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Saturday, April 30, 2011

More dangers of social networking

Social networks like Facebook and Twitter have already claimed a few victims during this election campaign, mostly from inexperienced candidates who have not thought through the consequences of their actions. It can happen to all of us.

As the BBC reports, transgressors include Cardiff Central Tory candidate Matt Smith, who was reprimanded by his party after comparing the left-wing Respect party to paedophiles, and Joe Lock, who is Labour's Anglesey candidate, and who apologised on Thursday for postings he made last year about the former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The person most unlikely to be caught out doing something stupid on a social network is Peter Hain, or so you might think. However, even an experienced and seasoned politician such as the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales has his off-moments.

The Western Mail tells us that Mr. Hain was rebuked by Labour bosses yesterday after accusing the BBC of political bias in its coverage of the royal wedding:

Mr Hain tweeted: “Loads of TV coverage of Cameron and Clegg at wedding but none of Ed. BBC airbrushing Labour like the palace?”

The second line is a reference to former Labour prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown not being invited to the wedding, unlike other living former premiers Baroness Thatcher and Sir John Major.

Responding to Mr Hain’s comments, a senior Labour source said: “The last thing Ed and Justine [Thornton, Mr Miliband’s fiancee] are worried about is getting on television on William and Kate’s big day. It should just be about them.

“No-one should be trying to make a political row on this day of celebration.”

Mr Hain’s comments were also met by a storm of protest on Twitter as fellow tweeters immediately accused him of attempting to politicise the wedding.

Among them was Wales Office Minister David Jones, who tweeted: “Beggars belief; time, place, Peter.”

David Jones' comment just about sums it up really.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Plaid Cymru in irony fail

According to the BBC Plaid Cymru leader Ieuan Wyn Jones stood up in Caernarfon yesterday and attacked "Labour's failing education policies". He said young people were in danger of falling further behind. Well yes, Deputy First Minister with collective responsibility for those very same policies, don't you think that this is your failure too?

On Dragon's Eye last night, Plaid's Cymru's Deputy Leader argued that because they had allegedly put the case for change within the government apparatus the nationalists were insulated from blame for the way that young people have been let down by this One Wales Government.

Well, it does not work like that. When you are in government you take responsibility for all the good and bad decisions and their consequences. If Plaid Cymru felt so strongly then why did they not walk away? Were the ministerial limousines too comfortable?

Both Plaid Cymru and Labour are playing a game of government without consequences and they are devaluing politics in the process. It is even getting to the point where each is disowning the records of their own ministers.

They are able to do this because the Welsh media is so weak both in the uniformity of its coverage and in the resources it is able to bring to bear on this election. They are also benefiting from a general lack of public interest and/or understanding of how the Welsh Government works and what it is responsible for.

The exception to all of this is the excellent coverage from the BBC and in particular the savaging of Carwyn Jones by Oliver Hides on Radio Wales yesterday, and the excellent series of leader's' interviews on Dragon's Eye with Felicity Evans. If only more floating voters watched/listened to them.

Above all Plaid and Labour are able to get away with this because they are trying to turn this election into a referendum on another Government and in doing so they are undermining the principle of electoral accountability within Wales and the legitimacy of the Welsh Assembly itself.

Cats for AV

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Full circle

For the last year the Welsh First Minister has deflected attacks on his government and virtually refused to cooperate with legitimate scrutiny, preferring instead to answer questions with attacks on the UK Coalition.

Now, the UK Prime Minister has caught on and spent much of yesterday's question time attacking Labour and Plaid Cymru in Cardiff Bay.

No wonder people are disillusioned with politics. By all means compare and contrast but the point of these sessions is meant to be effective scrutiny. You cannot have good government unless the opposition start asking awkward questions and insist on an answer.

These tactics undermine that convention and plunge us even further into the realm of yah-boo politics.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Liberal Democrat MP speaks out on superinjunctions

The Guardian reports that Liberal Democrat MP, John Hemming, was stopped from raising the issue of superinjunctions on the floor of the House of Commons, after the Speaker ruled that the matter could only be raised in private because of fears that a public discussion would undermine strict parliamentary rules on cases that may be sub judice:

Hemming raised the issue of an injunction taken out by a claimant known as AMM, a married television personality who wants to protect details of his private life. This is not Marr.

The MP for Birmingham Yardley said to Bercow: "There is a tendency for people to issue injunctions on the basis of a claim that they intend to issue proceedings but not actually to issue those proceedings. One case such as that is AMM where no proceedings have been issued. One would presume therefore that never becomes sub judice."

Bercow told Hemming he should raise the matter at a private meeting he had offered the MP a few minutes earlier after he used parliamentary privilege to raise a separate child protection case. This related to a matter in the family division and was not one of the superinjunctions.

The Speaker told Hemming: "I don't intend to have a discussion on the floor of the house … on the issue of whether a particular case is or is not sub judice. One of my duties is to uphold the resolution of the house with respect to sub judice issue.

"I am perfectly prepared to discuss the issue privately with the honourable gentleman … I feel sure that the honourable gentleman will take his cue from the very clear response that I have just given him."

I am sure that that is reasonable but only if clear ground rules are laid down that ensure that Parliamentary privilege is not undermined by these injunctions. I think that there should also be a public interest test. Challenging Trafigura is one thing, but revealing the private life of a premiership footballer on the floor of the House of Commons quite another.

Those hard to pronounce words

I always thought that John Redwood's problem with the Welsh National Anthem was not that he did not know the words but that he tried to sing along to it anyway and in the process devalued and mocked it. Make your own mind up here.

It may have been a bit harsh therefore for a letter writer in yesterday's South Wales Evening Post to compare Ed Miliband to the former Welsh Secretary, just because he has difficulty correctly pronouncing Llanelli. After all the Labour leader is neither a Welsh MP, a Minister or Shadow Minister with specific responsibility for Wales, or Welsh.

Mr. Lewis writes: I wonder how many of your readers will agree with me that until Wednesday the Assembly election had been rather lacklustre.

That is until Labour leader Mr Miliband came to Llanelli and in an instant we had a ''John Redwood'' moment.

I'm sure those who were watching the event on the news will have noticed how when talking to one lady, he suddenly stopped referring to "Llanelli" and changed it to "your town".

The pronunciation of this old, illustrious town's name was obviously too much for him.

Mr. Miliband appears to have found an acceptable alternative to trying to deliver a word he has difficulty with. At least he didn't try and hum it whilst rolling his eyes around with undisguised disdain.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Going nuclear

In this morning's Western Mail, Friends of the Earth highlight the rather bizarre position whereby at least one Welsh Party leader is at odds with his own party's policy on nuclear power.

Friends of the Earth's call for the abandonment of a replacement for Wylfa B in Anglesey comes on the 15th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster. The legacy of this incident still hangs over Wales, with 330 Welsh farms – and 180,000 sheep – under restriction because of radiation that swamped a wide area of North Wales after the blast on April 26, 1986:

Director of Friends of the Earth Cymru Gordon James called on the leaders to rethink their supportive position on the Wylfa site after the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in Japan which has crippled the country’s Fukushima-Daiichi plant.

He wrote: “The catastrophe at the Fukushima nuclear power station in Japan, following the horrific earthquake and tsunami, has forced a global rethink on nuclear power.

“China, for instance, has suspended approvals for proposed nuclear plants and Germany has shut down seven of its nuclear reactors while it reconsiders its nuclear strategy.”

He added: “It has been extremely disappointing, and rather bizarre, to have had the leaders of the two parties in coalition government in Wales oppose their government’s policy on such an important issue.

“We hope that the current reassessment of nuclear power will mean that the next Welsh Assembly Government will be unanimous in its opposition to new nuclear build at Wylfa.”

I am not clear what exactly the UK Government's position on nuclear power is at this moment. The key lies in how we define public subsidy. The UK Government has said it will not subsidise the building of any new nuclear plant. That must mean that full provision should be made by any developer for the decommissioning of that plant. If that is the case then any new plant will be unaffordable by the private sector.

Clearly, the tragedy in Japan and the legacy of Chernobyl must lead us to pause and think. Irrespective of who has the responsibility, the development of a comprehensive energy policy including a complete review of TAN 8 in Wales has to be a priority for any new Welsh Government.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Labour Minister's silence is deafening

This morning's Western Mail reports that the Health Minister, Edwina Hart has robustly rebutted claims in a Tory leaflet that the Neath Port Talbot Hospital is under threat. In return the Tories have accepted her assurances and withdrawn the leaflet.

However, there is still word on the threat to cardiac services at Swansea's Morriston Hospital. The Local Health Board is participating in a review of this unit and it was reported that the board were told that one option was to centralise it in either Swansea or Cardiff.

We have been here before of course, with paediatric neurosurgery (centralised in Cardiff and now moved to Bristol) and adult neurosurgery, when both Labour and Plaid Cymru promised that it would be retained in Swansea, only to sign off on a move to Cardiff a few years later.

If cardiac services moving to Cardiff is not being considered then why doesn't the Minister say so? After all she is quick enough to refute other threats.

Who audits the auditors?

There are of course mechanisms in place to keep an eye on bodies such as the Audit Commission, but one has to question how effective they are when we can read stories such as this about the lavish use of expenses.

The Daily Telegraph reports that senior figures at the Audit Commission, which polices spending at local authorities, NHS trusts and other government bodies, spent almost £20,000 of public money over the past two years on luxury goods and services. This includes using taxpayer-funded credit cards at Michelin-starred restaurants, florists and a gym equipment supplier.

The credit card receipts disclose that Audit Commission executives enjoyed meals costing more than £600 at L’Escargot and Coq d’Argent in London. Hundreds of pounds were also spent at a brasserie owned by Raymond Blanc, the French chef. In total, £11,390 was spent on fine dining in two years.

Executives also made 30 purchases at florists, costing more than £1,300, and also bought goods from HMV and Thorntons, cinema tickets and doughnuts. Other taxpayer-funded credit card expenditure included more than £100 on chocolates, £200 at Next, the clothes shop, and £1,126 on gym equipment.

In the current climate this sort of expenditure cannot be justified. In fact it could not be supported in any climate. The Audit Commission are meant to be setting an example. Somebody should tell them.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Labour and Plaid's financial failure

Yesterday's Western Mail story about the money that is supposedly being clawed back from the Welsh budget by Westminster is a wake up call for the One Wales Government and underlines how badly served we have been by their Ministers. It seems that when it comes to passing the buck and attributing blame they are in their element, however on delivery the Welsh Government is lagging behind other devolved administrations.

The story focusses on an article written by John Osmond, who is the director of the Institute of Welsh Affairs think tank. He refers to the fact that Welsh Government claims it lost £385m after Chancellor George Osborne and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander decided to end the arrangement under which unspent cash could be carried forward into the next financial year, but points out that in Scotland the amount lost has been restricted to £23m:

Mr Osmond said: “I’ve learned that once again Wales has been outplayed by Scotland.

“In the case of Scotland the loss of what is termed ‘accumulated end of year flexibility’ was limited to just £23m. How could this have happened given the much higher level of public funding, about double, that Scotland receives compared with Wales?

“The sad truth is that the Scottish Government has proved much more agile and streetwise when dealing with the Treasury and safeguarding Scottish interests.”

Over the course of the 2008-09 to 2010-11 Comprehensive Spending Review years John Swinney, the SNP’s Scottish Finance Minister, did a deal with the Treasury that reduced most of the £850m end of year flexibility stock that had existed at the start of the period.

Thanks to this initiative Scotland ended up losing only £23m when the Treasury clawed back the outstanding cash at the time of the 2011 UK Budget in March.

By the time of the beginning of the 2010-11 financial year Mr Swinney had whittled the Scottish accumulated end of year stock down from the original £850m to around £150m.

He then did a further deal with the Treasury to change the size of the Scottish Budget in 2010-11 to allow him to carry over most of the unspent resources into the current financial year. The result was to cushion the Scottish Budget against the spending cuts.

Labour's plans for Wales of course would have cut the Welsh Government's revenue and capital budgets harder and faster than is the case under the UK Coalition. So, given the financial mess they put the country in, why were they not planning for the inevitable and making sure that underspends in-year and planned carry forward expenditure was not kept to a minimum.

The UK Coalition has recognised the special case of the three devolved administrations in its arrangements for carry-forward expenditure, but even they cannot allow for financial incompetence when they need to make in-roads into a £109 billion deficit and a £800bn debt.

Unspent money was always going to be a natural target for cuts, no matter how much pseudo-nationalist rhetoric the Finance Minister indulges in. She should have realised that and planned accordingly some time ago.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Vince Cable is wrong to make AV vote partisan

In calling for a yes vote in the referendum on the voting system so as to secure a 'progressive majority' of Liberal Democrat and Labour voters as an alternative to another century of Tory dominated governments, Vince Cable has significantly raised the stakes on 5th May. Although I implicitly support his objective, I cannot agree with his conclusions as to the impact of the Alternative Vote.

The fact is that both Labour and the Tories have won majorities in Parliament on a minority of the vote. AV may be fairer but there is no way that it will skew elections towards a progressive majority as the Business Secretary argues. Indeed there is evidence to suggest that where one party has a commanding lead in the polls then AV will magnify that impact, sending transfers their way as well.

It is certainly the case that in an election such as the one held in 1997, parties with a mutual interest could persuade their supporters to transfer to the other. But these elections are rare and they are not dominated by parties of the left or centre left.

The argument for AV, which is after all no more than a stepping stone to full proportionality, is that in individual constituencies it will ensure that an MP cannot be elected until he or she has secured a broad coalition of support approaching 50% of the vote. It will reduce the number of safe seats and it will assist smaller parties to reflect their support in the number of MPs they secure.

Where Vince has got it right is in his tactics. Firstly, he is right to reflect the fact that the outcome of the referendum relies on how Labour supporters vote, thus the talk of progressive alliances. Secondly, he also knows that in the forthcoming local and national elections on May 5th, it is important for the Liberal Democrats to provide some distance between themselves and their coalition partners.

I also agree with Vince's distaste for the No to AV leaflet that contains a highly personal, brutal and inaccurate attack on Nick Clegg. This leaflet amounts to the revenge of the Tory grassroots for the way that the Liberal Democrats have constrained the worst excesses of the Conservative agenda in government. It deserves an equally partisan response.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Do we need a privacy law?

The growth of super-injunctions to gag the media about potential scandals has led to some fundamental questions being asked about freedom of speech, Parliamentary privilege and the role of the courts. Now the Prime Minister has joined in by declaring that parliament and not the courts should decide where the right to privacy begins.

The question that David Cameron poses is whether it is right that judges should be acting in this way and, by implications, whether Parliament should step in and pass its own privacy law?

He said: "The judges are creating a sort of privacy law, whereas what ought to happen in a parliamentary democracy is parliament – which you elect and put there – should decide how much protection do we want for individuals and how much freedom of the press and the rest of it. So I am a little uneasy about what is happening."

He added: "It might be odd to hear it, but I don't really have the answer to this one, I need to do some more thinking about it. It is an odd situation if the judges are making the law rather than parliament."

My problem with this is that many of these superinjunctions are being used to protect individual families from prying newspapers. That is a protection that should be enshrined in law and I would certainly agree with Cameron that it should be Parliament that decides how that works, not judges.

However, there are wider policy implications and a real concern that others are using these mechanisms to hide matters of genuine public interest. The Trafigura case is a good example of what I would consider to be an abuse of process.

The Prime Minister says he needs to reflect on the matter. I hope that he does and that some action is taken that protects individuals but ensures that genuine scandals continue to see the light of day.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Full house

The cross benchers are revolting. Well that is the distinct impression we get from today's Independent, which highlights complaints from the convener of the crossbenchers in the Lords, Baroness D'Souza that the House of Lords is full-up.

She says that the upper house has been over-run by an "avalanche of not-so-distinguished peers" which has turned the chamber into a "very unpleasant place" to be. Her main objection appears to be towards the political appointees who she says have brought "yah-boo" politics into the Lords.

The paper says that David Cameron has created 117 new peers since last May, an unprecedented increase in recent times, which has taken active membership of the Lords to 792. They add that the size of the chamber is set to increase still further as the Coalition Agreement commits the Government to introducing "proportionality" – which would mean taking the chamber to 1,062 members.

Many of the new peers of course were created by Tony Blair but the good Baroness' complaints are reflective of a wider problem created by an unelected second chamber in which it is virtually impossible to remove existing members. Thus, as each new government seeks to re-balance the Lords to reflect the outcome of the most recent General Election, the number of members grows and grows.

As soon as we have an elected upper house the better, though I am not sure that Baroness D'Souza will be too keen on the inevitable party politicking that will follow such an election.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

National Trust leads the way on badgers

I did not renew my membership of the National Trust when they ignored an all-member vote to ban fox-hunting on their land, however today they are back in favour with a decision to vaccinate badgers in a bovine tuberculosis "hotspot" on one of their estates in Devon, as part of a four-year scheme:

The scheme, which is to cost the trust £80,000 a year, will take place on the 6,400-acre Killerton estate in Exeter.

It aims to see if vaccination can be a viable alternative to culling badgers, which spread TB to cattle.

The work, which starts in May, will see government experts catch the animals, inject them and then catalogue them.

The trust said vaccinating badgers was a "practical step forward" after recent field studies which showed it worked to reduce TB in the wild animals.

They are leading the way in presenting a clear alternative to culling. In contrast the Plaid Cymru Rural Affairs Minister remains determined to pursue a course of action in North Pembrokeshire that will divide that community and destroy over a thousand members of a protected species unnecessarily. She needs to think again.

Keeping the Tories honest

In this morning's Daily Mail, Vince Cable sets out a key reason why many of us are biting our tongue and working with the Tories in Government. It is because we are moderating their worst excesses, whilst at the same time putting into effect key Liberal Democrat policies such as taking 50,000 Welsh workers out of tax and linking pensions to earnings.

We should not overlook the fact either that one of Nick Clegg's promises in the last election was that in the event of a hung Parliament we would work with the largest party. Nor should we forget that Labour did not have the numbers nor were they interested in an alternative coalition. The alternative would have been a minority Tory Government, an early General Election and then a unrestrained Tory majority.

In an interview with BBC Scotland: Mr Cable boasted that he was part of the ‘very strong anti-Tory aggressive tradition in Scottish politics’ when he ‘led and was active in Labour politics in Scotland in the early Seventies’.

He said: ‘I very much understand the tradition and I do understand the kind of revulsion that people had, from some of the policies of the 1980s and the poll tax and the massive run-down of the manufacturing industry.

‘What we have done in this government is stopped a Conservative government doing many of those things that people in Scotland found offensive, and we have concentrated, for example, in lifting low-earners out of tax, not cutting taxes for the very wealthy.’

It is an important point and one that should not be lost in Labour's attempt to re-write history.

Clegg leads by example

Today's Sheffield Star reports that Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg is leading by example by selling his old Sheffield constituency home and giving the £38,750 profit to the taxpayer.

They say that although he would have been allowed to keep the money under current rules, Mr. Clegg wanted to “lead by example”. He said that he hoped other MPs will follow suit as they are forced to sell second homes and rent properties instead. The new regulations come in later this year.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Claims and counter-claims

Everything really kicked off yesterday as Plaid Cymru and Labour traded blows over things said and unsaid. As I spent most of the day in hustings or en-route to and from Machynlleth I missed most of the controversy. I am not sure that I missed much.

According to the Western Mail, Plaid Cymru made the claim that district general hospitals including one in Llandudno would be at risk under a Labour majority Assembly Government simply because the Labour manifesto did not contain an explicit promise to keep them open.

On that basis Labour must be planning to demolish Cardiff and Swansea. After all they have not said any different in their manifesto.

For their part, Labour claimed that Plaid Cymru plans to devolve justice to Wales will cost the Welsh budget £500 million, as if any party would agree to such a transfer without all the cost of the service coming across as well.

Oh wait, wasn't there a story not so long ago that Wales had been robbed of millions of pounds because Westminster has failed to pass on sufficient money when responsibility for funding a variety of public services has been transferred to the Assembly Government? Should Labour judge other parties by their own failures?

All in all yesterday was not a good day for democracy. There are clearly genuine issues here but this sort of baseless mud-slinging does nobody any favours.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Really dodgy Tory bar chart

I am more than content to admit that one or two Liberal Democrat bar charts have been a bit suspect in the past but even I was shocked by this one. It has appeared on a Conservative leaflet in Swansea West. This is especially so after receiving a lecture via twitter from the former Welsh Conservative AM for South Wales Central, Andrew R.T. Davies about how awful my party is in this regard. It seems that we cannot compete with the Welsh Tories.

The Swansea West Conservative leaflet is notable for two things. Firstly, there is the complete absence of Welsh Tory Leader Nick Bourne again and secondly, the bar chart inside the leaflet, which juxtaposes two elections so as to contrive to create a two horse race between Labour and the Conservatives.

What they have done is to take the Tory vote in the 2010 General Election, when they came third and the Welsh Liberal Democrats pushed Labour to within 500 votes, and put it next to the Labour and Welsh Liberal Democrat votes in the 2007 Assembly election, when the turnout was much lower. In that Assembly election the Tories again came third and the Welsh Liberal Democrats came second, 1,511 behind Labour.

As a result they have created a hybrid election result in which they are just ahead of Labour. So much for Andrew R.T. Davies taking the moral high ground.

The recourse to law

Liberal Democrat MP, John Hemmings has argued that a new breed of gagging order is preventing miscarriages of justice from being investigated. Speaking to the Telegraph, Mr. Hemmings said the rising tide of injunctions granted by the courts are threatening to contravene the Magna Carta:

The MP has launched an inquiry into "excessive and unlawful court secrecy" and will put his evidence before the Commons Justice Select Committee.

The new order to which he refers involves a pregnant woman caught up in a High Court battle with her local authority.

The order threatens her with imprisonment if she speaks to the media about her case. Journalists could also face jail for asking questions about the case.

Mr Hemming said: "This goes a step further than preventing people speaking out against injustice. It also puts any investigative journalist at risk if they ask any questions of a victim of a potential miscarriage of justice.

"I call this the 'Quaero injunction', after the Latin word 'to seek'. I don't think this should be allowed in English courts. It has the effect of preventing journalists from speaking to people subject to this injunction without a risk of the journalist going to jail. That is a recipe for hiding miscarriages of justice."

The paper says that so–called "super–injunctions", which prevent even the disclosure that reporting restrictions are in place, have now been joined by "hyper–injunctions", in which parties are forbidden from discussing their case with MPs or journalists.

The MP is to take his case to the Justice Select Committee in the hope that they will recommend changes to the law and the best of luck to him. Parliamentary privilege is an important bulwark against the suppression of civil liberties. We cannot allow it to be undermined in this way.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

What not to wear

Interesting diary piece in the Daily Mail's Black Dog column today featuring the Conservative MP for Monmouthshire, David Davies, who used to represent the same constituency in the Welsh Assembly:

Old Etonian Nicholas Soames bawled out fellow Tory David Davies for wearing a short-sleeved shirt in the Commons.

Davies, who went to a Welsh comprehensive, promptly invested in a posh, double-cuff shirt and silk tie.

But Soames still found fault.

‘You’re wearing a checked shirt, man. This is the bloody House of Commons, not a ******* farmers’ market!’ he roared.

He would never have had that problem in Cardiff Bay. I wonder how Alun Cairns, who is the master of the striped/checked shirt, pin-striped suit combination is faring.

Another Liberal Democrat victory in the coalition

The Telegraph signposts some news that will warm the hearts of democrats everywhere.

They say that David Cameron is planning to allow peers to be elected to a reformed House of Lords by a system of proportional representation. The proposals are due to be unveiled by the end of next month.

The paper reveals that the plan would be for a reformed House of Lords, with 80 per cent of its members elected for single "terms" of 15 years under a proportional representation system.

Going negative

In his Wales on Sunday column this morning, Matt Withers points out that all the parties in this election are going negative on the record of the others. That is the nature of modern elections.

However, as he further elucidates, it is one thing to go negative, quite another to do so whilst pretending to be whiter-than-white and accusing your opponents of taking the lead in dissing the others.

Matt refers to the statement issued by Labour on Friday afternoon in which they say that: “It will be interesting to see if the other parties rethink their incessantly negative campaigns in light of the recent polling. But whatever they decide to do, we will be sticking to our plan to set out a positive vision for Wales that contrasts with the actions of the Tory/Liberal Government in Westminster.”

As he says that is a contradiction in the space of one sentence:

Because Labour have, of course, been as relentlessly negative as anyone in this campaign. Their whole campaign – the line pushed at every opportunity – is that the election should be used “to send a message to David Cameron and Nick Clegg”, the implication being that, on May 6, the pair will awake to discover Labour has a 31-seat majority in the Welsh Assembly and immediately bring a halt to all spending cuts.

Perhaps Labour need to instill a bit more honesty in their campaign.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Labour fail on devolution again

Another day, another Labour leaflet but this one seems to have been written for them in England by people who have no idea how devolution works.

The giveaway is the claim that 'NHS spending cuts across the UK mean Primary Care Trusts in Wales will have to cut services and staff - 1,600 jobs will go in one PCT alone'.

The small problem is of course that health in Wales is the responsibility of the Welsh Government, not the UK Coalition, so if there are cuts then they are down to Labour and Plaid Cymru.

Secondly, there are no PCTs in Wales. Here they are called Health Boards and if anybody can point me to the Wellsh Health Board that is shedding 1,600 jobs then I will be very grateful. I suspect the Welsh Health Minister would want to know that as well. Frankly, it is a lie that any Welsh health board is shedding 1,600 jobs.

Talking about lies, the leaflet goes on to allege that pensions are being cut as well. This may be news to most pensioners, who got a £4.50 a week increase in their income this month and whose pension is now linked to earnings, something that Labour failed to do.

All in all, it is a pretty poor attempt with low marks for honesty and understanding of the Welsh system of goverance.

Labour and Plaid Cymru failing young people

This morning's Western Mail gives and indication as to why Wales is bottom of the economic league table under Labour and Plaid Cymru with a report showing that tens of millions of pounds allocated to train young people has not been spent.

They say that £103.3m of European money granted to the Wales from January 2007 was allocated to be spent under Priority 1, supplying young people with the skills needed for learning and future employment. Yet at the end of February this year only £11.9m had been spent on that priority.

In addition, although the intention was that one quarter of the participants on that scheme would be NEETs, young people not in employment, education or training, the actual figure is one in ten. That is a massive failure. It means that just over a quarter of the money allocated for increasing employment and improving skills of existing Welsh workers has found its way to the frontline at a time of economic hardship.

The unemployment rate for 16 to 24-year-olds is 20.4%. Labour and Plaid Cymru are letting down those youngsters by failing to use this money to improve their life chances.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Wales can do better

it is a really busy day so here is the Welsh Liberal Democrat Party Election Broadcast to keep you occupied until later. It was shot in Swansea by the way.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Saving schools

Whatever the merits or demerits of closing Ysgol Llwyngwril, in Gwynedd, the Welsh Tory Leader may well regret promising to keep it open if he gets into government.

According to the Western Mail, Mr. Bourne making a rare appearance in this election, visiting Ysgol Llwyngwril with fellow Assembly candidates Lisa Francis, Ian Harrison and Simon Baynes and said:

“This school should not be closed and Welsh Conservatives would protect it. It’s a successful school, it forms a vitally important part of this village community and everyone associated with it deserves much better.”

That is very clear. If, however Mr. Bourne finds himself in a Government position and makes good on his promise then he will immediately leave himself open to judicial review for prejudging the application.

Such are the perils of political campaigning, an artform that does not always fit well with the exercise of power.

Marginalising the extremists

Those opposing electoral reform have long suggested that it might benefit extremists, however as Billy Bragg points out in the Independent, the opposite is the case.

He argued that the BNP stands its best chance of getting its candidates voted into office when there were small turnouts in elections conducted on the current system: "It's much easier for them to get elected under first-past-the-post – they need a small number of angry, highly motivated people to win under first-past-the-post," he told The Independent. "If there was a plurality of parties standing that would help marginalise not just the BNP, but also all extremists."

Bragg added: "If AV is going to help the BNP, why are they against AV? They are opposed to AV because they know that to win power they have to gain more than 50 per cent of the vote."

He is supported by a study of voting patterns for the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) think-tank which contradicts claims by opponents of electoral reform that AV would mean BNP supporters having an extra bearing on election results:

The IPPR report, to be published next week, concludes that BNP voters could not have changed the outcome in any Westminster seat if last year's general election had been held under AV. It considered whether a mass transfer of BNP supporters' votes alone could have pushed a candidate over the 50 per cent threshold required under AV and examined whether their second preferences could have produced different winners from the actual victors in May 2010. It concluded: "Those that claim the BNP could exert influence in elections under AV seriously overestimate their chances of doing so."

The paper also rebuts many of the myths being spun by opponents of reform, a section that is well worth reading.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

BNP mislead again!

Having already had one of their candidates arrested during this campaign, the BNP are now circulating a leaflet that contains a gross distortion of the truth. There is nothing new there.

In their leaflet, they say that from 1 May Eastern European migrants will be able to come to this country and claim up to £250 a week in benefits. This is not true.

The article is based on a Daily Mail story on 4th March which refers to a change in European law, but also makes it clear that Government officials reject the whole basis of the story. In fact even including benefits to cover Council Tax and rent, the chances of anybody receiving handouts of that size are remote. It would be the exception rather than the rule and at least twice what most claimants get.

It is simply not possible for anybody to just come to the UK and start claiming benefits. There are strict rules in place to protect the system this sort of abuse and to stop benefit tourism. I am appalled that once more the BNP are relying on misinformation and scare-mongering in an effort to win votes.

The cost of poor housing

As timely as ever, Shelter Cymru have published their estimate of the impact of poor housing on the health service. In cash terms they say it is £67 million a year. These costs are the result of a number of factors including illnesses and accidents caused by problems such as pest infestations, broken boilers, electrical hazards and poor insulation.

The joint study by Shelter Cymru and the Building Research Establishment Trust put the wider cost to society, including factors such as poor educational attainment and reduced life chances, at £168m a year.

The other figure that they use is the cost of bringing all poor housing in Wales up to an acceptable standard which they say is around £1.5bn, with half going on addressing problems with cold homes.

The Western Mail reports that 20% of homes with the most serious health hazards could be brought into an acceptable condition for less than £520, and half for less than £1,600.

Clearly, the argument is that more money should be spent on making homes fit for purpose, with the bulk of that coming from health budgets. However, the downside for a health service that is under severe financial pressure is that financial benefits to the NHS would take about 22 years to show, though some investments such as repairing dangerous stairs. would be paid back in as little as 5.7 years.

Shelter Cymru suggest that it would make sense for housing to be relocated within the health department, however I am not convinced. The danger is that the smaller budget would be overwhelmed by what are perceived as more urgent priorities of cancer, the availability of drugs, the NHS estate etc. But also the Welsh Government is small enough to take account of the need for cross-working.

In truth I could make a case for housing to be situated in a number of departments including regeneration, economic development, environment and even Rural Affairs, but who holds the levers is not as important as the priority given to what has in the past been a Cinderella service.

Supply and fitness are key issues in housing and I would argue that whoever takes the reins after 5th May needs to ensure that the resources and the political clout are there to deliver on both. That includes a strategy to bring back into use the 26,000 empty private sector homes around Wales.

We know the cost of poor housing and the price for putting that right. It is time we started doing something about it.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The graveyard of ambition

As soon as I heard that Plaid Cymru had adopted the phrase 'Ambition is critical' as the title of their manifesto and were attributing it to Dylan Thomas I knew that something was not quite right.

This is not because I am any great expert on Dylan Thomas, to be honest I prefer the work of his contemporary, Vernon Watkins, but because I have been around in Swansea for a long time and remember precisely when that phrase first emerged. I have also seen Twin Town.

Dylan Thomas in fact is reputed to have described Swansea as the graveyard of ambition and to have suggested that people get out as soon as they could. That is also apocryphal. I believe that when the poet David Hughes was one of three artists commissioned by Swansea council in 1992 to produce poems celebrating the magic of the City, he used this phrase as his inspiration, having the words 'Ambition is critical' inscribed outside the entrance to Swansea railway station.

Plaid Cymru are not surprisingly embarrassed by the blunder as is evident from this quote on the BBC website from a spokesperson:

"In our manifesto we state that this was Dylan Thomas's mantra and it is the case these words are commonly attributed to him in a number of publications, not least by Swansea University, which is why the confusion may have arisen in the first place.

"We were advised that this association was correct, and if that is not the case then clearly we will correct our online manifesto and seek advice from elsewhere in future in terms of confirming our literary references.

"However we maintain that these words should be the guiding principle of the next Welsh Government in order to create a better Wales."

Perhaps they are even more embarrassed by the fact that they also spelt the Welsh for illiteracy wrong in the accompanying press release. I hope somebody has proof read the Welsh Liberal Democrat manifesto, which is being launched tomorrow.

For some reason I think that this may well be the election when all the pedants get out their dictionaries and grammar primers and pick holes. It will give the bloggers something to comment on I suppose.

Old style campaigning

There was a time when loudspeaker vans were a major part of any election campaign. Indeed I can recall spending a day in one during the 1981 Crosby by-election. However, nowadays more sophisticated methods such as e-mail, text messages and direct mail are the order of the day.

I was a bit surprised therefore, whilst out canvassing last night, to be overtaken by a loud speaker van. Closer listening confirmed that the occupiers were not promoting any particular candidate.

Instead the van was reminding residents that Tuesday is a black and pink day. In other words, in week two of the Council's new fortnightly refuse collection regime, residents are required to put out black bags and pink plastic recycling bags.

I am sure the Council will catch up with modern campaigning methods eventually.

Where's Nick?

There has already been some comment on the fact that the Welsh Conservative party election broadcast failed to feature their Welsh leader, Nick Bourne. The Prime Minister was there but not a sign of Nick.

Now that I have received the Tories' Regional freepost leaflet it is apparent that this is a feature of their campaign. The front of the leaflet is adorned with a photograph of David Cameron together with the regional list candidates. However, there is no sign of Nick Bourne anywhere in the leaflet.

Anybody would think they were hiding him away.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Gordon Brown fesses up

The interim report on the structure of the banks is long overdue and very welcome and I hope that the Government implements it in full. One important side effect though has been a confession by former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown that he got it wrong on the banks.

According to the Daily Telegraph Mr. Brown has now claimed he had not understood how “entangled” the world’s financial institutions had become:

Mr Brown said: “We set up the FSA believing the problem would come from the failure of an individual institution. That was the big mistake. We didn’t understand just how entangled things were.”

He added “I have to accept my responsibility.”

The paper says that Mr Brown is expected to face criticism in the Independent Commission on Banking report for relaxing competition rules which allowed Lloyds TSB, as it then was, to merge with HBOS, following the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

Given that Labour have been incorrectly blaming the banks for the entire economic collapse on their watch, does this mean that they have now accepted that it was their fault after all? If they allowed the banks to get out of control then how can they now lay the blame entirely at the feet of the financial institutions?

Gordon Brown has destroyed the Labour Party's alibi.

Rewriting history

This morning's Western Mail has the first of a series of articles by the main parties' health spokesperson explaining their health pledges. To start off they have opted for Helen Mary Jones of Plaid Cymru whose piece is full of a rather predictable repetition:

Plaid in government will roll out our programme of community wellbeing centres, with a cross-section of different health and care professionals directly employed by health boards, providing a range of services tailored to meet that particular community’s needs.

Plaid in government will offer all adults an annual health check to aid early detection and to support citizens to take charge of our own health and wellbeing.

Cancer care is one area where we know world-class services in some areas contrast sharply with delays and under- performance in others. Plaid in government will not tolerate this. We will develop a national cancer plan to ensure consistent, patient-centred services across our nation.

And so on. What appears to have been missed here is that Plaid Cymru are in government and have been for the last four years. A number of these pledges were in the One Wales Agreement but were not delivered.

With Cancer, dementia and heart disease all more likely to be fatal in Wales than across the border, and with Wales lagging behind Scotland in approving requests for one-off funding of life-extending cancer drugs, whilst more than 20 drugs not available here are being funded by the UK Government in England wouldn't an apology have been an appropriate part of this article?

The fact is that Plaid Cymru in Government has already failed our health service. Their state of denial on that failure does not exactly give us confidence that we should offer them a second chance.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Out for the count

I was on BBC Radio Wales' Sunday Supplement this morning to discuss social mobility, which is where I first heard of plans by six North Wales Councils to hold their Assembly counts at 9am on the Friday morning.

Wales on Sunday reports that this has particularly irked the Presiding Officer, who quite rightly points to the fact that there is all-party support for counting being over as soon as possible so we can start to consider the result.

Although I personally dislike counts I believe that he has a valid point. There are statutory processes involved in forming the new Welsh Government and that has time limits attached to it. The sooner we have an outcome the better.

Having said that, I waited until about 5pm on the Friday in 2007 for my result, despite the fact that the count had taken place overnight. Whatever we do the process is going to be protracted, especially when there is a referendum to count as well. Maybe I should count on a substantial period without sleep whatever the outcome of these present discussions.

BNP Assembly candidate arrested over Qur'an burning

The Guarduian reports that Sion Owens, who is standing for the BNP on their South Wales West regional list, has been arrested after he was filmed burning a copy of the Qur'an in his garden:

Footage of the burning shows Sion Owens, 40, from south Wales and a candidate for the forthcoming Welsh Assembly elections, soaking the Qur'an in kerosene and setting fire to it.

A video clip of the act, leaked to the Observer and passed immediately to South Wales police, provoked fierce criticism from the government.

A statement from the Home Office said: "The government absolutely condemns the burning of the Qur'an. It is fundamentally offensive to the values of our pluralist and tolerant society.

"We equally condemn any attempts to create divisions between communities and are committed to ensuring that everyone has the freedom to live their lives free from fear of targeted hostility or harassment on the grounds of a particular characteristic, such as religion."

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Moment of truth for News International

If the Murdoch media empire think that an admission that it was responsible for the hacking of the phones of public figures ranging from a former member of the Cabinet to a Hollywood actress together with an offer of compensation to victims is the end to the affair then I believe that they are mistaken.

They above all others have been responsible for the creation of the 24 hours, seven day a week news cycle in which stories like this grow to fill the available broadcasting space, so they should know that there are plenty of twists and turns to come.

The Independent is right when it says that the acceptance of liability on a grand scale has implications which stretch across the Atlantic to the heart of News Corporation:

The chief executive of NI, Rebekah Brooks, is also damaged by yesterday's admission. She not only has a responsibility for the NOTW, but edited the newspaper between 2000 and 2003. She denies knowing about phone-hacking when it was taking place. Yesterday's statement from NI was pointedly headed "2004-2006", a period throughout which Andy Coulson edited the paper. Coulson lost his job, then had to quit as director of communications at Downing Street, and has told detectives that he was unaware of a hacking culture under his editorship. The confirmation of eight further cases – with the certainty of more to come – threatens to expose other members of his newsroom and undermine his claim to MPs that Goodman was a "rogue case".

The current editor of the NOTW, Colin Myler, must be embarrassed by yesterday's statement. In the wake of Goodman's conviction, Myler was put in charge of an investigation into the extent of hacking at the paper. Two years later he told MPs that he had studied 2,500 emails, yet had uncovered "no evidence" that required further action. But in some cases, courts have heard allegations that other NOTW journalists were party to the hacking process.

Last week, two NOTW figures, the former head of the newsroom Ian Edmondson (who has been sacked by NI) and the current chief reporter, Neville Thurlbeck, were arrested on suspicion of conspiring to access the voicemails of public figures.

There are a number of politicians who, quite rightly, do not want to let this go. If anything this latest twist will open the door to further police investigations and possibly further arrests and prosecutions. I would not be surprised if MPs decide to recall witnesses or start a further investigation themselves. And then there is the question as to whether other newspapers outside News International ever used these methods.

The lack of scrutiny and accountability within the media has been a problem for our democracy for too long. Now we have the opportunity to put that right.

Friday, April 08, 2011


This morning's Western Mail carries a report Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, argues that there are “frightening similarities” between Welsh Education Minister, Leighton Andrews and his Tory counterpart in Westminister, Education Secretary Michael Gove.

She said the Welsh Labour Education Minister, uses the same rhetoric and convergence of policies as his Conservative equivalent in the UK Government and accused him of “alienating” and “demoralising” teachers in the wake of a disappointing report into educational standards.

Oh dear! Now that is one comparison that will not go down well in Leighton's household. Or will it?

Sorting out the banks

This morning's Daily Telegraph reports that the long-awaited measures to deal with the banks are about to surface, suggesting that Nick Clegg and Vince Cable will demand major reforms as the Liberal Democrats flex their muscles and adopt a more "arms length" policy from the Conservatives.

They say that the two Liberal Democrat Ministers will press David Cameron to implement in full proposals to restructure the banks to be published on Monday in the interim report of the Independent Commission on Banking chaired by Sir John Vickers, former head of the Office of Fair Trading:

Although the commission may stop short of recommending the full separation of the banks' high street and investment arms, Whitehall officials believe it is likely to propose putting the two functions into different subsidiaries within each bank. The aim of such ring-fencing would be to ensure that taxpayers never have to bail out so-called "casino banking" again.

Such a division could win the support of Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, but Treasury officials are worried that some banks could move abroad if they judge the costs of the restructuring to be excessive. Imposing a costly shake-up on the banks, some Tory ministers believe, could also hinder the Government's efforts to persuade them to lend more to small businesses – dealing another blow to the fragile economic recovery.

This is one issue on which the Government need to be strong and determined. We cannot afford to allow the banking industry to carry on as it is. As for hindering Government attempts to persuade the banks to lend to small business, well frankly that is not working.

The Government has tried the softly softly approach but as any businessman will tell you, the banks are not listening. The tough option is the only one left and I hope that Liberal Democrat Ministers insist on it.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Typo of the week

Today's Scottish Sun reports on the typo to end all typos in which the Labour Party north of the border promised to abolish themselves.

A misprint in their glossy manifesto meant that Labour Leader Iain Gray promised: "Scottish Labour will abolish the failed Scottish Labour." They add that the blunder comes just days after the party's candidates sent out leaflets full of spelling mistakes which promised more literacy teachers.

It makes the Welsh Labour manifesto launch almost worth waiting for.

Busting the budget

Oh dear, the Speaker of the House of Commons has apparently been upsetting MPs again, this time over the budget for his personal office.

The Financial Times reports that the annual budget for his office is increasing this year by 6 per cent to £700,000 for the year to March 2012 in spite of a 17 per cent cut across the Commons’ administration, catering and resources budgets over the next four years.

The FT quote a senior Tory backbencher as saying: “It is such hypocrisy for Mr Speaker to be cutting every other budget in the Commons apart from his own. Again, this shows that John is increasingly become detached from the financial pressure on backbenchers the longer he is in office.

“He needs to stop touring the country like a has-been 1970s rock star and focus on standing up for the rights of backbenchers and cutting his own costs.”

Perhaps John Bercow needs to look to the Welsh Assembly where the Commission budget, which includes the Presiding Office, has been slashed by more than the cut in the block grant this year.

We took the view that we could not justify increases or even a standstill in the cost of administering the Assembly when key public services faced cuts.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Taking Nick Clegg seriously

Considering that he works for a paper that has entered a prolonged period of mea culpa for its perceived sin of urging readers to vote Liberal Democrat at the last General Election, I thought the Guardian's Julian Glover had a fairly useful and insightful column this morning.

Writing about the launch of the Government's social mobility strategy, Mr, Glover said:

This week has seen the launch of policies that define the Lib Dem contribution to coalition government.

Before the last election, the Conservative party, wanting an easy life, backed a lot of social democratic thinking which – if it had thought before doing so – it would have rejected. In particular, David Cameron announced he supported Labour plans and Labour measures on child poverty, which Gordon Brown turned into law as if they were the only definition of a better society.

They aren't – and the social mobility strategy announced on Tuesday is a misunderstood attempt to explain why. Philosophically, it is a liberal plan: one that does not measure progress in terms of government spending, compensating for social failure without ending it, but which seeks to open up opportunity and allow people to succeed or fail on their own efforts.

He concludes: Important and original things are under way. Raising the income tax threshold is a liberal idea: that people who earn money should keep it, rather than pay it to the state in order for some of it to be returned to them in ways ministers think fit. So is trying to measure fairness – a wishy-washy word that the coalition likes very much – in terms of what people can make of their lives, rather than the extent to which failure is compensated for by the state.

This is broad and vague territory. But the absence of big government initiatives in Tuesday's plans could be taken not as a sign of their insignificance but their potential. Nick Clegg is right in his diagnosis of what is wrong with our society and serious in offering ideas to fix it. The problem for him is that his background embodies the failure. It's a brave man who uses his own privilege to abolish advantages for others.

A horse with no name

I received the Labour leaflet promoting their South Wales West regional list yesterday. It is a very professional looking and glossy with two prominent pictures of Carwyn Jones, resplendent in a nice new suit and a red tie.

The only thing missing though is the names of the candidates on the Labour list. Are they intending to fill those names in later?

I have long contended that Labour's policies for Wales were rather bland and anonymous. Now they are choosing candidates to suit.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The return of David Miliband

Nice to see that David Miliband is making the most of his self-imposed exile from the Labour front bench. According to the Independent, the former Foreign Secretary is earning thousands of pounds from speaking engagements around the world, and is represented by the London Speaker Bureau, a company that provides high-profile speakers for conferences and events.

His other earnings come from his role as vice-chairman of the Premier League football club Sunderland, which pays £75,000 a year. In addition he receives £65,738 for his role as Member of Parliament for South Shields.

To top it all though, Mr. Miliband has recently set up a company called The Office of David Miliband. By paying all his commercial earnings into the company, he will pay 20 per cent corporation tax, rather than the 40 per cent he would pay as an individual taxpayer and save himself a very tidy sum indeed.

Isn't this the sort of behaviour that Labour has been demanding that the Government should stamp out? Just asking.

Study finds that AV will empower voters

This morning's Independent carries news of an independent study by nef (new economics foundation) think-tank, which finds that a Yes vote in the 5 May referendum would boost people power by increasing the number of very marginal seats from 81 to 125. The number of very safe seats would fall from 331 to 271.

I don't think that anybody can claim that the Alternative Vote is significantly more proportional than First Past the Post but the one thing that is clear to me is that it is fairer. It will also empower voters over politcians and enable a first step towards more far-reaching reform later. A 'No' vote on the other hand will rule out any change for a generation or more.

According to the study, the Liberal Democrats would have been the big winner if last year's general election had been fought on AV, winning 87 seats rather than 57. Labour would have had slightly fewer MPs (245 rather than the 258 it won) while the Conservatives would have been the biggest loser, with 286 rather than 305 seats. In many ways though this is not relevant as different elections would produce different results. What is important is that the results would more realistically reflect the way people voted.

The NEF say that although the Tories would still have been the largest party, an AV election might have allowed Labour to hold on to power by forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. The two parties would have commanded an overall Commons majority between them, which they failed to do in the actual election. So there would have been a real choice of governments after an indecisive election.

The former BBC director general, Greg Dyke however, points to one of the main reason why people want change: "It's hardly surprising that MPs seem so remote and unresponsive when the voting system has handed most of them a 'job for life'. A Yes vote for AV will help bring politicians back down to earth by making them work harder for their jobs. A No vote just tells Westminster we're happy with business as usual, expenses scandal and all. It means nothing will change."

Monday, April 04, 2011

Plaid Cymru take the gloves off in attacking Labour

This morning's news stories see a very useful attack by Plaid Cymru, which underlines their Labour allies culpability in failing to reform the Barnett formula but. more importantly, highlights the fact that if Labour had won in May 2010 some of the cuts being visited upon the Welsh budget would have been even worse.

In the Western Mail, Plaid Cymru MP, Jonathan Edwards makes the claim that Labour would have cut the Assembly Government’s capital budget by more than the Coalition administration that replaced it.

He says that Treasury figures published at the time of Alistair Darling’s 2009 Budget indicated an intention to cut the Welsh capital grant by 45% over three years, while the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are cutting the same grant by 41% over four years. This is especially interesting given that Labour Ministers have been banging on for months about how hard done by they are as a result of the cut in capital spending. It is all very well highlighting the impact on the economy of a 41% cut in capital investment, but ever so hypocritical if, as now emerges, they would have cut it even more.

Labour in opposition have also made a big deal out of the injustice of the Barnett formula, without once acknowledging that it was introduced by them, sustained by them and that they refused to do anything about it once the Holtham Commission identified its flaws. Labour had 13 years to sort it out. It is now likely that the UK Coalition will substantively deal with this problem in its first term.

As the Western Mail reveals again, a Freedom of Information Act request to the Treasury resulted in the disclosure of a letter written by Labour Treasury Minister Sarah McCarthy-Fry to the Scottish Government’s Enterprise Minister Jim Mather and copied to Peter Hain, who at the time was Secretary of State for Wales, on March 28 last year, after Holtham had published his first report, which essentially said that Gordon Brown’s Government had no intention of revising the controversial Barnett Formula.

So even though Labour knew at that stage that the formula was disadvantaging Wales, they were not prepared to do anything about it. That puts all their post-election indignation into perspective and highlights once again the fundamental dishonesty of their approach.

Plaid Cymru of course are keen to put some distance between themselves and Labour and this is part of that strategy, However, what they will not be able to do, despite their best endeavours is to escape collective responsibility for the failures of the One Wales Government. No doubt we will return to that little manoeuvre in due course.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Clegg and the Liberal Democrats forcing social change

According to Matthew D'Ancona in yesterday's Daily Telegraph the formal launch of the Government's Social Mobility Strategy on Tuesday will prove once more the profound influence being exercised by the Liberal Democrats on the UK Coalition Government.

A number of elements of this strategy are already in the public domain including the £430-per-head “pupil premium” given to schools which educate the poorest children and the new “access agreements” for universities which propose to charge tuition fees of more than £6,000 per annum. However, the launch on Tuesday is likely to put all that into context and show what determined action by Government can do:

As a curtain-raiser, it was disclosed last week that the Government is to publish an annual “report card” on seven key indicators, ranging from babies’ body weight and the skills learned by five-year-olds to GCSE results and adult earnings. These, Clegg insists, will not be targets but “a series of dials”, a dashboard used to check on the nation’s social wellbeing and to “trigger a reaction” when things go wrong. Without apology, he makes government sound like a giant Heath Robinson contraption, monitored by ministers in white coats with clipboards. A politician who talks about “dials” can scarcely complain if he is accused of “social engineering”.

Those involved in the formulation of this strategy – Lib Dem and Tory – insist that it will not involve quotas or US-style “affirmative action”. Yet it is hard to escape the conclusion that a line is about to be crossed in social policy. Already, Clegg has made clear to university vice-chancellors that the rules of the game have changed. How they go about broadening their undergraduate intake is for them to decide, in collaboration with the Office for Fair Access. But he wants to see results, especially in the proportion of state school pupils going to the best universities. It is hard to exaggerate the level of unease this has already spawned in Oxford and Cambridge common rooms – which is exactly what Clegg wants. Private school heads seethe about a new era of “differential offers”, in which their pupils will have to clear much higher hurdles than rival candidates from the state sector. Again, Clegg has no problem with parents beginning to doubt that they can buy social advantage for their children by paying exorbitant school fees. The gradualist approach, he believes, has failed, and it is time for a spot of shock and awe. Either the top higher education institutions deliver change, or they will lose the right to charge increased tuition fees.

Mr. D'Ancona concludes: it remains astonishing that Clegg has persuaded a Conservative-dominated Government to undertake this project. Labour MPs whisper their congratulations to Lib Dem ministers, and express justified amazement that a Coalition led by products of Eton, Westminster and St Paul’s has embarked on this social crusade. In 32 days’ time, the nation will go to the polls in the first UK-wide referendum in 36 years and decide whether to adopt a new electoral system. The stakes for Clegg are vertiginously high. But it is the battle he is launching on Tuesday that he really wants to win.

The proof is in the implementation of course but here is further evidence that in terms of fairness and social justice it is the Liberal Democrat tail wagging the dog. This Government could not be further removed from the Tory Governments of the 1980s that protestors and Labour Party activists were comparing it with during demonstrations last week.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Why the will of the people really counts

Some of the arguments being deployed against the Alternative Vote smack of desperation, none more so than the claim that it will help extremist parties. It is after all self-evident that if an MP needs to secure 50% of the vote or thereabouts to get elected then he or she has to build up a fairly broad base of support.

So far none of the extremist parties have demonstrated that they can come anywhere near to that threshold and I cannot see why that will change under a different system.

In this regard, Kriss Akabusi who labels himself as a Conservative voter, is absolutely right. He said: "First past the post worked in the 19th and 20th Century, but it doesn't work now."

"Never in a month of Sundays would the BNP get in."

"However... if in a fair and democratic election, 50 per cent of the people voted for the BNP, I'd be proud to be in that country. Because democracy also has to have unpalatables. You can't just have it the way you want it."

This is how AV works:

Friday, April 01, 2011

The need for an opposition alternative

The editorial in this morning's Guardian will make difficult reading for the Labour leadership. For, whilst the Government makes difficult and unpopular decisions to get the economy back on track, the opposition appear to be floundering. Indeed, as the paper puts it, Ed Miliband's personal support is, in some polls, worse than Iain Duncan Smith's at the same point in his leadership.

Labour's problem is that they don't have an alternative:

Last week's TUC march will in political terms be remembered less for the appalling violence of a minority, or the policing tactics, but for what it said about Labour's uncertain message on cuts. As we wrote on Monday, it was right to join the march for the alternative – but, nearly a week on, it is all the more essential to be able to answer questions about what that alternative is. So it was disappointing yesterday that both at the launch of Labour's local election campaign and on the Radio 4 Today programme, Ed Miliband lacked an authoritative case, while his sometimes defensive manner seemed to betray uncertainty. Opposition is a tough game, hardest of all in the early years, when the government can still throw its predecessor's legacy in its face. Labour has a good case to make against economic policy that is a matter of political choice rather than financial necessity. But it is not yet underpinned by a clear and persuasive description of why, and of how it could be different.

What is worse is that up until now they have appeared to be in denial, both of their own record and of the grave consequences of that for the Country. At least Ed Balls is now starting to acknowledge past mistakes, though in doing so he is helping the Government justify their own actions:

In an interview in this week's New Statesman, the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, goes a long way to accepting that there was, at least in hindsight, a structural deficit before 2008. He admits that he was wrong about light-touch City regulation; he accepts that, with employment more buoyant than he had anticipated, his anxiety about Alistair Darling's cuts in 2009 (and, more opaquely, his no-cuts leadership election position last year) were wrong. And he is clear that those who think clamping down hard on tax avoidance is a sufficient alternative to making cuts are misguided. This is an interview that jettisons some difficult baggage.

As the paper says, and as the Liberal Democrats know all too well, being the receptacle of a protest vote is entirely different to being viewed as an alternative Government:

But at the moment, in campaigning terms, it remains the stuff of the small print. The message at the local election launch yesterday, like the message at last Saturday's march, is all about solidarity, being the voters' voice "in tough times". There are too many people who will treat this as political sleight of hand – people who remember all too vividly who was in power when the meltdown happened, people who want their political leaders to be straight with them. Their views might not shape the way they vote on 5 May, but voting Labour to protest at cuts forced on their local council by the coalition is not the same as being prepared to vote Labour at the next election.

Rest in Peace Brynle

Sad news this morning that the former North Wales Conservative Assembly Member, Brynle Williams has died at the age of 62.

Brynle had been ill for some time but at various stages it was hoped by all of us who knew him that he would recover and come back to join us in the Assembly chamber. He certainly never gave up, fighting to the end. So much so that he remained on the Conservative's North Wales list for next month's elections until he passed away.

Brynle and I did not see eye to eye on everything but he was a fighter and a doughty champion of rural Wales. His first love after his family was his horses and I believe that he was a renowned authority on these animals. He was constantly on his feet in Plenary urging "my Minister" to do more for the countryside or for Welsh farmers, and although many people will remember him more for his part in the 2000 fuel protests, it is in this area that he made his greatest contribution.

He had a cheery manner and a ready wit, his charm and his bluntness often manifesting itself in a non-PC comment spoken with a twinkle in his eye and a mischievous smile. He was a warm and caring human being whose infectious laughter will be greatly missed.

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