.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Coalition Government's shaky green agenda

Chris Huhne is doing a lot of good work as Energy Secretary to mark out the UK Coalition's green agenda but his work is in danger of being undermined by his cabinet colleagues.

This proposal by Eric Pickles for example to put aside £250 million to tempt English Councils to revert to weekly bin collections is just bizarre.

On the plus side it shows that Ministers cannot just do what they like, they need to work with Councils to get things done. On the minus side the proposal threatens to undo all the good work being done to increase recycling and reduce landfill. Will the Government be cutting the landfill tax? I thought not. So were is the financial incentive to do Mr. Pickles' bidding?

There are also questions about the Government's commitment to the localism agenda here, though at least this bribe is being painted as an incentive rather than a command. If fortnightly bin collections are done properly and combined with proper kerbside recycling on the alternate weeks, as well as weekly composting and nappy collections then the sort of problems highlighted by the media can be avoided.

And then there is Phillip Hammond's proposal to increase motorway speeds to 80mph. On the plus side the Liberal Democrats have got a commitment to expand the number of 20mph zones in built-up areas. But it is a fact that cars use about 20 per cent more fuel at the higher speed. In addition road safety campaigners have condemned the proposals as they believe that it will lead to an increase in deaths and serious injuries.

The Independent say that the police currently turn a blind eye to most motorists who drive at 80mph, and they are rarely prosecuted, though that is not my understanding. The issue is that if the change happens then 90mph could become the new 80mph.

Britain has some of the safest roads in Europe, as well as a lower speed limit than most. The maximum in France and Italy is 81mph, while in Ireland, Spain and Portugal it is 75mph. Germany's autobahns are unrestricted.

None of this is very green. Can Chris Huhne speed to the rescue?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Looking after the bosses

When I spoke in the Welsh Government's debate on public services on Tuesday I pointed out that Ministers had a bit of a cheek lecturing Councils about joint appointments and saving money when they were retaining 50 or more executives in the NHS on protected salaries despite the fact that their jobs have been restructured out of existence.

This morning's Western Mail has up-to-date details following a freedom of information request by a Plaid Cymru AM.

These figures show that more than 50 executives earning up to almost £97,500 are still on protected pay as part of the All Wales Organisational Change policy. One member of staff in Powys has had their salary protected for 14 years from April 3, 2006 until April 2, 2020:

The Western Mail reported last year how more than 120 senior executives, who failed to win jobs when the NHS was reorganised in 2009 and had been re-deployed elsewhere in the health service or Welsh Government, were still entitled to their previous salaries.

Those with 15 years’ service will continue to be paid at their previous salary level for 10 years.

The Welsh NHS Confederation, which represents senior NHS management, said the strategy helped minimise the need for compulsory redundancy, which could be traumatic to the individual concerned and expensive for the NHS.

Seven NHS trusts and 22 local health boards were abolished in October 2009 and seven new integrated health boards created to provide community, hospital and mental health services across Wales.

As a result of this reorganisation – the biggest in a generation – the number of board-level posts fell from 180 to 78.

Salaries for these jobs in the 22 former local health boards ranged from £25,000 to more than £100,000 a year.

And in the former NHS trusts annual salaries ranged from £50,000 for the estates director at a smaller trust to £195,000 paid to the medical director at one of the larger trusts.

Not a single administrator’s job was lost as a result of the organisation. Although dozens of highly-paid top management posts disappeared, no-one was invited to apply for voluntary redundancy or otherwise forced to take it.

Fifty-six NHS executives whose jobs disappeared were kept on without a permanent role.

The figures released yesterday show the total cost of pay protection as a result of health board creation up to June this year at Abertawe Health Board was £96,400.

At Betsi Cadwaladr it was £145,162, at Cardiff and Vale it was £175,405 up to July and at Hywel Dda it was £23,947 up to August.

Aneurin Bevan’s costs are £55,673 a year and at Cwm Taf £45,664 a year. Powys has no costs as a result of pay protection as an employee with 14 years’ protection is covered under another scheme.

It is of course deeply ironic that it is a Plaid Cymru AM who is highlighting this now. After all, that party was in government when this policy was introduced and their AMs passionately defended it at the time against criticism by the Welsh Liberal Democrats and the Tories.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Things not to take into the House of Commons

The Metro lists some of the items confiscated by the Police from visitors to the Houses Of Parliament over the last six months.

These include 12 darts, a sword, an egg, five imitation police helmets (child’s size), a horse crop, a rock – and three megaphones:

Two keen gardeners were prevented from entering with a pair of secateurs and six daredevils tried to take in bungee cords.

One visitor was forced to surrender ten hipflasks and others have tried to get in with piercing kits, a grenade lighter, a guitar and a pair of plastic handcuffs.

They add that eleven potential mischief-makers tried to take in cans of shaving foam in July, the month media tycoon Rupert Murdoch was hit as he gave evidence in front of a parliamentary committee.

Despite this one got through and was able to attack the proprietor of the late News of the World with a makeshift 'custard pie'. I wonder if security at the Welsh Assembly is so eventful.

The powerpoint generation


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The arrogance of old Labour

The Press Association carries a story today based on remarks by the Shadow Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain in which he asserts that Labour could form a coalition with backbench Liberal Democrat MPs if the next General Election does not hand Ed Miliband an overall majority.

Apparently, Mr. Hain wants to by-pass the Liberal Democrat leadership and work directly with those members of the party that he does approve of:

A fringe meeting at the Labour party conference in Liverpool heard that unofficial channels had already been opened up between shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne and some Lib Dems.

Mr Hain said an outright victory for Labour at the next election would be very difficult to achieve but if, as he predicted, the Lib Dems were to splinter, with the right-wing of the party such as Jeremy Browne, Mr Clegg and Mr Laws splitting from the core of the party, a Lib-Lab coalition was a possibility.

"It seems to me that the Liberal Democrats are likely to splinter at the time of the next election between if you like the Orange Book leadership, Nick Clegg and others at the top, and what I think of as the majority of Liberal Democrats," Mr Hain said.

"If that happens, then I think there is a prospect for some kind of alliance, with if you like... the genuine Liberal Democrats, together with the Greens and together possibly with other forces.

Where exactly Mr. Hain got the idea that the Liberal Democrats would splinter just a week after a very successful and united conference in Birmingham is difficult to fathom. But his remarks highlight a more fundamental problem with Labour, their desire to do everything on their terms, including partneship.

It also shows that they do not understand how the Liberal Democrats work. We are not a loose coalition of individuals but a party held together by common values and a coherent philosophy.

It was this sort of arrogance that scuppered the talks between Labour and the Liberal Democrats in 2010 and it will do so again if Hain and his party persist with that attitude and their fantasy that they will be able to pick off Liberal Democrat MPs to form an unstable rainbow coalition.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Fighting for electrification

Today's Western Mail goes into detail as to why the UK Government has got its business case for not electrifying the railway from Cardiff to Swansea wrong.

They say that heavy freight trains from the giant Port Talbot steelworks complex were omitted as was the “sparks effect”, the boost to rail passenger numbers which follows each electrification project. This meant that the electrification of the line to Swansea was not credited with reducing traffic on the M4 and other roads:

In the business case, the DfT says it “could not identify more than one train per hour becoming an electric train” if electrification continued to Swansea. This refers to the hourly London-Swansea service, which increases to two per hour in the morning and evening peaks.

The business case assumes that the proposed new bi-mode trains – powered by electricity or diesel – for London-Swansea services would be just as fast as electric trains west of Cardiff, and “consequently there would be no passenger benefits from electrification between Cardiff and Swansea”.

It adds: “Further ways in which to improve the case for electrification to Swansea were looked at, by examining whether other diesel services on this section could be converted to electric operation. However, significant changes were needed that would have required passengers to change trains, sometimes more often than once. The alternatives would also have increased train crew and rolling stock requirements.”

There is no reference in the business case to freight trains, whose performance can be significantly enhanced by swapping diesel locomotives for electric. Port Talbot steelworks is one of Britain’s biggest industrial destinations and origins for freight trains, and Network Rail says 15% of the UK’s rail freight passes through Cardiff.

Also missing from the document is acknowledgment of existing and future local passenger services west of Cardiff. The hourly service between Maesteg and Cardiff, due to become half-hourly in the next few years, could switch from diesel to electric by a simple extension of power supply along the single-track Bridgend-Maesteg branch.

There is also a local train every two hours between Cardiff and Swansea, serving smaller stations such as Pyle and Skewen. Experts have argued for years that there is demand for a frequent service linking Swansea to Cardiff, Bristol and Bath.

My understanding is that a lot of work is going on to convince the government to review the business case and that this will add to that. It is also clear that the decision some time ago to run half-hourly trains from Cardiff to London but not include Swansea was crucial in convincing the government that electrification to Wales second City was not viable.

This is one battle that I am hopeful we can win.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Labour abandon students (again)!

After lining up behind student protests against the UK Government's increase in university tuition fees and making much political capital out of it, Ed Miliband and the Labour Party finally came up with their own policy last night.

Effectively it amounts to 'you were right to raise fees, but just not by that much.' It is a slogan designed to get students back onto the streets, except they may not look so kindly on the Labour Party this time.

What is worse is that the badly thought-through compromise by the Labour leader does nothing for poorer students but, in fact helps richer graduates and those from a more privileged background. New Labour is not dead after all.

My position has not changed on this. I am opposed to tuition fees and if I had had a vote I would have joined my Welsh Liberal Democrat colleagues in opposing the imposition of a top rate of £9,000. I understand that the party itself was not in a position to fulfil its election promise because it did not have a majority in the House of Commons for that point of view, but individual MPs did have a duty to stick with their individual pledges and that is what Mark Williams, Jenny Willott and Roger Williams did.

Interestingly the Miliband position underlines the Liberal Democrats' problem. The Tories were certainly not going to support us in opposing an increase. It is now clear that Labour would not have backed us either. They wanted to double fees. And let us not forget that Labour were the first party to break election pledges on tuition fees. Twice in fact. They introduced the fees and then brought in top-up fees in defiance of two manifesto pledges. And in their case they had a choice because they did have a Commons majority.

As Sara Bedford points out the latest Labour policy u-turn is a far cry from Ed Miliband's commitment to a graduate tax, which has now disappeared from his website. She continues:

There are three reasons why even the increase in maximum fees to £6,000 rather than £9,000 will make very little or no difference to those prospective students Ed seeks to beguile.

Firstly, the change is likely to benefit only two groups of people: those whose parents can afford to pay the fees up front and those who will earn a high salary, but not quite enough to pay the higher rate of interest which will be ‘asked’ of those earning over £65,000 (can they therefore say no?).

Following on from this point, as money expert Martin Lewis explains succinctly, monthly repayments are the same whether fees are £6,000 or £9,000.

Finally, tuition fees are only a small part of the costs of studying for a degree and the only one that doesn’t have to be paid immediately. The NUS estimate that the cost of living during term time for an undergraduate student for the last academic year, excluding tuition fees, was £12,233. This doesn’t include living costs during the holidays. A prospective undergraduate is far more likely to be deterred by having to find those costs from a combination of loans, part-time work, parental help and grants if lucky, than they are to be encouraged by removing a sum of money from a putative future debt, which they are never likely to have to pay anyway.

John Hemming MP has a useful take on the Mili-u-turn as well:

The news that Labour support the increase in tuition fees to 6K at the lower end, but not the higher end to 9k is an odd piece of news.

Basically under the coalition scheme the graduates in the bottom half of earnings are not affected by this proposal. Those who would benefit are those who earn in their life time more than the 52nd percentile.

In fact many of these would hardly be affected (those at the bottom end) and it is the higher earners that really benefit, but not the top earners.

This is an interesting political placing. We are trying to benefit lower earning households. Labour are trying to benefit the upper middle earning households.

The point is that the system as introduced by the UK Coalition Government is designed to help poorer students by enabling them to defer or to avoid repayment of the tuition fee grant altogether. As Graeme Cowie points out, all that Labour has done is to make it easier for richer students to repay the loan earlier and thus pay less. This is because the funding system is effectively a kind of graduate tax, so Labour are advocating a tax cut on the richest beneficiaries of an English University education:

And of course, this poses the question of where the Universities are going to plug the hole in the finances this creates? Are we to expect more direct state funding? Where is that coming from without increasing the deficit? "Tax the banks" Labour reply. Well here's the thing. Your bonus tax raised absolute pittance compared with the Coalition's banking levy. Just like with the very tuition fees you promised you would never introduce, you command no credibility for delivery.

Essentially, Ed Miliband's change is no change at all.

Update: George Potter points out that this is Labour's seventh tuition fees policy in 14 years:

1997 - Labour manifesto promises not to introduce fees.
1998 - Labour introduces tuition fees.
2001 - Labour manifesto promises not to increase fees.
2003 - Labour more than doubles tuition fees.
2010, May - Labour enters the election having commissioned the Browne review and committing themselves to support it's recommendations (widely predicted to be unlimited tuition fees).
2010, December - Tuition fees raised to a maximum of £9,000 after Browne review recommends unlimited fees. Ed Miliband states that Labour party policy is to replace fees with a graduate tax.
2011 - Ed Miliband announces that Labour party policy is to support a cap of £6,000.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Labour in trouble

As delegates start to gather for the Labour Conference in Liverpool the Independent tells us that two leading figures in the party have published a pamphlet that claims that Labour has gone backwards in Mr Miliband's first year as leader and "lacks credibility on the economy":

It says: "Voters have even less idea about what Labour stands for now than a year ago, despite the election of a new leader. There is a general sense that New Labour had been abandoned, but very little idea of what this means in practice."

While Mr Miliband is seen as decent and not extreme or out of touch, he is not regarded as a potential Prime Minister.

The pamphlet, Southern Discomfort One Year On, is written by Patrick Diamond, a former aide to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown who wrote last year's election manifesto with Mr Miliband, and Lord Radice, a former Labour MP who first diagnosed Labour's "southern problem" in the 1990s.

Their research in the South and the Midlands concludes that Labour's position is "weak", particularly among the skilled and white collar workers of "Middle Britain" who helped both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair win three elections.

Labour holds only 49 of the 302 parliamentary seats in the South (excluding London) and Midlands, which includes many key marginals. "The party cannot win without doing much better in the South and Midlands, nor can it rely on David Cameron's failure to make further inroads in the North and Scotland," says the pamphlet published by the Policy Network think-tank.

It warns that the Conservatives could win the next general election by default even if George Osborne's strategy fails because Labour has lost voters' trust on the economy. "While voters still see Labour as caring and fair, they no longer believe the party is capable of running the economy," it says. "Even more importantly, they do not consider that Labour understands, respects or rewards those who want to get on. Far from encouraging and rewarding talent and opportunity, Labour is still seen as a party likely to 'clobber' those who want to make the most of new opportunities."

The authors suggest Labour has not been able to capitalise on the feelings of anxiety and insecurity among wavering Labour voters which have replaced "aspiration" as their main concern. These people still want politicians to recognise the importance of enabling people to get on in life and do well for themselves and their families.

Mr Diamond and Lord Radice warn: "The heightened mood of pessimism and anxiety may encourage voters to take refuge in what they know, namely the apparent certainties of the Conservative approach based on sound money, smaller government, hostility to Europe and a punitive approach on immigration and crime which may have added resonance among some voters given the prevailing sentiment of insecurity."

The research found that immigration is a serious weakness for Labour, but that the Tories are seen as "more interested in looking after the rich than the British people as a whole". David Cameron is "not loved but he is respected as a capable leader".

Voters remain open-minded about the Government, not least because Labour is not offering an alternative.

These are quite serious conclusions for the Labour Party and underlines Mr. Miliband's problems with the polls. In the latest ICM for the Guardian Nick Clegg enjoys a substantial improvement in his position, a net 13% up on last July and, on every figure, is now doing better than Ed Miliband.

The Liberal Democrat Leader has higher positives and smaller negatives than Ed Miliband. As Political Betting points out only 28% of those sampled thought that he had the right qualities to become PM. Amongst Labour’s own supporters only 51% agreed. To another question on whether Miliband was the right leader for the Labour party just 30% agreed. Amongst Labour voters the proportion was only 49%.

Still it is not all bad for the Labour leader. He is after all doing better than shadow chancellor Ed Balls.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Labour's Legislative programme under attack

When one is in opposition and attacking the government it is nice to have one's views validated by an independent observer who has both respect and credibility. This is especially so when we are arguing that the government is not acting in the best interests of Wales.

The views of Sir Emyr Jones Parry, who led the inquiry that established the case for a more powerful Welsh assembly are particularly powerful, though like everybody else I am surprised at the strength of those opinions and the fact that he expressed then in public:

Speaking at a conference in Cardiff Bay, Sir Emyr said: "Perhaps the priorities in there (the Welsh Government's plans) are not a natural fit for the problems Wales confronts.

"That's a very diplomatic way of asking whether the Welsh economy, whether the skills Wales needs, whether the educational requirements Wales has... whether we think all of those are going to be strengthened by an obligation to have cycle lanes in a joined-up network across Wales.

"I'm not sure whether they actually hit the button."

There have been arguments that you cannot legislate for economic growth and by and large that is true but there is legislation that can be put in place to facilitate it. This includes introducing Tax Increment Financing, in which local Councils regain control of business rates and are able to borrow against future income from an area of land so as to regenerate it.

It is also possible to consider legislating for the better coordination of transport at a local level so as to provide for business growth, to simplfy planning requirements and to strengthen Council's ability to respond to an economic downturn by for example varying business rates in a particular area. All it takes is imagination and resolve, both qualities that appear to be missing in the Welsh Government.

So far, in its legislative programme the Welsh Government has failed Wales by not addressing the economic agenda. It is nice to have Sir Emyr Jones Parry's sanction for that view.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The role of special advisors

The Financial Times blog has a useful guide to the role of Special Advisors in Government.

There was once a time when Liberal Democrats saw those fulfilling these roles as devils incarnate. That was before we got into government. Indeed, I recall that around 2000 one Liberal Democrat MP ran a one person crusade against the growth in the number of SpAds, not fully appreciating that two of them in Wales and two in Scotland were in fact Liberal Democrats.

The FT gives us an insight into the history of Special Advisors. They say it was Harold Wilson back in 1964 who first systematically introduced them to be “the guardian of the manifesto” against a civil service that Labour saw as, at the least, conservative with a small “c” and with its own agenda.

But it is the onset of 24 hour media that really saw them come into their own and also spawned satires such as The Thick of it with the notorious Malcolm Tucker. This does not mean they are not a good thing:

Operating to the ill-defined brief “to provide assistance to ministers”, they act as their minister’s eyes and ears, blending media management, policy advice and political strategy.

They arguably help protect the civil service from politicisation – doing the party political stuff that civil servants should not. And both civil servants and journalists will tell you that a spad who genuinely knows the minister’s mind can hugely ease departmental business and immensely improve the quality of media coverage.

They add that Sir Gus O’Donnell, the cabinet secretary, has repeatedly stated that “good special advisers are essential to the civil service”. Bad ones can poison such relations, antagonise the media, create mayhem in government and land their ministers in deep, deep, trouble.

There is also a reminder as to when the bad advisors get their Ministers into trouble:

This year Sir Gus O’Donnell, the cabinet secretary, condemned the “unacceptable” anonymous trashing of Jenny Watson, an Audit Commission member, by special advisers.

In a slightly earlier era, Gordon Brown’s acolyte Damien McBride had to go after sending emails suggesting the dissemination of sex smears on senior Tories. Jo Moore, special adviser to then-transport secretary Stephen Byers, eventually quit after declaring 9/11 to be “a good day to bury bad news” – although in truth many a former civil service head of communications would have recognised that and acted on it, without being so dumb as to put it in an email.

Let us hope that the Liberal Democrat SpAds are better behaved.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Dodgy and inaccurate surveys

This morning's Western Mail gives some prominence to a report by an allegedly leading think tank which Disabled Charity, Scope say has identified significant differences in the way local authorities in Wales are coping with cuts to their social services budgets.

It is impossible for any one person to judge the accuracy or otherwise of this report so we aee forced to take it at face value. However, on the basis of the authority I know the best, Swansea, my opinion of this survey is that it is not worth the paper it is written on.

Swansea for example, has not closed a nursing home as is claimed. The Council do not own or run any nursing homes. They have restructured their respite care by closing down a respite care home which had been condemned by the Social Services Inspectorate and replaced it with alternative and more flexible provision.

If Demos and Scope cannot even get that right then why should I take their report seriously. It shows what happens when an organisation based in London, which has no understanding or knowledge of Wales seeks to pass judgement on Welsh Councils.

Demos has not seen fit to disclose its methodology, and its execution is shoddy. Swansea 's colour code is 'Very Good' on the map, yet 'Bad' in the text. This may be because Demos have mis-identified Swansea as Carmarthenshire on the self-same map, and vice versa. That is a fairly fundamental error.

Swansea increases its spend on social care. This is 'Bad' according to Demos. Durham cuts its expenditure by 14%. This is 'OK' according to Demos. There is a political difference between the two councils that might explain this result. I wonder what it is.

The lesson is clear: beware of London-based think tanks writing reports on Wales.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Keeping their distance

The reconfiguration of the health service that was attempted in 2006-2007 had dire consequences for the Labour Party. They lost many seats in West and North Wales and shortly after the Assembly elections the One Wales Government abandoned the plans and announced a moratorium on hospital closures.

What are we to make therefore of today's announcement by the Health Minister that changes to the health service will be assessed by an independent body. Plans by local health boards to "modernise" services will be reviewed by a new National Clinical Forum.

This is a clear signal that many of the closures and changes that caused so much controversy four years ago will be revisited. It also indicates that the Minister will do everything she can to distance herself from these difficult decisions.

The key question of course is how independent this body really will be? It has no representation from Community Health Councils for example nor is it clear what their role will be in the process. I am also unclear who will make the final decision. Will it be the Forum or the Minister?

Welsh Liberal Democrats of course will deal with each of the proposals on their own merits but we are also clear that the process has to be transparent and that there needs to be clear political accountability. That means that at the end of the day it is the Minister who retains responsibility for the performance of the health service and all the decisions that impact on that.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Rebel rebel!

Reading the newspapers at Liberal Democrat Conferences are always a joy. It is as if the journalists have turned up to a different event. Nevertheless, this morning's offerings indicate that the message of real achievement in government is starting to get through. The contribution that is causing the most satisfaction amongst conference representatives though is in today's Sun:

'The Sun asked two days ago if the Lib Dems knew what they stand for. Today we ask: Who the hell do they think they are?'

It is nice to know we are making an impact.

The 50p tax rate

Nick Clegg has come to Conference determined to make the 50p tax rate a totemic Liberal Democrat issue. As the Independent reports the Liberal Democrat Leader has vowed that it will only be scrapped if it is replaced by another levy and the burden on the poorest is reduced further. In fact Ministers are now saying that a £10,000 tax threshold is not enough, people should not start paying tax until they are earning £12,500. That is quite right.

The paper says that in an interview on the Andrew Marr show Clegg made it clear that he would drive a hard bargain:

"I have got two preoccupations," he said. "Firstly I don't think it is morally or even economically right to unilaterally lower the tax burden on the very, very wealthiest when we haven't made much progress, as we wanted to, on lowering taxes for low incomes.

"If the 50p does not raise money as we hoped from the very, very wealthiest... then of course we could look, as the Chancellor has said, at other ways in which they can pay their share."

He added: "It stays unless we can make more progress on lowering the tax burden on people on low incomes and secondly making sure, as the Chancellor himself has said, we can find other ways that the wealthiest can pay their fair share."

These are all the right noises for the Conference, but more importantly it is good politics and a sign that the Liberal Democrats will continue to use their influence to promote fairness and social justice.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Can Labour be as ruthless as the Tories?

Over on the Political Betting website Mike Smithson asks 'If ICM did the daily poll would Miliband be finished?'

His point is that the only pollster that consistently has Labour above the 40% threshold is YouGov and that has only had the party below that level twice in its last 160 surveys. All the other polls are showing Labour struggling to retain their lead, whilst ICM, who have the best record in predicting UK general election results, has the Liberal Democrats making a significant comeback.

Mike Smithson quotes his site's regular Labour columnist, HenryG Manson as saying:

“There is no way in the world Ed Miliband will be allowed to lose the next election. If it looks like he cannot win then he’ll be gone. MPs, grassroots and unions all desperately want to win outright and failing that be largest party. I’ve never known the movement soon focused and hungry – more so than 1994. If Ed Miliband isn’t delivering the goods then he’s gone. Simple as that. I hope he succeeds but that’s how it is.”

I would suggest though that Mike has asked the wrong question. The right question is can Labour be as ruthless as the Tories? If it looks like they cannot win the next General Election will they depose Ed Miliband in the same way as the Tories jettisioned Iain Duncan Smith? On past evidence with Gordon Brown, it seems that they do not have the bottle to do what is necessary.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Gleision Colliery tragedy

It is difficult to write about what happened at the Gleision Colliery over the last two days. I have no mining background, I knew none of the men who tragically lost their lives nor do I know their families. I do not live in the close knit communities where they have their roots and yet the deaths of these four miners has profoundly affected me as, indeed, the tragedy has impacted upon the consciousness of the whole Welsh nation.

The days when tens of thousands of men were employed in the South Wales mining industry are long gone, and yet coal dust still flows through the veins of the valley communities. Coal mining remains an important industry here. Hundreds of people are employed in drift mines and open cast operations, whilst plans are afoot to open another major drift mine at Margam that may employ up to 500. The anthracite that these men were mining is a vital fuel for major coal-fired power stations.

Extracting coal from the ground is a tremendously hazardous and difficult process. It is fraught with danger and the possibility of something going wrong constantly hangs over the heads of the exceptional men and their families who continue to make a living in the industry. The ghost of many past tragedies hangs constantly over the communities who support this activity.

During the search for the missing men I was moved by interviews with local people who had been through it before, who had waited anxiously for news of loved ones trapped down a mine, not knowing whether they had perished or whether they were safe. At these times the whole community rallied round, taking turns to offer comfort and practical support to the families most directly involved.

That spirit was evident in Rhos as well and its legacy is the main reason why everybody living in South Wales this morning feels the deaths of these men so personally. It is as if we have lived through each agonising, anxious minute ourselves, though none of us can even begin to imagine what the families are feeling.

Many of us felt that mining accidents were a thing of the past. It has been a generation since a comparable loss of life in South Wales so the impact of this particular accident was even harder. Clearly, the investigation into what happened is now underway. As ever we have to hope that its findings can ensure that we never get another tragedy like this one.

In the meantime our minds and our hearts now turn to the families and their grief. They have borne the trauma of the past few days with dignity. It is time to leave them and their community in peace to come to terms with their loss.

It is time too to acknowledge the commitment, dedication and bravery of the emergency services who moved heaven and earth to try and find these men and get them out alive. They did everything humanly possible to save the four miners but the odds were stacked against them. We spent 36 hours hoping but our hopes were dashed in the most devastating way. It is a tragedy that will live with us all for many years to come.

Great Eastern and Pembroke Dock

When I visited the Milford Haven Port Authority a few weeks ago I was intrigued by the picture of the Great Eastern in the board room. I had not realised that Isambard Brunel's colossal steamship was linked with Pembroke Dock. I also learned how hazardous it was building ships like this. As Wikipedia records:

Construction of such a massive ship involved millions of hand-driven rivets. An estimated 1,000 workers were hired to comprise 200 “rivet gangs” to get the job done. Because someone small had to squeeze inside the narrow space between the double hulls, young “bash boys” were hired to do this work. These boys spent 12-hour days in the confined space between the hulls, the only light furnished by a candle, and enduring the deafening thunder of the riveters’ hammers.

Some of them never came out. Their skeletal remains were found when the ship was dismantled for scrap. Boys fell to their death while working at deadly heights. Other gruesome accidents took the lives of other workers.

Many claim that the story of boys trapped and left between hulls is apocryphal. Between 1875 and 1886 The Great Eastern was a permanent fixture at Milford Docks, remaining there for lengthy repairs. Her arrival into the docks was heralded as an example of the scale of vessel which the town could expect to attract. There is a terrace of houses in Neyland named Great Eastern Terrace.

Nowadays the ships that use the Haven are so big that they would dwarf Brunel's ill-fated vessel. The building techniques used to put them together are far safer as well.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Building on success

Evidence given by Admiral's Chief Operating Officer to the Welsh Affairs select Committee yesterday that Wales should attract young businesses instead of chasing big international firms is very much in line with what businesses in my region have been telling me for some time.

Clearly, there is a need for work to be focused on attracting employment to Wales, but too often it seems that this is at the expense of supporting promising businesses already established here.

Once more, this week I have been contacted by a local firm who have been trying to get help and support from the Welsh Government for their expansion plans, but who have hit a wall of silence. It is becoming a common occurrence.

Admiral chief operating officer and executive director David Stevens pointed out that Admiral set up home in Cardiff in the early 90s around the same time as one of Wales' biggest inward investment projects to bring electronics giant LG to Newport.

He made the point that LG has since left the site, while Admiral, which received a start-up grant of £1 million, has grown from 50 staff to employ just over 4,000 people in Cardiff, Swansea and Newport:

"In my view the right strategy is finding 25 Admirals," Mr Stevens said.

Start-up companies that establish their headquarters in Wales "tend to be cheap to move and when they come they bring the whole kit and caboodle".

His argument that good infrastructure was key to the success of any economic strategy was well-made and underlines once more that the Economy and Business Minister was wrong not to give evidence to this committee.

She argues that economic development and inward investment is devolved to her and has nothing to do with MPs. In an independent Wales maybe. The fact is that the UK Government hold not just the purse strings in relation to key investment but many of the economic levers as well. If the Minister wants to create a favourable climate for growth then she needs to engage with her UK counterparts and with MPs. That is what standing up for Wales entails.

Instead we have had months of ministerial stagnation, whilst English initiatives leave us trailing behind. If the Minister does not hit the ground running when the Assembly reconvenes next week then more and more people will be asking what she is for.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

How not to win friends and infuence people?

I have been to one public meeting to discuss plans to build a biomass power station in the Llynfi Valley and will be meeting the residents action group later this month. Naturally, there is a great deal of concern at this proposal.

However, the reaction of the developer to public opposition to the power station is over the top and insulting. The Glamorgan Gazette reports:

Issa Sawabini – managing director of Morgan Credit – said the plant would have “no negative impact” on the area’s natural beauty.

He described the Leaf group as “pathetic” and said their objections were “very silly”.

“We have taken every reasonable measure, and it’s a pity this group is taking this negative angle,” said Mr Sawabini.

“They are not bringing up anything serious, and are being very unreasonable.

“This is a building of first class, it’s a pity these people don’t recognise this.”

Presumably this man would be more comfortable in a dictatorship, where contrary views are ruthlessly crushed by the authorities. Instead, he will find that his attitude will harden opposition and make it more difficult for him to get the approval he seeks.

MPs fall further in public esteem

A new report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life has found that there has been a steep decline in public confidence in MPs between 2008 and 2010.

The BBC say that the percentage of people in England who think MPs are dedicated to working well for the public dropped from 46% to 26%:

The survey of 1,900 people was carried out in the new year, 19 months after the MPs' expenses scandal broke.

Although the watchdog's fourth survey shows a "long-term decline in public confidence in those holding public office" since 2004, the report says that on many issues, the decline since 2008 has been even "steeper".

It suggests there has been no "bounce" in confidence since the new government came to power - or if there was one it was short lived and died out before the survey was conducted, between 29 December 2010 and 4 January 2011.

"Public satisfaction with the conduct of MPs has declined on every measure except taking bribes since the last survey was conducted," the report said.

Other findings included a drop in the number of people who believe MPs are competent, from 36% in 2008 to 26% in 2010, a reduction in the number of people who think MPs set a good example in their private lives from 36% to 22%, and a fall in those who think MPs tell the truth from 26% to 20%.

Fewer people also think MPs make sure public money is spent wisely.

The public attitudes survey lists 10 qualities considered important in an MP - including being dedicated to doing a good job for the public, not using power for personal gain, telling the truth and owning up when they make mistakes.

But only on "not taking bribes" did a majority of people - 67% - believe that all or most MPs exhibited that quality.

On each of the other nine, fewer than 40% of people interviewed in England believed most MPs had those attributes.

Despite this MPs are still better trusted to tell the truth than tabloid journalists!

Cat of the week

The Guardian features the story of Willow, a cat who went missing in Colorado five years ago but has now turned up in Manhattan.

The paper says that workers at a pet shelter traced Willow back to a family in Colorado, thanks to a microchip embedded in the animal's neck that they checked with a scanner.

Willow apparently ran away five years ago during a home renovation project. It will be flown home it passes a required screening test for communicable disease and to make sure it is healthy enough to travel.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Has Peter Hain lost the plot (again)?

The Labour Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain has been all over the media in the last 24 hours condemning the proposed constituency boundary changes in unequivocal terms. It is the best impression of Dads Army's Corporal Jones since, well since Clive Dunn.

In the Western Mail this morning, he talks about the “butchery” of seats, an 'attack on Wales’ democracy, and Stalinism. In other words an attempt to achieve equity of representation and fairness in the political system is comparable to the murder of thousands of political prisoners and the ruthless oppression of freedom of speech and expression.

Mr. Hain really needs to get out more.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Reforming the banks - A Liberal Democrat success

This morning's Independent reports that Britain's banks will be given until 2019 to implement sweeping reforms designed to ensure taxpayers never have to bail them out again.

The paper says that the Chancellor has promised that all the legislation to bring in the changes will be on the statute book before the next general election in 2015 and that he has welcomed in principle the blueprint from the Independent Commission on Banking (ICB), that called for firewalls to be built between the banks' high street and riskier investment operations. The Commission also recommended that the large retail banks should have bigger "cushions" so they can absorb losses or survive a future financial crisis:

The commission, chaired by Sir John Vickers, called for a new system to help customers to switch current accounts through a free redirection service to be formed by September 2013 and said the sell-off of hundreds of Lloyds branches should be used to bring in a competitor. The cost of the changes was estimated at between £4bn and £7bn.

In a Commons statement, Mr Osborne pledged that some changes would be included in a Financial Services Bill, which will put the Bank of England in charge of regulating the banks, due to become law by the end of next year.

But he hinted that the proposal on ring-fencing the retail and investments arms would require a separate Bill at a later stage because it would be too complex to include in an already weighty measure. This could provoke a battle with the Liberal Democrats, who are keen to see swift progress and may table amendments to the Financial Services Bill to implement ring-fencing more quickly.

Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Business Secretary, who has led calls for a shake-up of the banks, welcomed yesterday's report and the timetable set out by Mr Osborne. Government insiders said Mr Cable and Mr Osborne, who had previously clashed over the reforms, joined forces last week to persuade David Cameron to back the Vickers report when he had a "wobble" after being lobbied by the banks, who said the changes could harm the fragile recovery.

Lord Oakeshott, a Liberal Democrat peer and close ally of Mr Cable, said: "Doctor Vickers has issued a strong prescription and the banks have got to take their medicine."

As Dick Newby argues on Liberal Democrat Voice this is a complete victory for the Liberal Democrats. He says that when the banking crisis broke, the Liberal Democrats argued that the state could not be put in the position again where it had to bail out the totality of what the major banks did:

We accepted that, in order to maintain confidence in the system, the Government would always have to stand behind individual bank account holders, but we could see no reason why we should all have to guarantee the more risky “casino” activities of the big banks.

We agued that a British version of the US Glass-Steagall Act should be introduced to restrict how banks could use depositors funds and to ringfence the Government’s liabilities in the case of a crisis.

At the time we were in a small minority. In the Lords, when I advocated splitting the banks on the lines which Vickers is now suggesting, the Labour front bench responded with withering scorn. Today, in response to a Parliamentary statement on Vickers, they have had the brass neck to say that the Government hasn’t acted with enough urgency to make this change!

Initially, with the exception of a few independent-minded Tory peers, the official Conservative position was, at best lukewarm. And as we’ve seen, as the banks have , in a display of brazen self-interest, sought to argue that the sky would fall in if these reforms were made, there has been considerable nervousness amongst some Conservative cabinet members about which way to jump.

They have now jumped – into the Lib Dem camp.

This is an achievement that the Liberal Democrats need to trumpet. We have made a difference and hopefully helped to avoid a repeat of the irresponsibility that helped to fuel the banking crisis of a few years ago.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Mixed messages

This morning's headlines on the BBC that the Welsh Health Minister has "completely rejected the privatisation of NHS services" is bizarre to say the least. It flies in the face of what is happening on the ground and smacks of political posturing.

I think though that the key lies in her choice of words. 'Privatisation' implies allowing the NHS to be run by the private sector, whereas what is actually happening, especially with orthopaedic services is that health boards are buying in operating capacity from the private sector to supplement their own. In fact the use of private facilities in the Welsh NHS is starting to increase.

Five days ago a Welsh Government spokesperson said of the Government's investment in orthopaedic services that “there may still be a shortfall in capacity, and it is prudent for health boards to explore all possible avenues to ensure our targets are met by March." In that regard the Welsh Government's position is not dissimilar to that of the UK Coalition. The big difference is that in England they are planning provision so as to get value for money. Here in Wales they are going about using the private sector in an ad hoc, almost surreptitious way and it is costing us more than it should.

Now the Minister is saying that she does "not want to see private companies making money out of our NHS." The two positions are not compatible and some clarification is needed, especially given the actual way the Welsh NHS is operating.

This is a bit more than mixed messages. It is a Minister trying to maintain an unsustainable public position whilst allowing Health Boards to act pragmatically in contradiction to her policy. It is little wonder that there are calls for greater transparency. Perhaps if the Welsh Government came off its ideological perch and recognised what is really going under its management we could get a better deal, including agreed tariffs across the board for surgical procedures and a proper framework for the delivery of care, regardless of sector.

At the moment the Health Minister is fooling nobody but herself.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Tenth Anniversary

Nothing I can say can do justice to the sense of loss and the outrage sparked by the terrorist attacks on the USA ten years ago today. It was a tragedy and a direct assault on our values and our democracy that changed the world as we know it.

As with so many momentous events in World history I, along with so many others can remember where I was when I heard the news. It was the penultimate week in the by-election to replace the late Val Feld as Assembly Member for Swansea East. I had just come back to the Welsh Liberal Democrat by-election headquarters in Morriston after delivering some leaflets and the whole team was gathered around the television watching the news, stunned and in silence. I left to go home, where I spent the rest of the afternoon watching events unfold.

I remember that just over a week later I attended the Liberal Democrat Conference in Bournemouth, where the American Ambassador was holding a reception. There was talk of it being cancelled but it went ahead in a specially erected tent at the side of the Conference hotel, whilst helicopters flew overhead and armed police patrolled the streets.

It was a surreal Conference and an experience that I hope is never repeated.

Labour splits and bad memories

The Guardian carried an article yesterday that illustrated how badly split Labour remain foll0wing on from the trauma of the Gordon Brown premiership.

The controversy even conjures up the ghost of former Labour spin-doctor, Damien McBride who resigned after it was reported that he had sent a series of emails to former Labour Party official Derek Draper discussing plans to set up the controversial Red Rag blogsite which would be used to post rumours they had made up about the private lives of senior members of the Conservative Party and their spouses.

The paper says that The Purple Book, which includes a chapter by Ivan Lewis, the shadow culture secretary, on re-engaging communities with politics and which is regarded as Blairite in approach, was described by opponents in anonymous briefings published yesterday as "lazy" and "idiotic". They say that supporters of the book, have hit back, claiming the attacks were reminiscent of McBride's actions:

A senior figure in the Labour party told the Observer that while Miliband and those around him had previously called for the party to re-engage with ideas and let a thousand flowers bloom, "it would seem some people don't want a thousand flowers to bloom, hence this Damian McBride-style briefing".

He added: "This hasn't been the hallmark of Ed Miliband's operation and he has put great store in removing himself from this kind of thing." That was why, he said, the latest briefing had "caused a great deal of alarm".

The split comes in the run-up to the party conference, where tensions now seem set to become public. There are concerns within the Blairite wing that Miliband has moved himself too far towards the ideas of Glasman, who claims the party needs to re-engage with traditional working-class issues such as the family and patriotism. Miliband announced on taking leadership of the party that the era of New Labour was dead. While the Labour leader has managed to reassert his authority over the party in the wake of the phone hacking scandal, during which he was an impressive performer, the are continuing doubts about whether he has the ability to win a general election.

It does not look like Ed Miliband will have a very comfortable party conference.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Whose green and pleasant land?

Today's article in the Daily Telegraph alleging that the Conservative Party has received millions of pounds in donations from developers who stand to benefit from the Government’s controversial planning reforms is not good news for the coalition government, nor does it bode well for the Tories.

The paper says that dozens of property firms have given a total of £3.3 million to the Tories over the past three years, including large gifts from companies seeking to develop rural land. They add that developers are also paying thousands of pounds for access to senior Tories through the Conservative Property Forum, a club of elite donors which sets up “breakfast meetings” to discuss planning and property issues.

The inference of course is that this will lead to a new “cash-for-access” row and will raise fears that planning policies could have been influenced by powerful figures from the property industry.

The row centres around the proposal to introduce a “presumption in favour of sustainable development”, which campaigners have warned would give developers “carte blanche”. The Telegraph says that Conservation groups have complained bitterly of a lack of access to ministers over the proposals and the National Trust has demanded a meeting with David Cameron.

David and Simon Reuben, billionaires who own Millbank Tower in Westminster, have given almost £500,000 over the past decade, while Terence Cole, a London-based developer, donated almost £300,000. IM Properties, which is expanding Birch Coppice Business Park, near Tamworth, Staffs, has given around £1 million since 2009. The suggestion is that these donors have much better access to Ministers and key policy formers.

This row once more underlines the need to reform party funding. All the major parties are too reliant on big donors to fund their activities. Despite the requirement to register donations there is no transparency as to why people give money in the first place and what they think they are getting in return.

There may well be chinese walls between party fundraising and Ministers, but the fact that donors often get to meet those decision-makers inevitably raises suspicion as to what is said and what unspoken understandings are arrived at, if any. That is something Nick Clegg is going to have to look at as he progresses his own reform agenda.

Short memories - a rant!

Perhaps it is me. Maybe I have the sort of geeky brain that stores irrelevant facts that others have long forgotten. But what is all the fuss about Nick Bourne's statement on Radio Wales last Sunday, that the Welsh Conservatives once considered changing their name?

It is hardly news. After all it happened in 2002 and was widely reported in the Western Mail and the Daily Post amongst others, as is evidenced here and here.

Despite that the Western Mail carries a piece by its political reporter, Matt Withers in which he claims that Murdo Fraser’s call for a separate Scottish Conservative Party 'led to us finding out something not widely known before – that a conversation about changing the name of the party once took place, albeit fleetingly, in the Welsh Conservatives.'

Don't these reporters read their own paper? Can they not use Google? Surely the role of any good scrutineer is to safeguard and access our collective memory so that they can use past events and statements to test the future policies of government and political parties. Isn't that one of the roles of a journalist? Honestly, the place is going to the dogs.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Myths surrounding the 50p tax rate

Whatever the merits and demerits of the 50p tax rate those seeking to abolish it need to do better than claims it raises little or no money. The 20 high-profile business experts who wrote to the Financial Times believe that lower tax for the richest in our society is necessary to enable Britain to return to an "internationally competitive tax regime" to stimulate the stuttering economy.

However, in interviews afterwards some were claiming that as a revenue raising device the 50p rate was particularly ineffective. According to yesterday's Independent that has led the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ask Revenue and Customs to conduct some analysis on the amount of money being raised.

Today's Times though says that official figures suggest the higher tax band will raise over £13 billion over five years. This calculation apparently takes into account the possibility of top earners fleeing the country to dodge it. These figures are based on the answer to a parliamentary question tabled by Conservative peer and former deputy chairman, Lord Ashcroft.

This leaves us free to debate the merits and demerits of taxing higher earners more. There may well be a built in disincentive of such a policy but there is also an issue of social justice. Liberal Democrat President, Tim Farron is quite right when he says that abolition would cause anger at a time when many are struuggling to make ends meet. After all many of the beneficiaries of a top rate tax cut were those who helped get the economy in a mess in the first place.

Despite misleading comments by Ed Balls, the coalition is cutting tax, but for lower earners. They are pursuing a deliberate policy of seeking to help the worst-off by attempting to make the tax system more redistributive. There may be a time in the near future when it is appropriate to remove the 50p tax band but this is not it. Our priority must be to help those who really are in need first.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

MP goes missing

I am quite intrigued by this article on the BBC website about 73 year old Middlesborough MP, Sir Stuart Bell.

They carry allegations that he does not have an office in his constituency, rarely raises local matters in the House of Commons and has not held a surgery for 14 years. Despite that people keep re-electing him:

The Evening Gazette in Middlesbrough has raised fresh questions after it said it made 100 phone calls to him without anyone answering:

The newspaper reported: "He says he meets with members of the public by appointment instead, and says people can reach him at any time by telephone.

"To test the claim, the Gazette has been making daily calls to Sir Stuart's Westminster office and Middlesbrough home over the course of several months.

"Despite making a total of 100 calls, no one ever answered."

Sir Stuart told the BBC that he was he was puzzled by the claims.

"We have absolutely no record of this person calling. It is a total mystery to me," he said.

"We do have answer machines because we get so many calls but every call that is made and every message that is left is responded to.

"We have three staff who work full-time on handling constituency matters - letters, emails, text messages, personal interviews.

"I meet people every Friday in Middlesbrough, I go to their homes, I'm on the council estates."

The Labour MP is now to be called in to meet Ed Miliband to discuss the allegations. I would love to be a fly on that wall.

Handbags at midday in the House of Commons

The Guardian reports on the extraordinary spat between David Cameron and Nadine Dorries MP during Prime Minister's questions yesterday, in which the PM ridiculed his own backbencher and she stormed out in a fit of pique.

The paper says that MP for Mid Bedfordshire, exercised by the Lib Dems' sway over government policy, vented her anger through her question to Cameron:

"The Liberal Democrats make up 8.7% of this parliament and yet they seem to be influencing our free school policy, health, many issues, immigration and abortion," she said.

"Does the prime minister think it's about time he told the deputy prime minister who is the boss?"

But Cameron started laughing after telling Dorries that he knew she was "extremely frustrated".

Provoking MPs' schoolboy mirth at the hint of an innuendo to the female MP, the prime minister joked: "Maybe I should start all over again."

Pausing again, he finally said: "I'm going to give up on this one," and put his hand on the arm of an equally amused Clegg as he sat down next to his Lib Dem deputy.

There is some nonsense in the article suggesting that the Prime Minister was being sexist. However, Nadine Dorries is no ingenue. She chose to play rough and got back what she deserved.

The House of Commons can be unforgiving to those who overreach themselves, and does not discriminate in its judgement between men and women. Nor should it.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Was it Nick Clegg's fault?

I am not going to attempt to answer that question myself but according to this report in today's Telegraph, at least one internal party report Nick Clegg's decision to call a referendum on the voting system on the same day as local elections backfired disastrously.

They say that a report to the party's annual conference in Birmingham later this month concludes that the council elections turned into a "perfect storm" because the referendum on the alternative vote (AV) also took place on 5 May:

Although David Cameron wanted to delay the AV vote until this autumn, Mr Clegg insisted it was held in May in the hope that elections to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and English councils would boost the turnout – and the prospects of a Yes vote. In the event, AV was rejected by 68 to 32 per cent and the Liberal Democrats lost 700 town hall seats. With hindsight, the report concludes, the double poll meant that Liberal Democrat activists were unable to give enough time to the "Yes to AV" effort. It also prevented the seconding of staff to the referendum campaign, took media airtime away from the elections and allowed Labour supporters to "kick the party twice".

The report says: "Turnout among Conservative and socially-conservative Labour voters was at general election levels, driven out in consequence of the AV referendum. A huge trade union campaign in Labour-leaning areas targeted the party leader [Mr Clegg] personally and viciously."

A simultaneous AV referendum also meant that Mr Clegg's party got little or no credit from Tory supporters. "Conservative voters satisfied with the Coalition were reluctant to vote tactically for their coalition partners in Lib Dem/Labour marginals, in no small part because of the vociferous rivalry between the two parties in the national referendum," the report says.

I cannot say that I really engaged with the AV campaign, in many respects it was the wrong cause at the wrong time. I delivered leaflets for it and incorporated it in my own election literature but really I was too focussed on surviving the Assembly election to do much more. In that respect the report is right.

What is important is that the party has started to recover in the polls and Nick Clegg himself is much more assertive within the coalition, possibly because of that AV defeat. What is also clear is that those purists who opposed AV because it was not proportional enough have got what they deserved.

There is virtually no chance of having a second go at reform for decades to come in my view. That is sad, but it must also be a lesson learned for those who refuse to be realistic about what is achieveable in government.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Cameron and rendition

I very much welcome David Cameron's statement that an independent inquiry should investigate evidence, revealed by The Independent, that British intelligence agencies were complicit in the rendition of terrorist suspects to Libya, where they were tortured by the Gaddafi regime.

The Indpendent says that the Prime Minister has responded to the discovery of papers implicating MI6 in the arrest and extradition of Libyan dissidents:

We've asked the retired judge Sir Peter Gibson to examine issues around the detention and treatment of suspects overseas."

Mr Cameron told the Commons that the accusations were "significant" and promised that fears the UK and Libyan security services became "too close" would be fully examined.

But he repeatedly praised the work of MI5 and MI6 and urged MPs to remember the context in which the intelligence services were operating as they tried to bring the Libyan regime in from the cold and recruit it in the fight against international terrorism.

"It is important that nobody rushes to judgement. In 2003, two years after 9/11, you had the situation where there was a Libyan terrorist group that was allied to al-Qa'ida. At that time our security services were working to keep us safe," Mr Cameron said.

It is important that the full details of Britain's involvement in this issue comes out into the open. Our misadventures under Blair scuppered any claim Britain might have to moral leadership within the international community. If we are going to put that right then all the murky corners of the country's past need to be cleared out for public scrutiny.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Blood is thicker than water

As a big fan of Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather films I was bemused to wake up this morning to discover that Tony Blair is godfather to one of Rupert Murdoch’s young children. There is no connection between the two of course, but as a means of cementing a friendship, acting in this capacity for the baptism of somebody's children is quite effective.

The Telegraph says that the former prime minister was reportedly present in March 2010 when Murdoch’s two daughters by his third wife were baptised on the banks of the Jordan. They suggest that Mr. Blair's close ties to the Murdochs could explain his reluctance to condemn the News International phone hacking scandal:

When the baptism was splashed across the pages of Hello! magazine last year, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, her fellow Australian actor, were named as godparents to Grace, nine, and Chloe, eight.

No mention was made of Mr Blair’s role as a godfather to Grace and he did not appear in pictures of the ceremony, which took place at the spot where it is said that Jesus was baptised.

However, the facts emerged in an interview with Mrs Murdoch in the fashion magazine.

She made international headlines in July by jumping to the defence of her 80-year-old husband when he was attacked with a “foam pie” while giving evidence to a parliamentary committee on hacking.

Last night, Mr Blair’s spokesman refused to comment, but a News Corp source confirmed that Mr Blair was godfather to Grace, as was Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch’s eldest son.

Of course, there is no reason why Tony Blair should not have accepted this role. After all, at that time he was no longer in office nor even an MP. However, it does indicate the closeness of the Murdochs to the former British Prime Minister and how they have been able to access Government at the highest level across the globe for many years.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Labour's treachery over Gaddafi

By far the most concerning news to emerge today has nothing to do with Alistair Darling. It is the revelations regarding the previous Labour Government's relationship with Gaddafi's Libya.

The Mail on Sunday publishes details of secret documents found in the British Ambassador's residence, which show the extent to which Labour misled us over the controversial release of the Lockerbie bomber.

They say that whilst in public senior Ministers from the last Labour Government and the Scottish First Minister insisted that the terminally ill Abdelbaset Al Megrahi was freed on compassionate grounds in a decision taken by Scottish Ministers alone, the papers show that Westminster buckled under pressure from Colonel Gaddafi, who threatened to ignite a 'holy war' if Megrahi died in his Scottish cell.

Other revelations include:

Surely this is more damaging for Labour than anything that is in the former Chancellor of the Exchequer's book.

Labour lacked credible economic policy

Alistair Darling is all over the media this morning with his revelations of life behind the scenes of Gordon Brown's Government. There are a lot choice anecdootes, many of which have already been aired in Andrew Rawnsley's excellent book: 'The end of the party'.

However, the most damning admission in interviews today is that Labour did not have a credible economic policy in 2010. The clear implication is that this is still the case.

Given the political evisceration of Ed Balls in the book and his position as Shadow Chancellor, one gets the impression that Darling's opinion will remain unchanged on Labour's lack of economic competence for some time to come.

Clarkson best ignored (on all levels)

As a loud-mouthed attention-seeking media tart, Jeremy Clarkson is rivalled by only a handful of so-called celebrities. Today's Wales on Sunday report on his latest prnouncement is true to form.

According to the paper he has come under fire for appearing to call for the abolition of the Welsh language. They quote an article he wrote lambasting the Welsh language, saying it provides a “maypole around which a bunch of hotheads can get all nationalistic”.

No doubt this will produce yet another round of condemnations, and I do not blame those who wish to respond in this way. The comment is complete nonsense, but really is it worth getting into a lather over? On the other hand surely it is time to put Clarkson out to pasture.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

The dangers of live television

Apparently, TV host Ortis Deley has been dropped as Channel 4's main presenter of its world athletics coverage after an excruciating series of blunders.

The Guardian says that until this week the 38-year-old broadcaster, first talent-spotted as a contestant on Blind Date, had enjoyed a blameless career, mainly in children's and youth programmes on cable stations and at the BBC. For the past two years, he had co-presented Channel 5's The Gadget Show:

In the course of a few hapless days, Deley repeatedly stumbled over the names of star athletes ("the Honourable Leo Usain Bolt") and his trackside commentators. He called Oscar Pistorius, the South African double-amputee "the fastest man on no legs".

He invented events ("the men's 100-metre hurdles"), forgot commercial breaks, missed links, paused for long moments to consult his script, corrected himself endlessly, asked his studio guest – the four-times Olympic gold medal-winning sprinter, Michael Johnson – whether he was a pole vaulter, and concluded one broadcast with the memorable sign-off: "So we have a gloriously sunny day here in the studio. We've seen some action this morning as well. Jessica Ennis. Good night."

Judge for yourself.

Lib Dems flex muscles to thwart Dorries' anti-abortion amendment

This morning's Guardian reports that Nadine Dorries' campaign to toughen Britain's abortion laws is losing momentum as Tory MPs on Friday backed a rival amendment and questions emerged about links to Christian counselling services that might benefit from the proposed reform.

The Guardian say that Dorries has confirmed to them that the organisations supporting her campaign include a "crisis pregnancy centre", a type of advisory service often linked to religious anti-abortion activists:

Dorries is coming under pressure to reveal how her allies are funded. One of the most vocal public supporters of the Right to Know campaign backing the Dorries amendment to the healthcare bill is the lobby group Christian Concern, which is linked to a wealthy US evangelical organisation, the Alliance Defence Fund.

Meanwhile, political support has been ebbing away since fellow Tory MP Louise Mensch tabled a compromise amendment, which would allow women to choose whether they received counselling from faith-backed pregnancy centres or existing charities such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.

The public health minister, Anne Milton, took the unprecedented step of emailing all MPs to set out the government's voting decision.

Although emphasising that the vote on the amendment would be free, she wrote: "On the issue of preventing abortion services from offering counselling, we disagree with the [Dorries] amendment. If pressed to a vote, my ministerial colleagues in the Department of Health and I will vote against the amendments. This is because the amendments exclude existing abortion services from offering counselling."

What is interesting is the reaction of Conservative MPs who were reportedly shocked by the letter. The paper says that they believe this statement of the government's preferred view is "unheard of" ahead of a free vote and reflects the state of coalition relations, with the Liberal Democrats "running the show".

Liberal Democrat MP, Julian Huppert has tabled an amendment seeking to strengthen the status quo. It reads: "All organisations offering information or advice in relation to unplanned pregnancy choices must follow current evidence-based guidance produced by a professional medical organisation specified by the secretary of state."

The act of blogging

Sometimes it really is very difficult focusing on the arguments.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Welsh Government undermining democracy

The BBC follow up their story about the enforced regionalisation of local government this morning with another attack on the failure of Welsh Ministers to understand local democracy, this time from local government expert, Professor Tony Travers.

He has warned that the Welsh Government could undermine democracy by appointing too many commissioners to run council services:

The commissioners, unelected experts, are dispatched to local authorities when they run into trouble.

They are currently at Blaenau Gwent and Anglesey, with intervention in Pembrokeshire possible. Those three compare to just one - Doncaster - among England's 152 principal local authorities.

Prof Tony Travers said intervention was made too readily but the Welsh Government said commissioners were appointed when "less direct" measures had failed.

Prof Travers, a director at the London School of Economics, told BBC Radio Wales: "There's no doubt that with commissioners in two councils in Wales and the possibility of intervention in a third, that does suggestion a degree of centralisation to Cardiff, which is paradoxical given that devolution was supposed to shift power away from London to Wales.

"The alarm bell that should gently ring here is that just because devolution has taken place to Cardiff doesn't mean that the government in Wales can themselves then centralise."

I have criticised before the macho flexing of muscles by Welsh Ministers towards local councils. That is not to say that when a council is failing that action should not be taken. There are various degrees of intervention but that seems to be lost on Ministers who prefer to go for the nuclear option every time. The only exception to this seems to be when a Labour-run Council is involved.

The irony of this latest story is not that it will change anything but that Ministers will wear the criticism as a badge of honour. It is a sign of how little they understand about the mess their policies are creating. They are blundering around in the dark instead of working with others to find long-term solutions.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Do we need a Local Government reorganisation?

The BBC reports on a Welsh Government Cabinet paper that seeks to bring order to the way that local Councils collaborate but only succeeds in raising questions about the Government's own direction.

On the one hand they are promoting four regional consortia to deliver education in Wales, on the other they are now seeking to decree that all future collaboration should take place within six defined regions, that have different boundaries to those already being promoted by the Education Minister.

They also say that existing collaborative projects will remain unaffected despite the fact that many of those involve groupings of local authorities different to both the other two. This is not leadership, it is floundering in the dark.

Taken with recent Welsh government legislation that allows ministers to pass an order forcing the amalgamation of two or three local councils, this latest document looks more and more like reorganisation by the back door. It is a further sign that the government is dodging key questions about how public services are delivered in Wales. Why for example does it proscribe collaboration within local health board boundaries but make no mention of jointly delivering services with those organisations? What about the further and higer education sector or the police?

We need a debate on the future shape of local councils that includes worked up options and principles for reorganisation that includes all locally delivered public services. What we have instead are Ministers saying one thing in private but who are in denial in public. Their approach has more in common with bullying than leadership. They seem afraid to start up a public discussion for fear of what it might lead to.

In an attempt to once more get things moving on this point I have reproduced an article I wrote for WalesHome back in March 2010:

Trust the people: time to devolve from the Assembly

THERE is a question to be posed about where local government will fit into a newly empowered Welsh Assembly, making laws within the ambit of the 20 fields of competence granted by the Government of Wales Act 2006.

In the new system of governance, there is a wider debate as to what structures we need to deliver services to a nation of three million people and, in particular, whether 22 local councils and seven health boards are appropriate vehicles to spend the bulk of the Assembly’s £15 billion budget.

My view is that we most probably need bigger and fewer councils but that the main debate should be around the democratisation and accountability of service delivery as much as its efficiency. In contrast, the Welsh Government’s agenda is becoming much clearer as we approach the next set of Assembly elections.

My concern is that in Labour and Plaid Cymru we have two very centralising parties whose objective is to emasculate local government. Already, we have heard calls for social services and education to be taken off local councils, while the intentions of other parties towards reorganisation remain secret. Ministers are seeking or have acquired legislative competence over the governance arrangements of schools and also over many new aspects of local councils but are not saying what they will do with it.

In fact, there seems to be a cross-party consensus that there will be a reorganisation of local government in Wales after the 2011 Welsh General Election, the problem is that nobody wants to talk about it until then and the chances of any coherence emerging from any of the other parties as to how they see the future structure of local government is negligible.

Motives are particularly important in this process. Everybody acknowledges that having 22 Councils means that a number are too small to achieve economies of scale and that there needs to be some reform to address this. However, there is no consensus on what the future map of Wales should look like. This issue needs to be addressed before the 2011 Welsh General Election not just because there is a need for a debate but also because how a party plans to reform our democratic structures goes to the heart of their vision for Wales.

Firstly, what is the role of the Welsh Government and of the National Assembly? Following a successful referendum, their role is to set out policy, to make laws and to deliver that through guidance and funding decisions. It is not their role to directly deliver services, nor in my view should they seek to set up other arms-length bodies or add to the role of existing bodies by passing over to them functions currently delivered by councils.

Secondly, how do we give people greater control over the decision-making process in their own areas? There are in fact many ways that this can be done but the starting point is to enable the democratically elected bodies that serve local communities, in this case the Welsh unitary authorities. These councils should be more accountable, constituted on a scale that can deliver services efficiently and encompass a broader range of responsibilities so as to produce a more strategic and joined up approach to governance.

To achieve this we should reforming local government so as to create eight or 10 unitary councils elected by the single transferable vote system in multi-member wards. There would be fewer councillors, approximately a third less, making between 800-900 across Wales but in return they would be better remunerated so that they could devote a substantial amount of time to delivering and scrutinising services and acting in a more strategic way. Each council would be run by a full time cabinet with no more than 10 councillors in each executive body and have a number of strategic directors.

At the same time, the heath boards should be disbanded and their functions should pass their functions to the democratically elected councils, thus creating a single health and social care function that would eliminate duplication and waste and be accountable to local electors not the centre.

And let’s not stop there. All of post 16 education needs to be transferred back to councils so that they could deliver the 14 to 19 agenda as a seamless whole and incorporate the very important vocational education delivered by further education colleges into their service provision.

Councils should also acquire greater strategic control of transport within their area including the power to deliver cross-modal transport solutions and a wider economic development remit. And these bigger unitary authorities should be the ones delivering regeneration initiatives such as Communities First on behalf of the Welsh Government, not the Government micro-managing it from the centre. There are many other central government functions that might be better delivered by such a strategic locally elected body. That is a matter for further discussion. My purpose here is to start a debate and to get people thinking about a way forward.

I am an instinctive democrat. My belief is in empowering local people and giving them a chance to influence the direction of services in their own area. Democracy may have its flaws and at a local level. We can all come up with a horror story that involves their local Council but ultimately it is for the electorate to cast the final verdict and with proportional voting that becomes much easier.

Instead of national politicians treating local government as scapegoats and indulging in playing blame games, let us find a way to work together as equals and in a way that for once delivers the sort of transparency and accountability that was promised when devolution was first voted on in 1997.

Conference season

As the party political conferences come upon us so too does the optimum time for the publication of books about politics. All those activists dying to spend a little money to find out more about the people who run their party is too big a temptation for publishers to resist.

Let's face it, if you are committed enough to spend hundreds of pounds of your own money to go to a political conference then the chances are that you are also somebody who reads avidly about politics. I write from experience here.

However, contrary to popular belief the must-buy book this season will not be the Nick Clegg biography (irony alert) but Alistair Darling's memoirs. The Guardian explains why. They say that the former chancellor's book reportedly charts the breakdown in his relationship with Gordon Brown, and accuses the former PM of trying to undermine him at the Treasury.

This is very much in line with the narrative in Andrew Rawnsley's book, 'The End of the Party', which I have just finished reading:

Back from the Brink: 1,000 days at No 11, charts the breakdown of his relationship with Brown and accuses the former prime minister of attempting to undermine him at the Treasury, according to Labour Uncut, a Labour-supporting website which claims to have seen the book ahead of publication.

The book also reportedly describes the Bank of England governor, Mervyn King, as "amazingly stubborn and exasperating" as Darling lays bare tensions at the top of government and the Bank of England during the 2008 financial crisis.

Darling apparently confirms, as was widely rumoured at the time, that Brown did indeed try to sack him in 2009 and offer him another role in cabinet.

But the chancellor refused, making clear he would rather walk out of government than do any other job. His calculation that the beleaguered premier's weak leadership could ill afford to lose a chancellor turned out to be right, and Darling stayed put.

Darling describes Brown as having an increasingly "brutal and volcanic" demeanour, mistrusting his chancellor to the extent that he repeatedly tried to place his own aides in the Treasury ministerial team to report back on what the chancellor was doing.

He is reported to single out Ed Balls, now shadow chancellor, and former business minister Shriti Vadera who, as key allies of the former prime minister, were running what amounted to a parallel Treasury operation within government at the time.

What I found interesting about Rawnsley's book was that it was not just Ed Balls, of the current shadow cabinet, who came out of it in a bad light. Ed Miliband was a key Brown ally and was very much involved in many of the plots hatched by the Chancellor and his coterie that so undermined the Blair Government. The book should be required reading by anybody who is thinking of voting for the current Labour leader to be Prime Minister.

Will Alistair Darling's book acquire the same status? It certainly seems so.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?