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Friday, December 31, 2010

Rebels with lots of causes

Just when David Cameron and Nick Clegg thought that they might be able to relax over Christmas, The Independent publishes the results of some research that is guaranteed to send a chill down their back.

They say that Government MPs are rebelling against their parties' policies on a scale not seen since 1945. During the Coalition's first seven months, dozens of Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs, including many elected for the first time in May, have repeatedly defied House of Commons' whips to vote against the Government:

The findings suggest the Coalition – which has a Commons majority of 84 – could be vulnerable to defeat as the Government becomes more unpopular and the austerity measures hit home. Earlier this month the rise in tuition fees scraped by with a majority of 21.

The research, conducted by Professor Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart of Nottingham University, found Government MPs rebelled in 84 of the 160 Commons votes between May and 20 December when Parliament rose for the three-week Christmas break. They say the 53 per cent rebellion rate is "without parallel in the post-war era".

Tories have rebelled in 38 per cent of divisions, with 73 backbenchers voting against the Government at least once. Fifty-one Conservative MPs, including 26 new arrivals, have already broken ranks over Europe, with 37 backing a rebel move to cut Britain's contributions to the EU budget.

Conservatives have also repeatedly rebelled over plans to hold a referendum on changing the voting system (26 revolts) and over moves to introduce fixed-term parliaments (12 rebellions). By far the most contrary Conservative was Philip Hollobone, the MP for Kettering, who voted No on 44 occasions, more than 27 per cent of votes.

Professor Cowley said: "Even Jeremy Corbyn, the most rebellious Labour MP of the Blair period, could only manage a rate of around 20 per cent, so Mr Hollobone is breaking new ground."

Next most rebellious was David Nuttall, the new Tory MP for Bury North, who voted No 29 times. The leading Liberal Democrat dissenter, and the only one in his party in the top 10 rebels, was Mike Hancock, the MP for Portsmouth South. Just five of Mr Clegg's 38 backbenchers have so far remained wholly loyal to the Coalition.

Although, I am the Group whip in the Welsh Assembly, managing five members in which the most awkward is me is not that difficult. My sympathies lie with the Government whips for having such an impossible job.

However, that does not mean that I disapprove of the rebels. After all, didn't the voters elect us to think for ourselves? Thank goodness far more MPs are prepared to do that, and then stand up and be counted.

Why 'yes' is the only answer

Over on the Yes for Wales website, Lee Waters points out that a failure to secure a 'yes' vote in the Assembly powers referendum on 3rd March could set back devolution and undermine the status of Wales within the United Kingdom:

The needs of Welsh communities are not widely understood in Whitehall. That’s the view of Wales’ former top civil servant, Sir Jon Shortridge. His view was backed up by Head of the Civil Service, Sir Gus O’Donnell. He put the failure to take Welsh interests in account down to “forgetfulness‟ amongst Whitehall Chiefs. Scotland never gets forgotten in Whitehall and Westminster but all too often Wales does.

If there is a no vote the slow and complicated system of law-making will get even worse. Regardless of the views of the AMs elected to the Assembly or of Welsh public opinion, the man in Whitehall will continue to know best. The holes in the devolution settlement will be systematically exploited. Whitehall mandarins will become even more absent minded about Wales if feel they have a green light to frustrate the Assembly’s requests.

So the status quo is not an option. Forward or back, that’s the option.

We can no longer continue to have an elected Assembly that does not have the power to fulfil its programme for Government and which continues to rely on remote civil servants and Ministers in London for legislative competence.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Labour MPs to break manifesto promises

According to the Guardian 114 Labour MPs have come out against the alternative vote system of elections and will be campaigning for a 'No' vote in the referendum next May.

This is despite the fact that the Labour leader, Ed Miliband will be campaigning for a positive outcome and that support for AV was a Labour manifesto commitment which all 114 of these MPs stood on and supported in the General Election.

There was an outcry when the Liberal Democrats failed to get a majority and as a result were forced to abandon their manifesto pledge to abolish tuition fees over a six year period. Will the same critics be equally as vociferous in their condemnation of these Labour MPs for the far worse sin of jettisoning their pledges when they are not in government and have no mitigating circumstances to excuse them?

I am not holding my breath.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Are you psychic?

Courtesy of a tweet from Matt Raven, this is a fascinating employment opportunity being advertised on the Directgov Jobs and Skills search:

Psychic Readers

Do you want to earn money using your natural gift from the comfort of your own home? We require up to 20 psychics to take advantage of our home worker opportunity, you will work in a self employed basis via our payroll partners. All HMRC deductions and running costs will be taken care of by our back office. All we require is that you have a landline . telephone, broadband/internet connection, pc literacy and of course the most important part, natural psychic talent. The Company has given an assurance that this vacancy enables workers to achieve a wage equivalent to the National Minimum Wage rate. Self-employed people are responsible for paying their own National Insurance contributions and Tax. For information on how benefits are affected, and whether entitlement may be lost, speak to a Jobcentre Plus Adviser.

You wouldn't think that they needed to advertise really. Surely, potential applicants could sense the vacancy.

David Laws is mistaken on Wales

I am still taking advantage of the time at my mother's to catch up on some reading and have all but finished David Laws' 22 Days in May. It is an excellent read and offers many insights on the negotiations that led to the formation of the UK Government coalition.

One paragraph however stands out as misconceived. Writing about the reluctance of some Liberal Democrats to embrace the chance to go into government David says:

'And in Wales in 2000, Alun Michael suffered the indignity during late night negotiations with the Lib Dem assembly members of sending up to them a list of major concessions only to be told that our team had left the building to go for pizzas!'

On the principle that when somebody gets something (in this case nearly everything) wrong, then they should be corrected, I feel that it is right that I put the record straight.

Firstly, it was not a pizza, it was a curry, but more importantly what happened cannot be understood without some context. It is the case that following the formation of the Welsh Assembly Alun Michael turned down the opportunity to form a coalition government and rejected direct advances from the Welsh Liberal Democrats to open negotiations. Instead he chose to form a minority government in which he execised tight control over every aspect of business.

It was only after he had effectively alienated most of Wales and the Assembly itself by the way he ran the Government and faced a no confidence vote that Alun Michael thought to grasp this particular straw and accept the inevitablity of working with other parties.

The offer of a coalition came on the night before the no confidence vote. I do not recall any 'major concessions' but what I do remember is that we literally had a few hours to negotiate a full coalition agreement before that vote and a decision as to whether or not we would save the First Secretary's bacon. It would never have been enough time as the David will understand.

David Laws talks about how toxic Gordon Brown was and how it would have been impossible to enter a coalition with Labour whilst he was Prime Minister. Much the same situation prevailed in Wales at that time too around Alun Michael.

The Welsh Liberal Democrat Group were not prepared to be used as patsies to save Alun Michael's skin, especially when it seemed he still wanted to do it on his terms, and so we rejected his advances and walked. That did not mean that we did not want to enter government, just that we wanted to do so on our terms, something that actualy happened a few months later when we signed up to a deal with his successor, Rhodri Morgan.

I was surprised that David Laws got this wrong. After all he played a major part in negotiating the subsequent coalition agreement. Perhaps a bit more research would have helped in this particular instance.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Labour failure on democratic engagement

I have just started reading David Laws' '22 Days in May' about the coalition negotiations just after the General Election and already I am struck by Labour's failure to engage with talks seriously and in particular to sign up to serious reform.

That is evident again today with their reaction to Government plans to open up the Parliamentary agenda to the public. The idea is to allow popular online petitions to be debated in Parliament. Those receiving most support, probably 100,000 signatures, would be debated, with some possibly becoming bills.

Labour's response is to suggest that the scheme will lead to "crazy ideas" being discussed by MPs. Newport West Labour MP Paul Flynn, who is a member of the Commons public administration committee, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "This seems to be an attractive idea to those who haven't seen how useless this has been in other parts of the world when it's tried.

"If you ask people the question 'do you want to pay less tax?', they vote yes. If we get the e-petitions in there will be some asking for Jeremy Clarkson to be prime minister, for Jedi and Darth Vader to be the religions of the country.

"The blogosphere is not an area that is open to sensible debate; it is dominated by the obsessed and the fanatical and we will get crazy ideas coming forward."

That is a disgraceful attitude towards the people who employ him. Inevitably there will be those who abuse the process, but that is no reason to deny people the opportunity to put forward their own ideas and even to organise petitions to influence the legislative agenda.

The Number 10 petition site was a joke. It treated people with contempt and effectively shunted petitions into a cul-de-sac. It is little wonder that people ended up treating the site in the same way. At least with this scheme there will be the possibility of a constructive outcome and people will be treated like adults. I would expect nothing less.

Labour's attitude is patronising and insulting to those they represent. When in power they only pay lip service to democratic engagement, now it is the same story in opposition.

The cost of Gordon Brown's obsession with PFI

I am not one of those who have ideological issues with private finance. If done properly as with the Welsh Housing Investment Trust then it can genuinely add value. What does not work as well is the more traditional PFI model as embraced so enthusiastically by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown over the 13 years they were in power.

Evidence of that is seen in this article in which it is revealed that taxpayers will end up paying five times over for building projects funded by Private Finance Initiative deals commissioned by the last Labour government.

They say that new analysis shows that the 544 PFI projects agreed under Labour will cost every working family in the country an average of nearly £15,000 each, even though the original building cost stands at just over £3,000. On average, the gap between the total repayment and the actual cost of the building is the equivalent of £11,700, four times the original pricetag:

Under the terms of the PFI deals struck by Labour, taxpayers are due to pay £245 billion by the 2047/48 financial year. However, the 544 projects involved cost only £51.5 billion to build.

George Osborne, the Chancellor, recently told how he was informed that under the Treasury’s PFI service contract signed by Labour, the cost of supplying a Christmas tree to the Treasury stood at £900, despite being sold by the retailer B&Q for only £40.

A few months earlier, he had been told that the PFI contractor would charge £148.58 to provide a fish and chip lunch for six in his private office.

In the end, Mr Osborne, Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, and their team ate the same lunch in the Treasury canteen for £32.88.

Hospitals have complained that PFI service contracts mean that they have to pay up to £333 to have a light bulb changed.

A hospital in Hereford was charged £963 to have a new television aerial, and a school £1,000 for a computer desk which normally retails at £200.

No wonder Labour stand accused of forcing future generations to pay for the financial illiteracy of the past.

Monday, December 27, 2010

An electoral pact should not be on the agenda

This morning's Independent suggests that David Cameron may well be privately encouraging moves for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to fight on a joint ticket at the next general election.

They say that Tory traditionalists are planning to stir up a rebellion among Tory MPs and grassroots members against the idea, accusing a "defeatist" Prime Minister of planning for another hung parliament and insisting that the Tories can win an overall majority at the next general election.

Personally, I think that this is a storm in a teacup. Neither Cameron nor Clegg could get such a pact through their respective party and it undermines the whole concept of coalition politics in which two or more parties work together for the good of the country but do so as separate entities. Only the media and a few mavericks seem to think this idea has any legs.

The strengths of the UK Coalition lie in its diversity. The Liberal Democrats have brought a distinctive agenda to the table and are able to act to moderate the worst excessives of the Tory right. Their influence lies in the fact that they are an independent party rather than one wing of the Tory party. The Tory left would never have this much influence even if they were stronger.

It is for these reasons that merger of any kind is off the agenda. And in my view a pact, in which the two parties would be viewed as one body, is the start of that process and should be avoided. It may give us short term gains in some seats but we would be devastated elsewhere.

The Liberal Democrats have set out their stall and they now need to stick by it. We should be arguing at future elections that not only do we now have experience of government but that coalition government can be beneficial to the UK. That means that we must be prepared to work with Labour as well as the Tories if that is what the voters decide. A pact would restrict these options and shackle our negotiating position.

If we went into an election so closely tied to the Tories we could not then threaten to walk away if they then refuse to make the necessary concessions in post-election talks. Such an arrangement would be a disaster waiting to happen and should not be countenanced.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

On Vince Cable's foolishness and the dangers posed by the Murdoch empire

Henry Porter has yet another outstanding column in this morning's Observer in which he discusses the consequences of Vince Cable's 'unworldly hubris' and its impact on the future of the British media. He says that if this deal goes through it is likely to reduce the diversity of the media in Britain and will consolidate Murdoch's power over the British political establishment.

I particularly enjoyed the description of Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, as a man who wears the smirk of a serial canary swallower, but the importance of Henry Porter's article lies in the final few paragraphs:

There are obviously greater calls on our attention at the moment – the suppression of writers, actors and political opposition following rigged elections in Belarus, for example, or the new laws in democratic Hungary which will monitor and penalise the media – but if this deal goes through it is likely to reduce the diversity of the media in Britain and will consolidate Murdoch's power over the British political establishment.

So the deal is very important, which is why we must test the Murdoch strategy of "putting himself beyond the possibility of defeat" and waiting for others to make mistakes. It is not good enough to give a foreign businessman, who does not pay taxes here, the enhanced power that will result in the merger simply because he wants it. Perhaps it's time formally to examine his fitness as well as his loyalty to the "fairness and due process" that his employees cited last week. Can he be trusted with this enormous power? While Vince Cable has been found guilty of bringing unfair prejudice to bear on Rupert Murdoch's commercial interests, is it not true that Murdoch's commercial power distorts the political process with much greater force than anything poor Dr Cable managed?

Nowhere is there a better example of the corrosive effects of Murdoch's power than in the phone hacking scandal, which still continues to throw up revelations and hardly shows News International to be the champion of "fairness and due process". If it were, Rebekah Brooks, News International's chief executive, would have answered the summons to attend a parliamentary hearing into the matter and News International would not have bought off claimants whose phones were hacked, or have pursued a policy which involved paying police officers for information on the same police force that was charged with investigating the claims of widespread criminality in the News of the World.

Two weeks ago, papers were released by the high court which seem to suggest that the hacking of phones belonging to the actors Jude law and Sienna Miller by the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire was part of a much wider scheme to use "electronic intelligence and eavesdropping", with the knowledge of senior editorial executives. The document implies that the News of the World carried out illegal surveillance covering "political, royal and showbiz/entertainment" matters. Some 20 separate public figures are in the early stages of suing the News of the World.

These outstanding matters are very serious and it is only sensible that they are openly and satisfactorily resolved before we hand Murdoch's company the complete set of keys to the city gates.

Whatever happens, the transfer of the decision-making process to Jeremy Hunt's department must not make approval of the Murdoch bid to control BSkyB a formality. The decision-making process must be transparent and accountable and all of the issues raised by Henry Porter must be taken into account.

Spin Doctor bites again

The Wales on Sunday's Spin Doctor column is well known for its biting, though sometimes misguided wit. This morning's offering is no exception, containing some juicy morsels that are worth reproducing:


Shadow Health Minister Nick Ramsay, reminiscing on 20 years since his idol Margaret Thatcher was forced out of Downing Street:

“My only recollections of the world pre- Thatcher were of Jim Callaghan’s unstable government, the unforgettable misery of the Winter of Discontent and a Britain that seemed to be falling apart at the seams,” he recalled – a remarkable recollection, given Mr Ramsay was four years old when Callaghan left office.


Could be for any one of Shadow Welsh Secretary Peter Hain’s changes of heart since leaving government, but this is our winner.

In April 2006, Mr Hain slammed the media for running stories about a feud between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, insisting there was no such thing.

“A lot of the media obsession in this seems in a different world from the one I operate in around the cabinet table and in Government,” he fumed.

And this July? He mocked Lord Mandelson’s autobiography for its “great revelations” about the Labour leadership.

“That there was a Blairite/Brownite fault line in New Labour is hardly news,” he sniffed.

Of course, the column could not avoid a dig at its favourite target:


It can only be celebrity, former friend of this column and Wales’ least employable man Lembit Öpik, defended by his former pants model girlfriend Katie Green.

“To be honest, before I met him I thought he was the village idiot,” explained Miss Green.

“Then when I met him I completely changed my views. I can’t stand immature men.”

And what did Miss Green and the mature Mr Öpik do on their first date?

“We spent the afternoon riding up and down the corridors [of the House of Commons] on Segways,” she said.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas -Nadolig Llawen

Best wishes to everybody, Have a good Christmas.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Stating the bleedin' obvious

Today's Daily Telegraph revelations have Foreign Office Minister, Jeremy Browne giving his private view of the Conservatives.

He told their undercover operatives that Tory immigration policy is "driven by uncharitable instincts" and the party's political allies in Europe are "an embarrassment":

Speaking of the Lib Dem contribution to foreign policy, Mr Browne said: "The government’s policy on Europe, because I’m a foreign office minister… is seen as far more amenable and civilised than the European Parliament would have expected.

“I mean, I had a breakfast meeting about three weeks ago with the Danish ambassador, the Swedish ambassador, you know, I can’t… these Scandinavian types, and they said: 'We’re so pleasantly surprised that the British Government is so much more co-operative and amenable than we had anticipated. Why is that?’

“And I said I think partly it’s because the Lib Dems are in government.”

Speaking to an undercover reporter earlier this month, Mr Browne said that governing with the Conservatives was an “uncomfortable process” and that he felt uneasy about Coalition policies “the whole time”.

He added that his party was bound to the Coalition because if it withdrew “we’d never be in government again”.

Sounds about right to me. Thank goodness the Liberal Democrats are there to keep the nutters on the right wing of the Tory party in check.

Match this Cameron

Vladmir Putin sets the standard for Prime Ministers everywhere. What songs will Cameron and Clegg perform to meet the challenge?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

After the Crash

The Guardian's Wintour and Watt blog highlights a typically frank blog post from the Liberal Democrat MP for Torbay, Adrian Sanders.

As you would expect the journalists are keen to quote the fairly strong criticisms of Nick Clegg than the more positive message at the end:

Its overall message represents a head on disagreement about strategy, attitude and tactics. Around the time of the tuition fees vote, the party was rightly praising itself for conducting its internal debates without rancour. Well rancour has now well and truly turned up.

Sanders writes:

Unlike the bulk of the Liberal Democrat membership, the current leadership and their advisors are dominated by people who give the impression they didn't, among other things, enter politics to deny the Conservatives political power. That is the fundamental difference between them and those who have spent a lifetime campaigning against the enemy, and who view the Tories as the opposition to just about everything we stand for.

We have a leadership that seems keener on impressing the Conservatives as to how much we can be relied upon to take 'tough' decisions, than on asserting how much the Conservatives need us in order to remain in Government.

The leadership almost revels in having to take decisions against the grain of Liberal Democrat support and can't see the damage and hurt left in their wake.
Adrian's message though is far more positive:

There is a better way and that’s to demonstrate the difference the Liberal Democrats have made to the country, and importantly, to the Conservatives.

When constituents and others complain to me about putting the Tories in power I ask them to imagine a Conservative Government retaining a 50p top rate of tax, introducing an increase in capital gains tax, implementing a bank levy to fund child tax credits for poorer families, taking the lowest paid out of income tax altogether, extending the national minimum wage to include apprentices and reducing the age at which the full National Minimum Wage is paid, increasing the number of social housing allocations above those of the previous Labour Government, establishing a pupil premium to increase the funding for pupils in poorer areas, investing £900 million to reduce tax evasion and amend legal loopholes that allow for tax avoidance, proposing a £140 minimum state pension, setting up a Green Investment Bank, moving towards a House of Lords elected by PR, agreeing to a fixed term Parliament and much, much more.

And before they can say tuition fees I ask them would a Tory Government have agreed to a fee cap?

Would they have introduced measures where all students will repay less per month under this Government’s policy than they currently pay? Where the lowest earning 25% of graduates will repay less than they do now? Where the top earning 30% of graduates will pay back more than they borrow and are likely to pay more than double the bottom 20% of earners? Where over half a million students will be eligible for more non-repayable grants for living costs than they get now? Where almost one million students will be eligible for more overall maintenance support than they get now? Where part-time students will no longer have to pay upfront fees benefiting up to 200,000 per year? Where there will be an extra £150m for a new National Scholarship Programme for students from poorer backgrounds and tough new sanctions on universities who fail to improve their access to students from such backgrounds?

There is so much positive policy and influence to promote, but we can’t get it across to the electorate unless we can show how we made the difference. Getting this information out and understood is part of a giant task that now confronts us to rebuild trust with voters who feel we have let them down, or worse betrayed them.

That is the message we need to be getting out in the run-up to the May elections. Adrian's conclusion is spot-on:

Perhaps we can start by admitting to ourselves the pleasure most of us take in the distress Conservatives have being in coalition with Liberals. It is such a pity that some in our leadership give the impression they feel the same discomfort with members of their own Party.

If they could only see what we see; that the Tories need us to implement some of their policies far more than we need them to water down, or corrupt ours, then maybe we can see light at the end of the tunnel, rather than the lights of another train bearing down upon us.

The message is clear, this is not a Tory Government. It is a genuine coalition and one in which the Liberal Democrats have real influence. It is now up to Nick Clegg to start shouting that loud and clear, starting on the first working day of the new year.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Vince Cable and an issue of trust

I am the last person to be preaching about speaking in haste and repenting in leisure and I do not intend to start here. However, there is no doubt that Vince Cable was surprisingly naive in allowing himself to be drawn into giving an opinion, even privately, on his quasi-judicial role as arbiter on the future of Sky and the Murdoch media empire. Cameron and Clegg were absolutely right to take that responsibility off him. They had no choice.

The role of the Daily Telegraph in this was far from honourable however. They went out of their way to entrap Ministers, who admittedly should know better, in giving private views that may undermine the Coalition Government. They did so by pretending to be people they were not and by surreptitiously recording each encounter.

Their tactics may be legal and legitimate, but they are hardly ethical. They have undermined the position of trust that needs to exist between journalists and politicians to ensure that there is proper scrutiny of both government and opposition. Some may argue that this relationship was far too cosy and they may be right, however other media organisations will feel a backlash from these tactics, something they may not be happy about.

What is worse is the sheer hypocrisy of the Daily Telegraph in suppressing the most newsworthy aspect of their story because it was not in their business interests. What they have succeeded in doing (admittedly with Vince's help) is to ensure that the Minister least sympathetic to Murdoch will no longer be taking the decision on the ownership of Sky Television. I am sure they are delighted at that outcome.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Growing up in public

Another day, another think piece about the Liberal Democrats. This time from Mary Ann Sieghart in the Independent.

Writing last week in fact Ms. Sieghart suggests that the Liberal Democrats are emerging from the stresses and strains of coalition as a grown-up party of Government. Whether there will be anybody left to vote for us as such has yet to be seen but the author believes that there is hope:

Personally, I prefer the grown-up Lib Dems to their student predecessors. They are now a more serious party, attuned to the complexities of government, and no longer just a populist party of protest. They are genuinely trying to make the Coalition work and have earned the plaudits of their Tory ministerial colleagues. They have also succeeded in casting quite a liberal complexion over the Government and have an influence in the Coalition disproportionate to the number of seats – or even the number of votes – they won at the election.

I am not so sure that I agree with her that the 'people who joined the "Cleggmania" during the election campaign had a hopelessly naïve view of politics.' She is right that many believed the Liberal Democrats could deal with the deficit and scrap tuition fees just by taxing bankers, but those voters lent us their support because they were looking to register a protest not because they wanted a party of government who was going to deliver on an impossible agenda. However, her interpretation of the Ashcroft poll is worth reading:

According to a poll commissioned by Lord Ashcroft, and published in the Sunday Telegraph yesterday, only 54 per cent of voters who supported the Lib Dems this year plan to do so again in 2015. Of course, five years is a very long time in politics, and many of these conceded that they might change their mind between now and then.

It will depend partly on how well or badly Labour is doing. In the Ashcroft poll, an astonishing 90 per cent of 2010 Lib Dem voters agreed that "Labour seriously lost its way on a number of important policy areas ... and will need to change a lot before people will be ready to vote for them again." And, in a ranking of politicians' performance, they put Clegg a respectable fourth, behind Cameron, Cable and William Hague, while Ed Miliband came 10th and last.

Interestingly, Ashcroft's pollsters also questioned 1,000 people who seriously considered voting Lib Dem in May but didn't do so. The results reflect the private polling that the Lib Dems themselves have done. The main reason why these "considerers" didn't in the end support Clegg's party was that they thought he would never be in government and it would be a wasted vote.

By May 2015, that fear will have vanished. Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, will be able to point to all that the Lib Dems have achieved in government, and where their liberal ideals have tempered the Tories' rawer instincts. Already, two-thirds of Ashcroft's "considerers" say the party has shown it is "prepared to take real responsibility, not just oppose from the sidelines", that it is "making an important contribution to the Government of Britain" and that "Nick Clegg is doing a good job as Liberal Democrat leader".

It's striking that twice as many "considerers" as Lib Dem voters say their opinion of the party has changed for the better since the election. And 25 per cent of them say they are now more likely to vote Lib Dem at future general elections than they were before.

This may not be enough to compensate entirely for the outflow of angry students and their supporters. But it's a start. The students may have stomped out and slammed the door on the student party, but there are millions of grown-ups out there who may decide at the next election that the Lib Dems have finally earned their vote.

She concludes that there is another, possibly overlapping, pool of voters to which the party could look: These are people who, perhaps to their surprise, have discovered that they really rather like Coalition Government. They like the way politicians from different parties have managed to find common ground and to govern together without sniping at each other. They like the way coalition has allowed both leaders to ignore the nuttier elements in their own parties. And they fear that a Tory majority government would be too red-blooded; the Lib Dems exert a welcome restraining influence.

Come the next election, they won't be able to vote specifically for another coalition – the ballot paper doesn't offer that option. But the best way to ensure a hung parliament will be to maximise the number of seats the Lib Dems win. This will be a powerful argument for Clegg to deploy in 2015: whether you want a coalition with Labour or the Tories, the easiest way to achieve it is to vote for us.

Like many of these pieces there will be strong views on both sides. That is evident from the comments. Stranger things have happened in politics.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The wrong nozzle

I often wonder what thought processes lie behind a Freedom of Information request. I don't mean the reason for lodging one, that at least should be obvious: People need to know; there is a need for effective scrutiny; and this sort of transparency in Government is vital to the democratic process. No, I mean how do people decide what information they want?

A lot of it is fairly obvious. Questions about administrative costs, capital works or perceived job perks are the meat and drink of the FOI industry. Others though, may tell us more about the questioner than the organisation being scrutinised.

What started me reflecting on this was the article in today's Western Mail in which it is revealed that the emergency services, local authorities and the Welsh Government have spent more than £32,000 over the past two years sorting out vehicles that have had the wrong fuel put in them:

Diesel vehicles have been filled with petrol on 199 occasions by public sector staff since April 2008, costing £32,304 to put right, according to figures released under the Freedom of Information Act.

Where organisations have split the figures between 2008/09 and 2009/10, the totals show that in 2008/09 there were 54 incidents costing £7,724 but in 2009/10, there were 75 incidents costing £13,798.

Apparently, the emergency services were the worst offenders, with all but Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service contributing to the total of 162 incidents costing £27,171. The Welsh Ambulance Service spent the most putting misfuelling problems right at £8,122.

It can happen to anybody. In fact according to the AA it happens 150,000 times a year and they attend 60,000 incidents. It’s more common for them to go to a misfuelling than someone out of fuel – twice as common.

Personally, I have run out of fuel on the motorway (who knew there were no service stations on the M42 at that time?) but so far, fingers crossed, I have not misfuelled. Clearly though somebody did and the idea came to them that they might want to know if it ever happened in the public sector and how much it cost. Or did they just see an ambulance stranded at a petrol station waiting for assistance? I am intrigued.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Chairman Mao and the Coalition Government

In this morning's Observer, Andrew Rawnsley concocts a marvellous conceit in which he finds elements of Tony Blair and Mao Tse-tung within the coalition government.

His basic proposition is that the government are talking of unleashing a "cultural revolution" in the public services and of hailing devolution of power away from the centre using Mao's old slogan: "Let a thousand flowers bloom." He says that there is a belief among the senior members of the government in the creative chaos of individual decision-making and that this is the glue which binds David Cameron's liberal conservatives with the Cleggite liberals:

Just about anywhere you look in Whitehall, there is a secretary of state unleashing upheaval. Ken Clarke challenges two decades of orthodoxy about the criminal justice system. Michael Gove battles the educational establishment to create his "free schools". Iain Duncan Smith has ambitions to be the man who definitively reformed welfare. Chris Huhne is dramatically recasting energy pricing. Nick Clegg wants to rewrite large parts of the constitution. Over at health, Andrew Lansley proposes the greatest upheaval in the NHS since its foundation. They are urged on from within Number 10 by the prime minister's principal strategist, Steve Hilton, who is probably the most Maoist person in the government. He has been heard to tell colleagues: "Everything must have changed by 2015. Everything."

Some of their plans may win your approval; some of them may leave you sceptical; some you will hate. Most people on the liberal-left will be supportive of Mr Clarke's challenge to the philosophy of "prison works". It is traditionalist Tories and the right-wing tabloids who are worked up into a froth about what they caricature as being "soft on criminals". Some of these ministers may have a great success with their reforms. Others will prove a dismal flop or a ruinous mistake. What we can say with certainty is that both the degree and the range of experimentation is quite breathtaking.

It is the more so because the radicalism of this government has come as such a surprise to most people. It was widely assumed to start with that the coalition would not want to invent any more challenges for themselves when they were already committed to one of the most ferocious spending squeezes ever embarked upon by a modern government in Britain or anywhere else in the world. The protests and unpopularity provoked by the cuts would be quite enough to cope with.

As it has turned out, the squeeze has not dampened a reforming zeal, but fired it. One Conservative member of the cabinet says: "The state of the public finances has forced us to be more radical." Another Tory cabinet minister offers a differently nuanced explanation: "It has been politically easier to argue for reform – it gave us an excuse, if you like."

He says that there is an urge to prove that coalition can be a bold and decisive form of government, a motivation which is particularly strong in Nick Clegg and like-minded Lib Dems. Another driver is the feeling that time is against them. Although the coalition still has four-and-a-half years to run that is a short time in Whitehall politics, especially if you are trying to execute and embed reform to complex public services.

Members of the coalition do not want to make Tony Blair's mistake of being over-cautious. However, Rawnsley argues that coalition is running the risk that it learns this lesson too well and lurches to the opposite extreme:

Where Mr Blair was too timid, they are too zealous. Where he crept cautiously on domestic reform, they leap recklessly into the unknown. Where he was nervous of making any enemies during his first term, they attempt to fight on too many fronts at once.

He concludes that Ministers are competing to be more radical than the rest:

This competition for glory has been facilitated by David Cameron's chairman-like style of managing the cabinet which encourages ministers to have their head. And so, in the most surprising discovery about this coalition, we find we are governed by Maoists.

So much for the notion that coalitions lead to centrist do-nothing governments.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Referendum campaign begins

There is no surer sign that the referendum campaign on Welsh Assembly powers has got underway than a high profile argument about the claims of each side in their literature. Sure enough the Western Mail obliges this morning with news of a row over the first leaflet produced by the Yes for Wales referendum campaign.

The leaflet suggests that Wales will get a fairer funding formula from the UK Government if there is a Yes vote on March 3. However, True Wales condemned it as “wholly misleading” and called for its immediate withdrawal and an apology. The group have also condemned an earlier leaflet issued by Welsh Labour in the same terms:

A spokesman for True Wales said: “[The Labour] leaflet boasts of £300m reasons to vote Yes and the [Yes for Wales] leaflet similarly states that the UK Government has said that, ‘it will only consider fairer funding for Wales if there is a Yes vote in the referendum’. Both parties must surely be aware that the UK Government has said no such thing.

“The Conservative Liberal Democrat Coalition has never promised a single penny more to Wales, whatever the outcome of the referendum. Indeed, on November 22, Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, told the Assembly’s Finance Committee that he did not want to address the Barnett formula until the UK’s financial crisis had been resolved.”

In response Yes for Wales spokesman Lee Waters said: “No campaigners need to understand that if there was a No vote on March 3, Westminster would not take the needs of Wales seriously."

To be fair both sides are right. A 'No' vote would send entirely the wrong message to the UK Government and lead them to believe that they could mess us about and withhold vital law making powers, no matter who is in control.

On the other hand, things have moved on since the Coalition Agreement. Not only did Danny Alexander come to the Assembly's Finance Committee and say that reform of the Barnett formula was wholly dependent on the economic situation and suggested that he could not see any movement on this in the near future, but he also clarified the wording in the coalition agreement.

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury told the Committee that he would be prepared to deliver Calman style reforms to Wales, allowing us to borrow money and vary taxes. He also said that it was this consideration that was linked to the outcome of the referendum, not reform of the Barnett formula.

Personally, I do not like leaflets that mislead, wittingly or otherwise, no matter who produces them. But there is a wider issue here and that is the danger that the 'Yes' campaign turns into an anti-UK Coalition crusade. If that happens it will lose all party support and have less of a chance of winning.

Starting off on the contentious issue of Barnett reform and giving people the impression that all will be OK if they vote 'yes' on 3rd March is to step on a slippery slope towards party politicking and leaves the campaign open to the charge of deceiving people.

We already know that there are no magic bullets on this issue. Thirteen years of Labour rule showed that as well. We should not give a contrary impression.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Getting Active

As I sit here contemplating the 4,000 Christmas Focuses I have to deliver in three inches of snow, it is worth looking forward to the sort of sports we might all indulge in once the weather improves.

Just in case there is any confusion the Swansea Active website contains some useful definitions, for example:

Rugby union is a competitive outdoor contact sport, played with a prolate spheroid ball, by two teams of 15 players and:

Golf is a precision stick-and-ball sport in which competing players (golfers) using many types of clubs, attempt to hit balls into each hole on a golf course in the lowest number of strokes.

I am glad they told me that. Seriously though the site is well worth looking at if you want to undertake sporting activities in Swansea.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Is the glass half full or half empty?

There is an interesting and thought-provoking article in Public Finance magazine this week on the tactics of the government in relation to public service cuts.

They point out that at every stage Ministers have lowered expectations in the hope of lessening the impact of their decisions. Their conclusion though is very telling:

A number of councils, seeing that their cuts are frontloaded, have begun publicising the kind of service reductions that could take place once next April’s budgets are set. Housing repairs might be halted, street lights switched off, entitlement to care curtailed and bins emptied less frequently. Charges might be increased for parking, licensing, social services and planning. As with the Spending Review, the media have generally reported the ‘worst’ end of any ranges of possible impact. While it is possible that some authorities will allow their streets to pile high with rubbish, it is extremely unlikely.

Most councils and other public service providers are faced with a dilemma. Should they work tirelessly to minimise the effects of the government’s centrally imposed cuts or should they make deliberately awkward service cuts and thus force the government to face the ­consequences of its deficit reduction policies?

In reality, few public bodies will do anything other than attempt to minimise the impact on the public. There will be plenty of (legitimate) political efforts to ensure the government is seen to be to blame. But overwhelmingly, services will be protected wherever possible.

However the extraordinary years from 2011 to 2015 affect the public sector, we can be sure that councils, hospitals, schools, police commissioners, fire chief officers, planners and GPs will all act to limit the impact on service users. Many providers will come up with revolutionary ways of cutting costs and re-casting services. Recruitment and pay freezes are already in place, as are halts to some capital programmes. Councils and other providers are rapidly exploring the possibilities of joint provision, possibly with joint departments and officers. Local authorities are forming procurement consortiums. Many service providers will bring in contractors in the hope of ­improving efficiency.

Finally, it is almost inevitable that some services will either be stopped or transferred to voluntary providers. Special constables, volunteer library and museum staff, parents and helpers of various kinds will be embraced so as to fill in the space left by full-time officials. Whether or not this move to voluntarism is called the ‘Big Society’, it will shift the boundaries ­between the state and the private sector.

Officials and politicians who must now face this upheaval will, in most cases, find it exhilarating and challenging – even if they oppose everything the government is doing.

Thus, not only is the likely ‘worst case scenario’ possibly being accidentally over-promoted, but those who provide services will be working flat out to minimise the effects on the weak and needy.

As a result, there must be a chance that the public will, by 2013 or 2014, feel that things are not as bad as expected. Most street lights will still be on, schools and hospitals will still be open and bins will still be emptied. ‘Localism’ might have ­allowed councils significantly greater freedom to use an array of local budgets to provide consistent and cheaper services.

The government might also be helped by the economy. If the forecasters are correct and overall growth in gross domestic product returns to its 2%–2.5% trend, there will be new private sector jobs to replace the lost government ones. It is also just possible that the impact of public sector job losses will prove to have been pessimistic. Most of the losses will be because of retirements and voluntary redundancy – very different from some of the media stories of ‘600,000 redundancies’.

Of course, things might prove to be as bad as the very worst forecasts and projections have suggested. There might be massive service cuts and many redundancies. Street protests and strikes might be the norm by 2012. The Cameron-­Osborne-Clegg government might be languishing in the polls and Labour might dominate the argument against the cuts. But early evidence (and it is still only six months into the Parliament) suggests that, on balance, the public understands the need for spending reductions and that they strongly support reforms to the benefit system.

The Labour Party has an awkward ­position in all this. Whether fair or not, it will be relentlessly blamed for the financial ‘mess’ it left the country in. Privately, many Labour MPs admire the decisiveness and vigour of the coalition and wish the previous government had had more gumption. There is also some private support within the Opposition for elements of welfare reform, for rationalising defence and for cutting the deficit. Worse still, it is possible that by ramping up the threat posed by every spending cut, they are making it easier for the ­Tories and LibDems by lowering the public’s longer-term expectations. It is clear why most Labour frontbenchers have been keeping quiet.

Welsh Government retract Badger cull leaflet claim over 'error'

The BBC report that the Welsh Government have finally retracted a claim made in an official leaflet sent to 26,000 homes in the proposed badger cull area. The leaflet said previous trials had shown such culls could reduce TB in cattle by as much as 50% in six months. However, the Government say that it should have said culls could start to show a benefit after six months, which in itself is challengeable.

This sort of misleading infornmation has been prevalent throughout the Welsh Government's attempt to put a cull in place. It would be interesting to know whetner the Minister signed off this document and if so what level of responsibility she takes for it.

Even strong supporters of a cull are starting to question her competence. This statement has just been put out by Kirsty Williams for example, who chairs the Assembly's Sustainability Committee and speaks on rural affairs for the Liberal Democrats:

"This latest error is the latest in a long line of bungles by the Rural Affairs minister in the handling of this issue. The badger cull is a very sensitive issue and feelings run high on both sides of the argument. People are rapidly losing confidence on the way this is being handled. Frankly, the Minister needs to get a grip before the entire process is brought any further into disrepute.

“Whichever view you take, the issue of TB in cattle is one of enormous importance to farmers and rural communities who are rapidly losing faith with the ability of the Labour-Plaid Government to handle it with anything approaching a basic level of competence."

She is absolutely right on the last point.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The elephant that refuses to leave the room

Having spent most of the day in meetings in London and then travelling back I have not had much time to post anything. However, on settling down today and perusing the web I was struck by one particular item.

The Daily Telegraph amongst others, reports that the failure of MPs to provide evidence to support nearly £14 million in claims has led the nation’s official auditor to refuse to sign off the accounts of the House of Commons.

They say that in a highly embarrassing move Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, found that the Commons authorities had failed to obtain receipts to justify £2.6 million in claims:

Another £11.3 million of expenditure had been incurred on items which the House could not prove was necessary for parliamentary purposes.

The gaps in the accounts were so serious that the NAO launched a full audit of Commons' allowances, after which MPs still failed to provide £800,000 of receipts.

As if that is not bad enough the same paper reports in a separate article that the Prime Minister has sought to placate angry Tory MPs by reforming the tough new expenses system, partly brought in to tackle this very problem:

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) would have to relax its grip by April 1, or face being reformed, he said.

A spokesman said: “The Prime Minister said he understood that Ipsa had caused pain and difficulty for colleagues. It is anti-family and it is not acceptable.

“There needs to be a better system in place by April 1 otherwise it will have to change. That can be through Ipsa recognising its shortcomings, or it can be it being changed. Either way, it will have to change.”

A Downing Street spokesman later added that Mr Cameron was concerned about the administrative burden on MPs of having to abide by the new rules.

He was also concerned that there were limits on the number of times MPs' children could travel with them to their constituencies at taxpayers' expense

As I have said on a number of occasions, MPs still do not get it. In contrast the Welsh Assembly has always required receipts, it has introduced a transparent and accountable system, reformed the whole allowances system and handed over the oversight of that system to an independent commission. A case of a devolved body showing how it should be done.

Why it is best to avoid messageboards

I am in Westminster this morning talking to MPs about the Barnett formula so here is a cartoon to keep you going until later:


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The cost of bilingualism

Like most Assembly Members I support the Welsh Language and the rights of people to use it throughout Wales, without any sanction being imposed upon them. That is why the Welsh Liberal Democrats supported an amendment to the recent Welsh Language Measure to give English and Welsh equal status. Alas, Plaid Cymru failed to support this move.

Even the most ardent supporter of the Welsh language however, must acknowledge that there are legitimate questions to be asked about this latest news that the Welsh Government's Translation Unit is being bolstered by regradings and new recruits at a time when the rest of the public sector faces retrenchment.

The Western Mail says that "the head of translation was upgraded to head of translation service described in the ‘person spec’ from a Band F [post] to a Band G [post] in November. The post was advertised one day before the recruitment moratorium. The closing date for applications was September 28, 2010.

“Meetings have been held with current Assembly Government translation staff to discuss branch reorganisation and the creation of a new management band at Band F [Grade 7]. The new posts are to be advertised between now and the end of January 2011.

They add that staff in Band F earn between £44,000 and £54,400, while those in Band G are paid between £54,500 and £66,800. In addition they write in a separate article that as part of the Government's Welsh Language Strategy a new body is to be set up which will set standards for the language.

A National Standardisation Body will be charged with identifying correct terminology so that the Welsh language can be 'used with precision in the workplace.' Is it me or does that sound faintly sinister? It seems that once Plaid Cymru gets into power Big Brother is not far behind.

By all means give people the right to use Welsh and put in place mechanisms and networks to support its development but please, don't create a huge bureaucracy behind it. It is not necessary, it is expensive and it is difficult to justify when cuts to health, education, social services and other important services are dominating the agenda.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Lid comes off Labour Defence Department

The tensions that lay at the heart of the defence establishment under Labour have been laid bare today after the former Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth, told the Daily Telegraph that the retired head of the Armed Forces, General Lord Dannatt could not be trusted as he was “constantly going public” in criticising the government and should have resigned.

The paper says that Mr Ainsworth had to work with the general through the toughest period of the war in Afghanistan but suggested that the relationship was impossible as the officer leaked information to the Telegraph. Mr. Ainsworth also admitted that, in common with most other Ministers, he “didn’t always have a good relationship” with the Prime Minister but it was not “through lack of trying”.

“The problem a lot of people had with Richard was that by constantly going public in his criticism he damaged trust and the ability to work as a team.

“If you shared something with him I knew it was likely to be in the Daily Telegraph and you had to take that into account.”

He added that as an officer Gen Dannatt, who retired last year then accepted a job as a Tory defence advisor, should have accepted that in a democratic country the “decisions are taken by politicians”.

“If he does not like that then there are things he could do about it which he never did,” he added, suggesting the officer should have resigned as CGS.

To be fair, I do have a lot of sympathy with Mr. Ainsworth on this. It is not the job of military commanders to criticise the government publicly from a position of trust within the command structure. There are avenues through which they can express their views and if they still do not get satisfaction then they should resign before they start to play politics.

It is a long and slippery slope onto which Generals embark when they become politicians rather than military commanders, no matter how deeply felt their concerns are.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Internet backlash

The Guardian has a fascinating article about the on-line backlash against those who are seeking to close down the Wikileaks site.

They say that the response to the WikiLeaks' cable release had been savage, particularly in the US: Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, said those who passed the secrets to Assange should be executed. Sarah Palin demanded Assange be hunted in the same way an al-Qaida operative would be pursued. The US attorney general Eric Holder ordered his officials to begin a criminal investigation into Assange with the intention of putting him on trial in the US.

The Wiklileaks fightback involves a loose network of on-line activists spread across the World. The paper says that the initial attacks against the Swiss PostFinance required about 200 computers. But within a day hackers were able to recruit thousands more pro-WikiLeaks footsoldiers and by the time the Visa and Mastercard websites were disrupted last Wednesday, close to 3,000 computers were involved.

They add that Anonymous leaders began distributing software tools to allow anyone with a computer to join Payback and that so far more than 9,000 users in the US have downloaded the software; in second place is the UK with 3,000. Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, France, Spain, Poland, Russia and Australia follow with more than 1,000. The 11th country embroiled in the attacks is Sweden, where WikiLeaks's massive underground servers are housed, with 75 downloads:

Sean-Paul Correll, a cyber threat analyst at Panda Security, who has monitored Operation Payback since its conception, said it was impossible to "profile" those involved. "They are anonymous and they are everywhere," he said. "They have day jobs. They are adults and kids. It is just a bunch of people." Middle-class professional members working alongside self-styled anarchists.

Ostensibly, Anonymous is a 24-hour democracy run by whoever happens to be logged on; leaders emerge and disappear depending on the target that is being attacked and the whims of members. Correll said: "This group does not exist with some sort of hierarchy. It exists with a few organisers but these can change at any time. That gives the group great power in that it is impossible to trace and define. At the same time it is also a source of weakness as its actions can be unfocused."

Faced with such a diverse and ill-defined enemy even the United Stetes Government may have difficulty containing this sudden rash of openness. Has the real power of the internet finally been unleashed.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The public scandal of the S4C Authority

Sometimes the Assembly's Presiding Officer goes out on a limb and upsets people through expressing unorthodox views. At other times he manages to encapsulate what most of us are thinking. Today is one of the latter occasions.

Dafydd Elis Thomas has told BBC Wales that S4C is "bloated, failed and failing" and has let down viewers by infighting:

In an interview for the Politics Show Wales to be broadcast on Sunday, Lord Elis-Thomas said: "The whole thing is appalling.

"They've let down Welsh viewers in the way they've been infighting - the irresponsible way they've run the institution is a public scandal.

"There's a systematic failure inside the organisation. It's out of touch with its viewers. It's a bloated organisation. It's a failed and failing organisation."

He added: "It's shown a lack of capacity among the Welsh-language cultural elite to be responsible for its own broadcasting media.

"I'm absolutely convinced that if S4C was accountable to this place [the Welsh assembly], this wouldn't have happened."

Lord Elis-Thomas compared the authority's response to its difficulties with that faced by the assembly when the then Auditor General for Wales Jeremy Colman was convicted recently of criminal offences.

He said: "He [Colman] was out in less than a week and a new appointment was made quickly, because that's the way that you have to take responsibility.

"Here, we have a major cultural organisation in Wales [the S4C Authority] without a chief executive for another six months and without a proper chair.

Lord Elis-Thomas also criticised the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

He said: "There's a systematic failure on the part of the sponsoring department, it should have got involved much earlier.

"It's totally irresponsible for a government department or indeed a parliamentary body to allow a public body to behave in this way without effective intervention."

I agree with him that the UK Culture Secretary has failed the channel by not demonstrating any leadership on this issue. I also agree that the channel should be accountable to the Welsh Government. How different things might have been if Rhodri Morgan had accepted the offer of the last Government to assume responsibility for S4C.

The price of a speech

Whilst his brother struggles to come to terms with his new role it seems that David Miliband has got over the disappointment of defeat in the Labour leadership contest and is seeking more lucrative ventures.

The Daily Telegraph reports that the former Foreign Secretary was recently paid £25,000 to give a speech on relations between the West and the Muslim world at a conference held in a “luxurious oasis” resort in the Middle East.

They say that he also had his travel and five-star accommodation covered during the three-day trip, partly by the government of the United Arab Emirates. They continue:

According to the latest Register of Members’ Financial Interests, Mr Miliband was also paid £2,500 to write a newspaper article defending his “dancing naked women” painting, which his wife had bought him for £800 as a birthday present.

I am pleased that he has moved on from the leadership election contest.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Last Plenary of term - life expectancy and housing

The last Plenary of term on Wednesday gave the Welsh Liberal Democrats the opportunity to raise the fact that Wales is falling behind the rest of the UK in terms of life expectancey. As I pointed out in my summing up there are a whole range of factors behind this, including poorer health outcomes, child poverty, poor economic performance and the failure of the One Wales Government to deliver good educational outcomes. Here is the video of my summing up, complete with Christmas tie:

Earlier I challenged the Deputy Housing Minister on her claim to have met her targets on affordable housing. The One Wales Agreement talks about a net increase of 6,500, that is an actual increase in the supply. However, the Minister is relying on gross figures to make her case, which in my view is a misrepresentation of the outcome on her pledge.

She has also argued that houses sold under the Right to Buy should not be substracted from the figures, however this is directly contradicted by a report commissioned by her Government on Housing Need and Demand in Wales 2006 to 2026 which says on page four (and elsewhere):

In the non-market sector there is a need for additional dwellings to offset the reduction in the number of dwellings available for re-letting that results from past Right to Buy sales. This is because when a Right to Buy owner occupier household dies, the dwelling it occupied comes onto the market, but if it had remained in the social sector it would have been available for reletting. To allow for this, the number of ‘lost’ relets is added back into the estimate of housing need. When a Right to Buy owner occupier dies or moves and the dwelling is sold, it is part of the supply of dwellings to meet market sector demand and so works to reduce the demand for new private sector dwellings.

However, the Deputy Minister seemed unaware of this report:

The story that they are all reporting

Although last night's vote on the level of tuition fees for English students was the focus of many stories all of the attention is now switching to how police handled student protests and the tactics of the protesters themselves.

Given the near-riots that happened the first time students protested, I am astonished at how inadequate the police response was this time. I am also surprised that the Police resorted to the sort of tactics that were so severely criticised after the climate change protests in London. And what were the security services thinking in taking the Prince of Wales through Central London in these circumstances.

The Daily Telegraph sums it up: The incidents were the second time that the police had appeared unable to contain violence arising from student demonstrations. At a protest last month, demonstrators easily overwhelmed a “light touch” police presence and broke into Conservative Party headquarters at Westminster.

Just hours after the first riot, Sir Paul described the police response as an embarrassment” and issued an apology to office workers who feared for their lives when “thuggish” rioters took control of the office block. The following day, he sent an internal message to all of his officers saying that he had ordered a “very quick internal review” and warned: “I do not want to see this again.”

Sir Paul warned of a new era of civil unrest. “The game has changed and we missed it,” he said. “We should have put more officers on and we did not.”

This does not excuse the behaviour of those students and the anarchist hangers-on who indulged in unacceptable behaviour. Their tactics have actually undermined their cause. A dignified and peaceful protest and lobby would have been so much more effective in keeping public sympathy. I am pleased that the vast majority of students recognised that and behaved accordingly.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Oops! Now the National Union of Students are in a mess on fees

This morning's Daily Telegraph contains the startling allegations that NUS UK, the student body that has led the protests on behalf of the Labour Party against the Coalition Government's fees policy, are themselves deep in the mire in undermining the interest of students.

They say that leaked e-mails reveal that the National Union of Students secretly urged the Coalition to make deep cuts in student grants and charge market rates of interest on student loans as an alternative to raising tuition fees:

In private talks in October, the NUS tried to persuade ministers at the Department for Business to enact their planned 15 per cent cut in higher education funding without lifting the cap on fees.

In one email to the department’s officials, dated Oct 1, Mr Porter suggested that £800 million should be “deducted from the grants pot” over four years. That would cut total spending on grants by 61 per cent. Mr Porter also proposed the “introduction of a real rate of interest” for student loans.

In an email the following day, Graeme Wise, an NUS political officer, suggested that ministers seeking cuts should start with the “student support” package of grants and loans.

He wrote: “It would be better in our view to first mitigate the cuts to provision by seeing how student support can be better focused at lower cost.” Mr Wise also suggested that the cuts in support could be imposed on students currently at university.

The NUS plans also called for £2.4 billion to be cut from the universities’ teaching budget over four years, a reduction of 48 per cent.

These revelations really undermines the NUS's credibility both with students and the general public.

Responding to the Welsh Government's Badger cull consultation

The consultation on the Plaid Cymru-Labour's Government's badger cull in North Pembrokeshire ends on 17th December. I have set out below my response. Apologies for the length.

Question 1: Do you object to the culling of any wildlife for the purposes of controlling disease in farm animals? *
If yes, please explain why? :

Yes, Firstly, I would like to point out that this is a leading question. The consultation document is only concerned with badgers, a protected species, and therefore questions should only be related to badgers rather than wildlife as a whole. However, by concentrating on the badger this consultation and research into bTB in general fails to look into potential hosts in our wildlife, for example, deer, hedgehogs, moles, as well as feral cats and rats.

Responding specifically to your question, I am against the culling of wildlife for the purposes of controlling disease in farm animals if the disease does not risk human life and there are other ways to control the disease. Before culling is allowed, there should be surety of the wildlife causing the disease in farm animals and due consideration given to other causes of the disease. Relating this question to the detail of the consultation (badgers and bTB), bTB does not risk human life and there are humane methods of controlling the disease other than culling including vaccination and farming methods.

Question 2: In view of the fact that a licence for an injectable vaccine for badgers is now available, do you think that vaccination of badgers in bovine TB endemic areas is a viable alternative to culling to prevent disease transmission? *
If yes, please explain why?

Yes, There is a bank of evidence available which proves that vaccination is viable (and that culling itself does not work) to prevent disease transmission. Most recently, research by VLA (Veterinary Laboratories Agency) and FERA (Food and Environment Research Agency) showed ‘a clear effect of vaccination on badger disease’. It is worth adding at this juncture, that other options are available to control bTB which this consultation does not consider and to add my concern that as all focus is given to badger culling the research and evidence of other methods to control bTB are overlooked. This view is shared by many professionals including a former government advisor Chris Cheeseman who has stated “Because Defra is committed to culling, they're focusing on that and I think they see the vaccination work as a distraction”. I hope that the Welsh Assembly Government can lead the way with a broader vision.

Consideration should be given to the success of vaccination in cattle itself. Historical evidence proves this is successful when Intradermal Tuberculin Testing post war reduced incidents of bTB to residual proportions without any badger culling. As recently as 2008 Defra stated that “many countries have eradicated bTB through the systematic application of the tuberculin skin test alone and the slaughter of all test reactors.”

This leads to a question which this consultation does not address but implies– the evidence that badgers are the cause of bTB in cattle through disease transmission. This historic evidence shows that bTB is spread from cow to cow as occurred post war when badgers (and other wildlife) were no less widespread than they are currently.

The Krebs report of 1997 stated that “The best prospect for control of TB in the British herd is to develop a cattle vaccine”. Such a vaccine has been developed and could be used, however EU law prohibits live export of tested cattle. Consideration should be given to the number of live cattle exported each year and the benefits and costs of this compared to the costs of culling both badgers and herds with bTB.

Question 3: Do you believe that culling badgers can achieve a reduction in bovine TB incidence in cattle, to justify its use? *
If no, please explain why?:

No, There is insufficient evidence to prove that badgers are responsible for bTB incidence in cattle. Evidence shows culling causes perturbation leading to a prevalence of TB in badgers and increased Tbherd breakdowns in boundary areas.

The most up to date and comprehensive research into bTB and badger culling, the Independent Scientific Group (ISG) on bTB have published their findings, stating that culling badgers cannot reduce bTB in cattle ‘to any meaningful extent’ and that perturbation, or disturbance of badger social groups from culling would make matters worse. This is particularly relevant to the proposed order for the Intensive Action Area (IAA) as the natural boundaries are not sufficient to stop badger perturbation.

Question 4: Do you agree that the Intensive Action Area has a high incidence of bovine TB in cattle which needs to be dealt with? *
If no, please explain why?:

Yes. The IAA has a high incidence of bTB which needs to be dealt with but evidence suggests this is not due to badgers but high cattle numbers and low restrictions on cattle movements. As detailed previously, vaccination in cattle is evidenced to be an effective method of dealing with bTB in cattle. TB is a stress related disease which is inevitably linked to modern intensive farming methods.

This is supported by the previously mentioned ISG report stating that cattle spread was the main cause of infection in others, partly due to ineffective control. Professor Borne of the ISG concluded that “rigidly applied control measures targeted at cattle can reverse the rising incidence of the disease, and halt its geographical spread.” May I suggest that you look at the recommendations of the report which detail cattle movements as well as cattle testing and cattle culling. This report repeats the historical evidence regarding bTB control, when the disease was almost eliminated through quarantine and testing, methods which were relaxed at the request of the farming industry.

As mentioned previously, culling badgers in the IAA will simply cause perturbation, so moving the badgers from one area to another.

Question 5: Do you believe that access to land for culling badgers should be enforced? *
Please give reason:

No. This would be an infringement of people’s human rights in our democratic nation. There are farmers against the cull and badgers play a part in their business through tourism. Farmers who wish to vaccinate should be allowed to do so. Forcing such action will lead to divisions within previously peaceful communities and could potentially cause protest and violence within the area. As well as destroying Welsh communities, it would tarnish the reputation of our democratically elected Government here in Wales.

I have concerns that accessing land without consent will lead to risk, as firearms are used for the purpose of culling, and this risk will also exist on rights of way used by the general public.

Question 6: On balance, do you think the benefits of culling outweigh the harm caused to the badger population in the Intensive Action Area? *
Please give reasons for your answer. Would you include other factors in the balance of harm and benefits? If so why?

No. The many points above, scientific and historical evidence provided, confirms that there are no benefits to culling badgers, as the impact on incidences of bTB in cattle is minimal, whilst other methods can be far more effective.

There are many other factors which should be considered, which this consultation fails to address.

Badgers are a protected species and have a role to play in our environment and food chains. No one can deny the stress having bTB in a herd must cause farmers, but the stress caused to landowners opposed to the cull and potentially forced to allow access must also be considered. The consultation fails to consider the impact on the tourism industry from the cull and associated financial costs to them. Although we do not have specific data for badger tourism in Wales, the Wales Visitor Surveys of ‘day and staying visitors’ for the period April- October 2009 revealed that 52% of ‘day visitors’ felt it was very important for a destination to conserve its wildlife and plants and 37% felt it was quite important. Similarly 58% of ‘staying visitors’ thought it was very important for a destination to conserve its wildlife and plants and 36% thought it was quite important. The contribution of wildlife to the Welsh Economy is valuable and should also be considered in any decision of harm and benefits.

Ultimately, the figures do not add up. The cost of culling badgers outweighs the benefits to cattle herds and indeed, the cost of compensation for cattle farms. The September 2010 Submission of evidence states that the cost of culling badgers is £4250 per km sqr. per year, totally £6,120,000 for 5 years (not the £4,590,000 stated, which I can only assume is a mathematical error). The cost of preventing the 83 breakdowns anticipated through this cull, according to this submission is £4,463,503. Therefore the cull will cost more than the estimated savings. I would like to note that the evidence provided with the consultation fails to provide the detail, to enable us to test the validity of the figures provided. These figures do not take into account the cost to the tourism industry noted above and ancillary costs such as policing.

Question 7 : Do you agree with the prohibitions under the draft Badger (ControlArea) (Wales) Order 2010? *
If not, why not?:

No. The prohibitions in the draft order are excessive and restrict civil liberties. It puts pressure on people who previously lived harmoniously in our communities to take ‘sides’ despite the science available. Worryingly, it sets a precedent for how we should treat our wildlife and those who aim to protect it, with brutality.

We have asked a number of specific questions. If you have any related issues which we have not specifically addressed, please report them separately in your response. :

The possibility of shooting badgers free range, rather than in a cage is of concern. This could cause severe distress and pain to an animal, as a moving target. This also presents a risk for the landowners and other land users.
My main concern is that this decision should be based on science, not politics. The ISG took 9 years and cost £49 million, we should not ignore the evidence it provides us with. In my opinion, a badger cull simply puts a sticking plaster on the issues destroying a protected species, instead of dealing with the cause of the problem.

Finally, I have completed many consultations both at local, Welsh and UK Government levels and have found this consultation to be very leading in both the evidence (and lack of) that it has provided and the questioning. I hope the responses given and evidence referred to will be considered objectively.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Christmas Shopping

An unusually frank e-mail has just landed in my in-box from the Farmers Union of Wales. Apparently, a recent survey has found many farmers cast down in unseasonal gloom:

The lack of adequate broadband in several rural areas of Wales could be one of the reasons why farmers hate Christmas shopping, the Farmers' Union of Wales stressed today (Thursday, December 9).

Responding to a new survey which found a fifth of farmers detest Christmas shopping, FUW president Gareth Vaughan revealed he cannot access broadband services at his farm near Newtown.

“Most of the farmers I know do not have access to online shopping because they do not have access to broadband. So I’d be very surprised if this statistic represents a large cross-section of farmers."

I feel their pain.

They say that the study also showed teachers are the biggest penny-pinchers, that teenagers hate the whole experience and that people in sales and marketing are the most thoughtful and generous!

Following the money

As clever as the Welsh Government's solution to tuition fees for Welsh domiciled students is, it is becoming apparent that there are still risks and unanswered questions as to how it will work and what the impact will be on Welsh Universities.

This morning's Western Mail encapsulates some of those issues when they focus on how the tuition fee deal would be funded.

The Government say that they will pay for tuition fee grants or a waiver by top-slicing the Higher Education Funding Council teaching grant by around 35% by 2016-17. Additional income will also be available to Welsh universities via students from England paying the higher tuition fees to institutions in Wales:

“The modelling is complex but we estimate that a fee grant or waiver scheme will cost approximately £125m to operate over the next Comprehensive Spending Review period from 2011-12 until 2013-14.

“We estimate that the fee grant or waiver scheme will cost approximately £200m per year to operate by 2016-17.”

However, the risk is that more of the Welsh teaching grant will be paid to English Universities than is made up for in fees coming into Wales. That will put colleges here at a disadvantage. There are also questions as to whether part time students are being as well treated here as they are in England.

The higher education sector seems to be very wary. Those I have spoken to say that they have not seen any figures or modelling so that they cannot judge the impact of the proposals. They are fearful that an extra burden will be created for them to deal with.

All of this could of course be misplaced anxiety, and should not be used to distract from the deal that is provided for Welsh domiciled students, but until the Government publish the detailed modelling we will not know.

Thirty years on

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Welsh Language Measure

The long-drawn out saga of the Government's Welsh Language Measure reaches its climax today with a four hour plus debate and 71 individual amendments, many of which have come from the Government itself. The measure is being trailed as the most complex yet, but I suspect the reason for that is because the Government has made such a hash of it rather than anything in the legislation itself.

The key outstanding issue is the status of the Welsh Language and I was fascinated to see in this morning's Western Mail that one Plaid Cymru AM has broken ranks and tabled her own amendments. Whether this signals a splintering of the Plaid Cymru group is yet to be seen, though I suspect that they will not want to abandon their own Minister, no matter how much he has messed up.

What galls is the way that Bethan Jenkins' amendment is getting so much publicity as if nobody else had done anything on this issue. The Welsh Liberal Democrats have consistently tabled amendments to clarify the status of the language and indeed, have the first amendemnt down for today which seeks to insert the words:

"English and Welsh are the official languages of Wales and have equal validity and status."

We are as committed to this cause as much as anybody but we understand that it is the right of those campaigning on this issue not to give us any credit if that is their wish.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Here comes the sun

Nah, only joking! However, if you are the Welsh Environment Minister then you know I am talking about you.

According to the Welsh Government website, Ms. Davidson has flown out to Cancun in Mexico this weekend, where the temperatures are 26 degrees centigrade, to take part in a 'major international summit on global warming'. She writes:

Whilst in Cancun I will certainly be emphasising the importance of local action, and the need for sub-national governments like Wales to be represented at international discussions on this global issue, because the truth is that the majority of delivery levers lie at our level of government.

I will also be promoting the Welsh approach to reducing Wales’ carbon footprint, outlined in our Climate Change Strategy and in our energy policy document, ‘A Low Carbon Revolution’. Although Wales is a small nation, we really do have lots to shout about and I am keen to share some of the exciting work that we are taking forward.

Let us hope that she has calculated and offset all the carbon emissions she generated in getting there and back.

Labour's legacy part two

Interesting article in this morning's Guardian suggesting that results from the most respected international study of achievement in literacy, maths and science due out tomorrow are likely to show that schools in Britain are performing poorly compared with those in other countries.

The paper says that the coalition government will point to the OECD figures, that compare British pupils with teenagers in other developed nations is evidence of a decline in standards under the previous government:

The education secretary, Michael Gove, who is thought to have seen the OECD results, told the Commons recently that England was "failing to keep pace" with competitors. He said: "In the last three years of the last government reform went into reverse – schools lost freedoms, the curriculum lost rigour, Labour lost its way. Now, under this coalition government, we are once more travelling in the same direction as the most ambitious and most progressive nations."

There is no indication as to how Wales will fare in this survey, if indeed it has been reported separately but we will be watching intently.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Moldova, Albania and the Estonian Republic

I note that Labour and Plaid Cymru politicians have adopted a new line of attack over the delay in announcing a timetable for the electrification of the main line railway from London to Swansea. They are arguing that Wales is one of the only countries in Europe not to have any electrified rail track along with Moldova and Albania.

There are of course good historical reasons for this including the fact that most of Europe's infrastructure was rebuilt after the Second World War, whereas in the UK we have embarked on piecemeal modernisation. It is also the case of course that Labour had 13 years to electrify the mainline but did not do so, even though Gordon Brown announced in 2009 that work would start immediately.

There was of course no budget and no business plan to do this work and as a result the UK Government has had to do a lot more work to get it up to speed. Labour's insistence that a business plan does exist is proving hard to verify, with the document taking on the same mythical status as all the private sector bids that Swansea Council allegedly received in 2003/2004 to rebuild its leisure centre. The balance of probabilities has to be that none of these plans actual exist.

Two can play at that game though, as a look at broadband provision across Europe will prove. Estonia for example plans to build a new broadband network that will provide high-speed Internet access to homes and businesses throughout the small Baltic country by 2015. The $500 million project will create a network that will cover all homes and offices in the nation of 1.3 million, with more than 4,100 miles of fiber-optic cable. It will allow users to surf the Internet at speeds of up to 100 megabits per second..

The government will cover 25 percent of the project's costs with money from European Union structural funds. The rest will be financed by private telecom companies. By comparison, here in Wales 43% of Welsh households are now signed up for a broadband service, only 26% of which have speeds faster than 1 megabit.

The reason for this is that the Welsh Government failed to include broadband in its structural fund bid, believing that it was not eligible. I don't see many opposition politicians shouting about that comparison.

Fishing for an answer

I have been reflecting on the excellent housing research conference put on by Shelter Cymru and Wisard that I attended on Friday and still cannot get the opening presentation by Rhodri Morgan out of my head.

Rhodri delivered a wide-ranging review of the way that housing has been treated under devolved Welsh governance emphasising its links with economic development. It is a shame that this was not recognised in the first Welsh economic development strategy that he produced.

During questions he was asked about regeneration in the South Wales valleys and in particular how we might motivate people to get involved, despite many years of disappointment and a feeling of disempowerment on their part. In response we had a ten minute talk on the history of salmon in the River Taff.

Classic Rhodri! People were still talking about it at the drinks reception at the end of the day.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Cleaning up politics

David Chaytor's guilty plea yesterday and the decision of the courts not to allow Phil Woolas to appeal against an election court ruling that he can no longer sit as MP because he made false statements about his opponent are two welcome steps towards cleaning up politics in this country.

However, the current agitation by MPs against the new independent body set up to oversee their expense claims shows that many still do not get it. It is also the case that Woolas still retains some support amongst Labour MPs, who can see nothing wrong with the disgraceful campaign he ran in Oldham East.

These are not matters that can be left to partisan politicians. Too often politicians of all colours have pushed at the boundaries of what is acceptable both in terms of how they campaign and how they conduct themselves. The courts only get involved as a last resort. The only sanction available to the public is the ballot box and often the system frustrates them in getting their way there.

That is why the referendum on the alternative vote next May is so important. It may not be the best system but it at least ensures that every MP needs to get more than half of the vote to get elected. As a result they have to work harder to win and are more easily punished if they stray from the straight and narrow.

That is a message that we need to get across to the public. The only people who don't want to reform the system are those politicians who benefit from it. It is time for a change.

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