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Thursday, March 31, 2011

This is what the Liberal Democrats are for

Fascinating article by Steve Richards in this morning's Independent in which he argues that the progressive alliance that is gathering around a yes vote in the forthcoming AV referendum underlines why Nick Clegg was right to go into coalition with the Conservatives last year:

In the immediate aftermath of the election Gordon Brown urged Clegg to form a coalition with Labour on the basis that the two of them could deliver electoral reform. The campaign shows that neither Brown, nor any Labour leader, could have united his party around support for a change in the voting system. He could have delivered a referendum, but no powerful united campaign in support of AV.

Most Labour MPs and party members are opposed. No doubt if Clegg had formed a partnership with Labour, more of its MPs would be supportive of change. Part of the reason for the scale of the opposition is Clegg's love-in with the Conservatives, or to put it more accurately, Clegg's hostility to Labour. But even without that factor many Labour MPs feel passionately opposed to AV and would have kept to that position under any circumstances.

Of course Clegg is in a coalition with a party almost wholly opposed to electoral reform, but he secured the referendum and the chance to dance in a partnership commanding a majority in the Commons.

More interestingly, he claims that the influence of the Liberal Democrats on the Coalition is growing, and exceeds what they might have expected on the basis of their relatively small number of seat:

They are, in theory, the rather pathetic, junior partners in a coalition of the radical right. Yet in reality they are important and substantial partners, at times almost co-equals.

By this I do not mean merely that they provide cover for a leap to the right, although that is, to some extent, a consequence of their presence. Their policy contribution is distinctive and significant. Beyond the referendum on electoral reform, Clegg can credibly claim that in several areas his party has helped to make the Coalition more progressive and less reactionary than it might have been.

Mr. Richards refers to an article by former adviser to Gordon Brown, Gavin Kelly in this week's New Statesman, in which he highlights and chronicles in considerable detail the influence of the Lib Dems on tax policy. In particular, Nick Clegg's aim of excluding those on low incomes from income tax is getting closer to realisation, not least with the recent Budget: Kelly argues that there are many anomalies that arise from this policy, but recognises its significance. Here is a tax cut that is clear, comprehensible and fair in the sense that no one is going to enter an election arguing that those on low income should pay more tax.

And even on top-up fees, universities can only charge the maximum if their admission procedures favour those from poorer backgrounds, because of the Liberal Democrat insistence on promoting social mobility. Without the Liberal Democrats it is likely that a group of extreme eurosceptic backbenchers would have held Cameron to ransom, whilst the cuts to the BBC's funding would have been much greater if it had not been for the intervention of the Coalition's junior partners.

Even the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance has been mitigated by pressure from the Liberal Democrats, as Michael Gove openly acknowledged when announcing a little more investment for his alternative. As Mr. Richards concludes, in limited but important ways, the Lib Dems have been a benevolent force and, equally important, Cameron gives them the space to be benevolent.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Final Meeting of the third Assembly

As the final meeting of the third Assembly ended, the Presiding Officer picked up the mace and handed it to Rhodri Morgan. They then left the chamber together, the mace resting on the former First Minister's shoulder. We are now in a period of dissolution and the election period has officially started.

Scathing report into schools in Wales

Another day, another report lambasting the Labour-Plaid Cymru Government's record on education.

This time it is a document commissioned by the Minister, which claims that too many Welsh schools are “coasting” when it comes to literacy and numeracy, and which warns of a risk of a “downward spiral” in the education system.

This morning's Western Mail says that the report also found a “disappointing degree of inconsistency” between providers at all levels and claimed that local authorities, when operating individually are too small to provide high-quality services and professional support to schools in their charge.

Coming on top of the PISA report that said that Wales was lagging further behind in maths, science and English, the Estyn report that said that one third of Welsh schools are not performing well enough and the latest funding gap statistic that shows that Welsh schools receive £604 less per pupil than in England, this is yet another illustration of how Labour and Plaid Cymru have let down children in Wales.

The Minister says it is a wake-up call. How many more do Labour and Plaid need? And why were they not acting earlier?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Swansea Story of the day

The Daily Mail has what can only be described as the most bizarre story of the day with the claim that an end-terrace house in Swansea resembles Adolf Hitler.

They say that the property is set to become a global internet sensation as it allegedly bears a passing resemblance to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler:

Its neat brown door brings to mind the fascist dictator's trademark toothbrush moustache.

And the slanting tiled roof falls at a similar angle to the leader's greased down, parted hairstyle.

Don't they have any news to report?

No to AV campaign caught out again

The No to AV campaign have already been taken to task over their misleading and untrue claims that switching to a fairer voting system will cost £250 million. The truth is that a pencil and a manual count is all that is needed, even if they are trying to push a rolls royce model on us so as to justify their case.

Now, today's Independent has caught them out again with their claim that there are only three countries in the world who use AV and that one of them, the pacific island chain of Fiji, is so fed up with the system that it’s planning to scrap it and move back to First Past The Post.

In fact, as the paper points out the truth is more sinister, has nothing to do with the merits and demerits of AV, but everything to do with the fact that the island chain's ruler does not really like democracy:

So what do we know about the political situation in Fiji and its leader Prime Minister Bainimarama?

Well, it’s not just AV that Mr Bainimarama wants to get rid of. He doesn’t much like democracy, an independent judiciary or a free press either.

The last time Fiji had elections of any sort was in 2006 and shortly afterwards Bainimarama – then the commander of the Fijian armed forces – organised a coup which overthrew the democratically elected Government.

Initially he promised fresh elections in 12 months (which never happened), then elections in 2009 (again cancelled) then 2010 (you get the idea).

Currently the regime is promising elections in 2014. A lack of elections is not Fiji’s only problem. Bainimarama is not too keen on an independent judiciary either.

In 2009 – the same year Bainimarama made his remarks about AV – the regime abolished the country’s constitution, sacked the judiciary and established a “new legal order”. The reason? Fiji’s second highest court had just ruled that Bainimarama’s military coup was illegal.

Next target was the independent press. Last year Bainimarama introduced a Government decree imposing jail terms on journalists whose work was deemed by the authorities as against the “public interest or order’”.

It has also banned foreign ownership of news organisations. This was a move designed to force News Limited (the Australian arm of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation) to sell the respected Fiji Times to a potentially more malleable owner.

All this has resulted in Fiji being suspended from the Commonwealth and the imposition of sanctions from the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

Oh, and Amnesty International said earlier this month that the Fijian military had been arbitrarily arresting political opponents, and at least 10 people had been targeted and subjected to torture and beatings.

So that is what they mean when they talk about a truly democratic system.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Alternative Vote conundrum

With a referendum due to be held on 5th May as well as Welsh Assembly elections the problem facing the UK Government is how to maintain cordial relations when passions run so high on both sides of the argument within that coalition.

This morning's Independent highlights the problem perfectly with reports of a spat between Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne and his government allies over the language and claims of the No to AV side.

Mr Huhne has challenged Baroness Warsi, as the Tory chairman and a patron of the "no" campaign, to pull the plug on its "scaremongering and misleading" publicity. He attacked the claim that AV would cost Britain £250m, which has been backed by the message that the money could be used to treat sick babies or buy body armour for soldiers, as the "politics of the gutter":

Mr Huhne, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, wrote: "When David Cameron launched his 'no' campaign, he said this should not be a source of tension between us or risk breaking the Coalition. It won't, if your 'no' camp now withdraws these disgraceful advertisements and campaigns on facts not fears, substance not smears."

Mr Huhne's letter reflects mounting anger among senior Liberal Democrats, including Nick Clegg, about the refusal to withdraw the £250m claim. The "no" campaign says the figure has been calculated from the £150m price of electronic machines to count votes cast under AV, the £82m cost of holding the referendum, and a further £20m-plus expense of publicity campaigns to explain the AV system. The "yes" campaign insists the figures are flawed but a "no" campaign spokesman said it stood by the figures and described Mr Huhne's attack as a "sign of desperation".

Like Vince Cable I am sure that the coalition will survive if Britain votes 'No', though I do not see how correcting misleading figures are a sign of desperation. If anything the fact that the No campaign has resorted to these smears is a sign of how desperate they are.

A boost for the economy

After the march through London on Saturday against public sector cuts this morning's Daily Telegraph reports some encouraging news when it says that thirty nine of the country's leading venture capitalists written to the papeer to welcome new investment rules introduced by the Chancellor as a "shot in the arm" for enterprise, allowing them to pour more funds into start-up projects.

The paper say that the businessmen reserve particular praise for Mr Osborne's decision to increase tax relief on investment in new businesses from 20 to 30 per cent, which they say will provide a "massive boost" to entrepreneurs.

Whether any of this money finds its way to Wales of course depends on how open for business the Welsh Government really is. So far signs have not been encouraging with at least one investor I am aware of tearing his hair out in despair at the failure of the economic development department to match their words with actions.

Those who did march of course, have genuine concerns that need to be listened to. The UK Government has to try and ensure that cuts avoid hitting those who are worse off. It is though imperative that we clear up Labour's mess and get the country back on a firm footing.

Interest paymments of £15 billion a year are the equivalent of the Assembly's entire budget for education, health and all the other services it funds and are unsustainable. Even Ed Miliband told protestors that there needed to be some cuts. What he failed to do though was to say where or to outline any alternative.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The malaise at the heart of government

For once this is not a rant about the former Labour Government or even the current One Wales Government. It is more of a sigh of despair at the way that Government institutions and civil servants can stifle initiative and work against Britain's best interests.

It may be that I am overreacting but in my experience these anecdotes from former UK Trade Minister, Lord Digby Jones's new book, Fixing Britain are fairly typical:

In a tale which sounds like it could have come straight from a Yes, Minister script, Digby Jones, the former head of the CBI, reveals this weekend that he was so frustrated that he wasn't allowed to drive a British-built car he even offered to use his own Jaguar.

His request was still refused, although it was suggested he might like to refer the issue to the Prime Minister.

The civil service said that Lord Jones had to stick to the Government's list of cars and that meant a Japanese hybrid car.

It continues:

The book, serialised in The Telegraph, also reveals that inward investment opportunities were often squandered because civil servants were slow at responding to requests from businesses that wanted advice.

In one example the Canadian aerospace and engineering company, Bombardier, almost abandoned plans to invest £500m to build business jets in Northern Ireland because it had "heard nothing" from the Government's business department.

Lord Jones, who was contacted by the company, had to bring in Baroness Vadera, a Government minister before the last election, to solve the issue.

It is difficult to say whether the same problem exists in Wales but from contacts I have had from businesses they are equally as frustrated when dealing with the Welsh Government.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Badger Cull debate in full

For some reason I cannot get BBC Democracy videos to embed anymore so I have embedded this version of the badger cull debate from last Wednesday using the Assembly's Senedd TV site instead.

The anonymous candidates

This morning's Western Mail reports on the rather bizarre all-party agreement to remove the names of individual candidates from the ballot papers for the Welsh Assembly Regional top-up list. What is most disconcerting about this is that despite everybody signing up to this proposal I can not find any of the main Welsh parties who agree with it.

As Martin Shipton says, although voters will put crosses against the names of candidates contesting the 40 “first-past-the-post” constituencies as normal, regional list candidates on the second ballot paper will not be identified. Instead, voters will simply be asked to opt for the party of their choice.

Personally, I think people should be able to see on their ballot paper who they are voting for. People can then make a judgement as to whether they want a particular individual to represent them, and not having names on the ballot paper makes that more difficult.

It also puts more power in the hands of the party machines and will make it easier for people to argue that regional list AMs are of a lower status than constituency AMs because they haven’t been elected in their own right and are purely there as representatives of their party.

A Wales Office spokesperson argues that everything will be okay because the names of candidates will be displayed in polling stations. I have yet to see anybody ever read these notices. She does not say how postal voters will be kept informed.

Meanwhile, I am contemplating using the words of Plaid Cymru Assembly Member, Dai Lloyd as an endorsement on my election literature. He told the paper that "Peter Black is well known in the region and there are people who would like to vote for him because of the profile he has created."

Thanks Dai, and back at you!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Plaid Cymru take the biscuit

Plaid Cymru start their conference today with a pledge that they will change the “culture of excuses” and that the next Assembly Government will take the initiative and take responsibility.

According to the report in the Western Mail the party will continue to oppose the public-sector cuts made by the UK Government, and attempt to shield Wales from its effects, but they will not use them as an excuse for poor performance and weak delivery by the Assembly Government.

So where exactly has the Plaid Cymru leader been for the last ten months when Ministers in his Government of both parties have done exactly that?

Both Plaid Cymru and Labour have consistently used attacks on the UK Government to avoid answering questions about their own poor performance in Government. Educational standards are down, the Welsh economy is worse than any other part of the UK, health outcomes are poorer than in England and patients have to wait longer, there are 200,000 more people in fuel poverty and child poverty targets have been missed. All of this is the legacy of Labour and Plaid Cymru in Government.

With a record like that and a habit of whinging rather than acting, can anybody take this latest pledge by the Welsh Nationalists seriously?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

How not to ask a question

Ah, so that is what happened to the Welsh Conservative Assembly Member for South Wales West. I thought I had not seen him around for a while.

The Liberal Democrat influence on the budget

It is an incredibly busy day today and i may not get back to the computer for some time so while you are waiting pop over to Liberal Democrat Voice and have a look at Mark Pack's article on how the Liberal Democrats influenced yesterday's budget.

Here is a flavour:

one decision that had been up in the air was over the Green Investment Bank and how much power it really would have. George Osborne’s previous strange absence from the debate was put to rest when he announced a series of pieces of good news on the Green Investment Bank: starting a year earlier, £2 billion more in funds and, crucially, it can borrow. As Paul Waugh put it “Big victory for Cable”, not to mention Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg, who had taken the lead in settling the internal debate over how much powers to give.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

More successes for the Liberal Democrats in Government

Paul Waugh on Politics Home yesterday highlights two more of the quiet successes of the Liberal Democrats in Government.

The first of these are on student visas, where he says that Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have won a significant battle to overturn Tory plans for a cap on numbers:

The Lib Dem case was bolstered by universities - and businesses - arguing forcefully that it was economically bonkers to curb the £5bn/year income from international students.

As is now commonplace, this battle was largely fought out behind closed doors in Cabinet Sub-Committees, with some wins for Theresa May some days and wins for Cable and Clegg on others. The key argument was that a cap would undermine the Budget's key message of growth.

Of course, the Home Office has been allowed to save face with a rider that reserves the right to look again at a cap later. But the Lib Dems say that all of the spin this morning about numbers of students being slashed by 80,000 or 100,000 was "arbitrary" and based on dubious projections.

A senior Liberal Democrat source said: "Nick and Vince were absolutely adamant about this. The last thing we need to be doing when we are encouraging growth is to pull the rug out from under the feet of our great universities.

“We’ve got to get away from an obsession with numbers. Yes loopholes can and will be closed but Nick was very clear that we shouldn’t have a Dutch auction at the expense of one of the most vibrant and thriving sectors of the British economy.

“The draconian restrictions originally planned by the Home Office would have been a slap in the face for British colleges, universities and businesses. This is a victory for reason over prejudice.”

The second is the Home Office's decision to agree that the UK should opt-in to the EU directive on human trafficking is another Lib Dem policy box ticked.

These are substantial and very Liberal victories. Today we will have another when more low earners are taken out of tax altogether and those earning less than £100,000 a year have their tax bill cut.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Fighting the badger cull

In advance of the debate in the Welsh Assembly tomorrow on Plaid Cymru Minister, Elin Jones plan to cull badgers in North Pembrokeshire, this video from Pembrokeshire Against the Cull (in two parts) is a good introduction to the case against.

Learning lessons

This morning's Western Mail carries an article on the important but disturbing report by Consumer Focus Wales, which names and shames publicly and privately- run institutions with poor hygiene standards.

The main kitchen at Morriston Hospital, in Swansea, and the child and adolescent mental health unit at Glanrhyd Hospital, in Bridgend, are among premises awarded a “one” rating but no details about breaches to food hygiene regulations are available under the scheme run by the Food Standards Agency.

Consumer Focus Wales are absolutely right to call for greater transparency from councils and for the FSA to publish the full hygiene reports for each premises. It also wants the Assembly Government to use its new law-making powers to require food businesses to display their hygiene ratings on business premises:

Maria Battle, senior director, Consumer Focus Wales, said: “It is not acceptable that there are publicly-funded institutions, such as hospitals and schools, serving food to vulnerable people despite failing to meet statutory requirements for food hygiene.

“The greatest tool for improving food hygiene is openness to public scrutiny by making businesses display their food hygiene ratings on the premises. What greater incentive for food producers than knowing their rating will be public and their failings will no longer be hidden?

“The fact that the vast majority of establishments serving food to vulnerable groups are achieving high ratings makes it all the more difficult to understand why a small number are rated so poorly. In some cases we have had difficulties obtaining full inspection reports in order to learn the reasons behind these poor ratings.”

There may only be nine days left of the Assembly but this is one issue that needs to be urgently addressed by the Welsh Government.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Tell public where Labour would cut says ex-Minister

At least one former Labour Government Minister is prepared to stand up and point out where her party is getting it wrong. According to today's Daily Telegraph, Labour’s former Communities Secretary, Hazel Blears told the BBC Politics Show that her party should be “explicit” about the cuts it planned to make.

She said: “I think we could be pretty explicit about where we had plans to cut. We said we would cut the deficit by half in four years, and I think we should absolutely stick to that and be clearer about what that means.

“The public expects us to at least give a broad direction – but I think they are worried that we haven’t been as clear as we ought to be.”

She knows that without that sort of detail Labour will continue to lack credibility on the economy. Does Ed Balls know that though?

Hain on a mission

Labour's Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain goes over the top this morning with yet more headline-seeking claims that don't stand up to scrutiny. This time he is arguing that the scrapping of three big infrastructure projects by the UK Government has resulted in cuts equivalent to nearly £17,000 for every resident of Wales.

He says that decisions not to proceed with the Severn Barrage, the defence training academy at St Athan and the Energy Island project on Anglesey together represented a loss of an astonishing £50.7bn for the Welsh economy – or £16,900 for every man, woman and child. Where does he think all this money is going to come from anyway?

At least he now has the £35bn cost of the Severn barrage right but he is still insisting that it will be privately financed and not need any public subsidy. What he has not done is to point out where the companies are who are prepared to put up this sort of money on an inadequate rate of return. Nor does he address the environmental and ecological problems with his preferred solution. He cannot even carry the Labour Party on this issue.

The Government has said that it will be making further announcements on St. Athan whilst the Anglesey Energy Island project is not even a Government scheme. For once the Welsh Office Spokesperson has it spot on when he/she says:

"Peter Hain was part of the Labour Government which never delivered any of these projects during 13 years in power.

“In 10 months we’ve delivered rail electrification, we’re investing millions in broadband infrastructure, we’re laying the foundations for economic growth, and we’re taking tough but necessary action on Labour’s legacy of debt.

“Mr Hain appears to be waging a one-man cheerleading campaign for the Severn Barrage. The Energy Minister said last week that the barrage is not written off for all time. However, at present there is no strategic case at this time for it to go ahead with public funding.

“The last Labour Government delayed making a decision on St Athan so that by the time we came to office the Metrix bid was no longer affordable and, by the consortium’s own admission, ‘could not be delivered within the framework and timescale originally intended’.

“The Ministry of Defence is currently reviewing its training needs and we remain hopeful a training facility will be located at RAF St Athan.

“Mr Hain also knows full well that the Anglesey Energy Island initiative is led by Anglesey Council. He is deliberately trying to confuse the issue by referring to economic development in ports for which the Labour-led Welsh Assembly Government received funding.”

The Shadow Secretary of State is stirring endlessly in the hope that something will jump out of the pot and vindicate his own poor record in government, but surely even his colleagues can see that he is losing credibility with every pronouncement.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Where now for nuclear power?

The terrible and on-going tragedy in Japan has raised some fundamental questions about what the UK Government is going to do about its own power needs and in particular the further development of nuclear power.

Until now it had been widely expected that, subject to the rather substantial caveat that there would be no public subsidy, the Energy and Climate Change Minister would be prepared to sign off new nuclear power stations, not least a replacement for Wylfa B in Ynys Mon, however, as this article in today's Observer makes clear, that is no longer a foregone conclusion.

Chris Huhne told the paper that Britain may back away from the use of nuclear energy because of safety fears and a potential rise in costs after the Fukushima disaster:

In an interview with the Observer, Huhne insisted that he would not "rush to judgment" until the implications of the disaster were known and a report into the safety of UK nuclear plants by the chief nuclear officer, Dr Mike Weightman, was complete. The interim findings are due in May.

"I am not ruling out nuclear now," said Huhne. But he said events in Japan could have profound long-term implications for UK policy, which is based on a three-pronged "portfolio" approach: a commitment to nuclear energy; the development of more renewable energy, such as wind and sea power; and new carbon-capture technology to mitigate the damaging environmental effects of fossil fuel-fired power plants and industrial facilities.

Huhne, a Liberal Democrat, said that Britain was in a very different position from Japan, which was vulnerable to strong earthquakes and tsunamis. The UK also used different types of reactors. But he conceded that the Japanese disaster was likely to make it more difficult for private investors to raise capital to build the eight new reactors planned by the government. "There are a lot of issues outside of the realm of nuclear safety, which we will have to assess. One is what the economics of nuclear power post-Fukushima will be, if there is an increase in the cost in capital to nuclear operators."

He said that after the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in the US 32 years ago, it became more difficult to raise money for nuclear investment. "After Three Mile Island in 1979, nuclear operators found it very hard to finance new projects.

Huhne said he remained wedded to the "portfolio" approach, but added that nuclear energy's future, as part of the mix, had become more uncertain as leaders of other nations, including the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, openly questioned its future. "Globally, this undoubtedly casts a shadow over the renaissance of the nuclear industry. That is blindingly obvious," he said.

It is not an easy choice to make. Personally, I would welcome a move away from new nuclear power stations in the UK but I also recognise that we cannot entirely depend on renewables and that there needs to be a baseload of reliable heavy duty power generation to meet demand. How we achieve that whilst reducing carbon emissions I do not know.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

MPs seek a piece of the action

It was the double-headed Roman God, Janus who marked the start of a new year by looking back over the old one, whilst at the same time surveying what was to come. From recent publicity it seems that there are a number of MPs who wish that they had his gift.

Peter Hain has already gone on the record as opposing a further Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition. At least he is consistent. He wants his party to work with the Welsh Liberal Democrats if they fail to secure a decisive majority on 5th May. We would be happy to talk, Peter.

Now we have Jonathan Edwards, sticking his oar in. He is in this morning's Western Mail claiming that a link up between the Welsh Liberal Democrats and Labour would not be credible and urging Carwyn Jones to get into bed with Plaid Cymru again.

Labour's reaction is predictable. They told the paper that they have "absolutely zero interest in the bar room tittle tattle of Mr Edwards.” And so they might. No party wants to write off any option before the electorate has had a chance of giving their verdict. To do so would reduce their bargaining power in any future negotiations.

Plaid Cymru's problem though is twofold. They have ruled out working with the Tories already and so the only option they have to return to government is to renew their pact with Labour. In these circumstances they are in quite a weak negotiating position. In contrast, Labour have two options - Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats - and so are in a much better position to play one off against the other. No wonder Plaid are so desperate for Labour to commit to them in advance.

Plaid's second problem is that being in government with Labour makes it much harder to attack them in the election period. Carwyn Jones' record is also that of Ieuan Wyn Jones. If they are also going to court Labour throughout the election period and rule out working with the Conservatives and the Welsh Liberal Democrats, then the Nationalists have even less to work with in terms of promoting a distinctive agenda. As far as the voters are concerned Labour and Plaid Cymru are a single package and that may lose them some support.

It is little wonder then that Plaid Cymru MPs are seeking a way out of this. What they cannot do anything about though is the fact that Labour are not playing ball over this little manoeuvre. Plaid Cymru may find themselves back in government but with very little to show for it or to use to keep their activists happy.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Gagging orders to stay

This morning's Daily Telegraph contains the disturbing news that super-injunctions will not be scrapped despite being described as the worst example of “secret justice” for almost 400 years:

Lord Neuberger, the country’s second most senior judge, said the highly restrictive injunctions, dubbed gagging orders, have developed in to an “entirely secret form of procedure” which “questions the boundaries of open justice”.

But the Master of Rolls said that at times “publicity must yield” if the administration of fair justice is at risk.

He said it would be “literally absurd” if open justice meant that the press could report that a man at the centre of a sex story had taken out an injunction preventing that story from being published.

That may well be the case but there are wider constitutional issues at stake here, best illustrated by the Trafigura scandal when a super-injunction prevented the reporting of allegations that the company had released toxic waste in Côte d'Ivoire that in turn led to 108,000 people seeking medical attention.

As this article in the Daily Telegraph said back in October 2009, for the first time in more than 200 years outside war, newspapers found themselves unable to report on the open proceedings of Parliament:

A court injunction prevented the Guardian from giving details of a question tabled by an MP and printed on the House of Commons Order Paper. At lunchtime yesterday, the newspaper obtained a loosening of the gag which curtailed its reporting of the Trafigura affair – the alleged dumping of toxic waste off the coast of West Africa.

But although newspapers are now free to report the existence and the contents of the written question, a wider issue needs to be addressed: the growing propensity of the courts to impose, at the behest of large corporations or wealthy celebrities, "super-injunctions" – blanket prohibitions on the media that stop almost any information being published (even though it can often be found on the internet).

The rights of the press to report Parliament were hard-won and the courts have over-reached themselves in seeking to restrict them. Judicial activism is also threatening to establish a law of privacy by the back door, usurping the proper role of Parliament. This must stop.

It is not the sex scandals that concern me, it is the use of these super-injunctions to prevent the reporting of matters of legitimate public interest. Surely even the Master of the Rolls can see that needs to be addressed.

Miliband versus Clegg

After all the fuss about Ed Miliband refusing to share a platform with Nick Clegg as part of the Yes to AV campaign launch I was bemused to see this diary piece which reports that it should actually be the Liberal Democrat leader who is shunning his Labour counterpart.

The Westminster blog says that Ipsos-Mori research has turned conventional wisdom on its head. It shows that CNick legg is actually more liked than Ed Miliband, scoring 40 per cent against the Labour leader’s 36:

And — amazing as it seems given all the riots of late — Miliband is neck and neck with Clegg in the unpopularity stakes. Around 51 per cent of people do not like both leaders.

Miliband, like Gordon Brown, is less liked than his party, which 45 per cent of respondents expressed a positive view of. By contrast David Cameron is the most liked party leader, even though his party is the most disliked.

Oh, the irony!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The broken promises of Labour MPs

Labour are very quick to allege that the inevitable compromises of coalition politics are broken promises on the part of the Liberal Democrats. What are we supposed to make therefore of the fact that hundreds of Labour MPs and peers are reputed to be actively opposed to and campaigning against their own manifesto promise to introduce voting reform into British politics?

The Independent says that Ed Miliband has been hit by a growing Labour revolt against his support for a change in the voting system as more than 200 Labour MPs and peers back the existing first-past-the-post process.

This includes members of the Shadow Cabinet, who it appears did not support all the policies they fought the last election on. The latest rebel is shadow Health Secretary John Healey, who has branded the alternative vote system as "perverse".

The paper says that another 19 opposition frontbenchers have come out for the No campaign. Nine former Cabinet ministers are among the Labour peers who oppose AV – including Lord Hutton of Furness, Lord Reid of Cardowan, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, Lord Irvine of Lairg, Lord Prescott of Kingston-upon-Hull and Lord Boateng of Akyem. However, eight Shadow Cabinet ministers have backed Mr Miliband's stance – Ed Balls, Douglas Alexander, Liam Byrne, John Denham, Peter Hain, Sadiq Khan, Tessa Jowell and Hilary Benn. Others have yet to decide.

So much for the potency of the Labour manifesto, when the party cannot even ensure compliance whilst it is in opposition.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Peter Hain - optimist or fantasist?

Further to my blog post a few days ago in which I questioned whether Peter Hain's continuing support for the Severn Barrage was rooted in reality I was gratified to read this letter from Anne Meikle from WWF Cymru in which she argues that the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales is exaggerating the benefits that the project could bring whilst overlooking some significant disbenefits:

WWF Cymru are dismayed to see the prominence given to the opinions of Peter Hain on the benefits of the proposed Cardiff-Weston barrage, even though he is ignoring the results of the feasibility study, commissioned by his own Labour Government, which reported in 2010 (Report, March 11).

I would like to draw attention to the actual findings of the feasibility study as regards jobs and environmental impact.

Mr Hain claims 35,000 jobs during construction and 10,000 permanent jobs. The feasibility study concluded that there could be between 12,000 and 38,000 jobs created. However, given the world wide supply chains involved only 3,000 additional jobs would be created across South Wales and south West. England.

Rather than the 10,000 permanent jobs, which Mr Hain suggests, the study suggests 1,000 regional jobs would be created with a range from 500-1,500.

All of these must be offset with the projected losses of jobs as a result of the barrage, particularly in the ports. Additionally there could be losses in fishing and other marine businesses.

As regards biodiversity, Mr Hain has also chosen to cherry pick from the environmental impacts of the barrage.

The strategic environmental assessment of the scheme does show some positive impacts but also an overwhelming preponderance of negative impacts.

For example, Mr Hain suggests there will be more fish. However, the government study reflects the scientific assessment that the barrage could lead to the collapse and local extinction of the salmon and twaite shad and very significant reductions in eels.

Add to this the negative impact on 34 species of birds and the loss of rare habitats and most scientists would not recognise Mr Hain’s optimistic view.

The Severn is a unique and vast estuary system. This is the reason it is protected by the EC Habitats directive. The feasibility study concludes that it might be possible to compensate for the loss of the estuary to the Cardiff-Weston barrage, but only by development outside the current EC guidance.

She concludes that Severn estuary continues to offer renewable energy opportunities that need to be explored. Perhaps Mr. Hain would be better engaged pressing for that instead of pursuing what is clearly an unsustainable fantasy.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Another victory for the Lib Dems in UK Government

This morning's Guardian reports that Conservative hopes of pulling out of the European convention on human rights in response to its perceived interference in issues such as UK prisoners' votes, have been dashed by Liberal Democrat objections.

They say that Nick Clegg has won a battle to prevent the inclusion of total withdrawal from the convention in the terms of reference of an expected seven-strong commission of inquiry in UK human rights law:

The decision will infuriate Tory rightwingers angered at the way in which they believe the Strasbourg judges have interfered with UK rights. Some Tory backbenchers have argued that withdrawal is not as complex as some human rights lawyers claim.

The commission, due to be announced shortly, will discuss reform of the court's procedures, and the possibility of a British bill of rights acting as a supplement, but not as a replacement for the European convention. It would also look at a bill's relationship with the Human Rights Act that incorporates the European convention into British law.

It has also been agreed that the commission will also report to Kenneth Clarke, the justice secretary, and to Clegg, who is the man charged with responsibility for constitutional affairs.

The paper says that Nick Clegg won his battle largely because the coalition agreement, negotiated in haste in the immediate aftermath of the general election, makes it clear that the coalition should not seek to withdraw from the convention. It states: "We will establish a commission to investigate the creation of a British Bill of Rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European convention on human rights, ensures that these rights continue to be enshrined in British law, and protects and extends British liberties."

This will be a relief to a number of Liberal Democrat Ministers who queued up at the party's one day conference in Birmingham called to ratify the coalition, to make it clear that they would resign rather than support withdrawal from the convention.

Of course this is a promise mde by Cameron that has been broken because of the need to compromise and because he does not have a majority in his own right. Will he now get the same treatment from the Tory press afforded to Nick Clegg? I doubt it.

Monday, March 14, 2011

What is the point of Nick Clegg?

Whilst I am trawling the papers it is worth mentioning this intriguing article by Mary Ann Sieghart in today's Independent. She argues that Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats have been misjudged in their contribution to the coalition government and have the opportunity to really make their presence felt.

She starts off by discussing tuition fees: Of course, he didn't get all he wanted on tuition fees, but had he gone into coalition with Labour, he would have faced exactly the same problem. It was Labour that first brought in the fees, and Labour that commissioned Lord Browne to suggest ways of increasing them. As Clegg admitted in his Q&A session with activists on Saturday, the Lib Dems were in a pretty weak negotiating position.

She then discusses the Liberal Democrats' problem in distinguishing themselves from the Conservatives: The trouble is that the short-term interests of the Lib Dems collided with those of the country and the Coalition. It is in the national interest that the Coalition should work, that at a time of economic and financial fragility, government is robust. It is also in the Lib Dems' longer-term interest that coalitions shouldn't be seen to be weak. Referring to the hurtling pace of reforms under this government, Clegg joked yesterday: "Perhaps the new complaint about coalition governments is that coalitions are too strong." With the AV referendum coming up, it was critical for the Lib Dems to counter the "no" campaign's most powerful argument: that AV would lead to more coalitions. The coalition brand needed decontaminating just as badly as the Conservatives' did.

She highlights that the Liberal Democrats are already starting to distinguish their contribution to government: Clegg is also embarking on what his team call "positive differentiation" – boasting about what the third party has already achieved in government: the pupil premium, the AV referendum, the Freedom Bill, and so on. This sort of talk was forbidden at the start of the Coalition, but is now allowed in the run-up to May's local elections. As one of Clegg's advisers told me yesterday, "The ship has to be stable before you can start rocking it a bit."

Negative differentiation is still verboten, though we might see some of it later in the Parliament. This is when the Lib Dems start saying: "By being in government, we've managed to stop stuff from happening." It might be preventing the Conservatives from being too Eurosceptic, thwarting a more right-wing agenda on law and order, or stopping ministers being rolled over by City interests.

Her conclusion though is that it is the negative differentiation that can really make the difference in how people view Nick Clegg:

The biggest immediate test is over the NHS reforms. The Lib Dems voted against the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley's plans at the weekend. Not a single Lib Dem minister to whom I have spoken recently has expressed any enthusiasm for them. Mind you, very few Conservatives have either. David Cameron, while keen on the policy, knows that the politics of it are dreadful.

So this presents a rather convenient opportunity for both coalition parties. Clegg can tell Cameron that the reform must be delayed or watered down to satisfy the Lib Dems. Most Tory MPs would be genuinely relieved if this were done. The junior coalition partner would look to the country as if it were saving the NHS from unpopular Tory measures. And Downing Street would have an excuse to row back.

That's the point of Nick Clegg. As long as he chooses his battles carefully, he genuinely can make Tory policies better.

Action to help low earners

There is more speculation in this morning's Daily Telegraph about what may be in the forthcoming budget with an indication that the coalition government will introduce a further increase in the basic-rate tax threshold next month on top of the previous increase from £6,450 to £7,450.

These increases will take thousands of low-paid workers out of tax altogether, and cut tax bills for many more. The paper understands that it will be funded by freezing or lowering the threshold for higher-rate taxpayers pushing more people into the 40 per cent band.

In his speech to Conference, Nick Clegg told more than 1,000 delegates that the tax changes were proof of the Libeal Democrats' influence in Government.

"We are already shaping government tax policy and will continue to do so in the years to come" he said.

"We will take real steps every year, including in the Budget in 10 days time, towards our goal that nobody earning less than £10,000 pays any income tax at all."

The Liberal Democrat Leader also made the point that tabuse of the expenses system by MPs will continue if people do not vote to change the electoral system.

The choice for people in the referendum on May 5 was simple, he said: "If you want more duck houses: vote no. If you want more democracy: vote yes."

Could not have put it better myself.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A budget for pensioners and the low paid

With the budget due to take place in 10 days time, speculation is already rife as to what the Chancellor will do with an unexpected surplus of £3.7 billion. As a candidate in this May's election I obviously have an interest in anything that might counter the negative attacks on the coalition and unerline some of the good work we have done.

This morning's Independent on Sunday highlights some of the considerations that might be in the Chancellor's mind. They say that the Chancellor may use the surplus in the Treasury coffers to alleviate financial pressure on motorists, while also promising help for pensioners and the low-paid. They add that extra measures to target the banks and non-doms and raise the stamp duty threshold for first-time buyers are also being considered ahead of the Budget:

The Lib Dems in particular are pushing for the Chancellor to spell out the next stage of the policy to make the first £10,000 of earnings tax-free by 2015. In June, Mr Osborne increased the income tax threshold by £1,000 to £7,475, lifting 880,000 people out of tax altogether and cutting tax for 23 million people by up to £200 a year.

"We expect to see progress on that spelt out in the Budget," said a Lib Dem minister. To reach the £10,000 target, a key Lib Dem policy secured in the coalition agreement, would cost £13bn.

A flat-rate state pension of £140 could also be confirmed in the Budget, ending means-testing and signalling a significant victory for Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

Additional apprenticeship places are expected to be found and Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, will insist the coalition is on the side of entrepreneurs in a speech to the Federation of Small Businesses, which has set itself against the Government's plan to localise business rates. The Budget will include £100m to boost growth in 10 enterprise zones, while the Office of Tax Simplification will outline reform of the tax system for small businesses, easing administration and reducing uncertainty.

If the Government can take the opportunity to kick-start the economy whilst helping some of the neediest in society then that would be a useful addition to the significant work that the coalition has already done.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Questioning the badger cull

Here is the record of questions to the Rural Affairs Minister, Elin Jones on Wednesday, shortly after she announced her intention to resume the cull of badgers in North Pembrokeshire and parts of Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire:

Peter Black: I wish to focus on the welfare of protected species and, in particular, the Order that you have announced today for the control of bovine tuberculosis in the north Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire area. You will know that, between January and November 2010, there was a 34 per cent reduction on the previous year in the number of cattle slaughtered as a result of TB. That appears to be a long-term trend. Therefore, in making the decision to bring forward this Order, what estimate have you made of the reduction in the incidence of TB that will come about as a result of the cull that you are proposing in this area?

Elin Jones: I am not sure how you can say that the statistics from January to October of last year signify a long-term trend. I must look at the longer-term trend of the disease. There have been times when fewer cattle have been removed than at other times during the trend of an increase over the last 10 years: 2006 was a case in point, and, as the statistics outline, 2010 may be another. I will not make judgments on how the statistics over that period relate to a longer-term trend. We have to assess the longer-term trend over the longer term. That is what I have to do. It is too early to say whether the cattle testing and removal measures that we have put in place as a Government have had a direct impact on the short-term statistics to which you have alluded.

Peter Black: What is the estimate?

The Presiding Officer: Order.

Lorraine Barrett: First, I thank David Melding for his kind remarks with regard to the work that we have all done on freedom food and I congratulate you, Minister, on many of the initiatives that you have brought forward in the field of animal welfare. However, you will not be surprised that I am going to express my disappointment at reading today that you have brought forward this Order for the killing of badgers. I take the point that you made to Peter Black, and I was going to raise the same sort of issue. How can you be sure which of the measures that you are bringing in will be the effective measure? I know that you want to take a holistic approach, but I feel, and I wonder whether you agree, that by bringing in the badger cull now, you will not know whether the earlier measures that you put in place, which have shown some success, are the effective ones. I make this plea to you: will you please postpone the culling of badgers until you have more effective and long-term data for the measures that you have already brought in?

Elin Jones: I know that there are Members in the Chamber and people in Wales who are going to be disappointed with the Order that I have laid today, and who will fundamentally disagree with the decision that I have taken. However, I have not taken the decision lightly; I have considered the matter fully, and it is not a straightforward or easy decision to take. To remove an animal disease, you need to remove all sources of infection. The disease needs to be tackled in the cattle population, for which we have put together extremely stringent measures, especially in north Pembrokeshire. However, it also has to be tackled in the badger population. Leaving a source of infection in that area does not allow for the long-term eradication of this disease, and that is what I have already set out as the aspiration that we in the Chamber hopefully all share, namely that at some point we want to have fully healthy cattle and badger populations in Wales.

Murdoch versus the rest

It is all kicking off over at the Murdoch press phone bugging scandal with what is described by the Independent as an an incendiary speech by Rhondda Labour MP, Chris Bryant, in which he accused the Metropolitan Police Force of misleading a Commons committee, and News International of engaging in the "dark arts" of tapping, hacking and blagging:

Damning the behaviour of the Metropolitan Police and Rupert Murdoch's News International, Chris Bryant claimed his friends had been told by an ally of Mr Murdoch that their raising the issue "would not be forgotten". Suggesting there was a "full-blown, copper-bottomed scandal", he said neither the police nor the newspapers had properly investigated the criminality and that attempts had been made to suppress the full scale of the wrongdoing. To a near-empty Commons chamber, Mr Bryant:

* Accused News International of carrying out illegal activities ranging from tapping phones to blagging phone records to conning health records out of doctors' surgeries;

* Stated he believed phone hacking had taken place at the News of the World from 2002, three years before it was formally acknowledged by police to have begun;

* Added that the alleged hacking had taken place under the editorship of Rebekah Brooks, the current head of News International and Mr Murdoch's most senior UK newspaper executive;

* Claimed one of Britain's most senior police officers misled a parliamentary inquiry by saying there had been only "eight to 12 victims";

* Questioned the Met's "narrow, false" interpretation of the law on intercepting messages;

* Disclosed eight MPs had been told they may have been victims.

Mr Bryant, a former Europe minister, said it had been communicated to MPs that they should not pursue the scandal – which allegedly involved the hacking of the former prime minister Gordon Brown, the former deputy prime minister John Prescott and dozens of other public figures.

Both News International and the Metropolitan Police deny the allegations. However, it cannot be denied that this issue is starting to blow up into a full scale scandal that neither will soon be able to keep a lid on. It is time for a full public airing of all the information available to the Police so that we can judge for ourselves.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Fantasy barrage politics

Let no one suggest that Peter Hain is not persistent, even if his tenacity is not of this world. In this morning's Western Mail, the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales claims that there are private sector consortiums who would build the landmark Severn barrage and enable the generation of 6-7% of the UK’s energy needs, if they knew they had the full support of the Government.

However, his understanding of the project is clearly behind the times. He quotes the cost of the barrage as between £20bn and £30bn compared to the current estimate of £35bn, whilst he appears to have little idea of the rate of return required by the private sector. After all, if consortiums existed who thought that they could get the profits they wanted from such a project then why are they not making themselves known and getting on with it?

It is my belief that the Government would welcome such an approach, indeed Cheryl Gillan all but said so in the Welsh Grand Committee yesterday. What Ministers know that Peter Hain does not however, is that the rate of return is only marginal and the initial capital outlay is so vast that there would need to be a substantial public contribution to it. And this is before the environmental disbenefits are taken into account, not least its impact on the ecology of the Severn Estuary.

Peter Hain is pursuing a pipe dream for party political purposes. He may have a vision but it is not one that politicians of other parties have bought into nor is it one that is economically sustainable.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

David Laws to return to government?

What a coincidence. It is the eve of the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference in Sheffield and the Independent carries a piece about David Laws returning to Government. This has long been the subject of speculation, but now it seems that a way has been found to do it that will avoid a reshuffle:

Nick Clegg and David Cameron have had private discussions about appointing Mr Laws to work alongside Oliver Letwin and Francis Maude in the Cabinet Office, The Independent understands. The new position, which would almost certainly come with the right to attend Cabinet, would increase Liberal Democrat representation in the Coalition.

Senior Conservatives support the plan as they are also keen for Mr Laws to return to frontline politics and a new job would negate the need for a Cabinet reshuffle.

Under the proposal, Mr Laws would, alongside Mr Letwin, be responsible for co-ordinating and driving through all aspects of the Coalition's policy agenda. The job is currently performed by Danny Alexander, who is also the Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury. But there is a growing acknowledgement in Government that he and Mr Clegg have become too thinly spread as they try to keep on top of what every government department is doing. Appointing Mr Laws would allow Mr Alexander to concentrate on his work in the Treasury. It would also ease the burden on Mr Clegg.

"Contrary to the false reports of Nick going home at three o'clock every day, he is actually working like a dog," said one senior Liberal Democrat source. "Being the junior partner in the Coalition is incredibly tough. We don't have the ministerial firepower of the Conservatives but we still have to be across all areas of what the Government is doing.

"Having David in the Cabinet Office would free Nick up to spend more time on House of Lords reform and trying to get a deal on party funding, both of which are significant priorities for us."

All of this is a good thing of course, though it is ironic that the strengthening of the Liberal Democrat hand at the centre of government in this way is likely to ideologically please the Conservatives more than the grassroots of David Laws own party.

That does not mean it is not welcome. It is and it will enable the hard-pressed Liberal Democrat team to work more effectively. The only question remaining is, when will the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards finally conclude his investigation into whether Mr Laws broke expenses rules or not?

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Elin and the badger, the cull resumes!

The Rural Affairs Minister, Elin Jones has today announced that she is to resume her attempt to cull badgers in North Pembrokshire, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire in an attempt to control bovine TB in cattle.

This is despite the fact that 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.

In her statement the Minister says:

After full consideration of the evidence presented to me, including consideration of the responses to the Consultation on Badger Control in the Intensive Action Area (IAA), I have reached the decision to make the Badger (Control Area) (Wales) Order 2011 under section 21 of the Animal Health Act 1981, authorising the destruction of badgers within the IAA (an area of Wales where bovine TB is endemic which includes parts of Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion).

The Order will be laid before the National Assembly today with the intention of it coming into force on the 31 March 2011.

This Order will enable a government managed cull of badgers specifically in the Intensive Action Area. This will not be carried out in isolation but alongside the continued additional cattle controls and improved biosecurity measures that have been in place since May 2010.

I am aware that this decision will cause some people genuine concern, but it is a decision that I have taken based on full consideration of the matter, including the substantial scientific evidence available and after careful consideration of the responses to the public consultation.

I would emphasise that the badger remains a protected species in Wales and the prohibitions in the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 remain much in place. Any potentially illegal action will be reported to the relevant authority.

There is no indication as to whether she considered the alternative option of vaccination or what weight she gave to it. In addition she has just refused to answer my question in the chamber as to what reduction in bTB in cattle she envisages arising from the cull.

The order is due to come into effect on 31 March. Given the commitment of Labour and Plaid Cymru to this needless slaughter of a protected species the only options available that may stop the cull now appear to be legal action or a resolution of the Assembly to annul the order.

I envisage a Plenary debate before 31 March and I would urge everybody who agrees with me that this measure is unnecessary to start lobbying their Assembly Members now.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Splits and own goals

There was speculation that once the referendum was over then normal hostilities would resume but surely nobody expected that the conflict would develop in quite such a dramatic way as a meltdown within Wales Labour and the Plaid Cymru education spokesperson launching a public attack on her own government.

The BBC report that in a statement issued by the Welsh Labour press office on Monday, the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain said that after last week's Yes vote in the referendum that "people are now asking 'what is the point of Plaid Cymru?'"

Mr Hain has now said: "Ieuan Wyn Jones wants a discussion that goes wider than the future of the Wales Office.

I am the leader of the Welsh Labour Party... I anticipate leading the campaign into the assembly election, so it's my role of course to speak on behalf of the party”

"I think we need to have a mature debate about the future role of the Welsh Deputy First Minister.

"Can you really justify having a Deputy First Minister in an assembly cabinet of only nine?"

He added: "It is difficult, I think, in the long-term to justify having a Deputy First Minister in the Welsh Assembly Government as ineffective as Ieuan Wyn Jones."

Both the first and deputy first ministers were asked about Mr Hain's attack when they appeared together at the Welsh Assembly Government's weekly press briefing.

Carwyn Jones said: "Those are Peter's comments. These are not comments that are issued by the government.

Carwyn Jones also outlined a major and fundamental disagreement with Peter Hain over who leads Labour and who will be leading Labour's Assembly campaign: "I am the leader of the Welsh Labour Party. I anticipate leading the campaign into the assembly election, so it's my role of course to speak on behalf of the party."

Given that Hain's statement was issued by the Wales Labour Party itself, you have to wonder if they have been told this. Athough Carwyn Jones is meant to be the leader of the Labour Party in Wales his own MPs are now openly revolting against his government and his leadership.

There will be many people who are now confused about who speaks for Welsh Labour – Peter Hain or Carwyn Jones. It is hard to see how Welsh Labour can be a strong voice for Wales when they are in this sort of turmoil.

Just yesterday there were calls from Plaid Cymru to abolish the post of Secretary of State for Wales. How long will it be before Carwyn Jones formally calls for Peter Hain’s post to be abolished too?

Meanwhile Plaid Cymru have their own problems. Their education spokesperson, Nerys Evans said a shortfall in funding per pupil between Wales and England was "appalling" and she pointed out that Labour has held the education portfolio since going into coalition in 2007.

It is hard not to disagree with the Education Minister, who said that Plaid Cymru had scored a "spectacular own goal":

"For the past four years Nerys Evans and Plaid ministers have voted in favour of each successive education budget, presented by the One Wales government in the assembly."

Are we going to see another outbreak of Plaid Cymru denying collective responsibility for the mess they have made of the Education system in Wales? Surely the voters will see through this attempt by the nationalists to have their cake and eat it. As for Labour, perhaps they need to sort themselves out before criticising others.

Nevada or bust

Politics never ceases to surprise, not least in America where a US Senator who wants to reverse the current Nevada state law that allows legalised brothels in counties with less than 400,000 residents has met an unenthusiastic response from lawmakers.

Senator Harry Reid believes that these legalised brothels send the wrong message to business leaders mulling over whether to invest in the state, during a period of historically high unemployment:

"Nevada needs to be known as the first place for innovation and investment, not as the last place where prostitution is still legal," he told lawmakers, arguing that many companies are reluctant to relocate to a hotbed of the world's oldest profession. "Parents don't want their children to look out of a school bus and see a brothel. Or live in a state with the wrong kind of red lights. So let's have an adult conversation about an adult subject."

Senator Reid's comments, during his biennial address to the Nevada legislature in Carson City last month, met with an unenthusiastic response from lawmakers, many of whom regard relaxed laws about smoking, gambling and other bad behaviour as part of the state's heritage. Even his Democratic colleagues refrained from applauding when he addressed the topic.

Oscar Goodman, the former Mafia lawyer and current Mayor of Las Vegas, even argues that the legalisation of prostitution should be extended to major cities such as his own. He says that it would help to undermine the illegal sex trade and could also be properly taxed.

It is an interesting debate but one starting from a completely different position than we are used to.

Monday, March 07, 2011

The future of the Wales Office

To be honest I am finding it difficult to motivate myself to even comment on this latest row over the future of the Wales Office.

The Presiding Officer, Lord Elis-Thomas told the Sunday Supplement programme: "Now that the responsibility of ministers for administration of policy and indeed for legislation is now here, it makes more sense for us to be organised in a proper inter-governmental and inter-parliamentary way.

"That is assembly to Westminster, government to government.

"That would mean, I think, winding up the Wales Office and as far as I'm concerned the sooner the better.

"I would like to start operating in the new way after the 5th May election."

In response, the former Secretary of State, Peter Hain and his successor Cheryl Gillan rubbished the idea. The Neath MP said: "Whether [the post] is configured in precisely the same way is another matter but there will always be a need," whilst Ms. Gillan said the good Lord is following "a separatist agenda".

So far, so predictable. My own view for what it is worth is that in the medium term the Presiding Officer may well be right, but for now the priority has to be getting the new system up and running and then tackling the thorny subject of how we finance devolution.

What happens to the Wales Office will be a matter for the ebb and tides of the political currents. In other words it will continue as it is until a consensus emerges that a more appropriate model is a Secretary of State for the Nations and Regions.

In the meantime, perhaps the Secretary of State for Wales should start reviewing her organisation in the light of the referendum vote. Despite the barely credible claim by her Minister, David Jones on Radio Wales about half an hour ago, nobody is going to believe that they are understaffed and stretched to the limit, not anymore.

Every pound she saves means more money will become available to the Welsh Government to draw down for services. It is only a small amount in comparison to that available to the Welsh Government but every penny counts and surely the need to maximise spending on services is incentive enough for Ms. Gillan to cut the costs of her department.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

The big picture

Andrew Rawnsley in today's Observer has an interesting perspective on where the Liberal Democrats currently are:

In terms of the big picture, Mr Clegg is right to argue with his party that it would be a mistake to respond to adversity by changing the broad strategy. It would look opportunistic, unconvincing and panicky if they suddenly tried to put distance between themselves and government policies that they have signed up to. It would poison the coalition. If it precipitated a collapse of the government, the Lib Dems would be hurled into an early general election at which they would be eviscerated. It would also be bad long-term politics. The bleakest scenario for the Lib Dems is that they suffer all the present unpopularity of the cuts only for the Tories to enjoy the gains if and when the government rebounds. That has been the fate of some junior coalition partners on the continent.

There has been a precipitous plunge in Nick Clegg's personal poll ratings for trust. One consolation is an uptick in his ratings for decisiveness and resilience. Another is that people continue to place him in the centre of the political spectrum, the location where most voters put themselves. That is the glimmer of light for his party. Their best hope is to win credit if the coalition is broadly seen to have been a success by the time of the next election. By demonstrating that they are no longer a wasted vote and can be credible wielders of power, the Lib Dems may then find a new constituency among centre-ground and swing voters, including some who have not taken them seriously in the past and have reluctantly voted Labour or Tory instead because they didn't believe the Lib Dems had a chance.

Is that an impossible aspiration for them? I don't believe so. But to have a hope of realising that dream, they will first have to hold together through many months which will be nightmarish. The darker it gets, the more they will need to keep whistling that tune.

It is fair to say that this is not a view shared by those commenting on the article but then that is par for the course these days.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

The Milk Matters

This is brilliant.

Friday, March 04, 2011

A non-political life

As I write counting has just got underway in the Assembly powers referendum and the final touches are being put to preparations for the Welsh Liberal Democrats Conference and the Welsh Conservatives Conference, both in Cardiff, as well as an anti-cuts rally in the same City. I will not be at any of them.

Faced with the prospect of another nine weeks of intense campaigning in the lead up to the Welsh Assembly elections and the AV referendum, I am postponing the resumption of the fight for hearts and minds and instead taking my wife away for her birthday.

Blogging will be light. See you on the doorsteps next week.

How much does it cost to change a lightbulb?

Reading this story I was reminded of the scene in Independence Day when the President of the United States enters Area 51 for the first time and the question is asked how the costs for it were hidden away in the budget.

The answer is something along the lines of "you don't think it really costs £22 to change a light bulb or £103 for inch long screws or that military dog kennels cost more than five-star hotel rooms do you?" The money is hidden away in other budget lines.

I rather wish that this was the real explanation for the profligacy revealed by the leaking of these Private Finance Initiative invoices. Alas, I suspect that the actual reason is a bit more prosaic and no more defensible.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The truth is out there

I am not entirely clear why the National Archives chose this day to release thousands of documents about close encounters. They have certainly attracted attention, far more it has to be said that the referendum on Assembly powers also taking place today. Nevertheless, the stories that are revealed are quite entertaining.

The Daily Telegraph says that the phenomenon of extra-terrestrial encounters and alien abduction was discussed at the highest level of government and security services worldwide, including at the United Nations (UN), the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and was even the subject of a debate in the House of Lords.

The paper says that the files reveal that in December 1977 the government used its influence to talk down a call by Grenada president, Sir Eric Gairy, for a UN agency to conduct research into UFO sightings:

Gairy eventually withdrew his proposal but continued his campaign for a full UN debate on UFOs - calling on the UN General Assembly to make 1978 "the year of the UFO".

One of the 35 newly-released files shows 15 unidentified aircraft were detected on radar approaching the UK between January and July 2001 in the months leading up to 9/11.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) received just one UFO report (with no radar corroboration) on September 11 itself.

Other highlights include:

* Claims that the Home Office had emergency procedures for dealing with landed and crashed satellites and UFOs.

* Details on RAF interception policy during the Cold War - when aircraft were scrambled on a daily basis to intercept Warsaw Pact aircraft approaching the UK coast.

* US policy files on UFOs, including CIA papers discussing the use of UFO reports for "psychological warfare".

* An alleged UFO sighting by crew of HMS Manchester off the coast of Norway and how the logbook recording the incident could not be recovered.

* One report describing a "War of the Worlds" incident in 1967 that, for a few hours at least, was treated as a potentially real "alien invasion" of the UK.

The RAF were flooded with calls from the public reporting six small "flying saucers" discovered in locations in a perfect line across southern England from the Isle of Sheppey to the Bristol Channel.

Four police forces, bomb disposal units, the army and the MoD's intelligence branch were all mobilised before it emerged the saucers were a 'rag-day' hoax by engineering students from Farnborough Technical College.

My favourite is the man who believed that he may have been abducted by aliens after seeing an unusual aircraft one evening and experiencing a period of missing time. It is suggested that he forgot to put his watch forward an hour at the start of British summertime.

All the right moves

I am not sure whether this is Rocky Horror or the Hokey Cokey but they certainly do politics differently down under.

According to the Daily Telegraph Australian Liberal Senator, Mary Jo Fisher felt so passionately about denouncing the government's climate change policy that she decided to choreograph her argument to the famous children's party song the Hokey Cokey, or the Hokey Pokey as she described it:

Twirling around in the chamber she told colleagues: "You put petrol in, you take petrol out, you put petrol in and you shake the tax about."

She also illustrated her points on carbon tax with some classic moves from The Timewarp, describing the government's stance on the issue as "a jump to the left then a step to the right".

The South Australian, who has worked in politics since 2007, finished her routine with some rhythmic hip movements claiming it was "the policy's pelvic thrust that will drive Australians insane".

Perhaps she needs just a little bit more work on her communications strategy. Still at least she wasn't playing air guitar behind the Secretary of State for Defence whilst he announced 11,000 redundancies in the armed forces.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

End of the line?

Disappointing as yesterday's decision was, to stop electrification on the South Wales to London line at Cardiff, there are nevertheless a number of positives for stops west of the capital City.

Firstly, the introduction of new hybrid rolling stock is more than the Labour Government was offering and means that there will still be a seamless journey from London to Swansea. It also means that in terms of travel time the 20 minutes gained is almost exactly the same as would have been knocked off the journey if the electrification had continued the extra 40 miles. In those terms Swnsea, Neath, Port Talbot and Bridgend will not lose out.

Secondly, this announcement goes further than the pledge by the last Labour Government. It commits to, and ensures funding for, electrifying the line to Cardiff, keeps open electrification to Swansea, and opens up the prospect of electrifying Valley Lines services to Cardiff.

The perception that everything stops at Cardiff in rail terms is largely down to a much earlier decision to put on half hourly inter City trains between the two capital Cities but not to extend that privilege to Swansea. I believe that the fact that trains to London from Wales' second City only run hourly contributed to the marginal business case that led to the decision not to electrify as far as Swansea. Any campaign to change that decision should also revisit the need for a half hourly service along the whole length of the line.

Finally, we should not forget that amongst all the Labour spin, that Gordon Brown announced an electrification project in 2009, saying that work would start immediately but nothing happened. Not only did Labour fail to put aside any money to pay for the project, they did not carry out the detailed technical work needed.

This announcement is not the end of the matter. Heavy lobbying by the Welsh Liberal Democrats in particular, delivered a far more favourable statement than was expected. The government has left open the prospect of further electrification to Swansea and I welcome that. It means that we can address the perception problem, no matter how well or ill-founded it is. We need to use that opening to continue to campaign for that outcome.

Oh good grief!

Never let it be said that style is more important than substance.

Citizen Lem from Mancha Productions on Vimeo.

Hat tip to Liberal England.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Lobbyists to be put under the cosh

This morning's Independent reveals that voluntary register of lobbyists is to be published today but already it has falled foul of accusations from transparency campaigners that it only features a small proportion of the controversial industry.

They say that the UK Public Affairs Council (UKPAC) is to publish details of firms and individuals who work in lobbying alongside lists of their clients. But critics claim that up to 90% of lobbyists are shunning the register and so will not be included.

This comes after years of demands for greater openness about who is trying to influence Government policy for whom. The paper rightly points out that MPs have raised concerns about the perceived "privileged access and disproportionate influence" wielded by lobbyists operating in the shadows.

Fortunately, the Coalition Government is committed to introducing a statutory register. Surely it is only a matter of time before it comes in.

Swansea says Yes on St. David's Day #yesforwales

After Sunday's video about Schedule Five to the Government of Wales Act 2006 the least I can do is to feature this excellent video from the Swansea Yes Campaign. Kudos to local band Broken City Skyline, who provided the soundtrack.

Two days to go! Don't forget to vote yes. You know it makes sense.

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