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Monday, February 28, 2011

Traffic light numbers increase

I suppose that instinctively we all knew this to be the case but it is reassuring to have it confirmed anyway, today's Daily Telegraph reports that the number of traffic lights on Britain's roads jumped by around 30 per cent between 2000 and 2008, with lights in London rising 23 per cent to more than 6,000.

According to the RAC Foundation, which conducted the study, said there are now more than 25,000 sets of traffic lights in the UK:

Produced by former Whitehall transport and planning chief Irving Yass, the report also revealed the number of traffic signals equipped to give priority to buses went up from 3,801 at the beginning of 2007 to 8,425 at the end of 2008.

The number of junctions in London with a full pedestrian crossing stage – when all the lights for vehicle are at red – increased from 481 in 2000 to 783 in 2010.

The report said that there should be a review of such junctions.

I am sure that most of these lights are in Swansea but it is likely that many other towns and cities would say the same. The report makes a number of recommendations that are worth looking at though I would personally be opposed to reducing the green man invitation:

* The Department for Transport (DfT) should consider carrying out trials of flashing amber lights at times when there is little traffic, which would allow drivers to proceed with caution at junctions;

* Authorities should consider standardising the green man invitation to cross period at six seconds rather than the usual 10 seconds;

* There should be wider use of the ''countdown'' system which shows pedestrians just how long they have to cross the road;

* The DfT should allow for trialling of cyclists turning left at a red signal if safe to do so;

* Local authorities should see if they can remove traffic lights or replace them with alternatives such as mini-roundabouts.

As a driver I know how frustrating some of these lights are, however pedestrian safety has to be a priority. We should not design our environment around the demands of motor vehicles.

Encouraging news

This was on a door in Swansea Civic Centre. It shouldn't really need saying.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Saying goodbye to Schedule Five #yesforwales

Classic contribution to the referendum debate on Assembly powers with thanks to the Syniadau blog for bringing it to my attention. Simple message really, vote yes on Thursday.

Government servant caught sleeping on the job

Scrutiny is absolutely vital to ensure good government and woe-betide any member of the ruling elite who is caught sleeping on the job. And yet that is what has happened to the newest occupant of Number Ten Downing Street.

This morning's Independent on Sunday reports that Larry the Cat, who was brought into Downing Street to sort out the rodent problem, is more interested in catnapping than rat-catching:

It is understood that the rescue cat spends most of the day asleep, waking occasionally to startle staff with a sharp claw to the calves. And then there's the fur. David Cameron's Savile Row finest has been covered in it on more than one occasion.

An aroma is also wafting through the corridors of power. Visitors with a keen sense of smell are picking up notes of cat food, despite attempts by staff to mask it with air freshener.

Larry is said to have won the hearts of even the toughest political animals, but some insiders are unimpressed. "He has shown no interest in the many mice in Downing Street," one recent visitor said. "There is a distinct lack of killer instinct."

Welcome to the joys of sharing your home with a cat. The paper says that Larry may not be entirely to blame for his failure to kill:

According to Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, where Larry came from three weeks ago, rehomed cats should not be allowed outside for eight weeks. That has not stopped one or two bids for freedom, notably when the film star and theatre director Kevin Spacey was posing on the steps of No 10 with Mr Cameron, and a civil servant inside was spotted catching Larry before he escaped.

The four-year-old tabby's poor performance is also entirely in keeping with warnings that town cats do not actually make good rat-catchers.

In other words those who drafted the cat to the Cabinet Room should have thought it through before imposing unrealistic expectations on poor Larry. Mind you when Larry does get into gear there will be new shocks in store for those visiting Number Ten.

Cats do like to present their latest kill to their human hosts as presents. Do not be surprised at reports of dismembered rats being left in the Prime Minister's study or under the Cabinet Table. This could be more entertaining than I thought.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Ed and the gang

There are times when one has to feel sorry for Ed Miliband. There he is trying to make Labour electable again after their disastrous stewardship of the economy under Gordon Brown and all these ghosts from the past keep popping up to offer him advice.

The latest incarnation of this phenomenon comes from Peter Mandelson, the man with more political lives than a cat. According to this morning's Daily Telegraph the former Business Secretary has added a new chapter to the paperbook version of his autobiography, The Third Man in which he describes his misgivings at Mr Miliband’s decision to distance himself from New Labour:

He warns that Labour will not win again unless it takes the centre ground from David Cameron, and suggests that the party reach out to the Liberal Democrats by supporting voting reform at the forthcoming referendum in order to be well-placed to form a Coalition with them.

In words which are likely to infuriate Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, he also advises Mr Miliband against advocating the permanent retention of the 50p top rate of tax, or shying away from tackling the deficit.

The paper says that in the extracts, produced by the Labour List website, Mr. Mandelson criticised Lord Kinnock, the former leader, for saying after Mr Miliband’s victory that “Labour’s old faithful had finally ‘got their party back’”:

Lord Mandelson went on: “If by that he meant our 1980s party, God only knew how, or when, we could hope to become a party of government again.”

The peer also criticised Mr Miliband’s apparent lurch to the Left, and decision to distance himself from the New Labour era of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown when he had not come up with a credible alternative vision.

“When Ed pronounced New Labour ‘dead’, he was not only being more categorical than was wise, but quite possibly more than he really intended,” he wrote.

“Even allowing for the tactical choices he had made in his bid to become leader, however, I was struck by the fact that he had given no strong clue during the campaign as to what alternative to New Labour he envisaged.

“He was quick to say what he was against: essentially, Tory policies and Tony’s policies.

“But he rarely said what he was for… When he said New Labour was dead, even if that was just a useful flight of leadership-campaign rhetoric, he risked misunderstanding what our modernising project was about.

“It was about establishing Labour as a modern, economically competent, national party that would apply our values of care, fairness, social mobility and shared social responsibility in a way that resonated with the everyday concerns and aspirations of all of Britain.

“Ed’s task is to redefine what that means for a new century, and in doing so to find a worthy successor to Tony Blair’s version of New Labour while retaining its essence. He is certainly up to this.

“But if he fails, he will help Cameron undo all the work we did at the outset of New Labour – making us once again distrusted on the economy and taxation, pushing us back into the box marked ‘tribalism’, driving apart the progressive forces in politics and placing Labour once again on the wrong side of people’s aspirations.”

Ed Miliband must be in despair.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Action needed on lobbyists

Ths morning's Guardian highlights growing concerns about the growing strength and influence of lobbyists at Westminster.

The paper says that corporations and interest groups have channelled more than £1.6m to MPs and lords in the past year through sponsorship of parliamentary groups:

Westminster has more than 450 all-party political groups, semi-official entities around particular subjects or countries, ranging from groups on asthma and autism, to the parliamentary choir and rowing team.

The Guardian has found 283 of these groups receive financial support from outside interests, including:

• £60,000 support for the parliamentary choir from BT

• £52,000 from drink and pub companies for the beer group

• £16,000 for the parliamentary boat race from Siemens

Other benefits are less quantifiable: the members of the all-party wine and spirits group, co-chaired by former Tory shadow minister Geoffrey Clifton-Brown and new Labour MP Ian Mearns, receive corkage, refreshment and wine tasting thanks to the largesse of the Wine and Spirits Trade Association. Some sporting groups, such as the athletics or rugby league groups, receive free tickets to matches.

Benefits of a less indulgent nature are offered to the parliamentary slimming group, whose members include Ed Vaizey and David Amess: they are entitled to receive free Slimming World membership, worth £290 a year.

It is possible of course that much of this is legitimate but what is clear is that all-party groups offer a useful way in for lobbyists to secure influence and that if this is not regulated properly then the transparency and accountability we would expect of such activity will not be there.

One example of this is that the Guardian has found that last year 70 groups declared issuing passes to individuals "advantaged by the privileged access to parliament afforded by their pass": One recipient is Robin Ashby, the director-general of the UK Defence Forum, who has been stripped of a parliamentary pass on two previous locations, although he denies ever having used a pass improperly.

Other passes have gone to Aviva's public affairs consultant, the parliamentary officer of the council for Arab-British understanding, the political officer of the Unite union and the public policy officer of the Catholic Bishops' Conference.

There is a fairly murky grey area here that needs to be cleared up. In particular, when are these groups form legitimate cross-party areas of interest and when are they fronts for those seeking to buy influence? I do not envy those trying to make that distinction but it does need to be made and the rules reviewed to ensure that it remains in place.

Failing Wales

New figures show that Wales' economic performance is falling back despite the investment of millions of pounds of European money.

In 2008 Wales had a GDP of just 85% of the EU average, down from 86.9% in 2007. The performance in West Wales and the Valleys had slipped from 73.4% to just 71%, and East Wales had gone down from 110.3% to 108%. Wales was the only UK region to see an area fall below 75% of the average GDP. In contrast, the UK average stood at 116.7%, up from 115% in 2007.

Under Labour and latterly Plaid Cymru, Wales' economic performance has fallen back in comparison to the rest of the United Kingdom. We started off as one of the poorest parts of the UK and we are now firmly entrenched in that position. That is a woeful record. We are now on a par with areas like Yugozapaden in Bulgaria.

Labour and Plaid Cymru have spent millions of pounds of European money without making any impact on that situation. They have failed to invest in new industries and new skills that will attract high quality jobs to Wales. It is important that they put this right as soon as possible.

Welsh Liberal Democrats have suggested one solution, which is a innovation fund to kickstart research and help to transform it into new businesses. Such a model is already working successfully on a smaller scale with the University of Wales. If we do not start to grow the private sector then Wales will remain at the bottom of the league in terms of its economic performance.

Quote of the day

"We've (Britain) taken all sorts of nutters and bandits and criminals in the past." Kim Howells, former Foreign Office Minister speculating on Radio Wales as to where Colonel Gaddaffi will go when he is finally toppled from power.

Mr. Howells also pointed out that Gaddafi has burned most of his bridges and that there were very few countries left that would have him, even the UK!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Call to ban booze in the House of Commons

For some reason I suspect the suggestion of Denis Shane that Parliament stop serving beer for a week in March will not be too popular amongst his colleagues.

Epolitix says that the Rotherham MP tweeted this afternoon: "Would a way of celebrating alcohol-free week 9-15 March be to shut down Commons drinking holes?"

And why not? Perhaps this is one way MPs can take a lead by showing that they can do without a drop of the hard stuff for a limited period of time.

Given the health issues associated with the misuse of alcohol, as well as the alcohol-related crime that police deal with every day, it would be an excellent way of boosting the main aim of the week, namely encouraging us to become more aware of our drinking habits and helping us reduce the amount we drink if we are taking too much.

The Trade Unions have it

Having been elected by Trade Union votes it seems that Ed Miliband continues to benefit from their largesse. This morning's Daily Telegraph reveals that almost 90 per cent of the £2.5 million of Labour party funding was provided by the unions during the final three months of 2010. This compares to 36 per cent during the same period in 2009.

The paper says that several of Labour’s biggest private backers, who began donating to the party under Tony Blair, are understood to have decided not to bankroll Mr Miliband.

In contrast, the Tories receieved the majority of their funding from City financiers and entrepreneurs. There is an independent inquiry into the funding of political parties, which is likely to recommend a cap on donations.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The cost of folly

The BBC have revealed today that more than £5m was paid out in in consultancy fees over the now-shleved Severn Estuary barrage.

Shadow Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain is quick to jump in, arguing that the scheme would have created thousand of jobs and accused the coaltion government of "frittering away millions" on consultants. But hang on a minute, wasn't all this money on consultants spent by the last Labour Government, of which Peter Hain was a prominent part, before his fall from grace and rejection by Labour MPs in the Shadow Cabinet elections?

Any project that is going to committ a substantial part of £22 billion of public money needs to be properly evaluated before it can proceed and often that evaluation proves unfavourable. If, as Hain seems to be arguing, we were going to proceed anyway, then why did his Government employ these consultants? Wouldn't it have been better to just to get on with the construction? Could it be that there were substantial doubts amongst Labour Ministers too regarding the viability of this barrage?

In passing judgement on the planned scheme I can do no better than Gordon James from Friends of the Earth for example who told the BBC:

"We have long argued that the Cardiff to Weston-super-Mare Severn barrage would have been too costly in both financial and environmental terms, and that better options exist to harness this important source of clean energy.

"The costs of construction would very likely have risen from the estimated £22bn while it would have caused irreversible damage to wildlife sites that are meant to be protected by law.

"This could have resulted in prolonged legal challenges that would have further delayed a project that would not have delivered the clean energy we so desperately need for over 20 years."

We now know far more about what is feasible, environmentally acceptable and economically sustainable in the Severn estuary as a result of the expenditure of this £5 million. The objective must be to use that knowledge to harness the tidal range that is available in the estuary to generate electricity.

That is why I am not going to join in Peter Hain's criticism of his own Labour government for employing these consultants and why I am happy to agree with the Coalition Government's decision not to proceed with such an expensive and over-the-top barrage scheme. I await further developments with interest.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

That bogeyman again

Suddenly there is a lot of activity from Conservative Ministers regarding the European Convention on Human Rights, not least this latest vow by the Justice Secretary to 'kickstart reform' of the ECHR and the European Court on Human Rights when Britain takes up a key role in Europe later this year. Anybody would think that they were trying to appease Tory right wingers.

The Prime Minister has announced a commission to examine the creation of a British Bill of Rights and the country’s relationship with the European court. What he seems to have missed is that we already have a Bill of Rights. It is the Act of Parliament that enshrined the Convention into British law.

Much as Cameron may want to pick and choose which rights he is in favour of, he is likely to find that moral principles do not easily adapt to political expediency. He is walking into a legal minefield and so far he appears to have forgotten to check in advance where the mines are situated.

As Lord Woolf, who was the country’s most senior judge between 2000 and 2005, makes clear, the Convention on Human Rights is a treaty obligation that would require the agreement of all 47 signatories to amend. A new, more limited Bill of Rights would cause conflict between the two:

“We have got a stark option: either we accept the European Convention, or we don't accept it and decide to leave the Council of Europe.

"It's very difficult to do what Mr Clarke indicated he would like to do when he's chairman of the relative body, because there are 47 signatories in Europe which are signatories to the European Convention as well as ourselves.

“To try and amend that is a virtually impossible task."

He added that any possible Bill of Rights would also fail to solve the problem and would place judges in a difficult position trying to balance opposing rights.

He said: “If you have a further convention – a British Convention – there's going to be a complication in the position, because you're going to have two conventions to which the courts are going to have a regard.”

Mr Clarke has stressed there is no chance of the UK pulling out of the ECHR and Lord McNally, the Liberal Democrat peer, said membership of the Convention was a pillar to the Lib Dems involvement in the Coalition Government.

Like the Prime Minister I do not agree with every ruling that comes out of the European Courts, but we have to accept that they are the ultimate authority on this issue. Even good laws can produce the occasional perverse outcome but that does not undermine the principles on which they are based.

No country, least of all Britain can cut itself adrift from its international obligations. We live in an interdependent world and we have to accept that there is a downside as well as an upside to that. If we want to enjoy the protection of the human rights convention then we have to accept it all, warts and all.

Personally, I believe it is a good thing that the Convention is there. It was drawn up by Britain and it provides a moral code by which civilised countries can judge their behaviour. As Shami Chakrabarti says: "It protects all of us from the whims of politicians and when the current frenzy of misinformation has died down, voters will worry about MPs who seek to put themselves above the law."

Turning the European Convention on Human Rights into some sort of political bogeyman is helping nobody. At a time when tyrants are being overthrown by popular uprisings in Africa, we should not appear to be on the wrong side of the rule of law or of the clear human values offered by the Convention.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Minister continues to ponder badger cull as TB declines

Whilst the Rural Affairs Minster considers responses to her consultation on whether to instigate a cull of badgers in North Pembrokeshire, the rationale behind her proposal continues to be undermined by the success of the other measures she has put in place.

According to Pembrokeshire Against the Cull, cattle controls and biosecurity measures are having a significant impact in reducing the numbers of cattle being slaughtered and the associated taxpayer compensation being paid in West Wales due to bovine tb.

The latest bovine TB statistics published on 18th February 2011 by DEFRA show a significant reduction in the number of cattle slaughtered in West Wales over the last two years. Between January and November 2010, there was a reduction in West Wales of 34% over the equivalent period in 2009.

They say that overall, since the introduction in 2008 of the stricter testing regime and subsequently improved cattle control measures, the proportion of cattle slaughtered in West Wales is down by a projected 41%.

This appears to be long-term trend linked to specific action by the Welsh Assembly Government and not just a short-term blip. And yet as the PAC spokesperson says, if a badger cull had gone ahead last year Elin Jones would have been claiming that these reductions show that culling works. In fact the figures show that the other measures are working and that culling badgers is unnecessary.

Labour hypocrisy on Barnett

This morning's Western Mail carries a damning report of Labour's hypocrisy and cant on reform of the Barnett formula, the mechanism by which it is determined how much money comes to the Welsh Assembly.

Labour AMs and MPs have been very vocal since the General Election in condemning the Coalition Government for not immediately reforming this formula so that it is based on need rather than the current population-based method. This is despite the fact that in the 13 years they were in power Labour showed no inclination whatsoever to reform the formula themselves, even in the last two years when the Holtham Commission identified that Wales was losing between £300 million and £400 million a year.

After Holtham reported key Labour figures, including Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liam Byrne in February 2011, and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling were still coming to Cardiff to proclaim that the Barnett formula was going to stay and that Wales benefited from it. These assertions put subsequent claims by opposition Labour politicians into context and underline the sheer opportunism of people such as Carwyn Jones and Peter Hain on this issue.

What is new is the David Laws book on the coalition discussions. He published the negotiating document that Labour tabled in the abortive talks between them and the Liberal Democrats. Those talks were abandoned when it became clear very early on that Labour were just going through the motions and were not really interested in a deal. But what is instructive is that there is no reference in the Labour offer to Barnett reform. In fact their document is almost identical to the final coalition agreement in its wording.

This is surprising in light of the claim by Peter Hain in today's paper that Barnett reform was in the Labour manifesto, except that it was not and he is misleading people. As I reported back in June 2010, the Labour manifesto commitment was not a review or even an acceptance of the Holtham Commission's conclusions, but a continuation of the vague promise of a floor that was floated by Peter Hain a year earlier and which his Government did not act on.

The only conclusion that can be drawn is that Labour failed to reform Barnett, they had no intention of reforming it after the General Election and that all their talk of change after they lost power is meaningless and opportunistic hot air.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The coco pops generation?

Mark Cole has reprinted an extract from the extraordinary interview with the Labour Education Minister at his party's conference in Llandudno yesterday. The relevant part can be seen after 54 minutes here.

As Mark says you will see a visibly angry Education Minister lambasting BBC political journalist Aled ap Dafydd as he challenged the Minister on Labour's free school breakfasts policy when Wales ranks so low in a league table of reading assessments:

Aled ap Dafydd: "You're giving coco pops to kids for breakfast, for free, that's something that parents might want, they might welcome that, but more importantly I suppose to parents will be the assessments when it comes to reading for example...

Leighton Andrews: "I really object to your snooty, middle-class attack on our free breakfast scheme. That is a disgrace. A thousand schools in Wales are pursuing our free breakfast scheme and you talk about coco pops - you are a disgrace to the BBC. This is a policy that has been really popular across the whole of Wales...

Aled ap Dafydd: "I am not doubting it's popularity, I am doubting where does it compare to reading assessments where Wales are ranked 38th out of about 60 countries. Shouldn't the priority be based on educational attainment rather than giving free breakfasts to kids?".

Leighton has been very reluctant to come to the Chamber to be scrutinised on his policies of late. If this is his response to criticism then we can see why.

Keeping it positive

The Independent on Sunday reports on a new book, How to Be in Opposition: Life in the Political Shadows, which warns that Labour must be more upbeat and positive if it is to get back into Government.

It suggests that many leaders of the opposition start out promising a "new way of doing things" but slip quickly into an easy comfort zone of opportunistic attacks and that this can lose votes.

Oppositions face a constant balancing act between criticising the Government while also not unveiling a detailed policy programme years before an election. Mr Miliband is to stress that his leadership mission statement can be summed up in six words: "equal chances, strong communities, new politics".

The Labour Party would do well to send a copy of the book to its Shadow Secretary of State for Wales and each of its AMs in the Welsh Assembly. They have adopted a ground-zero approach to the Coalition Government in which everything before last May was perfect, everything since a disaster.

They have refused to take responsibility for their own mess, failed to acknowledge the root causes of Britain's economic mess and are even denying that they planned substantial cuts following the General Election. Their constant whining and whinging, even about policies they themselves initiated lacks credibility and cohesion.

If you want to hear how negativity can damage the chances of the opposition of coming back into power then sit in on a First Minister's question time in the Welsh Assembly.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A first step reforms the electoral system needs

Nick Clegg launched the 'Yes to AV' campaign yesterday arguing that the referendum on 5th May provides a "once in a generation" opportunity to change politics for good.

He said: "People want more choice. People aren't engaged enough in politics and they don't feel they are in charge enough. The alternative vote system crucially preserves the constituency links, but, absolutely vitally, it makes politicians work harder for your vote and forces them to reach out to the voters, not just a narrow number of people in their own communities."

"Change in the way we do our politics come along once in a generation, whether it's the emancipation of women or giving the vote to millions of working people in this country - and they are always resisted, people always make very apocalyptic claims about what would happen.

"But over time people look back on these evolutionary changes and see it makes sense to upgrade our democracy from time to time."

The Alternative Vote does not go as far as I want it to go in terms of delivering a fully proportional voting system, but it is an important step forward. It will produce fairer outcomes than first past the post and, more importantly, it will mean that MPs will need to work harder and will be more accountable, because they will need to secure 50% of the vote to get elected. That is why it is important that we secure a 'yes' vote in May.

Clash of egos

If there is one thing David Cameron needs to learn about cats, it is that they have egos bigger than any politician (or actor for that matter) and that they like being the centre of attention, but only when it suits them. Okay, that was two things.

This lesson is beginning to be learnt in 10 Downing Street. Today's Daily Telegraph has a picture of Larry being forcibly removed by a civil servant after he tried to gatecrash a photocall between David Cameron and actor, Kevin Spacey, who is the artistic director of the Old Vic.

Presumably, they want Larry to concentrate on catching rats. The cat clearly has other ideas.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Job creation

Up in Llandudno First Minister, Carwyn Jones has promised to invest £25 million in creating 4,000 jobs, each of which he claims will be “a real job” available to the hardest-hit young people who are struggling to find work. In fact it is another job creation scheme that will take somebody off the dole for six months and then send them back again.

There is nothing wrong with getting somebody that sort of work experience of course, but what the Welsh Government needs to be doing is helping to create permanent jobs in the private sector, not more publicly subsidised opportunities. Carwyn's scheme will only be of value if those benefiting from it are able to go onto other employment.

Training schemes like PROACT and REACT and even the new one for public sector workers facing the chop are fine and I am happy to support them, but let's see the Welsh Government do more to create wealth as well. One way is the Welsh Liberal Democrats proposal of an innovation fund that would take good ideas and help support the process from research, to patent to manufacture. That has the potential to use our Higher Education Institutions to help create high quality, well-paid jobs in conjunction with the private sector. However, the Labour-Plaid Cymru Government do not seem interested.

What they do seem to want to specialise in is protecting highly paid but superfluous jobs in the public sector. We have already seen the scenario following the health service reorganisation where nearly a hundred top executives from the previous health boards are being kept on, many to do non-jobs on inflated salaries. Now we have the creation of another job in the Welsh Government that even a former Labour Minister questions as unnecessary.

The Western Mail reports that the Welsh Government is taking on a new human resources director at a salary of more than £80,000, despite cutting back on lower-paid staff:

An anonymous letter to the Western Mail said: “At a time when the Assembly Government is looking to reduce staff numbers by several hundred posts, there is significant concern that a new director level post attracting a salary in excess of £80,000 has just been advertised internally. The closing date is February 17, 2011.”

The letter goes on to express concern the post has not been advertised to external candidates from Whitehall who are being displaced, and suggests a named individual is likely to be appointed.

The letter adds: “The need for this post is questionable as it was always expected that with the creation of the Director General roles a few years ago, there would not be the need for a director post also.

“With a salary of £80k, it is hardly surprising that it is not being advertised openly, as in the current economic climate WAG should be showing more restraint, especially when large numbers of more junior staff are losing their jobs.”

This is not the sort of publicity we need when we are trying to persuade people to allow the Assembly to exercise all the powers granted to it by the Government of Wales Act 2006. The Government really need to get a grip.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Clegg takes the sting out of housing benefit reform

This morning's Guardian reports that Nick Clegg has blocked some of the worst aspects of housing benefit reform, specifically he has intervened to ensure that plans to impose a 10% cut in housing benefit on anyone unemployed for more than a year have been dropped.

Plans for a universal benefit will go forward with Government sources saying that 2.7 million households will be better off as a result. More than 1 million will see an increase of over £25 a week, with 85% of the increase going to households with the lowest 40% of income.

Transitional protection will ensure that initially at least, there are no cash losers as universal credit is phased in from 2013. The paper says that in other changes, disability living allowance will be reformed by the introduction of a personal independence payment for disabled people.

There will also be measures to reduce fraud and error, including a single investigation service and a new mobile regional taskforce to investigate every claim in high fraud areas, along with civil penalties of £50 for lesser offences.

Although welfare reform is a difficult subject it was necessary to break the cycle of dependency that had built up. However, the role of the Liberal Democrats has been crucial in all of this, ensuring that the Government keeps it as fair as possible and helping to squash unreasonable changes.

Two referendums and an election

This is a slightly truncated article, which I wrote for the Lib Dem magazine Liberator:

Personally, I blame Harold Wilson. Until he decided to hold a post-legislative referendum on membership of the European Union in 1975 referendums were not part of the British tradition.

The exception was of course Wales, which following the repeal of Gladstone’s 1881 Sunday Closing (Wales) Act in 1961 saw a number of plebiscites on a County by County basis over the controversial issue of Sunday drinking. It took 35 years of going to the polls before all areas of Wales allowed their public houses to open on a Sunday.

Since Harold Wilson’s intervention we have had a number of other votes: in 1979 to decide on devolution proposals in Wales and Scotland and again in 1997 to have a second go at similar, though much watered-down proposals.

Although both of these referendums produced positive outcomes, the legislative bodies that emerged were not equal in their responsibilities and powers. Scotland was given a Parliament that could pass laws and vary taxes. In Wales we were offered the administration of the £7 billion budget previously held by the Welsh Office and the opportunity to pass secondary legislation, effectively to tinker with the UK agenda and UK Acts of Parliament.

In my view the uneven nature of the powers offered to Wales and Scotland was one of the reasons why the result here was so close. It initiated a debate that has dominated Welsh politics ever since.

How we got where we are lies in the politics behind why referendums are held in the first place. As Harold Wilson and then Jim Callaghan illustrated, the abandonment of representative politics in favour of a popular vote on specific legislative proposals happens when the ruling party cannot agree amongst itself or fears that the issue will rip apart their political unity. So, rather than argue it out in Parliament or party conference they agree to let the people resolve the issue for them.

In the case of the Welsh referendum it got even more complicated. That is because the Labour Party in Wales could not agree on the question. As a result the proposals put before the Welsh people were significantly watered down.

These internal Labour politics also limited the terms of the debate on how this could be put right. A Commission set up by the Labour-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government in 2000-2003 recommended that Wales should have the same law-making powers as Scotland; however that was not acceptable to Labour MPs and the wider party in Wales.

As a result when the Government of Wales Act 2006 was passed it contained a bizarre mechanism by which the Assembly draws down primary law-making powers as and when it needed them. The precise method by which this occurs is through a legislative competence order (LCO).

Essentially, the Welsh Assembly draws up a statutory instrument defining what powers it wants to exercise. These orders are then scrutinised by an Assembly Committee and by the Welsh Affairs Committee in Westminster to ensure that they are fit for purpose; they are passed around Whitehall departments to consider any unseen consequences and then laid before the two Houses of Parliament before going for royal consent. The total cost of this process is about £2 million a year out of the Assembly’s budget, on top of the time taken by AMs and MPs in scrutinising the orders.

The total time taken from start to finish for a non-controversial LCO is about 4 to 6 months. Despite all that time and effort not a single new law will have been entered on the statute book once the process is complete. That requires an Assembly measure, our equivalent to an Act of Parliament, which will utilise the powers drawn down to change the law.

The inherent problem with the LCO process lies in the fact that an elected Assembly needs to ask permission of another body before it can implement the manifestos of its ruling parties. However, there are wider problems too, when politics are brought to bear to frustrate the will of Assembly Members.

The classic example of this was the Assembly’s attempt to legislate to temporarily suspend the right to buy in areas of high housing demand. This had been in the manifestos of three of the four parties represented in the Assembly, together making up 47 of the 60 AMs. Despite that, when the order got to Parliament, MPs protested and as a result the Secretary of State for Wales built a caveat into it that would have required further consent from UK Government Ministers before the power could be exercised.

Not surprisingly, the Joint Constitutional Committee of the House of Lords and House of Commons found this to be ultra vires and the LCO was withdrawn. A new LCO was introduced seeking wider powers over affordable housing but this was also held up, due to being caught up in the wash-up before the 2010 General Election. Labour would not push it through and the Tories would not agree to its passage.

It was only recovered due to an explicit reference being made to it in the Coalition Agreement and because attempts by Tory Ministers in the Wales Office to water it down were overruled by those overseeing that agreement following an intervention by Welsh Liberal Democrats.

The Welsh Assembly now has the power to legislate on affordable housing. However, it has taken three years to get to this stage and there is little time to do anything with it before the next set of elections. This is no way to run a legislature.

It is not just the acquisition of housing powers that have been sabotaged by external intervention. A request to legislate on the Welsh Language had so many caveats and conditions built into the final order that it severely limited the room for manoeuvre available to the Government. We were also denied key powers on the environment.

This is not just a matter of a legislative body being frustrated in its ambitions but also that Welsh law itself is being made remarkably complex and confusing by a whole list of exemptions and restrictions being imposed on its powers by the UK Government. It is not a sustainable position.

The 2006 Act contained a provision that this wasteful and time-consuming process could be done away with following a referendum. However, a ‘yes’ vote will not put the Welsh Assembly on a par with the Scottish Parliament. We will be restricted to passing laws only in the 20 policy fields specified in the Act. These are the same fields that we can ask permission to legislate on now.

In fact, a positive outcome will not confer any additional powers on the Assembly at all. It will merely dismantle the LCO process, a worthwhile objective in itself and one that is difficult to argue against. It is a referendum we need to win if we are to advance democracy in Wales.

Those arguing for a ‘no’ vote have been reduced to flying political kites. They say that if we win the referendum then Wales will be on a slippery slope to tax varying powers, a full Parliament and ultimately independence. None of these are on the ballot paper and nor do they command majority support across the political parties.

The No campaign’s argument therefore is fallacious.

The other controversy that has dogged the referendum is the date it is being held on. Choosing a date is a familiar problem for those legislating for the AV referendum. In this case there was an argument to hold the two referendums and the Assembly election on the same day, the problem with that was one of accountability.

It is only right that when people make their choice as to who is going to run Wales for the next four years that they know what powers they are able to exercise and whether the manifestos they are being asked to choose between are deliverable or not.

Campaigning is underway, but there are no official Yes and No campaigns. That is because the Electoral Commission set a representative test for each, which those opposed to the extension of powers felt they could not meet. True Wales, as they are called, thus took a tactical decision not to register and to run a ‘grassroots campaign’ instead. As a result neither side receives the £70,000 of public funding for administration costs, nor the ability to send a freepost leaflet to every voter.

All four parties have lined up behind a ‘yes’ vote, even those Tory Assembly Members who campaigned against the establishment of the Assembly in 1997 in the first place. However, it seems three of the eight Tory MPs will be voting ‘no’, though so far they have not been actively campaigning in that direction. I suspect that some Labour MPs will be joining them but again, they have hardly been vocal on their preference. The Government will stay officially neutral, though it would be nice if the odd Liberal Democrat Minister could find it within themselves to come and help out on the ‘yes’ side.

The latest opinion poll indicates that a ‘yes’ vote will be the likely outcome. Yes voters number about 49% of those asked, with 26% voting no and 26% undecided. The key though will lie in turnout, not just differential turnout but in how many people bother to make the trip to the polls in the first place.

Back in 1997, the majority was narrow but the turnout was also low. As a result people still question the legitimacy of an Assembly which secured only 26% of those eligible to vote. Decisions are made by those who take part of course, but it helps if those who do take part are more numerous than those who abstain.

The campaigning does not stop on 3rd March. Immediately afterwards there is the Assembly election itself and, providing the House of Lords plays ball, the Alternative Vote referendum as well. No doubt when he set the date, Nick Clegg took into the account that our campaigning priorities in Wales may not be the same as in England.

Wales has had coalition government on and off for nearly 12 years, we know the advantages of a semi-proportional electoral system and so the country should be a natural supporter of a switch to AV at a UK level.

It may well work out that way, but on May 5th our main focus will be the outcome of the Assembly election itself and forming a government.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Larry settles in

Anybody would think that there was no news to report. Larry-fever overtook the media yesterday with the poor animal being harangued from pillar to post by cameramen and photographers. The Independent reports that the taxpayer will not pay for his food. Instead he will live off the Downing Street rats and scraps founf for him by the staff. I will believe that when I see it.

The BBC say that according to Downing Street, Larry has "a high chase-drive and hunting instinct", developed during his time on the streets. He has also shown "a very strong predatory drive" and enjoyed playing with toy mice. They then went on to report that the cat had slept through most of his first afternoon in Westminster, saying he "seems relaxed and easy going". It sounds like he will be at home amongst politicians then.

Over at the Guardian's Comment is Free, Jonathan Calder argues that cats are not the natural companions of Tories:

You could argue that his arrival marks a much-needed victory for Nick Clegg. True, Larry is a waif from a cats' home in Battersea, lending the affair a Dickensian flavour that will appeal to the Conservatives' mill-owning tendency, but Tories are natural dog owners. They are drawn to a pack animal that can be trained to do exactly what you tell it.

Thinking about it, it might be more accurate to say that dogs are natural Tories.

It would be too tame to call cats Liberals. They are naturally individualists or anarchists – a dog would probably accuse them of being nihilists. But one thing is certain: they are not Conservatives.

So Larry will have to be on his guard, surrounded as he is by people who are not his natural allies.

Meanwhile, the cat itself has already got three unofficial Twitter accounts. His thoughts and musings can be found at Downing Street Cat, Downing Street Larry and No. 10 Larry.

It is only a matter of time before the cat gets a blog, a facebook page and a regular feature in Private Eye.

Update: there is also a twitter feed for the No. 10 rat. It seems that I spoke too soon, Larry the Cat has his own column in today's Daily Telegraph:

Overall, though, I'm settling in nicely. Caught a few mice already, although I thought it would be best to work my way up to the rats (I mean, have you seen the size of them?). Only problem is, I'm not sure everyone's happy to see me.

Overall, though, I'm settling in nicely. Caught a few mice already, although I thought it would be best to work my way up to the rats (I mean, have you seen the size of them?). Only problem is, I'm not sure everyone's happy to see me.

First, the waxy-faced bloke who lives next door popped in to see Dave's new "pet project" (ho, ho), and kept on referring to me as "Lawrence", until I hissed at him. "Oh dear," he said. "Another one from the wrong side of the tracks. Still, I suppose we do need someone to replace poor Andy."

Just as I was trying to work out what he meant, this other guy, sort of lavender-scented, stormed in. "Why wasn't I consulted about this?" he said. "There's nothing about it in the Coalition Agreement. And bringing it in to kill rats – it's just blood sports by the back door. Well, you Tories may be used to hunting God's creatures, but I'm certainly not."

Dave, bless him, just smiled at them both. "I think he'll fit right in here, actually," he said. "Apparently, he has a very strong predatory drive. Perfect for the political world." After they'd left, he picked me up and started stroking me, muttering something about a "Claws Four moment". Humans, eh?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Thatcher snatchers

Things are getting fairly intense in the Welsh Assembly as the election approaches. So much so that political rivalries are degenerating into the removal of partisan posters and pictures from the office doors of rival party AMs. This is an e-mail that was circulated yesterday from the office of Conservative AM, Andrew R.T. Davies:

It may be slightly naïve of me, so I apologise in advance if I overestimated my expectations of behavioural standards in the workplace…

It seems to me that there is a healthy culture of decorating political offices with pictures. (We work in a tribal environment, and yet our office doors all look exactly the same, so it is to be expected that we’d want to personalise our workspace…)

I also thought that it was pretty mature and decent that there appeared to be an unwritten agreement that you didn’t deface or steal pictures from other office doors…

…Because for every one of “Gordon Brown’s porky pies”, there would be a “57 varieties of Lib-Dem hypocrite” etc etc

But it seems that someone has suddenly decided that they can no longer stand idly by and allow this to happen. They must hate Margaret Thatcher so much if they have to take our picture down every single day.

…And I let it go at first. Laughed it off.

And then I decided to increase the number of pictures to show that we are not going to be bullied. I won’t concede my right to freedom of expression.

…And then it happened again. And again.

I’m willing to make a deal now…

We’ll go back to just one picture of Margaret Thatcher on the door. One COLOUR picture of Mrs Thatcher.


If she is stolen again then we will add more pictures.

And They will increase also increase in size.

What do you say? Let’s not make it a matter for the authorities. Because then it’s out of my hands!

Only 6 weeks to go before we recess for the election itself. Can things remain civil for that long?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Making laws for Wales

This morning's Western Mail asks the question of Assembly Members of what laws they would make if the technical change to do away with the legislative competence order system to be put before voters in the referendum on 3rd March is passed?

All of Plaid Cymru's 14 Assembly Members put forward proposals, as did three of the five Welsh Liberal Democrats, but Labour and the Conservatives resisted the invitation, with only one AM in each group responding positively. They took the view that they would publish proposals as part of their manifesto and did not want to preempt that process.

That is their prerogative of course, but not all of my ideas would be in the Welsh Liberal Democrat manifesto and whereas the plebiscite on 3rd March is not about what we will do with the powers, surely it is helpful to those going to vote on that day if suggestions are put forward so they have a better understanding of what is otherwise a fairly abstract and technical change.

Personally, I found some of the proposals put forward by the other parties a bit paternalistic and nanny-statist. If faced with such measures after the next election I would certainly oppose some of them and seek to amend or mitigate others. However, that is what the election is for, to put a manifesto before the voters and let them decide on the competing programmes.

The referendum is about providing the tools for the job and to enable those manifestos to be implemented fully and with the appropriate level of scrutiny and challenge within the Assembly itself. Even under the present system Measures are not scrutinised by Parliament, despite the propaganda put about by True Wales. MPs only deal with the granting of general powers and are not meant to question what they are used for.

For the record, these are the proposals I put forward to the Western Mail:

1. Introduce fair voting for local government elections so that the make-up of Councils reflects the way people vote and Councillors are consequently more receptive to public opinion
2. Reorganise local government to reduce the number of councils down to 8 or 10 with responsibility for health, regeneration and strategic transport amongst others so as to advance devolution beyond Cardiff Bay and to properly democratise public services. Such a reform would also cut the number of Councillors by a third and ensure that through the use of fair voting they
are more representative and accountable than now.
3. Protect youth services by making them a legal requirement.
4. Allow Councils to penalise the owners of long term empty homes, which are blighting local communities, by increasing the Council tax payable on them if they resist efforts to bring them back into use.
5. Reform local business rates, so that Councils can retain the proceeds in the area where they are paid and can use income and projected income from these rates to borrow so as to fund regeneration projects that will create jobs and wealth.

Note: not all of these are Welsh Liberal Democrat policy.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Gay marriages to be allowed in church?

This morning's Sunday Telegraph reports that Coalition Ministers are proposing to change the law to allow homosexual couples to "marry" in traditional religious ceremonies, including in church.

They say that Lynne Featherstone, the Liberal Democrat equalities minister, is expected shortly to outline firm plans to lift the current ban on civil partnerships being conducted in places of worship:

In a political "win" for Nick Clegg and his party, the Coalition will also say that such ceremonies should for the first time be allowed to have a religious element, such as hymn-singing and readings from the Bible.

They could, it is understood, also be carried out in the future out by priests or other religious figures.

The landmark move will please equality campaigners but is likely to prompt a fierce backlash from mainstream Christian leaders, as well as some Right-leaning Tories

It is difficult to imagine a majority Tory Government legislating in this way.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A blow for freedom

Yesterday's announcement that the DNA of up to one million innocent people will be wiped from the national database is a victory for commonsense and liberalism.

Under the new regime only the profiles of people suspected of serious offences of sex or violence will be retained and only for a maximum of five years. Other proposals include a significant scaling back of vetting and criminal record checks, more powers for the public around CCTV, making it a criminal offence to wheel-clamp vehicles on private land and a major reduction of state powers to snoop on people.

A major culling of the 1,200 different powers available to officials to enter a home and a ban on schools fingerprinting children without their parent's consent are also planned.

There will also be a new law allowing homosexuals who were convicted for having consensual sex with anyone over the age of 16 when it was illegal to have their criminal record wiped clean.

The period a terror suspect can be detained without charge will be halved to 14 days.

Police will no longer be able to stop and search people without reasonable suspicion under terror laws unless there is "reasonable suspicion" that an atrocity will take place.

There is a long way to go of course on the details in the Freedom Bill but it is outcomes like this that made it worthwhile for the Liberal Democrats to enter Government in the first place. There may be downsides but a lot of good can come of taking responsibility as well.


Eric gets in a pickle

There is still time of course but at least the centralising tendencies of the Labour-Plaid Cymru One Wales Government have not yet led to the excesses of the English Local Government Minster in emasculating local authorities.

Eric Pickles has found himself the centre of controversy in recent days for his eagerness to chop council budgets. I suspect that he would not be comfortable if he was not stirring things up, but that does not excuse his behaviour or that of his fellow Ministers in targeting local authority cash in the way that they have.

Many key services are delivered by councils, which means that it is vital that everything possible is done to protect their Government grant even in the face of inevitable cuts. Despite the story put around by civil servants and Ministers, what fat there is in Council expenditure is not easy to get at in the short term, so any cuts will quickly translate themselves into the closure of vital facilities such as libraries, schools and leisure centres.

When the Welsh Liberal Democrats went into government with Labour in 2000 we ensured that there was sufficient protection for Councils written into the partnership agreement. It was a lesson Plaid Cymru did not pick up on until after the first One Wales budget, but it is one that they now have engraved on their hearts. To be frank, I was astonished that the Liberal Democrats did not pick up on this when negotiating the current UK coalition agreement.

Eric Pickles though has gone even further with a display of control freakery that defies his so-called commitment to localism. Does he even know what localism is?

According to today's Guardian the Local Government Minister published a code of conduct banning Councils from publishing their own newspapers more than four times a year. He has also ordered councillors not to spend money on lobbying and to refrain from making comments on "contentious areas of public policy".

To be fair the last one is not as draconian as it sounds as it refers to Councillors acting corporately and using public money, but even so this is neither a liberal agenda nor is it is democratic.

Whatever Eric Pickles thinks, Councils are accountable to their local electorate not to him. They may have to follow statutory guidance he lays down but this sort of micro-management is both unreasonable and unnecessary. Anybody would think the Secretary of State has too much time on his hands.

I know that Liberal Democrat Councillors in England are very unhappy but why have we not heard from our MPs? Where is Simon Hughes, the self appointed conscience of the party?

This is not a Liberal agenda, nor was it specified in the coalition agreement. At the very least Nick Clegg should be pushing Cameron to rein Pickles in before the whole local government portfolio explodes in his face.

Friday, February 11, 2011

More help for poorer students

The Coalition Government have moved quickly to ensure that Universities who are seeking to charge the full £9,000 fees for students will have to put in real help for those from poorer families wishing to study at their institutions.

According to the Independent universities in England that want to charge more than £6,000 in fees from next year will have to fund a national scholarship programme in return:

The scheme will be worth £150m annually by 2014-15, when 48,000 students from families with an income of less than £25,000 a year will be helped. At present, about one-third of the 340,000 undergraduates are in this income group but are less likely to go to the elite universities than those from better-off households.

The Government will contribute £3,000 towards their annual fees and the university a further £3,000 in matching funding, leaving the student to repay the remaining amount of up to £3,000 after their income from working reached £21,000 a year. It could mean poor students paying less than the current £3,290 a year flat-rate fee.

The Government also want to insist that Universities will have to reach a deal with the Office of Fair Access to greatly improve their performance in attracting a wider mix of students, but will be free to decide how they achieve that.

None of this compensates for the decision to increase the tuition fee level so dramatically of course but if it works it should alleviate some of the pain on the pay-back period and may even encourage those from poorer families to go to college after all.

Now it's open warfare

Yesterday's little spat about senior Labour figures briefing on the Plaid Cymru Leader's competence in Government has turned into open warfare with a member of the Welsh Cabinet going on the record to attack a senior former Labour Minister.

According to the Western Mail, Rural Affairs Minister, Elin Jones told journalists that Ieuan Wyn Jones' predecessor as Minister in charge of the economy, Andrew Davies had made a complete mess of the job. Echoing my allusion yesterday about Mr. Davies seeking to blame civil servants for his troubles, she said:

“The attempt over the past few months to re-invent Andrew Davies as a competent Minister has been a shock to people across political parties. Since leaving office he has sought to blame his civil servants for lack of progress in his past Ministerial portfolios.

“In my experience, a Minister who blames his civil servants has failed to get his civil servants to deliver on priorities. A Minister has to take charge of his civil servants and that is what Ieuan Wyn Jones has done since taking over the Economy and Transport portfolio.

“The one major action of the Labour Assembly Government between 2003-07 was to merge the WDA and Wales Tourist Board into government. They managed to re-arrange the deckchairs but they did not change the Titanic’s course – they carried on in the same disastrous direction."

The paper says that another Plaid source commented about Andrew Davies that throughout his stewardship of the Welsh economy, he had persistently denied the extent of the problems facing Wales, and failed to recognise that relative levels of prosperity were falling in comparison with the rest of the UK and the EU.

“Andrew Davies gave the impression of being in constant denial about Wales’ economic problems, and certainly did nothing to fix them when he had the chance.”

These accusations come on top of fairly frank claims by the Plaid Cymru leader himself that after the Welsh Development Agency was brought in-house under the previous Labour administration, economic programmes had been left to stagnate:

He also revealed that in the early years of the Department, the Assembly Government had bought railway stock that had been leased to a rail franchise in England because there was no money to run it on the Valleys lines as intended.

These are all serious allegations and underline views put forward by the opposition parties but previously denied. It seems that Carwyn Jones' administration has gone into meltdown with all the skeletons making a break for freedom.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Hostilities erupt on the fifth floor

This morning's Western Mail reports on an extraordinary public row that has erupted between Labour and Plaid Cymru following months of anonymous briefings against the Plaid leader, who is also Deputy First Minister in the Welsh Government.

The paper says that senior figures in Welsh Labour, including MPs, have told the Western Mail they are seriously concerned that Plaid Cymru leader Ieuan Wyn Jones’ “mismanagement” of his ministerial brief may harm them at the Assembly election in May:

A senior Labour figure said: “Ieuan Wyn Jones is the One Wales weak link. This is not a party political attack – his handling of the economic brief during tough times has been absolutely shambolic.

“He has lost the confidence and respect of Wales’ business community. Every businessperson I meet wants [former Labour Economy Minister] Andrew Davies brought back. Andrew understood the business community. Ieuan is out of his depth.

“We hope his incompetence doesn’t reflect badly on Labour in May. There’s no reason why it should but we are very aware of the problem. Labour will have a strong offer for Welsh businesses at the time of the election.”

A senior Welsh Labour MP said: “I’ve been very disappointed with the performance of Ieuan Wyn Jones. Even arranging a meeting with businesses in my constituency has proved impossible because he is not in control of his diary and is run by his officials. I hope he’s not in the job after May.”

A senior Welsh Labour AM said: “Plaid are spending a lot of time telling anyone that will listen what they are going to do when they are back in a coalition government after May. The truth is, no-one in Welsh Labour wants that to happen and no-one in the business community wants that to happen.

“Even if we fail to secure a workable majority, One Wales Two will not be the only option for the party. The perception amongst Welsh businesses is that Ieuan is not a responsive minister and that just adds to the feeling that we need to take control of that portfolio again.”

Another Labour AM said: “The gist of the criticism, which is widespread, is not about policy, so it is not a political attack in that sense.

“The issue is with the management of the department: a total lack of engagement and understanding of the business community; a failure to respond to AMs and MPs in good time; a dismissive attitude towards local businesses experiencing problems.”

The paper also quotes a number of businessmen who are complaining about Ieuan Wyn Jones' tenure.

What is extraordinary is the way that the Plaid Cymru leader has responded by not so much defending his own record, as attacking that of his predecessor, Swansea West AM, Andrew Davies who, until recently, sat in the Cabinet with him. Mr. Jones apparently stormed into the BBC Offices on the fourth floor of the Assembly offices and demanded the opportunity to put the record straight:

In an interview with BBC Wales, Mr Jones said he had inherited "substantial problems" when he came into office, and that the transport side of his department was "out of control financially" with overspending on road schemes.

It is worth noting that the Wales Audit Office report shows that the overspends and delays on transport projects have continued throughout most of Mr. Jones' tenure as a Minister. The jury is still out on whether he has sorted this out or not. Still, at least he is not blaming his civil servants for his failures as previous ministers have done.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Coalition Government delivers on the banks

Following on from yesterday's news that the Chancellor of the Excchequer is to increase the levy on bank profits to £2.5bn this year, raising an extra £800m, and will be making it permanent, there is more welcome news today.

A long-awaited agreement with the largest UK banks on lending, bonuses and transparency has been announced by the government. As a result of this agreement the UK’s biggest high street banks have agreed to lend more to businesses this year than last, increasing lending to SMEs by 15%.

They will ensure that pay and bonuses will be lower this year than last year and lower than they would have been prior to this agreement. They will create the most transparent pay disclosure regime in the world and they will invest an extra £1.2 billion in the new Business Growth Fund aimed at helping SMEs in the regions, and the Big Society Bank to help funding for third sector organisations.

Although it has taken some time to get to this point, this agreement is a vindication of the Government's softly softly approach to this issue.

More on the dangers of social networking

This morning's Daily Telegraph highlights the problems that the Police are having dealing with demonstrations in the face of a modern communications revolution. It is not just Eastern Europe and the Middle East where Twitter and the internet is driving protests.

The paper quotes the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, who argue that a new generation of demonstrators who can organise and change plans instantly using modern technology mean officers can be quickly outmanoeuvred:

Large numbers of protesters could be organised in hours, changing their focus in minutes through the use of Twitter and mobile phones in a "faster moving and more unpredictable" situation.

There is also a "willingness to disrupt the public and test police" while iconic buildings could be increasingly targeted, the review in to police tactics found.

As a result increasing numbers of officers will be needed to deal with some protests in the future, it said.

But officer training to deal with the changing trend lags behind while two in five forces are unprepared to help police major protests.

The report, Policing Public Order, found 40 per cent of forces had not tested their plans to mobilise public order resources to help neighbouring forces and some forces may not even have sufficient numbers of trained officers to meet a request for help.

Meanwhile the perennial 'candidate caught out by unwise posting on Facebook/Twitter' has reared its ugly head again, this time in the Western Mail. They say that two Tory National Assembly candidates are under investigation for making tasteless and sexist jokes on Facebook.

Joel James, who is the only Tory member of Rhondda Cynon Taf council, was caught posting juvenile and sexist comments on Facebook, including a reference to French pornography.

Meanwhile postings last July by his friend Dan Saxton, who is the Tory candidate for Cynon Valley, contained a tasteless joke involving a little girl on Facebook. Last month he also posted a sexist joke about how to get a “bird into bed”.

A Welsh Conservative Party spokesman commented that: “Both Daniel Saxton and Joel James have apologised unreservedly to senior members of the Welsh Conservative Party for their comments, which they now recognise are wholly unacceptable. The comments have now been removed from their Facebook profiles.

“Their conduct has been referred to the Welsh Conservative Party’s standing committee on candidates for further investigation.”

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Coalition turns the screws on the banks

This morning's news that the Chancellor of the Excchequer is to increase the levy on bank profits to £2.5bn this year, raising an extra £800m, and will be making it permanent is very welcome. It shows that the Government have recognised that bankers had a role in creating this crisis and should be contributing towards putting it right.

George Osborne said that the move will show lenders that he was acting in "good faith" in slow-moving negotiations aimed at forcing banks to curb bonuses and increase loans to small businesses:

"We want more lending, [banks] to pay more tax, make a bigger contribution to our society and pay less bonuses next year."

When combined with the Government Commission on the future of the banks this announcement demonstrates a determination at the highest level to get things right for the economy and to avoid repeating the circumstances, where unregulated banks were able to damage our economic future.

The Government's approach to this issue is already starting to pay dividends with today's Independent reporting that Ministers and bank chiefs are edging towards a deal under which the City will pump £1.3bn into areas hardest hit by the downturn.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Labour and the freeing of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi

This morning's Daily Telegraph reports that David cameron is poised to release a dossier of previously secret documents today that will show that the former Labour Government was “complicit” in Libya’s efforts to secure the release of the Lockerbie bomber.

Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi is the only man to be convicted of the Lockerbie bombing. He was freed from jail on compassionate grounds in August 2009 following claims that his prostate cancer meant he had no more than three months to live. He is still alive more than 17 months later.

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

If al-Megrahi is guilty then he deserves to die in prison for his crimes. Compassion is an important feature in any judicial system but there are times when it can be exercised in such a way as to frustrate justice and in my view this was such a time. That has been underlined by the speculation of secret deals that just makes the decision look shabby. If there were deals and pressure from the UK Government then we need some transparency and accountability. If there were not then there needs to be a review of the protocols that govern the relationship between the Scottish and Westminster Governments. This may have been a devolved decision but it clearly has foreign policy implications and we need to be assured that these were taken into account as well.

The decision by the SNP Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill was widely condemned by Labour politicians in Scotland but now it seems that their own Government may have helped the process along:

It is understood the release will show Labour ministers were "complicit" in efforts to free the bomber. Mr Blair was instrumental in striking a 2007 prisoner transfer agreement (PTA) with Gaddafi, signing the "deal in the desert" just hours before BP unveiled a £500million oil contract with Libya.

Jack Straw, the former Justice Secretary, has admitted originally wanting to exclude Megrahi from the PTA. He dropped his objection after Libya used its deal with BP as a bargaining chip.

The Daily Telegraph disclosed last week that Bill Rammell, a former Foreign Office minister, sent Libyan officials legal advice on how to use the bomber's cancer diagnosis to ensure he was freed.

It seems that Robin Cook's ethical foreign policy agenda did not survive his departure from the office of Foreign Secretary. A combination of the SNP Government's naivety and the UK Government's pursuit of 'UK interests' has denied the Lockerbie families the chance to learn what truth might have emerged from an appeal as well as releasing a convicted murderer prematurely.

Blunkett claims he was phone-tapped

According to the Independent former Home Secretary, David Blunkett claims that his mobile phone was illegally hacked by journalists while he was in charge of police, prisons and anti-terrorism at one of the most sensitive government departments.

David Blunkett is widely credited as being the architect of some of Labour's most illiberal laws, undermining the liberties of ordinary citizens and bolstering the surveillance state.

That does not justify any journalist illegally tapping into his phone after juicy gossip or anything else of course. That sort of activity is wholly unacceptable and perpetrators should be prosecuted with the full weight of the law.

But....oh, the irony!

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Danish pastries and the management of red boxes

This morning's Independent on Sunday claims that a manual offering the top ten tips for new members of Government reads like something from The Thick of It. Absurd it maybe, but consultant speech is rarely funny.

The advice that Ministers should start team-building on their first morning and that they should exert control over their own workload so as to manage stress and enable them to have time for creative thinking is just commonsense. As is the suggestion that they avoid the dangers of "private office anxiety syndrome", in which a minister suddenly becomes "heavily dependent on what can be a group of relatively junior and relatively inexperienced strangers" in their ministerial office.

It also makes sense that small groups of ministers (three or four) from different departments get together on a regular basis, for one to two hours, to discuss and progress departmental leadership priorities. Though these meetings should be more common within the department, than on a cross-cutting basis. Otherwise there is a real danger that Ministers lose control of their own agenda.

I also think that it is right that Ministers have a duty to the taxpaying public to keep themselves in good physical and mental condition, that they should build regular time into the diary for the gym, lunch with friends, and broadening their intellectual horizons. Perhaps I should take up some of that advice for myself.

The disdain shown in the article by former Ministers for this training is par for the course. They are partly right that on-the-job experience is the best way to become acclimatised to the challenges of public office. But training and coaching at any level should not be dismissed so readily. It is vital even for senior Ministers if we are to get the best out of them.

What we do need to avoid is expensive consultant-led courses mired in jargon, psycho-babble and management-speak. I have seen too many such courses and they are of use to nobody. If the government are going to do this then they should ensure that it is done right and that the taxpayers get value for money from it.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Back of an envelope calculations?

Talking of the Welsh Education Minister there is another story in this morning's Western Mail that raises some serious questions about his solution for funding Welsh students entering higher education in future years.

I am already on record as saying that I support the principles behind this plan to top slice the teaching grant of Universities so as to reduce the burden imposed on indigenous students by excessively high tuition fees. However, I would expect that before it is introduced there can be assurances that the model is robust, properly-costed and that the risks posed to Welsh Higher Education Institutions have been properly assessed and mitigated. That is the job of the Minister and his civil servants.

Instead, the paper reveals that there is still significant work to be carried out on the policy. In response to a Freedom of Information request the Government provided a table estimating the cost of elements of the policy up to 2020-21, but an accompanying letter from the Assembly Government said: “While the broad policy intentions have been announced the final policy to which you refer in your request is still being developed ... There is still a need to undertake a significant amount of work before the overall detailed policy for higher education and student finance can be finalised and published."

As Jenny Randerson, who is the education spokeswoman for the Welsh Liberal Democrats, said: “We have always said we should seek to mitigate the impact of tuition fees on Welsh students. That remains the right approach even in a challenging financial environment. But this must be a plan for the long term not a short-term electoral fix for the Labour-Plaid government.

“Now we are told that the final policy is still being developed and that ‘significant work’ is needed before the overall detailed policy for higher education and student finance can be finalised and published. Needless to say it is essential that this work is done well before the elections in May.

“It is extremely worrying that the details of the Labour-Plaid Government’s ability to fund future years of this policy have not been forthcoming – increasingly this is beginning to look like a policy made up on the hoof for political reasons without any consideration for its long-term affordability.

“Coming after the Education Minister has admitted his policies on schools are failing, it is clear that as we approach May’s elections, the wheels are coming off the Labour-Plaid election bandwagon.”

Council bans discussion of a 'yes' vote

There is a rather bizarre story in this morning's Western Mail, who report that Welsh Liberal Democrat Councillor, Mike Powell has been barred by his local authority from tabling a motion in support of a ‘Yes’ vote in the Welsh Assembly powers referendum.

The paper says that the action was said to contravene a procedure which states that motions “must be about matters for which the council has a responsibility and which substantially affect the well-being of the administrative area of the council”.

Given that the Council has a responsibility for organising the referendum and that its outcome could well affect the body's future, I am astonished at this ruling. Surely the ruling Labour group in Rhondda Cynon Taf is not afraid to take a view on the future of Wales' legislative body.

The decision is even more surprising as the AM who has taken the lead in the 'Yes' campaign on behalf of the Welsh Government, represents part of this Council area and shares a political affinity with the ruling group. Has there been a falling out?

Rhondda Cynon Taf's decision contrasts with that of other Councils. On Thursday Swansea Council passed a motion to support the 'Yes' campaign by a large majority of those Councillors present. They did not take the view that the plebiscite was none of their business so why did RCT?

Friday, February 04, 2011

Labour's faux pas on electrification

There are red faces all round in the Welsh Labour Party this morning after their Shadow Transport Secretary gave an interview in which she was less than committed to the electrification of the mainline between London and Swansea.

This was the project of course that Gordon Brown announced in January 2009 and said would start immediately. Alas, once the new Government took up residence they discovered than not only had it not started but that there was no money allocated to pay for it and no business plan.

The Coalition Government has been busy ever since trying to put that right and I am still optimistic of a favourable announcement, especially if the Welsh Government are able to commit to the electrication of the Valley Lines.

According to today's Western Mail Shadow Transport Secretary Maria Eagle yesterday seemed to indicate that Labour had abandoned its commitment to providing the high-speed link to Wales.

They say that Maria Eagle told the London Evening Standard newspaper: “The Tory-led Government has delayed the completion of vital rail projects including Crossrail and Thameslink in London, cut new carriages planned by Labour and hit commuters with massive fare increases.

“At the same time they plan to only spend £750m of the £17.5bn cost of the proposed new high-speed line to Birmingham. Labour will next month launch a root and branch review of our transport policy with nothing ruled in or out.

“It would be irresponsible to make cast-iron spending commitments for beyond 2015 before we have listened to the public and come to conclusions about our future priorities.”

This of course led to much activity by Shadow Welsh Office Ministers but despite their strongest protests they could not hide the fact that Ms. Eagle had missed out Wales in the list of projects she supported and was not committing herself to any new spending.

That 'Sputnik moment'

It may well be that I am too young but I was left highly bemused by the analogy with which Rhodri Morgan started his Plenary speech on education on Wednesday. It is not that I have never heard of Sputnik, just that I have never had a Sputnik moment:

Rhodri Morgan: I would like to compliment the Minister on his 40-minute Sputnik-moment speech this morning. Those of us who are old enough to remember Sputnik going up all remember why the phrase 'Sputnik moment’ came into being. It happened when American educators panicked to some degree at the thought that the Russians were ahead of them, and the American press was full of articles that were broadly entitled 'What little Ivan knows that little Johnny doesn’t’.

Was Rhodri saying that the Education Minister was panicking about his own poor performance? We never found out. There is no doubting the former First Minister's grasp of mental arithmetric however:

I remember taking a mental arithmetic test in the 11-plus and being asked the following question, which you would not be asked now: 'You have 49 cigarette butts. It takes seven cigarette butts to give you a smokable cigarette. How many cigarettes would you get from 49 butts?’ Of course, the answer for those who failed the 11-plus was seven, and the answer for those who could think ahead to what the teacher was looking for was eight. That is because you could reuse the seven butts that you got the second time around to give you a second extra cigarette. You would not be asked that these days. That is the application of a life skill to a mathematical problem that would not be usable today. This is about having a balance between pupils doing repeat exam papers and understanding the curriculum that they are being taught.

As Rhodri said, it is not the sort of question you would find in today's classroom, especially following the smoking ban that his administration oversaw.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Meanwhile, in the Assembly Chamber

I hope to be able to post about a classic Rhodri Morgan speech once the record of proceedings is up but in the meantime here is a faux pas by a Tory AM from Tuesday's First Minister's Question Time:

Darren Millar: Another issue that may affect the availability of trains for passengers is the strike that is planned for this Friday. You will be aware that, despite a generous 12 per cent pay offer by Arriva Trains Wales, train drivers are still planning to take this strike action, following the rejection of the deal by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers. Given that the planned strike will coincide with the opening day of the RBS 6 Nations rugby tournament, and given that it has the potential to cause maximum disruption for travellers, significant damage to the south Wales economy, and a major embarrassment for our country, what is your Government doing to ensure that this dispute is brought to an end quickly, and that passengers and businesses do not suffer as a result of the unreasonable response by the RMT union to this generous pay deal?

The First Minister: The strike is off, Darren. [Laughter.]

For the record the strike was called off at 13:27, whereas Question Time commenced at 13:30. The availability of computers in the chamber meant that most people knew about the strike being called off by looking at their Twitter feeds. Darren however, would have been preparing for his question rather than trawling the internet at that time. Still, isn't that what support staff are for.

More leaks

Today's Daily Telegraph reports that the Foreign Affairs Select committee report criticising US policy in Iran was leaked to the Americans before publication, in apparent breach of parliamentary rules.

The paper says that back in 2008 the committee report hit the headlines when it urged the Government to pressure the US to “engage directly” with Iran without preconditions. However, secret cables obtained by WikiLeaks have revealed that Washington was tipped off about the most controversial elements on Feb 29 2008, a full two days before it was released.

As serious as this is, there is a certain irony that we are discovering that the US Government benefited from a leak, due to the Wikileaks site that they are seeking to have take down. As Corporal Jones frequently remarked: "They don't like it up 'em!"

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Tories show anxiety on Alternative Vote referendum

The extent of anxiety in the Conservative camp that Britain might actually opt to reform the voting system on 5th May was evident this morning in criticism of David Cameron that he is soft-pedalling on opposition to the change.

The Independent says that senior Conservative MPs fear that David Cameron is diluting their party's opposition to electoral reform in an attempt to boost Nick Clegg's chances of winning a 'yes' vote in the referendum due in May.

The paper says that Conservatives have so far earmarked only £250,000 for the No campaign, which is a small proportion of the £5m both sides in the referendum battle will be allowed to spend in the 10 weeks before the public vote. They add that Baroness Warsi, the party's chairman, is expected to be challenged about its commitment to the 'no' cause today when she addresses the weekly meeting of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs

Personally, I think that those who believe that a 'no' vote will lead to the Liberal Democrats leaving the coalition or that a 'yes' vote will provoke a permanent Liberal Democrat-Tory grouping are wrong. The Liberal Democrats have too much vested in the future of this coalition to walk away prematurely, whilst any future partnerships would be dependent on the outcome of an election.

This coalition a not a realignment, it is a temporary arrangement to provide stability to the UK political system and economy.

Nevertheless, if the Tories are soft-pedalling I welcome it, no matter what their motives. Reform of our out-dated and unfair electoral system is long overdue. In my view the logic for a 'yes' vote is overwhelming, even if the proposals do not go far enough. Maybe the Tory high command have recognised that and are making way for the inevitable.

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