their manifesto. I somehow doubt that the document will contain a series of pledges no more than 140 characters long, especially if the examples given are anything to go by.

My favourites are @peregr1n Freezing earthworms makes them easier to sharpen and @rosycottage It may be a very fashionable vote winner to talk about the "squeezed middle" but what about the "squashed bottom"?, the latter possibly underlining the all-things-to-all-men approach of Miliband's appeal so far.

More importantly though the paper also says that the Labour leader is considering reforms that will give non-party members a say in Labour's policy and leadership. This apparently involves making multiple votes in leadership contests a "thing of the past".

Considering how much Ed Miliband benefited from such a system this is rather ironic. Nothing like pulling up the drawbridge once you are safely ensconced in the castle.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Forgetful Labour get it wrong again

The Western Mail reports on an e-mail received by all Assembly Members from UK Immigration Minister, Damien Green this week telling us that we should not seek to take up issues with the UK Border Agency. Mr. Green explained that this is not a devolved matter and suggested that it would be best if we referred any casework to the local MP who, it is fair to say has access to hotlines, key civil servants and Ministers not available to AMs and thus are better able to get quick results, including stopping deportations in their tracks so that a case can be reviewed.

As far as I was concerned this was just a continuation of the arrangement that has been in place for a number of years. Although, AMs do get immigration cases and, in my case at least, have written to the relevant Minister about them, we know that our letter is just one of many and that the real influence lies with MPs. That is why I tend to immediately refer such cases to the local MP as well.

I do not think that this edict will change that approach and no doubt we will continue to get the same reply as before that this is not a matter for the Welsh Assembly and that the individual concerned should go to his or her MP. I am astonished therefore that Wayne David should consider this to be a change of policy.

He says that he had the policy changed but if so he did not tell me in my capacity as an AM and nor did I notice any difference in the way that my correspondence was dealt with. Presumably he would not have been slow to write to us to announce this coup. All-in-all it seems to me that this is a storm in a teacup, which is presumably why it has been tucked away on page 18 of the newspaper.

Rattling the jewellery

John Lennon once famously told a Royal Variety Performance: "For those of you in the cheap seats I'd like ya to clap your hands to this one; the rest of you can just rattle your jewelry!". I was quite amused therefore by this story from the Daily Mail a few weeks ago:

Kate Harvey, spouse of Army Minister Nick Harvey, was bemused when MoD officials arrived to install a safe in their family home.

Its purpose is to store classified documents, and the key to an MoD secure ‘bat phone’ which Mr Harvey keeps in case of a threat to the realm.

‘But you can also keep your jewellery in it, love – that’s what Labour Ministers’ wives did,’ advised one of the workmen.

Another fascinating insight into how the other half live.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Father Ted in the Assembly

It is some time since I have quoted from the Assembly record on this blog but I thought that a little exchange between Conservative AM, Jonathan Morgan and former First Minister, Rhodri Morgan was worthy of wider circulation. It is not often that someone puts Rhodri down so effectively in the Chamber:

Jonathan Morgan: Yet again, we have another report—the Nuffield Trust report—pointing out that, since devolution, the collection of data in Wales has worsened, and, when we compare Wales to the north-east of England, we see again that we are spending more per head of population on health, but getting less as a result. For those Members who think that that is a startling outcome, in the first Assembly the Wanless review was commissioned—incidentally, that was by the current Minister for health, although I think that she was the Finance Minister at the time—and Derek Wanless found exactly the same thing when he compared us with the north-east of England. We had very similar demographics, but we were spending more per head of population on health, and we were getting less at the other end. However, those lessons appear not to have been learned.

Rhodri Morgan: The comparison with the north-east of England only applies to industrial south Wales. There is no equivalent to mid, west and north Wales in the north-east of England, so you can forget that comparison. It is utterly irrelevant.

Jonathan Morgan: Sorry, Rhodri, but you are absolutely wrong. When you look at the Wanless review, which your Government commissioned, you will see that it compares Wales with the north-east of England specifically because of the demographics. As a result of that, Wanless concluded—[Interruption.] You are just saying that because you do not like the outcome of the Wanless review that you commissioned. [Interruption.] The Wanless review stated very clearly that we were spending more per head of population on health and getting less as a result. It is your fault if you do not like the outcome of the review that your Finance Minister commissioned. The Deputy Presiding Officer—[Interruption.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Order. I do not think that we need any more barracking from the back row.

Jonathan Morgan: I think that we can do without the Member for Cardiff West doing his Father Jack impersonation. [Laughter.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Order. Jonathan, that was not in keeping with your generally gracious manner.

Jonathan Morgan: Anyone who knows the hit series Father Ted will know that there is a certain character who mutters a lot. What we have heard this afternoon from Rhodri on the backbenches is a considerable amount of muttering, and I was merely responding to that.

If this works then thanks to the wonders of new technology you can watch the incident yourself here:

Labour's big failure

This morning's Western Mail reports that increasing numbers of children in Wales are growing up in poverty despite living in households where a parent is in employment.

They say that despite the fact that the Welsh Government is committed to eradicating child poverty by 2020, the latest official figures reveal a falling-back in key areas:

Of the 32 indicators used to measure the depth of child poverty in Wales, just 10 showed a “clear improvement” and there was evidence of a “clear deterioration” in three.

In 2006-07, a quarter of children lived in homes where an adult worked, yet they were still in poverty. The most recent data shows that this increased to 26.7% in 2008-09.

Children are considered to be living in poverty if their household income is below 60% of the average income. This means that couples with two children are in this category if they take home £322 in earnings a week or less.

There are also signs of widening inequality when it comes to educational performance. Two indicators show there is a growing gap among 15-year-olds between the results of children who qualify for free school meals and those who do not.

Just 20.1% of those qualifying for free school meals gained the equivalent of five GCSEs at grade A* to C, including English or Welsh and Maths. This compared with 52% of pupils who did not qualify for free meals.

The performance gap between the two groups had increased from 29.5% in 2006 to 31.9% in 2009.

This is Labour's legacy, their big failure at both UK and Welsh levels. They set targets that they failed to meet and now they have bequeathed the problem to the UK Coalition Government and of course to the fag end of their own administration in Cardiff Bay. So much for their claim to be the champions of social justice.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

News values and Lembit Öpik

Seeing the headline 'Lembit Öpik bitten by snake' on the Western Mail website I was immediately reminded of the old adage that still prevails in media circles.

If it had said 'Snake bitten by Lembit Öpik' then it really would have been news.


Massaging the figures on Affordable Housing

Yesterday's claim by the Welsh Government that they have exceeded their target to increase the supply of affordable housing in Wales by 6,500 a year early has about as much credibility as George W Bush's declaration of 'Mission Accomplished' regarding the Iraq War. The fact is that they have massaged the figures and sought to redefine their target so as to create the illusion of success.

The One Wales Agreement stated that the government would not just build 6,500 homes, but would increase the supply of affordable homes by this amount. Only counting what has been built but ignoring what has been lost is not an accurate measure of the supply available to those families who need an affordable home.

The statistics published yesterday claim that 6,707 new affordable homes have been built but 2,115 local authority and social landlord owned homes have been sold and at least 73 demolished between 2007 and 20093, so the Deputy Minister has only increased the supply of affordable homes by 4,519. In addition, the inclusion of schemes such as Mortgage Rescue, which help people to stay in their own homes, raise questions about the way that the figures have been calculated in the first place.

Interestingly, we can no longer get up to date figures for demolitions. The responsibility for collecting and publishing this data has been transferred from the Local Government Data Unit directly to the Welsh Assembly Government who chose not to publish the figures any more. It would take a very charitable person to believe that this was not a deliberate action by the government to hide the fact that they are nowhere near meeting their target.

The target is a distraction from measures that could be taken to help create affordable homes. Why is the Minister ignoring the 26,000 private sector empty homes in Wales? These empty homes are a neglected resource that could be housing homeless families and yet there is no government strategy to deal with this issue.

Why is the number of social landlord owned homes staying vacant for longer than 6 months year after year not moving? The Welsh Assembly Government should be working to bring these homes back into use and take people of the waiting list

Ultimately, it is those who need affordable housing for their families, who are suffering as a result of the failure to meet this target.

The S4C dilemma

I asked yesterday whether there should be a night of the long knives at S4C but it seems that it is not necessary. The Board and its Chair effectively pressed the self-destruct button themselves.

I believe that the technical term to describe the Authority now is 'basket case'. Whatever they think they are doing, they are not helping their own cause or that of Welsh Language Broadcasting. Is it little wonder that even their staunchest allies are in despair?

The case for electrification

As I understand it the decision of the UK Government to put the electrification of the Great Western Main Line from London to Swansea on hold is actually not a bad result for Wales. Given the situation that the Coalition inherited from Labour it was inevitable that a huge amount of work needed to be done before any government could be in a position to announce this sort of investment.

We should not forget that Gordon Brown announced the electrification project in 2009 and said work would start immediately but nothing happened. Not only did Labour fail to put aside any money to pay for the project, they had not carried out any of the detailed technical work needed before the project could even start. There was no business case that the incoming Minister could pick up and run with.

The prerequisite of any project of this kind of course is that it gets the traveller from A to B much quicker. What is apparent is that running an electric current along the London to Swansea route will not do that without significant investment in the rolling stock and possibly in the track itself. This then has become a much bigger project than was originally envisaged.

I am encouraged therefore that the Government has left this door open and have said that they are continuing to work on the scheme. It is all very well for Peter Hain to complain that Wales is being left behind, but if he and his colleagues had done the groundwork when they had a chance then the electrification of the mainline would be that much closer.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Should there be a night of the long knives at S4C?

The BBC report that Tory MPs want a purge of the people responsible for running S4C. They want the entire S4C authority, with the exception of its chairman, to stand down, saying that they believe that members of the governing body are "part of the problem":

Aberconwy MP Guto Bebb told BBC Wales: "Some members of the S4C Authority are more concerned with scoring political points against the coalition government than trying to move S4C forward to a secure future.

"We've come to the conclusion as a group of MPs especially after yesterday's evidence to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee that the S4C authority are part of the problem rather than part of the solution."

I believe that he may have a point and a number of others have said to me that they agree. That is not an anti-S4C statement but concern that the channel's best interests are not being served by the board.

I would be interested in other views.

Welsh Government needs to do more with less

I have an article over on the Institute of Welsh Affairs site about the Welsh Government's budget and the economy. In it I argue that the budget takes economic recovery for granted.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

More on the Welsh Councillors' Code of Conduct

I have raised on a number of occasions the way that the code of conduct for Councillors in Wales is being used to settle old scores or to make a political point, most recently at the last Public Accounts Committee.

This morning's Western Mail contains another example of a political disagreement being turned into a pseudo-disciplinary matter. They say that a Plaid Cymru Councillor in Caerphilly has threatened to report a Labour opponent to the Ombudsman for criticising the council’s decision to invest millions in an Icelandic bank that failed:

Councillor Nigel Dix has received a letter from Caerphilly Council’s monitoring officer following a complaint by Mayor James Fussell.

The letter said Mr Fussell objected to a letter written by Mr Dix to a local paper in which he claimed Plaid had ignored warnings about investing in Icelandic banks.

Unless Mr Dix makes a public apology, his opponent says he may take the matter to the Ombudsman, alleging the Labour councillor has broken the local government code of conduct.

Mr Dix said he had no intention of apologising because there was evidence the council had been warned.

He added: “Plaid Cymru are far too sensitive. This is all part of the general political cut and thrust which we should be able to engage in without threats of being reported to the Ombudsman.”

Lindsay Whittle, leader of the Plaid Cymru group on Caerphilly Council, said: “Councillor Dix knows the Cabinet plays no part in any investment decisions no matter how many times he tries to cloud the issue.”

This sort of disagreement is the meat and drink of political discourse. is there really any need to waste time and public money by involving the Ombudsman?

Where we were at the time

Glancing through yesterday's Western Mail last night I finally got around to reading their piece on the 20th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher's demise as Prime Minister.

A number of politicians were asked where they were when they heard the news and what their reaction was. The responses were fairly predictable. Some though are more memorable than others such as Kirsty Williams' recollection that she was at University in Manchester and that the union put up a banner saying: ‘Rejoice, Thatcher’s gone’ and put on free drinks.

The most bizarre though is that of Tory Assembly leader Nick Bourne, who remembers that he was having a shower in Malaysia when the news came through. Thank goodness he was not so shocked that he slipped and hurt himself.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Dealing with empty homes

The BBC report that up in Scotland a scheme to bring some of Scotland's 50,000 empty homes back into use has been launched. They say that the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership has been created to help local authorities make use of vacated properties from the private sector.

The two-year project isfunded by the Scottish government and relies on the public to report the address of a suspected empty home. So far, 14 of Scotland's 32 local authorities have signed up.

Here is Wales Shelter is spearheading an initiative to identify the 26,000 private sector homes but there is no Welsh Government strategy and very few local Councils are geared up to deal with them. In fact the powers available to Councils are inadequate and funding is scarce.

Is it not about time that the Deputy Minister grasped this nettle?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Peter Hain and mixed messages

It is far too early to find a link to this article on the Wales on Sunday website and I don't want to give the impression of being obsessed with Peter Hain, however I thought it worth highlighting the story about the blame game in this morning's paper as a good example of Labour tactics since they lost power a few months ago.

The Spin Doctor column points out that Shadow Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain's golden rule is that everything that goes right is the responsibility of the previous Labour Government, whilst anything that goes wrong is the fault of the UK Coalition Government.

Thus, in July, when figures obtained from Welsh Police forces under the Freedom of Information Act, showed officers were still searching for 880 people with outstanding arrest warrants, Mr. Hain was straight onto the case. This was clearly the fault of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government, even though they had been in office for only two months.

Shooting forward to last week and the sharp fall in Welsh unemployment and Mr. Hain is playing a different tune. This time it is all down to Labour: "It is a result of the last Labour Government's investment and recovery strategy which brought Britain out of the worst worldwide recession for 80 years," he said.

Clearly, Mr. Hain likes to have his cake and eat it. No wonder that his credibility is so low.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A year in books - Peter Hain

This week's New Statesman contains its annual feature in which various figures choose their favourite reads of 2010. People such as Ed Miliband, Bianca Jagger, Margaret Drabble, David Marquand and Jonathan Powell outline their choice.

The Leader of the Labour Party opts for David Plouffe's The Audacity to Win, Bianca Jagger chooses In Prosperity Without Growth, Economics for a Finite Planet by Tim Jackson, whilst David Marquand looks at two tomes, one of which is the two volume biography of Edmund Burke by F.P. Locke. I think that this provides a good idea of the brief provided to each contributor.

The Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain however departs slightly from type. His book of the year is Mandela by Peter Hain! He writes:

Barefaced cheek of course, but so many have said what a good stocking-filler it is that the public interest simply demands the word be spread. There are many other books on Nelson Mandela - including his own excellent Conservations With Myself based on private letters and interviews - but mine is the first popular, accessible book that tells his remarkable story from beginning to end.

Modesty never was one of his strengths.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The price of everything

This morning's Independent contains one of the regular features loved by UK newspapers, focusing on how our money is spent by Whitehall departments.

They tell us that the Home Office is spending millions of pounds a month on travel agents' fees to deport failed asylum seekers. They say that the UK Border Agency hired Carson Wagonlit Travel to help in its drive to remove more failed asylum seekers from the country:

It is understood the monthly bills for deportation, which range from £1.3m to £3.7m, cover the one-way cost for the failed asylum seekers and return cost of the private security company personnel who accompanied them.

....The figures also disclose that the Cabinet Office paid £55,000 in July to the company Safe SSG for “accommodation improvements” at 10 Downing Street.

Officials stressed last night that the money went on restoration work on the exterior of the listed building; David and Samantha Cameron paid for the new kitchen in the Downing Street flat out of their own pocket.

Perhaps mindful of rising tensions as the spending squeeze bites in Whitehall, the Cabinet Office paid £26,300 to Berkshire Consultancy Ltd for a “difficult conversation workshop”.

The same department made two payments totalling almost £88,000 to DLA Piper, the international law firm where the Deputy Prime Minister’s wife, Miriam Gonzalez, is a partner and head of trade.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said the payments related to a “contract for the monitoring of compliance by Government departments with the Civil Service recruitment procedures”.

He said: “The contract was subject to full competitive tendering. It started in April 2008 and runs for four years with two annual options to extend.”

The Ministry of Justice spent £890,000 on legal books from the publishers Hammicks in August.

Over the five months, the Treasury ran up a bill for £370,380 on travel, while the HMRC stumped up £170,000 on bottled water for staff. The HMRC said it was phasing out bottled water and stressed it was provided in extremely limited circumstances.

The Ministry of Defence forked out £34,000 for a dinner at the RAF museum in Hendon, north London. It was arranged by the catering company Carte Blanche, which trumpets its ability to create “the wow factor” at functions.

The MoD also paid out £35,000 in bank charges.

There is nothing extraordinary about any of these revelations. All of the expenditure would have been authorised at the appropriate level and audited. It makes up the day-to-day business of government departments. However, the fact that it is 'out there' enables people to question and scrutinise it and maybe force civil servants to have a rethink. That is a good thing.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The need to listen

The decision by the Secretary of State for Wales to pull out of the Institute of Welsh Politics annual lecture at Aberystwyth University because of the danger of disruption by student protestors over tuition fees is extraordinary.

According to the Western Mail Dyfed-Powys Police advised the Wales Office they would have had to divert significant resources to ensure order, and Mrs Gillan decided to postpone her appearance. My view is that once you set a price on free speech in this way then you endanger its very existence.

Mark Cole sums up how ill-advised this decision is in his blog:

Cheryl has today pulled out from giving the key note annual lecture at the Institute of Welsh Politics at Aberystwyth University. It's a prestigious speech to give and I was on hand to listen to Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams give it in recent years. It really is quite a thing to be asked to give this annual lecture.

But, because there was due to be a student protest at the event because of the London Coaltion Goverment's tuition fees plans, she has apparently pulled out on the advice of the police.

Hain has of course responded with vitriolic words such as 'a total disgrace', 'contempt', 'arrogant' and 'outrageous' .

Peter, a word of advice. Shut up.

The words I would use for Cheryl would be the following - 'disappointed', 'let-down', 'regretful', 'short-sighted', 'a missed opportunity' and 'own worst enemy'.

By pulling out of this engagement at the last minute, she has given more ammunition to those like Peter Hain who are waiting and willing for her to slip up. She really doesn't help herself. If she had the courage of her conviction, she'd see it through. Yes, the student protest turned nasty in London last week, but don't tar all students with the same brush.

This is yet another Cheryl Gillan political own-goal.

As for Peter Hain? Bloody hell, they're as bad as each other.

It is a fairly blunt appraisal but the bottom line is that Cheryl Gillan should have stood up for what she believes, delivered her lecture and listened to the views of students, on whose behalf she is making decisions.

That she has ducked out of doing so sends the wrong message about this Government. We cannot stop listening, nor can we ignore legitimate protest. We have to engage with those who want to influence us and take account of their views. If Ms. Gillan is not prepared to do that then maybe she should let somebody else do her job instead.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Labour ripped off Wales

This morning's Western Mail contains confirmation of what we have long suspected, that when the Welsh Assembly acquires new responsibilities it does not get sufficient funding transferred to it to pay for these functions.

They say that this includes the transfer of responsibility for fire and rescue, CAFCASS and the Arriva Trains franchise, all of which took place under the previous Labour Government. I raised this issue with the Finance Minister today but she was not interested in addressing the issue seriously.

Labour’s plans would have meant hardship for some communities too

Interesting words and some honesty from senior Labour AM, Lynn Neagle in the chamber yesterday:

I want to make one thing clear from the start: I do not shy away from the stark reality of the scale of the deficit. I am definitely not a deficit denier. I also understand that cutting spending is never easy and that it is often an incredibly painful process. It is true to say that, whichever party had won the general election in May, we would be facing some incredibly tough decisions here in Wales. However, the coalition Government has hard choices to make throughout this process. It simply did not need to cut as fast or as deeply as it has chosen to. Even Labour’s plans to halve the deficit over four years would have meant hardship for some of the communities that we represent here in Wales.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Control landowners, not badgers

Yesterday's Guardian contains an excellent article by George Monbiot on the proposed badger culls in Wales and England. As it has been driving traffic to this blog all day I felt it was worth reciprocating.

The governments of both countries believe they can help arrest TB by killing badgers. The Welsh government will do it by sending in its own contractors; the Westminster government will do it by licensing farmers to kill badgers on their own land and at their own expense. Both governments' consultations on the killing end next month.

There is only one rigorous scientific trial of badger culling. This is the work carried out by the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, led by Professor John Bourne. It took nine years and cost us £49m, and it is now being comprehensively ignored. Both administrations claim to be basing their culls on the outcome of this trial. Both are doing anything but.

You don't have to read far to discover this. Bourne attached a covering letter to his report, in the vain hope that this would prevent anyone from misrepresenting his findings. Here is what it says: "Badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain. Indeed, some policies under consideration are likely to make matters worse rather than better." The main source of infection, it continued, is transmission not from badgers to cattle, but from cattle to cattle. "The rising incidence of disease can be reversed, and geographical spread contained, by the rigid application of cattle-based control measures alone."

At an electrifying meeting in London Zoo last week, Professor Bourne and one of the other scientists who conducted the trial, Dr Rosie Woodroffe, attacked the misuse of their work by both governments. Badger culling, they pointed out, reduces the proportion of cattle herds with TB inside the kill zone, but temporarily raises it outside the zone. It breaks up the badgers' social structures, pushing them out of their territories, which means that they spread the disease to healthy populations, and to cattle. Even when carried out rigorously, culling does very little to help. But the Westminster government has chosen the worst of all possible options: licensing farmers to kill badgers. This, Professor Bourne's report points out, "would entail a substantial risk of increasing the incidence of cattle TB and spreading the disease".

He makes the case for vaccination and rigorous testing as the best solution to the spread of bTB. Will either Government take any notice? I hope so, but I am not holding my breath.

Kirsty, Lembit and the education crisis in Wales

As the smallest party in the Welsh Assembly it can sometimes be difficult to make a mark, especially in the weekly press conferences. Despite that the Welsh Liberal Democrats do tend to hit above their weight. Judging by the coverage of today's event, we do not always get the media's full attention.

As the Welsh Government's budget is to be published tomorrow, we decided to press for the equivalent of the pupil premium for the poorest pupils to be introduced in Wales. ITV Wales however, took a different view on what was newsworthy.

Their report of the Press Conference focused entirely on the current TV reality show 'I'm a Celebrity, get me out of here'. Somebody suggested recently that the TV companies might innovate by finding some actual celebrities to star in this show. Instead we have Lembit Opik.

ITV's journalists decided that the main highlight was the question asked of the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, Kirsty Williams, as to whether she was supporting Lembit in this contest. She replied that she had not cast a vote for her predecessor as Welsh Lib Dem leader or for any other contestant.

Maybe if we do all vote him out then we can return to a serious discussion of real issues.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Is the Government anti-Welsh?

I am having a sort of debate with Labour AM, Alun Davies on this subject over on Wales Home. It takes the format of an article written by each of us separately so really it is two opposing polemics, but you may wish to have a look.

Labour continue to obstruct reform

News agencies are reporting this morning that Labour are seeking to have the AV Referendum Bill declared 'hrbrid' by the House of Lords this afternoon with the intent of burying it in committee.

It is an interesting tactic considering that Labour are meant to be in favour of electoral reform. Their excuse of course is that they object to the equalisation of constituencies, which they consider to be 'gerrymandering'. The fact that the status quo of unequal electorates favours them, raises the question of just who is doing the gerrymandering?

In today's Independent, Justice minister Lord Tom McNally warns peers against falling for a Labour "elephant trap" which could scupper the timetable for the Government's planned referendum on a new voting system. He says that ex-Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer "doesn't have a leg to stand on" in his bid to derail the bill.

Labour may not think we have too many politicians but I believe that the electorate disagree. The main principle involved here appears to be self-preservation, whilst once again Labour demonstrate that partisan politics comes before their own policies.

Labour blocked alternative coalition government

Today's Independent contains a more accurate account of David Laws book on the coalition talks in which he makes it clear that the main obstacle to an alternative deal with Labour was their Ministers.

He says that a "truculent trio" of Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and Harriet Harman wrecked any chance of putting together a left- wing coalition after the last election:

In the first "inside" account of how the Coalition was formed, Mr Laws, who was on the Liberal Democrat negotiating team, said Mr Miliband was at best "indifferent" to the talks, and Ms Harman was "patronising".

Mr Balls, he added, set out to "wreck" the discussions by suggesting Labour would not be able to persuade its MPs to back a referendum on electoral reform.

In contrast, Gordon Brown offered to match any offer made to the Liberal Democrats by the Tories, but went on to withdraw a promise to stand down early in a new parliament.

Really David is just confirming what we already knew but it is useful to have it in print and in so much detail.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The partisan nonsense of the NUS decapitation strategy

Students all over the country are angry. I do not blame them. Despite the fact that the proposals on student funding contain several concessions directly attributable to the Liberal Democrats' position in government, the bottom line, the amount that students will have to repay, is too high.

The concessions that the Liberal Democrats have obtained are not insignificant. They include removing up-front fees for part-time students, keeping a cap (albeit at the wrong level), raising the threshold for repayment so that many poorer graduates will never have to repay the fees and ensuring that richer students cannot secure an unfair advantage by paying off the amount owed early.

Of course this is not what was in our manifesto. We put forward a six year programme that would have phased out fees altogether. Not only would we have implemented that promise if we had had a majority, but even the Guardian, who allege that we were planning to ditch the pledge, acknowledge that this was the case. In the middle of an otherwise non-story yesterday, their journalist writes:

Clegg also joined all other Lib Dem MPs in signing an NUS pledge to "vote against any increase in fees". The leaked document showed that during the preparations for a hung parliament the Lib Dems still intended to fulfil that commitment.

The fact is that in a hung parliament scenario we need the agreement of other parties to get anything through. Both Labour and the Tories are pro-tuition fees, a fact scarcely acknowledged by the Labour leadership of the National Union of Students, who were strangely quiet when Labour broke their promise by firstly, introducing fees and then trebling them. The document highlighted by the Guardian was a discussion of what concessions we might have to make in coalition talks, it was by no means an abandonment of any promise.

This brings me to the question I was asked by students in Coleg Afan Nedd on Friday morning. They referred to the pledge signed by Liberal Democrat MPs to oppose an increase in tuition fees, which by the way is different and separate from a policy of phasing out fees altogether, and asked why we could not just vote down the lifting of the cap to £6,000?

The answer is that there is no reason at all why Liberal Democrat MPs cannot vote in that way and I hope most of them do. However, there are complicating factors that have to be taken into account, not least the Coalition Agreement itself. That document provides that Lib Dem MPs can abstain on this vote. As I understand it that applies to Ministers as well, who would otherwise be bound by collective responsibility. Thus there is no reason for Clegg and Cable to do anything more than abstain, even on proposals that they have put forward.

The issue then of course is what happens to those proposals. They will go through, even with Labour opposing them. And because the Liberal Democrats have washed their hands of them the Tories will no longer be bound by the concessions they have made. They may decide that they wish to do away with the cap altogether and abandon the changes on part-time students for example.

Of course Liberal Democrat Ministers could break the Coalition Agreement and vote against the lifting of the tuition fee increase, but that would mean the end of the Coalition Government, a General Election and the inevitable return of a majority Conservative Government that can do what it likes. That would not be in the best interests of students.

I am conscious that all of this sounds like I am making excuses for the behaviour of Liberal Democrat Ministers. I am not. These are the very real considerations that need to be taken into account when a final decision is taken as to how the party should vote when the proposals come to the House of Commons. It is an argument for more talks and more concessions. Clegg and Cable need to go back to the drawing board and put it to Cameron that the proposals as they stand remain unacceptable and need amending.

This brings me to the tactics of the NUS. It is now apparent that although the vast majority of students protested peacefully last week, some of the damage to property and violence was not just the work of anarchists as alleged. Some ordinary students appear to have got caught up in this and as Guido Fawkes reports some NUS UK Officials failed to appreciate the gravity of the situation:

Writing in a “Coalition of the Resistance” letter Mark Bergfeld, (NUS NEC), Vicki Baars (NUS LGBT Officer) and Sean Rillo Raczka (NUS NEC Mature Students’ Rep) said:

‘During the demonstration over 5,000 students showed their determination to defend the future of education by occupying the Tory party HQ and its courtyards for several hours. The mood was good-spirited, with chants, singing and flares. We reject any attempt to characterise the Millbank protest as small, “extremist” or unrepresentative of our movement… We stand with the protesters, and anyone who is victimised as a result of the protest.’We reject any attempt to characterise the Millbank protest as small, “extremist” or unrepresentative of our movement… We stand with the protesters, and anyone who is victimised as a result of the protest.’

Now we have a situation whereby the Labour leadership of NUS UK have announced that they are going to use their position to seek to decapitate key Liberal Democrat MPs. That is not partisan at all, oh no! Given their previous attitude to broken promises by Labour MPs on tuition fees, it is sheer hypocrisy. Or, to put it more politely, as Evan Harris says, it is a "transparent stunt".

The Neue Politik blog sums it up:

Secondly, what does this plan achieve?

i) it's not going to stop the rise in tuition fees from going through. Only lobbying and building as broad a, dare I say it, coalition as possible MIGHT achieve that.
ii) it's unlikely to succeed, as the stringent requirements for a recall will probably not be met
iii) if it did succeed and the Lib Dem MP was removed, what's the best scenario? A Tory MP who will happily screw over students or a New Labour MP who will not care either way, it'll just depend on which way the political wind blows at the time. This progresses the cause of students, how?

Thirdly, it spells out to every sensible person that the NUS isn't interested in students or tuition fees (it's policy on a graduate tax is less progressive than what most students actually want!) but is acting as an offshoot of the Labour party. It risks losing the support of the sympathetic non-student population, like my Mum, who dislikes the Coalition, hates tuition fees BUT who remains firmly unconvinced about Labour following the last 13 years.

For the sake of the fight against tuition fees, the NUS needs to make a stand now fighting against EVERYONE in Parliament who has allowed this policy to exist be they Labour, Tory or Lib Dem. Otherwise it's about as useful as a chocolate teapot.

The problem that the National Union of Students has created for itself is that they are focusing on one political party rather than the issue itself. Given its own inconsistencies on tuition fees that is hardly surprising but even they must know that alienating likely supporters with partisan threats and taking to the barricades rather than engaging in rational argument does their members a disservice and will fail to achieve anything. The question is, do they care?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Plaid Cymru confusion

What is going on with Plaid Cymru? Have they really lost the plot or are they just trying to lull us all into a false sense of security?

First, of all we have the former MP and 'future leader', Adam Price popping back from his intellectual sojourn in America to address us from the mountain top. He told the CF99 programme on S4C that voters are not being offered a strong enough choice of candidates in next year's assembly election. Well Adam, you had your chance to stand and you blew it.

Mr. Price told the programme that a "lack of skills amongst politicians is making it difficult to tackle big economic challenges". He said: "The gap between the problems we face in Wales and the skill-set of the people we're drawing in to politics is huge"

Given that his own party leader holds the economy brief in the Welsh Government, that is a pretty strong attack and indicates some discontent within Plaid Cymru as to how their ministers are performing.

And then as if to rub salt into the wound, the former Chair of Plaid Cymru steps up to the mark and effectively accuses the party of being ageist and obsessed with projecting a youthful image.

John Dixon has claimed that Deputy First Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones told him that Plaid could not afford to have more “old men” running for winnable seats at next May’s election:

Writing on his blog today, he said his age was raised by Mr Jones, 61, the previous month.

Mr Dixon said all parties were affected by a “cult of youth” and that he was not convinced by the tendency for people to go straight into politics after university without first gaining any wider experience.

“That cult certainly affects Plaid Cymru,” he wrote.

“When Ieuan told me in June that he did not want me to be a candidate for next May’s Assembly elections, my age was one of the issues he raised.

“It was his view that, with Ron Davies likely to be selected in Caerffili, the party simply couldn’t afford to have any other old men standing as candidates where we might win, because that would send the wrong message about what sort of a party Plaid Cymru is.”

He added: “It’s a valid viewpoint, but it owes more to getting the right image than the right mix of skills and experience, it seems to me.”

All of this is quite embarrassing for Plaid Cymru. The outcome of the General Election was a big disappointment for them and seems to have caused them to become unfocussed and disputatious. If this continues then they may struggle next May as well.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Vaccination and the badger cull

Another question in Plenary this week to the Rural Affairs Minister on the proposed badger cull in North Pembrokeshire:

Peter Black: Minister, are you aware of the recent publication of the results of a four-year study into the vaccination of badgers in Gloucestershire against bovine TB, carried out by the Veterinary Laboratories Agency and the Food and Environment Research Agency? The study discovered a 74 per cent reduction in the proportion of badgers testing positive in the antibody bTB blood test. Given that this seems to underline the efficacy of a vaccination strategy, taken with the other measures that you already wish to put in place in the pilot area in Pembrokeshire, will you reconsider including vaccination as part of your strategy? You could do that instead of the cull that you seem intent on carrying out.

Elin Jones: I am sure, Peter, that you will respond to the formal consultation on the intensive action area in north Pembrokeshire. I will await the responses to that consultation before taking a final decision on the appropriate course of action in north Pembrokeshire. I have said all along that vaccination will play a part in the eradication of TB in Wales. I look forward to reading the report, which was, I think, published yesterday, on vaccination trials in Gloucestershire.

The research referred to is reported on here.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Broken promises

This morning's Independent reports on an admittance by Nick Clegg that he "should have been more careful" when he signed a pre-election pledge to oppose a rise in tuition fees.

The Deputy Prime Minister goes on to say that he will not ignore the problem by putting his "head in the sand", and that the Government's policy will help generations of poor people go to university.

In many ways the solution that the Government have come up with on tuition fees has a lot to offer. By raising the threshold at which students need to repay the loans and making payments relate to earnings they have done a great deal for poorer students.

The problem is the level of the cap itself which is simply much too high. Nobody who signed the NUS pledge could seriously vote for this proposal in my view and I will repeat what I have said earlier that Liberal Democrat MPs should vote against it.

This problem of broken promises is not a new one of course. As Clegg pointed out in the House of Commons yesterday, it was Labour who first introduced fees and then top-up fees despite explicit manifesto promises to the contrary. Plaid Cymru also voted to bring top-up fees into Welsh Universities despite promising voters that they would not do so.

Liberal Democrats do not have a majority so we are not in a position to bring in our own policy, but we can moderate this policy more and we should do so.

Having said that I was disappointed at the way the protests turned out yesterday. This was not the fault of the National Union of Students. Their legitimate and peaceful demonstration was hijacked by anarchists and others intent on causing trouble. There was a huge failing on the part of the Police to contain this action.

The violence and damage to property has not done the NUS's cause any good. This is not the Conservative Government of the 1980s and 1990s. It is a coalition government with a genuine commitment to civil liberties and fairness. Reacting as if we are still in the Thatcher era is counter-productive and does not change anything.

I can only hope that it has not entrenched attitudes so as to make further changes to the student finance proposals more difficult.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Labour MPs are revolting

Harriet Harman is absolutely right in her determination to rid the Labour Party of the odious Phil Woolas, whose disgraceful racist literature brought the art of politics to a new low. It is funny how it is always the Liberal Democrats who get accused of fighting dirty, when the real culprits are the likes of Phil Woolas, who often hide behind their criticism of the Liberal Democrats to hide their own activity.

However, Harriet Harman's criticism has not gone down too well in the Parliamentary Labour Party, many of whom it seems are clubbing together to support Woolas in his appeal. Mutinous Labour MPs have defied their party leadership by launching a formal fighting fund, with its own bank account, and have asked their colleague to donate at least £100 each.

The Daily Mail reports that Ed Miliband, who supported the decision to axe Woolas, was forced to cut short his paternity leave to try to defuse the crisis:

But Mr Woolas’s backers were adamant. One Labour MP is said to have called on Miss Harman to resign and another, John Mann, said: ‘A period of silence from ­Harriet Harman would now be very welcome.’

Miss Harman was also challenged at a meeting of the shadow cabinet yesterday, at which at least one shadow minister told her she was ‘wrong’ to say Mr Woolas could never be readmitted to the party.

Sources close to Mr Woolas claim his supporters in the shadow cabinet include Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper, Peter Hain, Andy Burnham and the shadow health secretary John Healey.

It seems that Labour are not going to easily learn the lesson of this fiasco and that we will see similar campaigns run in the future by local Labour Parties and their candidates.

Tories on tour

This morning's Western Mail has an exclusive on the migratory habits of the Welsh Assembly Conservative Group.

According to the paper nine Conservative AMs, Mohammad Asghar, Andrew RT Davies, Paul Davies, William Graham, Mark Isherwood, David Melding, Darren Millar, Nick Ramsay and Brynle Williams, all claimed £70 for an overnight stay at the luxury Conrah Hotel, three miles south of Aberystwyth on June 10, which is the birthday of Mr Ramsay, who represents Monmouth and is his party’s Shadow Finance Minister.

They say that eight of the AMs also claimed £25 in meals and subsistence, while the ninth – South Wales East’s Mr Asghar, who defected from Plaid Cymru last year, claimed £35.50. Altogether, the AMs claimed £865.50.

This comes on top of previous controversies regarding the travels of the Welsh Assembly Conservative Group. The paper reminds us that on a similar trip to North Wales undertaken by seven Tory AMs in June 2009, a total of more than £800 was claimed. There is also the time, last year when nine Tory AMs spent more than £6,500 of taxpayers’ money on a “fact-finding” trip to Brussels, staying in Hotel Amigo, which bills itself as the city’s best luxury hotel.

The budget debates will be interesting this year.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Still grizzling in the background

An indication of how deeply old wounds run is provided in this morning's Independent, which reports that Gordon Brown has issued a thinly veiled swipe at Tony Blair as he hit out at politicians who fail to keep promises to step down from office after two terms.

Mr Brown's fury at his predecessor's decision not to step down for him ahead of the 2005 general election has been documented in a number of high-profile Labour memoirs.

And today he appeared to seize an unexpected chance to make clear his own view during a two-hour evidence session to the international development select committee.

It came as Tory MP Pauline Latham challenged him over what action he had taken over African leaders who served more than the two terms they promised.

"People make it clear, as I have, to some of these leaders that if they say something and then are not in a position to deliver it then their authority is affected by that," he said.

"But I think it is very difficult for us to impose a rule on African countries that we do not apply ourselves," a smiling Mr Brown told the committee.

He did not refer directly to Mr Blair - citing instead the example of Michael Bloomberg who had proved an excellent mayor of New York despite serving beyond his self-imposed two-term limit.

But few observers were in any doubt to whom his comments were directed as he continued: "It is difficult for us to say, when sometimes in our countries people serve long terms, that there should be a limit on the terms. The real issue is keeping promises."

Given that both politicians denied that there was any such rivalry and bitterness between them when they were in office, it is fascinating now to see it coming to the surface.

Update: just to prove that these sorts of tensions are not limited to the British Labour Party, the Financial Times has a similar story from the USA:

The venue was the Oval Office. A group of British dignitaries, including Gordon Brown, were paying a visit. It was at the height of the 2008 presidential election campaign, not long after Bush publicly endorsed John McCain as his successor.

Naturally the election came up in conversation. Trying to be even-handed and polite, the Brits said something diplomatic about McCain’s campaign, expecting Bush to express some warm words of support for the Republican candidate.

Not a chance. “I probably won’t even vote for the guy,” Bush told the group, according to two people present.“I had to endorse him. But I’d have endorsed Obama if they’d asked me.”

Endorse Obama? Cue dumbfounded look from British officials, followed by some awkward remarks about the Washington weather. Even Gordon Brown’s poker face gave way to a flash of astonishment.

To be fair, this wasn’t completely unexpected. The degree of enmity between Bush and McCain — particularly following their legendarily dirty fight in the 2000 South Carolina primary — is hard to exaggerate.

Indeed Bush is far from kind to McCain in the parts of his new book that relate his “complex relationship” with the Arizona senator. I’ve yet to see a copy, so I don’t know whether he mentions how he voted. But it might be worth asking. He was certainly wavering.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Setback for S4C campaigners

Those of us fighting to secure the future of Wales Welsh language channel, S4C received a bit of a setback this morning with the publication of the results of an opinion poll that found that most people in Wales, including a narrow majority of Welsh speakers, believe S4C should show programmes in English.

The Western Mail says that the YouGov poll, commissioned by S4C programme Y Byd ar Bedwar being broadcast tonight, found 53% agreed the channel should show English programmes, with 18% disagreeing and the rest not expressing a view. Welsh speakers were more evenly split, with 36% backing English-language programmes on S4C and 35% against.

What this underlines is how precarious the support for the present system is amongst the public. It also, in my opinion underlines another problem, namely that programme schedulers on S4C are no longer producing programmes that people want to watch.

Neither I, nor the Welsh Liberal Democrats want to water down the present offering of Welsh language programmes, but we do need a recognition from S4C that they must change to survive. In the meantime we will continue to argue the case for the retention of an independent channel with a remit to deliver programmes through the medium of Welsh.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Swansea West MP struggling to find his way around

The Spin Doctor column in today's Wales on Sunday reveals that the new Labour MP for Swansea West, Geraint Davies is still struggling to come to terms with his adoptive South Wales, after parachuting in from Croydon Central, where he lost his seat in 2005.

It seems that he put out a press release proposing that tolls across the Severn Bridge be reduced to £1 a car once the bridge is returned to public ownership in 2017. Unfortunately, he managed to refer to the structure as “the Seven Bridge” six times in total.

Far more worrying is why the MP wants to continue charging a £1 toll once the bridge comes back into public ownership. The consensus that is growing in Wales is that the tolls act as a barrier to trade and economic growth and should be abolished altogether. That he wants to perpetuate a token toll shows just how out of touch he is.

Maybe Geraint wants to deter any other defeated Labour MPs crossing into Wales and challenging him in his new seat.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Making the case for a 'yes' vote

Aberavon MP, Hywel Francis is absolutely right when he says in this morning's Western Mail that campaigners for greater devolution need to do much more to make their case relevant to ordinary voters.

We should not be fooled by the polls into believing that it is all done and dusted. In my experience support for a 'yes' vote is soft and a lot of work needs to be done in firming it up and motivating people to go out and vote. One way we can do that is to demonstrate how cutting out the Legislative Competence Order process will enable us to pass laws that will make a real difference to people's lives.

The other matter of concern is the absence of any cross party 'yes' campaign. We have now passed at least two dates when I understood that this campaign was going to be launched and nothing has happened. What has happened to this organisation and why are we leaving it so late to get it off the ground?

Friday, November 05, 2010

Whoops! Apocalypse!

With BBC journalists on strike today, the Guardian puts all our minds at rest. In one of their asides they reveal that the Today programme is a key part of the nation's defences.

Apparently, Trident submarine crews use it to gauge whether everything is normal back in the UK. If the programme goes off air then their trigger fingers get a bit itchy in case Britain has been destroyed in a nuclear strike.

Let us hope that they check first.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

For Cymru read Cayman Islands

The BBC report that the four-year campaign to secure a ".cym" internet address for Wales has been lost to the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean.

There are still plans though to bid for a Welsh version of the .com or .co.uk domain possibly looking at .cymru instead:

The Cayman Islands already has its own internet domain, .ky, but it is also registered to use .cym.

DotCYM was set up in 2006 to campaign for a Welsh internet address name and claims the support of businesses, local authorities and public bodies.

The group has the support of the Welsh Assembly Government, which awarded it a £20,000 grant in 2008.

The Welsh bid follows the successful .cat application from the Catalan linguistic and cultural community.

Following the set back, DotCYM managing director Siôn Jobbins, from Aberystwyth, has asked supporters to come up with new suggestions and has appealed for their views.

Mr Jobbins said the Welsh domain bid would be presented at the "earliest possible opportunity" to Icann, the organisation controlling names on the internet.

"It looks increasingly likely that Icann will open the application process in 2011 so we need to decide on the Welsh domain by the end of this year," he added.

"We'd like to hear the views of people on which domain they'd like to use, for instance .cymru .cwl (Cymru Wales) or .wales.

"We are still going ahead with the bid and that isn't affected. Not being able to use .cym is a shame, but it's not a problem."

Mr Jobbins said after submitting the bid his group would have to wait for up to six months for approval and it could be a year before the domain goes live.

Let us hope that they are successful.

I am not a horse

The first law in writing a leaflet is to remember that you have 5 seconds to get your message across before the leaflet goes in the bin.

This leaflet from Hull has a very clear message!

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

More on the blame game

Gerry Holtham has an interesting and rather technical article over on the IWA blog in which he explains why it is that Wales did comparatively worse than Scotland and Northern Ireland in the Comprehensive Spending Review.

Far from Wales being a victim as the First Minister and other Labour politicians allege it seems that the difference is down to the way that the Barnett formula treats the Department of Communities and Local Government budget.

The First Minister has said that Wales suffered because it does not have influence around the cabinet table. Gerry Holtham has shown that assertion to be nonsense. Wales suffered because of the application of a formula introduced by Labour and maintained by Labour during their 13 years in government.

Despite that, we still did better than most UK Departments, better than the Welsh Government had planned for and better than we would have done under Alistair Darling's plans. Gerry Holtham's conclusion is worth noting::

The longer Wales complains about unfairness, the more firmly established will be its reputation as a collection of whingers. The requirement now is not for a better line in whinging but a plan to improve the situation by our own efforts.

The former Labour leader of Bridgend joins in on the comments:

Assembly politicians who moan about the settlement should realise that it could have been far worse if the UK government had not decided to ring fence health. I hope that this article has a really wide circulation so that we can at least get a mature debate on the policy decisions required in the next few years. As it stands and Gerry Holtham raises this issue there is a real danger of Wales drifting into a sort of political limboland with no real influence over where power really lies and that is still Westminster. Welsh politicians also have to develop a bit more political nous and realise that the devolved adminstrations do not have the same interests when it comes to trying to influence UK governments of whatever political persuasion who control what really matters which is the purse strings.

The question is whether Carwyn Jones is listening.

Talking Wales down

First Minister, Carwyn Jones last night continued his campaign of talking down Wales in the face of his own party's loss of power at a UK level in May.

In a speech he warned that the real impact of spending cuts would be felt in Wales for generations, cast doubt as to whether the private sector here can rise to the challenge despite his government having its hands on key economic levers and criticised the scale of cuts despite the fact that the Chancellor has cut less than planned by Alistair Darling, that Wales did better than most UK departments and that it did better than the Welsh Government had planned for. It was not so much a vision as a long whinge.

Carwyn also glossed over the fact that despite the role of the banks in the United Kingdom's economic problems, it was Labour who had failed to bring them into check and it was his party who built up the £109 billion structural deficit and £800 billion debt that the UK Coalition are trying to tackle. Once more he failed to say what Labour would have cut instead, and conveniently ignored the fact that under Alistair Darling's plans the Welsh Government would have had even less to spend next year than it does now.

Frankly, the constant complaining and blaming of others for Wales' problems is getting a bit wearing. Labour had 13 years to put things right, reform the Barnett formula, give the Assembly full law-making powers and build a healthy economy. They failed on all fronts.

First Minister's questions is becoming an exercise in avoiding scrutiny on the One Wales Government record. When in difficulty the First Minister attacks the UK coalition. This may well be the tone of the next six months of politics in Wales but it will not wash with many voters at the Assembly elections. It is time that Welsh Assembly Ministers stopped moaning and got on with their job.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

A cut that needs to be made

On balance I think that the cut in the number of MPs needs to be made. Not only do we need to have equitable constituencies but we also have too many politicians. That is true in Wales in particular where we now have about 1200 Principal Councillors, 60 Assembly Members and 40 MPs.

If there is a 'yes' vote in March there is no justification for having so many MPs as most of the domestic issues and laws will be decided in Wales. Even if voters refuse the request to give the Assembly primary law-making powers, the case for retaining 40 MPs is marginal to say the least.

Where I do agree with critics of the present bill however is in the need to cut the number of Ministers proportionally with the reduction in honourable members. The Daily Telegraph agrees.

They say that the Bill will ensure there are proportionately fewer independent-minded backbenchers in future, and the executive will tighten its grip on the legislature:

This flies in the face of what the Coalition claims to stand for – the diminution of Big Government, a reinvigoration of Parliament and a reduction in ill-considered legislation. If we are going to have a smaller Commons then we need fewer ministers, too.

This is not just about saving money, it is about achieving a higher quality of representation and scrutiny and that means that we need less MPs on the payroll vote and more acting in an independent manner.

Monday, November 01, 2010

The new guard and civil disobedience

Ron Davies famously said that devolution was a process not an event, well it seems that for some in Cymdeithas Yr Iaith Gymraeg the process has become more important that the event itself.

They are launching a campaign to encourage people in Wales to boycott the TV licence in protest at UK Government plans for S4C they describe as “a stitch up.” The decision that has angered them is that of moving most of the Welsh-language channel’s funding into the control of the BBC. They say that S4C will also lose 94% of its UK Government grant, though actually, most of this funding will be picked up from the licence fee so it is not as bad as they make out.

The Chair of Cymdeithas says that "The truth is that these plans are a complete last minute stitch-up, between [Culture Secretary]Jeremy Hunt and BBC bosses in London. Neither our communities nor S4C are responsible for the recession so why do they have to suffer?

“The people of Wales won’t just accept these complete undemocratic decisions. We are not going to let the language disappear in the 21st century."

How exactly an elected government acting within its remit is being undemocratic is difficult to fathom but surely the important thing here is the outcome not the way that it is reached. If at the end of this process S4C remains independent and delivering Welsh language programmes mostly commissioned from ouside companies as has been promised, then surely we are all winners.

As I have said in the past it is scarcely credible to argue that S4C should be protected from cuts when other key services are suffering. But it must remain viable and that is the balancing act that needs to be secured over the next two years.

Trying to restart the campaign of civil disobedience that secured the channel in the first place is not credible and will not attract public support. For once this is a time to exercise influence rather than to protest.

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