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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

And in other (good) news!

The Western Mail also leads on the Swans and nobody would want it any other way. However, I was intriqued by a small item tucked away at the botton of page 17, which does not (yet) appear on-line.

The paper tells us that more than 40,000 people in Wales no longer pay income tax, with the country's population amongst the biggest winners from last months's tax changes.

They go on to explain that a £1,000 cash increase in the personal allowance for under-65s to £7,475 in 2011-12 was announced in the June 2010 budget and came into force last month. The changes benefit around 1.1 million people in Wales, who will see the tax they pay decrease by £300 this year - about 77.6% of the economically active population.

This is evidence of Liberal Democrat influence in action as part of the coalition government so why was it not reported more prominently?

Swans go up!

It was a fantastic, nail-biting match yesterday in which Swansea City Football Club did the City proud. How important is this success to the City? It is massive.

The South Wales Evening Post sums it up in a banner at the bottom of its front page:

'Swans, Swans, and more Swans - see pages 2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10 & 12 PLUS our 12-page Post Match pullout'

There is no other news in Swansea and that is how it should be.

Monday, May 30, 2011

A matter of timing

This morning's Western Mail revelation that Alun Cairns MP has taken his £29,000 resettlement grant from the Welsh Assembly despite having effectively been missing in action for the best part of 12 months and being able to draw on a substantially better MPs salary, must be quite embarrassing for the Welsh Conservatives.

Of course, if Alun had stood down in May 2010 when he was elected to Parliament and allowed the number two on the Tory list to take his seat instead, then he would not have been entitled to the grant at all.

Just saying.

Back in the land of the mobile signal

Apologies for the failure to post over the last few days. It was certainly not my intention.

I have been in Hay-on-Wye for the annual Literature Festival and went equipped with a number of mobile devices determined to use them to post here. However, I had not accounted for the total failure of O2 to sort out their coverage problem there. As a result I was completely cut off from the outside world.

Still I had a good time and saw some outstanding contributions, including those from A.C Grayling, Michael Wood, Tristram Hunt and a panel discussing the fate of Bradley Manning. Oh, yes and West Wing's Rob Lowe as well.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Tory Leadership contender goes to the pub - shock!

And so it starts! This morning's Western Mail carries a fairly substantive article about Welsh Tory leadership contender, Nick Ramsey being barred from his local pub for being a bit lippy during a quiz.

The paper says that the Monmouthshire AM, offended Simon Key, the landlord at the Nag’s Head in Usk after the landlord claims he repeatedly heckled the quizmaster during an event in aid of the Help for Heroes charity.

Mr. Key has now written to the local Conservative Association saying he will not be renewing his party membership following the incident, which took place during the recent Assembly election campaign. In response, Mr Ramsay said he had been engaging in “typical pub quiz banter”, but apologised if he had offended anyone.

Clearly, the leadership race is hotting up. More importantly, the absense of any real policy differences betweeen the two candidates could be responsible for an increasingly personal campaign, littered with these sort of revelations.

Brace yourself for more tales of derring do in Cardiff Bay, together with the meticulous and very public dissection of each candidate's curriculum vitae. Could we even get a dispute relating to land ownership? I will go and get some popcorn.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Chris Huhne in the driving seat

Considering the personal issues that he has had to deal with, Chris Huhne's performance in government over the last few months has been outstanding. But do not take my word for it. Here is the Telegraph's Environmental Correspondent, Geoffrey Lean:

Last week the government adopted the world-beating goal of cutting carbon emissions to half 1990 levels by 2025. No other country, as Nick Clegg put it, “has set legally-binding targets in this much detail, so far ahead”. And then yesterday it announced that it was setting up an effective, independent, statutorily-based, Green Investment Bank, the first of its kind anywhere in the world. Taken together, they seem set to make David Cameron’s pledge to run “the greenest government ever” – which was in danger of becoming a national joke – a sober reality. The environmentalists who were so loud in writing government off just a fortnight ago are now looking green in more senses than one.

Both decisions were cliffhangers. Both were pushed by Huhne, resisted by Chancellor George Osborne and Business Secretary Vince Cable, and resolved only at the last minute by a top level intervention – from the Prime Minister over the target and his deputy over the bank. By widespread consent they would not have gone the way they did without the Energy and Climate Change Secretary’s commitment, competence and sheer cussed combativeness, and – though not greatly loved at Westminster – he has won wide respect for his nerve under fire. Whatever now happens to him – and environmentalists are desperately hoping he survives – he has achieved more in a year than most top politicians manage in a lifetime.

It is the Liberal Democrats and Chris Huhne in particular, who have pushed the green agenda the hardest in government. We don't know yet what his fate will be but if he does have to go then he will be very difficult to replace.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Safeguarding the Welsh NHS

The report by the King's Fund published today makes interesting reading in light of the debate that took place during the Welsh Assembly elections on health service funding.

The Welsh Conservatives of course proposed ring fencing the health service budget in real terms, a proposal that they estimated would cost nearly £1 billion. The catch was that this would have led to deep cuts in other budgets including schools, economic development, transport and social services. It was for this reason that none of the other parties signed up to this proposal.

The Kings Fund suggest that financially, things are worse for the health service in Wales that any other part of the United Kingdom. John Appleby, who is the chief economist at the King's Fund, said the NHS in Wales is set for a budget cut of nearly 11% over three years:

According to Mr Appleby, planned health spending is not going up in real terms - it will be cut by around 2.2% by 2014/15 in Northern Ireland.

And in Scotland, NHS spending will be cut in real terms by around 3.3% this year, with no plans yet made for spending in subsequent years.

Wales faces the deepest cuts of all of nearly 11%, claims Mr Appleby, although the figures the King's Fund gives for Wales are over a three year period while the other UK nations projections are for four years.

As for the NHS in England, it looks as if real spending will be around 0.9% lower in 2014/15 than in 2010/11.

For the UK NHS as a whole, funding will be cut in real terms by 2014/15.

Despite the protection of the English NHS budget Mr. Appleby points out that, traditionally, spending per head in England has been lower than in all other parts of the UK:

"On average, over the last seven years, NHS spending per head in Scotland has been around 15% higher than in England - equivalent to a financial gap of over £15bn; or the annual budget of London's entire NHS," he said.

I do not believe that any of this can be put right in Wales in the short term given the financial climate we are in. However, the King's Fund figures underline how important it is to ensure that we eliminate waste in the Welsh health service.

In particular there needs to be immediate action to deal with the misspending of £1 billion identified by Directors of Finance in the NHS a year or two ago. So far the Welsh Government has refused point blank to investigate that issue. Will a new Minister have a new approach?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Is it time to get tough on the banks?

Yesterday's Independent reports that new figures from the Bank of England reveal that the UK's top banks are on course to miss Project Merlin lending targets for small businesses.

They say that Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds Banking Group, HSBC and Santander UK lent £16.8 billion to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the first three months of the year, despite agreeing with the Government to increase lending to SMEs to £76 billion this year, equating to £19 billion in the first quarter.

They add that the figures are likely to provoke outrage as the banks have been accused of being unwilling to lend to credit-worthy small businesses as they continue to award high pay packages. However, they say that the banks are likely to defend their position by saying they only agreed to increase "lending capacity" and there is nothing they can do in the absence of demand for new borrowing.

Whether this is the case or not is open to dispute. I have come across many small businesses in my region who want to borrow money to expand or to continue trading only to find that the Banks previous willingness to help has disappeared altogether.

The Government has recognised that economic recovery is dependent on the active and willing cooperation of the banks and has tried to accomodate that by working with them. However, if the banks are not going to play ball then maybe it is time to use the Government's position as major shareholders to put in place policies and people at the top of these organisations who will.

Monday, May 23, 2011

End of the line for the superinjunction?

With 30,000 Twitter users having tweeted the name of the Premiership footballer alleged to have had an extra-marital affair with Imogen Thomas and with a Scottish newspaper printing a thinly disguised photo of the accused litigant, is there any way back for the superinjunction?

At least the Attorney General seems to know when to stop digging even if the footballer and his lawyers do not. The Independent reports that sources close to him suggested he would be highly unlikely to authorise criminal proceedings against anyone who had breached either injunction on Twitter:

They said that Mr Grieve – who is a politician – would be unlikely to want to become embroiled in an increasingly farcical situation and suggested that if the footballers' lawyers wanted redress against tweeters, they should do it through the civil courts.

"Frankly this is not something we want anything to do with," they said. "At the moment we have not seen any request to consider criminal contempt proceedings but I imagine if we do they will get pretty short shrift."

Meanwhile, The Sun reports that fans at a football game at which the identified footballer and his wife were present resorted to lewd chants amounting to 'You're not secret any more'.

Memories of Will Carling, being taunted with a chant of 'blobby, blobby, blobby' whilst playing for England against Wales at the Cardiff Arms Park, shortly after his humiliation at the hands of Noel Edmonds and Mr. Blobby come to mind.

It is difficult to disagree with Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming when he says: "The judges' application of privacy law is close to breaking point, under pressure from the biggest act of civil disobedience seen for many years." nor with media lawyer Mark Stephens' conclusion that the dam is set to burst over injunctions.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Mean spirited Olympic Officials spoil party for kids

I must admit that when I came across this story whilst reviewing the papers for Radio Wales this morning, I was a little shocked. According to the Sunday Express, 750 children who were born on the date that the Olympic bid was submitted and who were promised an invitation to the London games, have had their hopes dashed.

It seems that each of these children received a Promise Certificate personally signed by Lord Coe but they have now been told that the closest they are going to get to the games is involvement in the torch relay as it passes near their home town.

Parents are saying that the children were used as a gimmick to help win the bid and that they have now been discarded. They have set up a facebook page and an on-line petition to protest.

If this story is true then it seems to be very mean-spirited of the Games Organisers to act in this way. After all how much of a dent on a multi-bilion pound budget can fulfilling this promise make?

The impact of deprivation on education

This morning's Observer has an interesting item on the impact of deprivation on exam results, viewed through the ability of a child to access the internet at home.

Speaking as someone who was using log tables when I took my exams, calculators were not allowed and computers were only introduced into the school the year after I left, it is difficult to grasp the role of the internet today in exam revision. However, the e-learning Foundation say that 1.2 million teenagers log on to revision pages every week and that as a result they are likely to attain a grade higher in their exams.

Conversely, they also say that a million children's exam results will be on average a grade lower than their peers because they do not have this advantage. That is very worrying and underlines the case for a pupil premium to give these youngsters more support and class time, so that they can keep up.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Tweet of the day

The Daily Telegraph reports that the expected rapture has not yet hit New Zealand despite the passing of the appointed hour. According to one tweeter this is just as well:

David Speer, on Twitter, said: “Oh well no rapture. Just as well. New Zealand didn’t need that right now. Another delay to the filming of The Hobbit would’ve been terrible.”

Red faces in the rain

I just love this story about the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He stood up at the inauguaration of a new dam in his country's central province and accused Western countries of plotting to "cause drought" in Iran by using high tech equipment to drain the clouds of raindrops.

Moments after he made the claim, it started to rain.

I don't think Mr. Ahmadinejad will be applying for any weathermen jobs anytime soon.

Friday, May 20, 2011

It is the future Jim, but not as we know it

As a Star Trek fan I am familiar with the paperless books that often feature on that show. Effectively, they invented the concept of the Kindle. However, as an essentially old fashioned sort of guy I am stll clinging to paper in the face of advancing science.

That is why I am inundated with piles of books I have no time to read and no doubt will add to when I go to the home of the book later this month, the Hay Festival. I also have more cassette tapes than CDs and an ipod, which I rarely use.

It is disturbing therefore to read in this morning's Daily Telegraph that online retail giant Amazon has said that sales of digital books for the Kindle electronic reader have surpassed sales of print books for the first time. I feel the need to go online and correct the balance, except that I have nowhere left to store any more unread books.

Is the book going the way of vinyl records and video recorders? Will we have to visit antique shops or quirky back alley shops to buy books in future? I am sure that the Kindle is very shiny and convenient, but you can hardly leave them on a sunbed by the pool whilst you go and get a cold beer or an ice cream. Nor can you show off your book collection in antique bookcases if they are all stored on-line?

And how can you pose on a train, smugly cradling a highbrow masterpiece when it is on a Kindle, and nobody can see what you are reading because it does not have a high visibility cover to display to all and sundy? Surely this Kindle thing will never catch on.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Things that make you go deaf

A fairly light story for today, though there is no doubt that it is serious for the victims.

The Daily Telegraph reports that Viagra and similar impotence drugs have been linked to hundreds of cases of sudden hearing loss around the world, including some in the UK.

The paper says that doctors have begun to warn that the drugs could damage users' hearing after a spate of people in the US with auditory problems:

Experts, including some from Charing Cross, Stoke Mandeville and Royal Marsden hospitals, were so concerned by the claims that they demanded an investigation from official watchdogs across three continents.

Users in America, East Asia and Australia were questioned as to whether they suffered hearing loss shortly after taking the pills.

Forty-seven suspected cases of sensorineural hearing loss – a rapid loss of hearing in one or both ears – were linked to Viagra and related drugs Cialis and Levitra. Eight were from the UK.

However, another 223 reports made in the US had to be excluded due to a lack of detail.

The researchers are not sure how Viagra might affect hearing, but it may be that the chain of chemical reactions it triggers have knock-on effects in the inner ear.

The average age of those affected was 57, although two of the men involved were only 37, the study found.

As ever with these sort of medical stories we have to be cautious, after all there is no concrete proof of a link as yet. The paper quotes the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, which is Britain’s drugs watchdog. They have said that complaints of hearing loss linked to Viagra were "extremely rare". A spokesman added that reports of an adverse reaction to a drug do not prove the medicine caused it.

Still it gives pause for thought.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The right to privacy

The sixth Liberal Democrat in the UK Cabinet, Ken Clarke has come out with some very sensible comments this morning regarding the on-going debate on the right to privacy.

According to the Telegraph, Mr. Clarke has indicated that a new privacy law will be introduced but, crucially, he also warns that the public is not entitled to “know about the sex lives of footballers”.

The Justice Secretary said there were “areas of privacy” where Britons could expect to be protected, but added he was uneasy about the use of super-injunctions, which prevent the public from knowing if a gagging order has even been obtained.

Apparently, more than 80 injunctions have been taken out by well-known people, including Premier League footballers, actors and an MP.

It must surely be the case that a privacy law is preferable to a raft of injunctions and super-injunctions. After all privacy should not only be available to the rich.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Hackers and spam

When I came off the Welsh Assembly's protected e-mail system during the recent elections I discovered just how much spam and malicious e-mail is out there. Suddenly, I was receiving attached files masquerading as perfectly innocent and helpful messages but were in fact internet worms or worse and that is not to mention the special offers.

Even so I was a bit taken aback by the revelation by the Chancellor of the Exchequer that that more than 20,000 “malicious emails” are sent to Government networks each month. He said that last year saw “hostile intelligence agencies” make hundreds of “serious and pre-planned attempts to break into the Treasury’s computer system”, which he said averaged out at “more than one attempt per day”.

The Independent reports that Foreign Secretary William Hague told a conference in Munich that the Government’s computers were infected by a virus last year, which was transferred via email. He said the infection was cleared up but added that “more sophisticated attacks such as these are becoming more common”. The extent to which that is affecting government systems, which hold sensitive data, was revealed by Mr Osborne.

He added that the Treasury is “one of the most targeted departments across Whitehall”. Mr Osborne outlined one example last year when, he said, a “perfectly legitimate G20-related email” was sent to the Treasury.

“Within minutes it appeared that the email had been re-sent to the same distribution list. In fact, in the second email the legitimate attachment had been swapped for a file containing malicious code,” said Mr Osborne.

He added that the two looked almost identical to the untrained eye but that the Treasury’s security systems identified the attack and stopped it.

According to reports, a similar attack aimed at the French Finance Ministry and the European Council last year got past the security systems of 150 computers ahead of the G20 summit. An anonymous French government official was quoted as saying that it had been “noted that a certain amount of the information was redirected to Chinese sites”.

It makes my problems with cyber attacks seem insignificant in comparison.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Game on for Lords reform

Fears that Nick Clegg would not be backed by the Prime Minister in using the Parliament Act to reform the House of Lords appear to have been dismissed by the Independent on Sunday, which says that the Deputy Prime Minister has found an unlikely ally in the Chancellor of the Exchequer:

This week Mr Clegg will present a draft Bill to Parliament on replacing the House of Lords. However, in the wake of his defeat in the referendum on the voting system, the Lib Dem leader is anxious to avoid seeming obsessed with constitutional matters at a time of deep spending cuts. Instead, two Tory ministers – Mark Harper and Lord Strathclyde – will take to the airwaves to sell the policy.

There is still behind-the-scenes wrangling over what the new upper house will be called, with Clegg allies favouring the retention of the House of Lords over a US-inspired "Senate".

In meetings with peers to persuade them to support their own abolition, Mr Clegg has made it clear that he is prepared to use the Parliament Act to force the Bill through the Lords. Any intervention by Mr Osborne is likely to carry significant weight and will mark a surprise about-turn after Lib Dems publicly criticised his role in the referendum campaign.

Lib Dem party managers are also preparing to turn the issue into a major test of Ed Miliband's leadership of the Labour Party. An internal briefing for staff at the Lib Dem HQ suggests that Mr Miliband is seen as weak and unable to unite his party in favour of reform. "He doesn't pass the 'blink test' – he just doesn't look, in the instant in which people make the judgement, like a potential PM."

Substantial progress on this reform is vital if the Liberal Democrats are to put their constitutional agenda back on track after defeat in the Alternative Vote referendum.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Remembering Richard Burton

I am told that a new biography of Richard Burton is to be launched tomorrow and that the author is keen to see a permanent memorial to the actor in his home borough of Port Talbot.

The picture shows Burton's birthplace in Pontrhydyfen in the Afan valley. You can see from the second picture how beautiful this part of the world is. It is certainly different to the industrial legacy situated at the mouth of the river Afan.

In Swansea Dylan Thomas' house has been turned into a destination that commemorates his legacy. There is a permanent exhibition in the Dylan Thomas Centre and of course there is also a museum in the boathouse in Laugharne. Richard Burton's birthplace does not even have a proper blue plaque.

I have been told that the Burton family have a great deal of material that could be housed in a permanent museum or other memorial dedicated to him. People already come to Pontrhydyfen to look for his birthplace. There is no reason to doubt that a more permanent exhibition either in the village or in Port Talbot itself would not prove to be an equal attraction, especially if it were linked to a wider trail of similar memorials for other famous South Walians.

How we achieve this is another matter. I certainly believe that Neath Port Talbot Council have a role to play in facilitating a Richard Burton memorial. I am sure that the family would co-operate with that and that it would be possible to attract private finance to deliver it. Maybe the Welsh Government would have a role too.

This is something I intend to take up with the Council and also with the new Minister for Heritage over the next few weeks.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Questions on the badger cull

With John Griffiths newly installed as Environment Minister, questions are already being asked as to whether he plans to proceed with the previous Government's plans for a badger cull in North Pembrokeshire.

This was an initiative led by the Plaid Cymru side of One Wales in defiance of all the scientific evidence and commonsense. There never was much enthusiasm for it on the Labour benches.

Lawyers for the Badger Trust have already been in touch with the Minister to ask about his intentions. They say that there is very little time for a statement on this issue:

The Badger Trust is calling on the Welsh Assembly Government to reconsider the Order made by the previous administration to kill badgers as part of a programme to control bovine tuberculosis (bTB). The Trust's solicitors have been instructed to seek the views of members of the new Government in Wales including newly appointed Minister for the Environment, John Griffiths. The Trust has also asked for an urgent reply because if there were not to be a pause, at the very least, in the killing programme, it would need to proceed with legal action next week.

In a letter to Carwyn Jones, the First Minister, the Trust has written: “We are … writing to ask whether it is your intention to revoke the Order so that you have the opportunity to review the current position”. The Trust has also asked to meet Mr Jones to discuss whether a legal challenge to the Order would be necessary. The letter adds: “In our opinion it would be preferable to work with your Government to discuss alternative methods of controlling bovine TB”.

Before the recent election the solicitors acting for Badger Trust wrote to the Welsh Assembly Government Legal Services Department setting out its intention to issue judicial review proceedings to challenge the Order in the absence of confirmation that it would be revoked. The Badger Trust's earlier challenge to a previous bTB eradication Order was successful and badger culling was abandoned.

Pat Hayden, vice chairman of the Trust, says: “It is our sincere belief that the [latest] Order was based on serious errors of science and law. If the proposed cull were permitted it would have no significant impact on the control of bTB in the Intensive Action Area. In fact the improved testing and cattle controls that have already been implemented in Wales are showing improvements without a single badger having been killed.

If the previous Welsh Assembly Government had remained in power we would not have hesitated to proceed because Ministers had indicated the cull would begin after May 31st - although they refuse to confirm the start date. However, Labour’s election manifesto has promised ‘a science-led approach to evaluate and review the best way of tackling bTB’”.

The Trust says proposals laid down in the Order are extremely expensive, and the threat of a cull is already having a detrimental effect on rural communities and those who depend on tourism in the Intensive Action Area of Pembrokeshire. The forced imposition of a cull also raises serious human rights issues in relation to landowners’ peaceful enjoyment of property and right to respect for private life and home. According to WAG’s own figures in the annexes to its public consultation the cull would cost far more than it could save. The Trust is aware, from unsolicited input, that it is likely to be very damaging to the Welsh economy in terms not only of tourism but of people threatening to boycott Welsh products.

In the meantime an injectable vaccine is available and already in use in a TB hotspot area of Gloucestershire. No one doubts that vaccination works. It will shortly be used by the National Trust on one of its large estates in Devon. The Badger Trust are currently investigating the possibility of having members of its Groups trained and licensed as vaccinators in order that they can assist in extending the vaccination programme.

Surely the new Minister should follow the logic of the case, put a hold on the cull and look again at the vaccination option as the way forward.

Friday, May 13, 2011

MPs still not gettng it

At a time when David Laws is starting a week's suspension for irregularities with his expense claims and following on having a number of MPs prosecuted for even worse offences, it seems a bit strange for MPs to be still talking about abolishing the independent watchdog that oversees their claims.

The Daily Telegraph says that MPs have ordered a “root and branch” review of the expenses system in the culmination of a year-long campaign against the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa).

They say that Ipsa has infuriated many MPs by forcing them to abide by rigorous rules, and limiting their claims. The review could result in the body being abolished altogether.

Ipsa however, has hit back: They say that it is “surprising” that MPs wanted to reopen the murky issue of expenses, and urged the Commons not to return to the system of self-policing which went disastrously wrong before the scandal.

The watchdog also rejected claims by MPs that Ipsa was more expensive than the House of Commons fees office, which previously administered allowances, pointing out that the new body had saved £18 million of taxpayers’ money in its first year.

The statement said: “Of course it is for Parliament to decide on such things, but the creation of yet another group of MPs to consider their own expenses is surprising.

"On behalf of taxpayers, we hope that [this] decision does not mean that MPs want to change their minds on independent regulation and transparency and revert to the old system, with MPs setting the rules and enjoying block allowances".

Personally, I am with them. Every other employer requires their employees to provide evidence for expense claims. Why should Parliament be different? More to the point, what do the MPs think they are playing at? Surely we should be trying to move on from this issue not re-open it.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Former PO expresses an opinion

If Plaid Cymru were fearful that former Presiding Officer, Dafydd Elis Thomas might now have a bit too much time on his hands to cause mischief due to standing down from the top job, then they were proved right this morning.

The Western Mail reports that he has strongly criticised Plaid Cymru’s Assembly election strategy, describing its focus on attacking former coalition mates Labour as “mindless”.

His remarks are worth quoting in full: “I thought there was a very simple message, which was ‘this is what we did in government, this is what we did together, and this is what we would do again if there was an opportunity’.

“And for some reason that was not adopted. I don’t know why that was decided, obviously I was not part of any of that discussion.

“And I think the people who did the strategy would have benefited from a closer look at what European and other legislatures and governments do when they come out of coalition. Because people even in the group were talking about ‘when do we start disengaging?’

“Well, that’s rubbish as far as I’m concerned. Because politics is not about who has the best fight with each other during an election. It’s about who produces the best ideas and earns the trust of the electorate, and that is inherently a positive thing.”

Lord Elis-Thomas said the party’s national campaign, “such as it was”, spent most of its time attacking Labour.

“What’s the point of attacking Labour if you’re looking for Labour votes?” he said. “It’s what I don’t understand.

“What Labour did very successfully in this election was fight the election on Plaid ground. They said ‘we will stand up for Wales’. And what did Plaid do? They started attacking them.

“I said in the group a number of times, I said people’s votes move in all sorts of directions in constituencies and you need to ensure that, when you’re campaigning, you’re campaigning to attract support, not to attack other parties in a mindless sort of way. And that’s what we had.

“And anyway, the whole of the campaign clearly made no difference to the polls, and perhaps a different campaign might not have made much of a difference either, but I think it might have made the situation before and after easier.”

He claimed that Plaid had found it difficult to campaign nationally on the back of being part of a coalition government for the first time in its history.

“Without a shadow of a doubt, One Wales was a huge success, but for some reason it could not be celebrated in the election,” he said.

“This is what counters negativity. You don’t put more negativity into the debate by attacking. But there are people, of course, who take a different view, who think that it’s important to attack other political parties as... I don’t know what the motivation is.

“It’s a way of partly, I think, in the case of Plaid, by this very unhealthy continuing conflict between Plaid and Labour in the Valleys.

“I experienced this very negatively when I was trying to lead the party in the ’80s. Because there were people who were not interested in what I was trying to do to develop an urban position on the left in the cities across South Wales and the North- East.

“They were only interested in a fight to the death between Labour and Plaid in the Valleys, as if any of the rest of Wales cared about it. And I thought our experience in government had cured us of that, but unfortunately, I have to say, there are people sitting in that party group today who are still talking in those old local government fight-to-the-death between Plaid Cymru and Labour terms. And we can’t have it anymore.”

Plaid Cymru held a group meeting earlier this week, following which they were keen to give the impression that the position of Ieuan Wyn Jones as Leader was secure and that all that is needed is a thorough inquest into their disastrous campaign.

Even though two of the perpetrators of the 2003 curry house plot have now lost their seats, that does not mean that the former Deputy First Minister can rest easy. If we get any more of this sort of open dissent then anything can happen.

Liberal Democrat Peers defeat Government

I entirely approve of the defeat that was inflicted on the Government by the House of Lords yesterday, when peers voted through a Liberal Democrat amendment to reject plans for elected police commissioners by 188 votes to 176.

The amendment to the Police and Social Responsibility Bill was tabled by Baroness Harris of Richmond, who warned that electing police chiefs could do "irreparable damage".

If this amendment sticks then it will help resolve the UK Government's little difficulty with the Welsh Assembly. AMs also voted to reject the idea of police commissioners and refused to give the UK Government permission to amend devolved areas to accomodate them.

The Government was going to press on anyway. Let us hope that they now have a rethink.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Nick Clegg comes out fighting - again?

The Daily Telegraph reports that Nick Clegg is to use the anniversary of the formation of the UK Coalition to outline all of the Tory policies he has blocked as he pledges to make the Liberal Democrats more influential within the Coalition.

He says that David Cameron has been forced to abandon pledges to cut inheritance tax, replace Trident in this Parliament, build more prisons and reform the Human Rights Act. He also claims that being in coalition has been tougher on the Conservatives with the Lib Dems “punching well above our weight”.

This is good of course but it is not the first time we have done this. The difficulty is striking a balance between being critical whilst taking collective responsibility for those decisions that are taken.

More importantly is how we can work to restore public trust in Nick Clegg himself. I have no easy answer to that and I suggest that party spin doctors in London don't either.

What is needed is a new narrative for the party which is both positive and forward looking. Acting as a brake on the Tories, valuable as that is, is not sufficient. The promotion of social mobility seems to be a good start but following a high profile launch earlier this year the subject appears to have fallen off the media agenda.

I would suggest that we should start building up a narrative around social mobility and how all our actions in Government are working to deliver it as a means of both distinguishing ourselves from the Conservatives and demonstrating how we are delivering.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Has the internet broken the legal system?

Although it is true that anything published on the internet is subject to the usual rules relating to libel and contempt of court, the reality of an international medium with difficult to trace perpetrators, combined with the willingness of large numbers of people to thumb their noses at authority by repeating tweets and posts, makes the law almost impossible to enforce.

Twitter quite rightly destroyed the superinjunction taken out by Trafigura to prevent scrutiny of their activities, however its obsession with trivia and in particular, the private lives of celebrities and other individuals is a different kettle of fish. Even so, the law seems as helpless to prevent twitter gossip on the latter as it was unable to stop the former.

Today's Independent sums it up when it says that Twitter has brought the culture of the super-injunction to its knees by drawing nearly 55,000 followers to a list of celebrities alleged to have links with the secretive gagging orders:

The frenzy of activity on the micro-blogging site yesterday makes the super-injunctions as ineffective as the ban placed on publication of the autobiography of the MI5 officer Peter Wright in the mid 1980s. The ban on Spycatcher was lifted in 1988 when the law lords realised that overseas publication of the book made a gagging restriction pointless.

They quote media lawyer, Mark Stephens who predicts that the manner in which information has been shared on Twitter will dissuade further celebrities from taking out similar gagging orders: "It's the beginning of the end. Even a rather thick footballer is going to think twice before handing £100,000 to a greedy lawyer if the greedy lawyer can't guarantee that it will actually stay secret," he said.

Mr Stephens suggests that the author of the tweets is likely to face serious punishment. There is no suggestion that Twitter itself is liable. However, the betting must surely be that those who have taken out the superinjunctions will be shy of exposing themselves to further publicity by pursuing this matter and that the courts will do nothing.

The perpetrators may well be taking the risk of imprisionment but look like they will walk away untouched by the law. The internet really could have broken the legal system.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Are the Tories poised to hand Labour a majority in the Welsh Assembly?

I only ask because rumour has it that the Welsh Conservative Group are poised to support a suspension of standing orders to enable the Presiding Officer and the Deputy Presiding Officer to both come from the opposition. As both posts are non-voting this would give Labour a two vote majority.

Apparently the rationale is that this will guarantee a Conservative Presiding Officer. They may expect the Deputy Presiding Officer to come from Plaid Cymru or the Liberal Democrats but as neither group will nominate for the post, it is likely that the Conservatives will inadvertently end up providing the nominee for this post too.

If this is the case then Labour will have a working majority and will be able to push through their budget and their legislation for the next five years. Every time a Conservative amendment is defeated we will remind them that they created the situation that led to them being out-voted.

But how does Labour feel about entering into an effective confidence and supply arrangement with the Welsh Conservatives?

Plaid Cymru start inquest on their failed election campaign

After a weekend of relative calm the week has started with a bang, as Presiding Officer Dafydd Elis Thomas joins other critics of Plaid Cymru's election strategy in questioning the party's approach.

According to the BBC, Dafydd has questioned Plaid Cymru's decision to go negative on their coalition partners, leaving themselves open to the charge of hypocrisy for not taking collective responsibility for government decisions.

Plaid Cymru lost four seats in the election and were overtaken by the Tories as the second largest party, a fact that the Presiding Officer believes was down to the party's approach to the election:

"I think there was a problem with the campaign itself in that there appeared to be a determination to be as negative as possible towards our previous partners in government and I don't think the position of the party was sufficiently clearly explained even on the particular political spectrum we have in Wales."

He said he made it clear he would not serve in a coalition under the Conservatives unless Labour was "decimated".

"It's very clear that the Welsh people have decided that they trust the leadership of Carwyn Jones as first minister."

These comments seem to reflect those of Rhodri Glyn Thomas on election night. The only questions remaining are where is Ieuan Wyn Jones and can Plaid continue with him as leader? I would love to be a fly on the wall at their first group meeting.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Some clarification on the Welsh Assembly

Just two quick points to correct some misconceptions that have appeared in the media over the last few days:

1. Putting an opposition member into the role of Presiding Officer will not give Labour a one seat majority. That is because standing orders say that if the opposition supply the PO then the Government must supply the Deputy Presiding Officer, who also does not have a vote. The effect therefore will be neutral.

2. There have been no talks whatsoever between the Welsh Liberal Democrats and Labour about coalitions or any other sort of power sharing and nor will there be unless Labour approach us. They are the bigger party the initiative lies with them. I fully expect Carwyn Jones to form a minority Government next week.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Cameron must honour coalition agreement

This morning's Independent reports that the Prime Minister will not support Nick Clegg to force through Liberal Democrat plans to create an elected House of Lords, despite a commitment to reform in the Coalition agreement to do so.

They say Mr Cameron has "no intention" of allowing Lords reform to become "his Hunting Act" and he will not throw his party's weight behind it. He is also not prepared to "clog up" the rest of the Government's legislative agenda by protracted debate on Lords reform:

His hardline position is difficult for Mr Clegg as further constitutional reform was a key part of the Coalition agreement. Liberal Democrats took solace from the pledge to reform the Lords as it became obvious they were losing the AV referendum. Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes said yesterday: "Lords reform is a done deal – that was part of the coalition agreement."

But the Tories say the Coalition agreement only commits them to "establish a committee" on reforming the House of Lords and not to pass legislation on it. Mr Clegg is due to unveil a draft House of Lords Reform Bill in the next few weeks. Mr Cameron will offer warm words to the principle of Lords reform and promise his support for "reaching a consensus on reform" of the second chamber. But behind the scenes Conservative strategists are not prepared to spend political capital on House of Lords reform.

"We're hoping that Clegg's draft bill is so good that it doesn't need to become an act," said one.

With the proposals almost certain to be opposed by many Labour, Conservative and independent peers the measure would require the Government to push it through using the Parliament Act. Tory sources say there are "no circumstances" in which Mr Cameron would use the act – which allows Governments to overrule a vote in the House of Lords.

If this is true then it will turn a mature and sensible coalition agreement into a travesty. I would certainly reconsider my support for it and I would hope that many MPs would do likewise. It may not be enough to force the break-up of the coalition but it should certainly be enough for Liberal Democrat MPs to consider withdrawing their support for controversial Conservative legislation in defiance of the whip.

Cameron should stick to the spirit of the agreement he signed.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Fifty Four votes

It has been an exhausting 24 hours culminating in one of the most emotional and difficult counts I have ever been to. After having gone to the Swansea and Gower counts I travelled to Bridgend to discover that there was a significant deficit that needed to be made up if I was to be elected.

Two regional results were outstanding in Swansea West and Gower, but even though I knew that the Welsh Liberal Democrats had done well in those seats I did not think it was possible to get enough votes to make up the difference. I even went as far as to effectively concede that I might lose to the Plaid Cymru candidates and started to plan the dismantling of my office with my staff.

However, the big surprise was that I had just scraped enough votes to win, 54 out of 154,381 cast. It is a humbling experience and a huge relief. Now, we need to see how the rest of the seats fall and what will happen with regards to the next Government of Wales.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Polling stations shrouded in fog

Back in March I reported on the problems caused by the decision not to put the names of list candidates on ballot papers. At the time a Wales Office spokeswoman said while the names of candidates would not appear on regional list ballot papers, they would be displayed in polling stations.

This did not help postal voters of course but it seemed to be a straw we could cling to. Well the experience today is that right across Wales electoral returning officers have either not been told to do this or they have failed to do it.

I and others have spent precious hours this morning chasing up these lists, none of which have appeared in polling stations I have visited. I have had reports from other areas of similar experiences.

Presumably, keeping voters in the dark about which candidates they are voting for is part of the Electoral Commission's brave new world. This fiasco cannot be allowed to occur again.

Nailing the AV myths

Over at the Guardian website, Chris Rennard nails the myth that has led to the majority of MPs opposing the switch to AV. The idea that a change will lead to more hung Parliaments is a misconception he says:

William Hague was actually right to say that the biggest divide on issues about electoral systems is generally between those arguing for majoritarian systems and those arguing for more proportional systems. Majoritarian systems are supposed to deliver overall majorities for one party. Proportional systems are supposed to deliver parliaments that are more representative of the voters. AV, however, is a majoritarian system that will normally make a hung parliament less likely. First-past-the-post is often described as delivering a "winner's bonus" that gives the party with most votes and seats an additional number of seats (compared to their proportional share). AV actually tends to increase this "winner's bonus" as second preferences of eliminated candidates tend to transfer in the same sort of ratio of as votes are cast for the parties in first and second place.

It is a fact that Australia, which uses AV has had less hung Parliaments that the UK under first past the post. It is also a lie to say that Australia want to jettison their voting system.

It is on such myths and misrepresentations that the 'No' campaign have based their opposition to change. It is a shame because if AV is rejected today then it will be a generation or more before we have another chance for reform.

Reasons to vote

This morning's Western Mail report that 60 GP practices in Wales are using high rate 0844 or 0845 numbers for patients to contact their doctor is a good example of the unfinished work the new Welsh Government must get down to.

The use of these numbers contravenes new regulations, which state surgeries should abandon the use of 0844 numbers if the cost to call is greater than calling a standard geographic number. And yet many still persist in doing so.

Meanwhile, Labour have given an undertaking not to distribute a leaflet alleged by opponents to contain lies in a crucial marginal seat. But they did not comply with a demand from Plaid Cymru to distribute a new leaflet in Aberconwy accepting its earlier claims were wrong.

The Labour leaflet made personal allegations about the Plaid and Liberal Democrat candidates that both parties insist were “blatant lies”. Both candidates were accused by Labour of being personally responsible for job losses in the seat, which is currently held by Plaid.

To be fair this sort of behaviour has been rare during this campaign though there have also been incidents where the Tories have also withdrawn leaflets after accepting that claims about local hospitals on them are wrong, in particular in Neath Port Talbot and Newport.

The search for political advantage can lead to these sorts of mistakes and misrepresentations. However, whatever happens now, the next five years will be crucial in proving that the Assembly can make a difference and finally deliver. That is why it is so important to vote today. We have to get it right.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Follow the money

As Wales prepares to go to the polls the South Wales Evening Post has come up with a timely reminder of how poor Labour-run councils really can be.

Welsh Labour Ministers often cite Neath Port Talbot as an example of how it should be done, but there is no Welsh Liberal Democrat-led Council with £20 million of taxpayers money tied up in Iceland and with no idea of when exactly they will be getting the money back.

The paper says that millions of pounds of taxpayers' money frozen in Icelandic banks for three years will remain there until at least this autumn because of ongoing court action:

Neath Port Talbot invested £20 million in four banks before the system failed in 2008.

So far two of the four have between them returned just over £6 million but the other two have not repaid a penny.

And there is little chance of the council seeing any of the £8 million tied up in the non-payers until late autumn or early winter because of a legal wrangle.

So that is £14 million hanging in the balance, pending a court hearing later this year. It is funny how Labour Ministers never use Neath Port Talbot's money management as good practice.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Wayne's World

There cannot be a more bizarre story during this election campaign than a Labour MP admitting to a national newspaper that he has been removing Plaid Cymru stakeboards from residents' gardens.

The Western Mail says that Plaid Cymnru has made a formal complaint to Gwent Police about the actions of Caerphilly MP Wayne David, the Shadow Minister for Europe:

Yesterday, a resident of Bargoed claimed Mr David had knocked on her door on Saturday and told her that neighbours found the Plaid placard in her garden “offensive”. He also suggested, she said, that it was “illegal”.

“I didn’t want any trouble and let him take it away,” said the resident, who did not wish to be named.

At the time she had not recognised Mr David, but later identified him from a photograph on his website. Other sightings of Mr David with Plaid placards and stakes have also been reported to the police.

Mr David told the Western Mail: “There has been a disproportionately large number of Plaid stakes put up in the Rhymney Valley and we have had reports that Plaid have been putting them up in gardens without permission from residents.

“We have also been knocking at the doors of people with Plaid placards who our records tell us are Labour supporters, asking whether they have any political issues. In some cases people are happy for us to take the placards away. We have only taken them away with their consent.”

Asked whether he thought it appropriate for an MP to engage in such activity, Mr David said: “Certainly. I speak to my constituents all the time and will continue to do so.”

He denied that his actions amounted to intimidation or harassment: “I am always friendly and civil to every constituent I speak to.”

Mr David said he would be making a complaint to the police about a Plaid activist who photographed him with a Plaid placard in the back of his car.

Mr David said he and other Labour activists had been responsible for removing “about 15” Plaid placards, which they intended delivering to the police.

Obviously, Labour are more worried about the Caerphilly seat than they have previously let on.

Tory Twitter Treat

The BBC report on yet another Welsh Assembly candidate who has fallen victim to the curse of Twitter.

John Broughton is ranked ninth on the Conservative list in North Wales and has little chance of becoming a member of the assembly. However, that has not stopped him from using the social media site to criticise Prime Minister David Cameron and Welsh party leader Nick Bourne. He also tweeted on Plaid Cymru candidates, calling Heledd Fychan odd and Helen Mary Jones a "fruitcake".

Several of Mr Broughton's tweets over the past 12 months were critical of many prominent Welsh Conservatives' support for a Yes vote in the March referendum on assembly powers.

He posted a comment about Mr Bourne, saying "nice guy completely wrong policy" for apparently considering a coalition with Plaid Cymru.

Nice to see the Tories so united.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Another day another survey

One feature of this election is the huge number of surveys that candidates are receiving by e-mail from organisations around Wales. It seems that they all want us to pledge our allegiance to their cause irrespective of the fact that we have published manifestos and are commited to doing what is in them.

I suspect one of the reasons is the possibility of coalition talks after the elections, which could see some promises lost or finessed in the spirit of compromise that normally dominates such talks, in the national interest of course.

Despite that fact that all Liberal Democrats are understandably weary of making strong pledges at the moment, I have done everything possible to respond to each and every e-mail I have received, including this one from the Wales Assembly for Women.

They are understandably unhappy at the fact that only 10% of candidates have responded to them. Such a non-response well be down to survey-fatigue of course, but as we are asking people to vote for us the least we can do is to engage with them.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Don't bet your underpants on Labour winning Aberavon

Today's Wales on Sunday Spin Doctor column is proof that whatever difficulties the Welsh Liberal Democrats face as a result of going into Government, we are not boring and bland:

SPIN Doctor’s new favourite candidate in the Assembly election is Helen Clarke, the lead singer with rock band Psycho Kiss, who is standing for the Liberal Democrats in Aberavon.

“Refined to the point of perfection, the band is not above having a bit of fun on stage and improvising when the mood takes them,” gushed online music magazine 247 earlier this year.

“Just ask their drummer who managed to have his boxer shorts stolen in the middle of a set during the Garage Band War earlier this year.” Quite.

If you want to know more about the band then go here. Alternatively, just click on the video below, though the quality leaves a lot to be desired. Personally, I am a big fan.

In her day job Helen works as a caseworker for me and is married with two young children.

Labour adopt the Dr. Who strategm

Under the heading 'Ieuan's a grand flop - Labour' and a huge photograph of the Plaid Cymru leader with his grandkids as part of a double page spread, today's Wales on Sunday reports on the latest of a series of personal attacks by Labour on their Government's Deputy First Minister.

This time we have the Labour candidate for Llanelli, who is hardly young and dynamic himself, criticising Ieuan for portraying himself as a grandfather. He goes on: "Perhaps this is Plaid Cymru's best answer to the question people have been asking about them in this campaign - 'Don't you think they look tired?'"

This phrase is of course an adaptation of the six words that Dr. Who used to bring down Harriet Jones as Prime Minister in the 2005 Christmas Special. Clearly, somebody in the Labour camp is a fan, but are these words really as efficacious as they are portrayed? Have Labour been sucked in by their own suspension of disbelief?

We will have to see.

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