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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Battening down the hatches #AWEMA

This is the extraordinary response to a written question which I received today:

Peter Black (South Wales West): How many times did Ministers meet with AWEMA in the six months following each of the reports into AWEMA in 2002 and 2004 and following concerns raised by the then Chair in 2007. (WAQ59851)

Jane Hutt: It is not appropriate for me to comment in light of the ongoing Wales Audit Office review into the history of the Welsh Government’s support of AWEMA.

The lack of transparency and accountability in this matter is being taken to extreme lengths by Government Ministers.

Is it wise to threaten Parliament?

This morning's Telegraph carries the extraordinary claim that MPs and peers have been warned that they face “diplomatic repercussions” unless they remove a document detailing aspects of one of Britain’s last remaining super-injunctions from the Parliamentary record.

They say that Archerfield Partners, a firm of solicitors acting for the ex-wife of an unnamed Asian head of state, has made a series of threats against the joint Parliamentary Committee on Privacy and Injunctions, made up of 26 MPs and peers.

The report says that the firm has asked the MPs and peers to take down a submission from the committee’s website “as a matter of extreme urgency” and warned that its continued publication on the committee’s website would have diplomatic repercussions:

The 13-page submission from Channel Islands businessman Mark Burby claimed he had been gagged by the “ex-spouse of an Asian head of state” in a super-injunction in 2009.

He said the “Asian head of state” was a “substantial” backer of al-Qaeda, and had advance warning of the suicide bombings on London’s transport system in 2005.

Mr Burby alleged the unnamed ex–spouse, whom he described as one of the wealthiest women in the world, had a sexual relationship “with one of her two solicitors”, as well as two other men, one of which resulted in her having an abortion.

The document is still available on the Parliamentary website and can be widely read. Given that the committee were told earlier this year by Ken Clarke, the Lord Chancellor, that super-injunctions “are now being granted only for very short periods” and “you cannot have just long-running secret litigation”, that position is unlikely to change.

Clearly, MPs need to exercise their discretion in using their privileges but it ill-behoves any firm of solicitors to threaten a national Parliament in this way. In my view continuing defiance of the injunction is now the only way forward. I am just grateful that Parliamentary privilege exists so that my elected representatives can continue to speak out on my behalf without fear of these sort of threats.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The growing scourge of fuel poverty

This morning's Independent contains the very disturbing suggestion that more than nine million households will be living in fuel poverty within four years unless the Government directs £4bn a year from carbon taxes to families in greatest need.

The problem with these sort of predictions of course is that they often look like a bid for money, however there is no doubt that the basic premise of growing fuel poverty is correct, given the massive increase in prices combined with the stagnation of the economy and increasing hardship for many families.

The paper says that a new study has revealed that there are a million more households already living in fuel poverty compared with previous estimates, taking the total to 6.4 million. The study, by energy efficiency experts Camco, suggests that the total will hit 9.1 million by 2016:

Mike O'Connor, chief executive of Consumer Focus, said: "It is a harsh truth that an effective strategy to transform the energy efficiency of our homes and to tackle growing numbers in fuel poverty will need far greater ambition and resources. Billions of pounds will go directly from our energy bills to the Exchequer as part of schemes to cut carbon emissions. That money could reap a double benefit if it was directed to reduce massively our wasteful consumption of energy."

The UK Government is already committed to improving energy efficiency of homes across the country of course, but until the effective oligopoly maintained by the fuel companies is broken then the problem of fuel poverty will continue to grow.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Transport of choice

The Welsh Government comes under attack this morning for getting its priorities wrong over transport in Wales. Opposition parties have quite rightly pointed out that paying £160 subsidy per passenger on North-South flights, while bus services face the axe for consuming more than £2 subsidy per passenger is unsustainable:

The Welsh Government says it has to cut bus funding in April because its transport budget is under pressure, but it will continue paying £1.6m a year for the flights between Holyhead and Barry.

The air service carried just 10,000 passenger journeys last year – compared with 114 million on Welsh buses.

Also protected from cuts is the £1.7m annual subsidy for the additional Holyhead-Cardiff train which includes a restaurant car and a travelling chef, who cooks complimentary breakfast or dinner for first-class passengers.

One veteran bus manager promised to eat his hat outside the Senedd if the Welsh Government could justify its funding choices. One bus operator last night likened the situation to the NHS prioritising “boob jobs and buttock lifts” over cancer treatment.

As Welsh Liberal Democrat Spokesperson, Eluned Parrott says: “We all know that difficult choices have to be made in these tough economic times. I would hope that with hindsight even the Welsh Labour Government would accept that it has had the wrong transport spending priorities.

“It’s a scandal that the Welsh Government are forking out £160 per passenger on flights, while at the same time punishing the most vulnerable in our society by scaling back on bus subsidies.”

Sunday, February 26, 2012

AWEMA underlines the need for reform

Bevan Foundation Director, Victoria Winckler has an excellent article on that organisation's website, 'This is my truth' this morning outlining the lessons that need to be learnt from the AWEMA scandal, here in Wales.

She says that although many have protested that the behaviour of AWEMA was exceptional, it brings into question the effectiveness and scrutiny of charities by the Welsh Government as well as the Charity Commission. It is worth quoting in full:

With over 9,000 charities and a total income of nearly £1 billion, charities in Wales are a powerful provider of services and doer of good deeds.

However, Wales’s charity sector is made up of a small number of relatively large charities and a myriad of tiny ones. There are just 29 charities with an income of over £5 million a year – and of these at least half a dozen are government- funded bodies such as Wales’s biggest charity, the Arts Council for Wales, with an income of £38.6 million a year. Other big charities include the National Museum of Wales at £29.6 million, Welsh National Opera (£17.2 million), Wales Millennium Centre (£13.5 million) and National Library of Wales (£13.3 million), plus WCVA itself, WJEC and several housing associations that are also charities. And of course AWEMA.

At the other end of the spectrum is the myriad of small charities – 5,796 of them with an income of less than £10,000 a year and a further 2,655 with an income of £10,000 – £250,000 (one of which is the Bevan Foundation). Get to medium-sized charities, those with an income of between £250,000 and £10 million, and there are just 542.

According to WCVA, almost half the income of charities and other third sector bodies (£685,000 out of £1.4 million) comes from various government bodies, including the Welsh Government, local authorities and health boards. This raises some intriguing issues.

First, just how independent are charities and third sector organisations that rely so heavily on Government funding? whose priorities do Government funded charities pursue – the Government’s or their own? Will they bite the hand that feeds them if Government actions damage their service-users? Indeed, should organisations whose objects are set by and funded by Government benefit from the dispensations given to charity – surely they are public bodies?

Second, how effective is Government scrutiny of the use of funding it provides to charities? Although the Bevan Foundation has only received a handful of small grants from the EU, UK, Welsh and local government over the years, on every occasion we have had to submit annual reports and accounts, business plans and internal policies with our applications. At the end of the project, we have had to submit final reports including financial statements and audit reports, and retain records for inspection. We’ve always assumed that these submissions are thoroughly scrutinised, but now I wonder if that is the case. I can recall only once being questioned about our submissions (and that was by the EU). If the point of submitting the mini-mountain of paperwork is not to provide evidence of our probity, why bother?

Third, what is the likely impact of the UK government’s review of the regulation of charities? There are some significant changes in the regulation of charities under consideration, including the legal form of charities, fundraising standards and much more. This review has received little attention in Wales yet has potentially major implications for the scrutiny of charities. There is a open consultation event in Cardiff on March 15th although it seems to have received astonishingly little attention.

There are some important questions here that need to be revisited by the Public Accounts Committee in particular, but also by other Committees scrutinising government expenditure.

Putting aside the role and responsibility of Ministers in the AWEMA scandal, around which conduct there are many outstanding questions, these are crucial points. We have trusted the machinery of government to get on with the job of validating compliance in the expenditure of public money for too long, with little questioning or challenge. All of that now needs to change.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Debate on Awema

This is the BBC video of Wednesday's debate on AWEMA, tabled by the Welsh Liberal Democrats

What Labour's Shadow Health Minister Thinks of Welsh NHS

Friday, February 24, 2012

Anybody except Elin

Like a prophet in exile, the former MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, let it be known this morning how his many followers should vote in the Plaid Cymru leadership election.

In what must be one of the more pompous utterings by a Welsh politician (and there is a lot of competition), Mr. Price informed the Western Mail that: “I have this morning posted my ballot paper for the leadership election on Beacon Hill in Boston, not far from the site of the home of John Hancock, first signer of the American Declaration of Independence. I have done so in the hope that whoever is successful will light their own beacon so that our country shall also, at long last, be free."

Mr. Price went on to argue: “This election will probably be decided by second preference votes. For those of you who are supporting Dafydd with your first vote, I would urge you to consider supporting Leanne with your second. I would ask Leanne’s supporters to consider lending their second vote to Dafydd. To every member, whoever they support, I would urge you not to let your second vote go to waste. It is of paramount importance that every member is involved in every part of this process."

As the paper points out this effectively amounts to a call to Plaid Cymru members to vote for anybody except former Agriculture Minister, Elin Jones. They say that the former MP takes the view that the party needs a fresh start, and opposes Elin Jones because he sees her as a “continuity” candidate who would adopt the same “safety first” approach as Ieuan Wyn Jones.

Whether supporters of Leanne Wood will back a pro nuclear monarchist like Dafydd Elis Thomas has yet to be seen, but if Elin Jones does win as she is expected to do, this very public condemnation of her approach will be a difficult first hurdle to overcome.

She may have the support of a majority of AMs and MPs, but she will find herself likely to have failed to win the votes of more than half of party members and without the backing of a very significant faction in the party, led by the man who most members think should be leader in her place. That cannot be how she imagined it would all turn out when she put her name forward.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Is it all about Murdoch?

This morning's Independent reports that former shadow Home Secretary David Davis has accused David Cameron of "shamelessly courting" the media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

They say that the Conservative MP for Haltemprice and Howden, has urged the Leveson Inquiry into press standards to look "as much at the behaviour of political leaders as at the behaviour of newspaper editors".

Mr Davis said that the Prime Minister was part of Britain's "crony capitalism" problem and that his Government had become "far too close" to big business:

"Crony capitalism has also characterised political leaders' relationships with the press. Prior to the phone-hacking scandal, the shameless courting of Rupert Murdoch and other media moguls by politicians was no less unedifying for being standard practice...

"Press competition laws were repeatedly kicked into the long grass by a Labour leadership that was anxious not to offend News International... David Cameron has accepted in Parliament that he got too close to newspaper proprietors after becoming leader."

There is absolutely no doubt that Mr. Davis is right. Both Labour and the Tories have shamelessly courted Rupert Murdoch and turned a blind eye to the excesses of his media empire. As a result he has been able to build up an unprecedented position of owning a major broadcasting company as well as the country's best-selling newspaper.

No one individual should be allowed to exercise such influence. Nor should we be subjected to the sight of successive Prime Ministers queuing up to worship at Murdoch's altar. If the Leveson Inquiry does not start to address this issue then it will have failed.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

On the Welsh Liberal democrat AWEMA debate

Smile, you are on candid camera!

Big Brother Watch has published a report on CCTV, which contains some interesting facts about the UK.

Amongst the rather intriguing information contained in it is the revelation that Caerphilly is the highest spending local Council on CCTV, shelling out over £4 million on 146 cameras between 2007 and 2011. That is more than twice as much as Cardiff, who have 860 cameras. The least watched citizens in Wales live in Pembrokeshire. They have just four CCTV cameras.

Before I continue it is worth highlighting the comment at the bottom of the post which poses the question 'what is the point of this research?' and questions some of the facts contained in the report. Nevertheless, it is fascinating reading. The full report is here.

The key findings are:

* There are currently at least 51,600 CCTV cameras controlled by 428 local authorities in Britain
* The total cost of installing, operating and maintaining CCTV cameras between 2007 and 2011 was £515 million. This could pay for 4,121 Police Constables or 5,894 PCSO’s.
* Birmingham has the highest total expenditure on CCTV cameras with a total spend of over £14 million, while Leicester has the highest number of CCTV cameras with 2,083 in total.
* Two authorities have spent more than £10m - Birmingham - £14,293,060.00 and Westminster - £11,831,554.00
* 18 authorities have spent more than £1m per year - Birmingham, Westminster. Leeds, City of Edinburgh, Croydon, Enfield, Cambridge, Wandsworth, Leicester, Barnet, Nottingham, Housnlow, Knowsley, Barking and Dagenham, City of Bristol, Caerphilly, Wakefield, Lambeth
* Five authorities now have more than 1,000 CCTV cameras - Leicester, Fife, Wandsworth, Nottingham, Southampton
* Seven local authorities now have more CCTV cameras than Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds combined - Leicester, Fife, Wandsworth, Nottingham, Southampton, Aberdeen City and Cardiff

They forgot to mention extra-terrestials

The claim in the report by the Defence Select Committee of the House of Commons that Britain is vulnerable to attack from space-fired nuclear weapons and "space weather", caused by changes in solar activity, is obvious to any science-fiction aficionado.

They say that the government is not doing enough to combat the potentially devastating impact of such an attack, but short of sending Bruce Willis into space with a nuclear warhead, it is not clear what exactly they believe can be done.

The Guardian says that the government assesses the likelihood of an attack from either conventional or high-altitude nuclear electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) weapons to be low. However, the Committee believes that certain states such as Iran could pose a realistic threat in future if nuclear non-proliferation efforts fail.

"The potential impact of such a weapon could be devastating and long-lasting for UK infrastructure," the committee warns. "It is therefore vitally important that the work of hardening UK infrastructure is begun now and carried out as a matter of urgency."

They do have some valid points including their conclusion that the security of satellites is a matter of increasing concern because of our growing reliance on them and the sheer number of satellites in orbit (wasn't that the plot of the 1967 James Bond movie, 'You only live twice'?):

"The government must consider the long-term security of satellite technology and ensure that national interests are protected where we rely on other nations for data, such as GPS."

They say that there appears to be no single government department responsible for taking immediate responsibility in the event of a severe space weather event.

I am just disappointed that they have not mentioned alien attack. Surely, it would be a small matter to get Jeff Goldblum over to design a few computer viruses so as to disable alien defence shields.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A limited ambition

The Western Mail reports that Wales' First Minister Carwyn Jones has been pressing the UK Government to give the Assembly new powers over renewable energy projects.

However, the Welsh Labour Government is limiting its ambition to having control over projects up to 100mw only, as opposed to the current 50mw and so far, has not set out any framework as to how applications for energy projects will be approved.

Their stance lacks ambition whilst their failure to address the way that any further devolution will be delivered means that they are unlikely to have a very sympathetic hearing.

As it happens the existence of the Silk Commission seems to have put a hold on any further power-transfer to Cardiff Bay for the time being. Perhaps that hiatus will give the First Minister time to get his act together.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Answers needed on AWEMA

The BBC report on the initiative by the Welsh Liberal Democrats in using our opposition time to stage a debate on the All Wales Ethnic Minority Association on Wednesday. On Friday we had an e-mail from the Business Minister saying that the Government is to issue a statement this morning on the organisation. It has not arrived yet.

Although there are investigations under way, so far Ministers have avoided answering questions as to what they did following warnings in 2004 and 2007 about the organisation. The Welsh Liberal Democrat debate will be focussing on this aspect but whether we will get any more out of the Government has yet to be seen.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Liberal Democrats should oppose this latest threat to privacy

It was known, even before 'Yes Minister' that it is not the politicians who run this country, it is the senior civil servants. Even when a politicians puts up resistance to an idea or policy, it keeps resurfacing in one form or another until opposition amongst government ministers is ground down.

That certainly appears to be the story around the latest revived plan to have details of every phone call and text message, email traffic and websites visited online stored in a series of vast databases on the pretext that it is necessary to counter terrorism. Isn't the whole point of GCHQ to monitor this sort of traffic amongst terrorist suspects anyway? Why then do we need a catch-all provision.

The Telegraph reminds us that the scheme is a revised version of a plan drawn up by the Labour government which would have created a central database of all the information:

The idea of a central database was later dropped in favour of a scheme requiring communications providers to store the details at the taxpayers’ expense.

But the whole idea was cancelled amid severe criticisms of the number of public bodies which could access the data, which as well as the security services, included local councils and quangos, totalling 653 public sector organisations.

Labour shelved the project - known as the Intercept Modernisation Programme - in November 2009 after a consultation showed it had little public support.

Only one third of respondents backed the plan and half said they feared the scheme lacked safeguards and technical rigour to protect highly sensitive information.

At the same time the Conservatives criticised Labour’s “reckless” record on privacy.

A report, called Reversing the Rise of the Surveillance State by Dominic Grieve, then shadow home secretary and now Attorney General, published in 2009, said a Tory government would collect fewer personal details which would be held by “specific authorities on a need-to-know basis only”.

And yet now, here we are again with proposals that landline and mobile phone companies and broadband providers will be ordered to store data for a year and make it available to the security services.

The paper says that the databases will not record the contents of calls, texts or emails but the numbers or email addresses of who they are sent and received by.

They add that for the first time, the security services will have widespread access to information about who has been communicating with each other on social networking sites such as Facebook. Direct messages between subscribers to websites such as Twitter would also be stored, as well as communications between players in online video games.

Frankly, this scheme is as flawed as it was when it was first mooted. It is a major threat to our privacy as well as an invitation to 'private entrepreneurs' to try and hack the information for their own profit. It should be opposed by Liberal Democrats at every turn, including those in government.


Saturday, February 18, 2012

Labour's credibility problem

With the Welsh Labour Conference getting underway in Cardiff today, the airwaves are being dominated by the brothers and sisters talking the talk about ideological cuts and the evil coalition government in Westminister.

Their enthusiasm for oppositionist politics however, is being undermined by the actions and words of their front bench spokespeople elsewhere. Labour is in danger of falling into the a trap they always seek to set for others, namely saying different things in different places for political advantage.

This is underlined even in today's news, where it is reported that Maria Eagle, one of Ed Miliband's earliest supporters in the shadow cabinet, has said she backs transport spending cuts worth £6bn, and has warned that Labour will not be elected unless it has credibility on the deficit and recognises the new economic reality.

Here at least is a politician who understands the challenges that the government has inherited. Welsh Labour on the other hand are beginning to come across as a protest group.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Do Liberal Democrats understand the art of survival?

Former Conservative Cabinet Minister, Jonathan Aitken tells this morning's Telegraph that he has doubts as to whether the Liberal Democrats are temperamentally suited to high office.

The man, who himself was forced to resign his cabinet post and went to prison for perjury, thinks that the Liberal Democrats have been out of office for so long that we have lost touch with the basic, unwritten rules of political survival.

His evidence lies in the level of churn amongst Liberal Democrat cabinet ministers: The party has five positions in the Cabinet, two of which have already had to be replaced amid accusations of previous wrongdoing. The Tories, who have three times as many ministers, have only lost one under a cloud, Dr Liam Fox:

“Mr Huhne is innocent until proved guilty, but I do look at his party and all the problems its people have had and wonder if its members have got the knack for politics and for power in their bones,” says Aitken, who stepped down as chief secretary to the Treasury in 1995 after it was alleged that he had violated ministerial rules and was later jailed for perjury.

“The problem is that, after being out of office for as long as their party has, they seem to have lost touch with the basic, unwritten rules of political survival.”

Speaking at a reception to launch his book, Kazakhstan: Surprises and Stereotypes After Twenty Years of Independence, Aitken, adds: “Labour members and, yes, the Tories have inner alarm bells that ring when their private and public affairs are liable to cause them trouble. The Lib Dems just don’t seem to have them. They still seem to think that they are private people.”

It is an interesting theory. Are Liberal Democrats more naive than their colleagues in other parties? Or is it just that they have had less luck, largely as a result of being under far more intense scrutiny by a media which is pursuing its own agenda of destabilising the coalition?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Wales' Education legacy

The Welsh education system has had some bad publicity recently centring on the £604 per pupil funding gap with England, and the poor PISA results that showed, that in terms of outcomes for pupils, Wales is lagging behind the rest of the UK.

The current Education Minister has acknowledged that there are problems and has put in place an action plan to deal with them. This though has thrown the spotlight onto the record of his predecessor, Jane Davidson, a record that she has vigorously defended in the media.

In today's Western Mail there is another installment in this PR battle, with education experts hitting back at Ms Davidson's seven year record.

Professor David Reynolds, who is a senior policy adviser to the Welsh Government, has accused Ms Davidson of forgetting teachers, whilst questioning her claim that her tenure formed the “building blocks” for future success.

He believes Wales should have learned from other countries in the wake of devolution:

“Across the world, countries did the demand-side changes with parents and publishing data for them,” he said.

“They did the supply-side by national programmes aimed at helping teachers to get better. We did neither. We did curriculum change in Wales but only some of it rooted properly.

“History will record Ms Davidson was a great curriculum innovator. It will also record that she gave us a decade when the things that implement curriculum – teachers and teaching – were forgotten.”

Meanwhile, Dr Philip Dixon, who is director of teaching union ATL Cymru, has added that the “national humiliation” of Wales’ worsening position in Pisa’s world survey was proof that problems are deep-rooted.

He believes the worrying state of basic skill levels portrayed last month by education watchdog Estyn was not formed overnight:

Responding to Ms Davidson’s wide-ranging interview with the Western Mail, Dr Dixon said: “The leaking roofs, faulty windows and Victorian loos of many Welsh schools are a lasting monument to her seven-year reign as education minister.

“While New Labour were spending millions on the English school system, transforming buildings in the process, the Welsh education system was being starved of cash. The target of making every school fit for purpose by 2010 was quickly and quietly dropped when it became apparent that it would be missed by a mile.”

In 10 years, Welsh teenagers have gone from achieving an above-average percentage of five A* to C grades at GCSE to a percentage significantly below average. Wales attracts fewer top grades at A-level and international comparators rank the nation’s secondary school children at the bottom of the UK.

Dr Dixon said a “toxic legacy” of underfunding in Wales – with the gap in pupil spend rising by £400 in the seven years from 2000 – was having an effect.

He said: “Money might not be the only problem, but it would be remarkable if a funding gap of this magnitude has had no effect on the gap in literacy levels, GCSE and A-level attainment and the dreaded Pisa results. It’s not the vision but the delivery that has been problematic, the ‘how’ should have received as much attention as the ‘what’ – and it didn’t. The hard facts and the disturbing data cannot be dismissed if we are to have a balanced picture.”

Personally, I think that both men have valid points. Indeed, during the time I was shadowing Jane Davidson in Education, the quality of school buildings, the target of having all school buildings fit for purpose by 2010, which she missed,funding and the passporting of money to schools were all live issues. These problems were allowed to fester.

Having said that, we do need to acknowledge the work that Jane Davidson did on the curriculum and in introducing the Foundation Phase and Welsh Baccalaureate, all of which will have a profound impact on the education of Welsh children. As ever, her record is something of a curate's egg.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Labour face dissent from within

Labour leader, Ed Miliband faces huge problems in establishing himself with the public as a potential Prime Minister. The irony of course is that having got himself into the job of leading his party due to union support, his attempts at improving his electability are alienating that very constituency.

Yesterday's Independent underlines that point. They say that one of the biggest union affiliates to Labour is set to debate its future links with the party after an "unprecedented" number of branches raised concerns:

The GMB said a quarter of motions to its annual conference in June related to the union's political stance in the wake of anger over statements by Labour leader Ed Miliband and shadow chancellor Ed Balls in support of some of the Government's austerity measures.

The two made speeches and gave interviews backing the cap on public sector pay in mid-January, two weeks before the closing date for motions to be submitted by GMB branches.

All of this is posturing of course as the union seeks to reassert influence within the Labour Party. It would be unthinkable that a major union such as the GMB would cut its ties with Labour. However, the level of dissatisfaction contained in those motions sums up the problems faced by Miliband the younger.

He cannot face both ways. At some stage he is going to have to choose between electability and his paymasters and, whichever choice he makes, there will be consequences.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Those pesky militants

It is difficult to know how to respond to claims by Conservative Party Chair, Baroness Warsi, that British society is under threat from a rising tide of “militant secularisation” reminiscent of “totalitarian regimes”. It all seems to be a bit over-the-top to me and very unBritish.

Her argument appears to be that this 'militant secularisation' is taking hold because signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings and religion is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere. She says:

“For me, one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant. It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity because they were frightened of the concept of multiple identities.”

To me, none of this rings true. The British state has been separated from religion for centuries. Apart from the anachrionism that the monarch remains the defender of the faith, religion has no place in civic society and nor should it. People deserve to be governed and judged on merit not on their beliefs. To suggest otherwise is alien to our way of life.

No serious person is seeking to prevent an individual holding and practising their beliefs. Whether you are catholic, protestant, muslim, sikh, buddhist, atheist or a jedi, we live in a tolerant society which enables you to be as religious as you like or vice versa, providing that you do not use your beliefs as a justification to break the law or to infringe other people's rights. That is how it should be.

That is reflected in the Telegraph's own unscientific on-line poll in which, at the time of writing, half of those participating have expressed the view that secularisation is not a threat to this country.

In addition the paper itself reports on a poll, conducted for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (UK), which suggests that almost three quarters (74 per cent) of the Christians polled agreed that religion should not influence public policy, while only about one in eight (12 per cent) thought it should. It also found that 92 per cent of Christians agreed the law should apply to everyone equally, regardless of their personal religious beliefs.

The real danger is when religion becomes an intrinsic part of government. At that point policy decisions become less objective and more intolerant. I do not object to Ministers having deeply-felt views and even expressing them publicly, but their first duty is to the country and the electorate and they should not forget that.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Flogging a dead horse

Highly respected former Conservative Assembly Member, Lisa Francis has blogged about her reasons for quitting the party.

Lisa was the Conservative AM for Mid and West Wales from 2003 to 2007 and a particularly close friend of former Conservative Assembly Leader, Nick Bourne, who represented the same region before losing his seat in 2011. However, the direction the party has taken since that last Assembly election has not been to her taste.

She writes that she is unhappy about the way the party is being run and more particularly, about how the membership is treated. She has rejected the option of trying to change things from within. However, she says that there is very little appetite from within the party to bring about positive change: "To rather crudely mix my metaphors, I arrived at this conclusion: if a horse doesn’t want to be led to water, then there ain’t no point flogging it until it’s dead!"

She argues that there needs to be radical root and branch reform of the Welsh Conservatives:

I think that most people would agree that the progress of any organisation is dependent on its reputation. In my opinion, in order to improve this, the Welsh Conservatives need to get their marketing right and to properly serve their members, (the people who are after all, the ‘shareholders’ in the company).

• Members need to see evidence that the professional party in Wales (the salaried arm of the party charged with administration) is properly performance managed.
• There needs to be better communication from the Party’s Management Board to the Party members.

It is a pity that it always seems to have been a struggle to find volunteers who are willing to stand for election to the Management Board, to such an extent that within the Party over the last few years, members have seen the same old suspects from the voluntary party hierarchy being ‘recycled’ back onto the Board. This is not good for party democracy or for introducing new ideas.

• There needs to be better communication with Party members overall.

Members want and need to feel a sense of belonging and inclusion and that their opinions are valued – this means making regular contact and not just asking them to deliver leaflets at election time!

To be fair, these complaints could apply to any political party in the UK, which leads me to think that there may be deeper reasons for Lisa's resignation. She makes it clear that no one individual is to blame for these problems but nevertheless it is difficult to separate her complaints from the general discontent that has trouble the Welsh Conservatives since Andrew RT Davies took over leadership of their Assembly Group.

It is well known that there is unease within the group itself at the way he is leading it. There is also the well-documented spat between Mr. Davies and Cheryl Gillan over his reported ambition to be designated as Welsh Conservative Leader.

Whichever way you look at this, it is undeniable that the Welsh Conservatives are in some disarray. They will not welcome the public loss of such a substantial and well-liked politician.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Thinking the thinkable

I have not commented on Carwyn Jones idea for another Welsh think tank or policy institute to generate ideas to improve public services, largely because I am always suspicious of easy targets.

It is not that I do not support such a body, we can always do with fresh thinking, it is just that Welsh Labour has hardly been a hotbed of original thought since the Assembly got underway and, if the First Minister's comments are any guide, that has not changed.

My first reaction was very much in line with the AM quoted by Matt Withers in this morning's Wales on Sunday, who said that it is to be “a think-tank tasked with thinking the unthinkable as long as it’s thinkable”. This is a reference to the fact Mr Jones has set out its terms of reference, and no use of the markets or private sector is allowed.

More intriguing though is the suggestion in this week's Spin Doctor column in the same paper, which could save the First Minister a lot of work. The column asks why start a new think tank when a perfectly good one is laying dormant?

The Progressive Policies Forum, which famously channelled £26,613.75 plus a loan of £25,000, to Peter Hain's campaign for the Labour Party deputy leadership in 2007, has still yet to publish any work since its inception in December 2006. What's more, it's been so busy thinking it hasn't even had time to get a website yet.

Or does that suggestion contain too many difficult questions for the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales and Welsh Labour as well?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Danish West Wing? (beware of spoilers)

I am hoping to watch the last two episodes of series one of Borgen tonight so please no spoilers in the comments.

It has been a compelling experience though perhaps not reaching the heights of the first three series of West Wing. Nevertheless, as the BBC explains it has gripped the imagination of politicians, desperate for reassurance that the world they inhabit is not abnormal and can be replicated in a popular TV drama.

They say that Borgen has become the "must watch" of the Westminster village because it tells some uncomfortable eternal truths about the world of politics:

First, is the cost to friends and family.

As Birgitte Nyborg climbs ever higher up the political tree, so her family life disintegrates ever more disastrously.

Culminating in weekly diary appointments for sex with her husband, psychiatric help for her youngest child and divorce.

So far, so depressing but perhaps not so far-fetched.

After all, who at Westminster would not recognise those frosty dinner table showdowns or the strain politics inevitably puts on marital harmony?

And then there are the inevitable compromises. The fraying and forgoing of once tightly-held principles and beliefs as they collide with reality.

Birgitte Nyborg is forced to swallow her liberal instincts and, eventually, is willing to compromise with unsavoury regimes in return for lucrative contracts and jobs.

She becomes as cynical and manipulative of the media as those she once decried.

Finally there is the utter ruthlessness that Borgen demonstrates is necessary to succeed.

PM Nyborg dispatches her long time political mentor and cabinet ally with scarcely a blink as she seeks to re-balance her shaky coalition.

A foolish friend who's recorded making drunken threats is abandoned to be devoured by a tabloid frenzyPerhaps no surprise then, given this rather bleak take on politics, each episode of Borgen begins with some dark observation from the likes of Machiavelli or Mao. Or this from Lenin: "Trust is good. Control is better."

As they say, it is not the sort of drama to re-build our faith in politics but it certainly provides an insight into the peculiar pressures facing those in power, in a way that no British drama has succeeded in doing so far.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The energy price con

I put a press release out earlier this week highlighting the way that the big energy companies are seeking to hoodwink the public with small price reductions in selected products.

Essentially, most of the Big Six energy companies have cut the price of one fuel only. For instance, British Gas has only cut electricity prices, EDF and Scottish and Southern Energy (which is SWALEC where I live) have only cut gas prices.

British Gas has twice as many gas-buying customers as electricity customers. EDF and SSE have many more customers who buy electricity than gas. That does not appear to be a coincidence.

When these companies pushed their prices up, gas and electricity prices rose together. That is not the case when we experience price cuts. Wholesale prices have fallen from their 2011 peak by 19% for gas, and 25% for electricity, and yet we are only being offered a 5% reduction that will come into effect as winter ends, and fuel use falls.

Within a few minutes of posting that press release on my website I was contacted by a PR person for British Gas asking for a meeting, presumably to try and persuade me of how hard done by the energy companies really are. I don't expect that anybody who would come to that meeting will have the authority to change the companies pricing policies.

Now, the Independent has highlighted that whilst more than 5.5 million households are suffering under fuel poverty, many being forced to choose between heating or eating, the Big Six energy suppliers increased their profit margins by 733 per cent in just three months last year.

Average household bills have doubled in the past six years from around £600 a year in 2006 to more than £1,200 a year now.

Campaigners have set up a new petition with the hope that public support will pile pressure on the Chancellor to announce plans for a levy in March's Budget. I have signed it and would urge others to follow suit.


Former Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott was all over Twitter yesterday announcing that he is to run for Police Commissioner in the Humberside area later this year.

He has already been branded Kojag, a label he has accepted with glee. However, if he uses pictures on his literature such as the one that illustrates this Telegraph article, I dont hold out much hope for him.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

A failure of accountability

The Minister for Equalities has announced that the Government report on AWEMA, will not be published until 4pm today, after all Assembly Committees have finished their meetings for the recess. The next meeting of Plenary, where AMs might wish to scrutinise the Government on this report will take place on Tuesday 21 February, 12 days from now. That is very convenient for the Government.

As yet we do not know what the report will say but the questions are stacking up, not least due to the discovery by a Welsh Liberal Democrat researcher of the 2004 report into AWEMA, in the Assembly library.

That report concluded that no further funding is provided to Awema for new projects until Awema is able to verify that it has taken a systematic approach to project and performance management. It was also critical of the civil service oversight and scrutiny of the projects, saying: "The primary concern regarding the role of the Equality Policy Unit (EPU) was the lack of scrutiny and performance appraisal exercised throughout all three projects."

When an urgent question was tabled in Plenary yesterday afternoon, the Minister clearly did not want to be there and effectively stonewalled all questions about what the Welsh Government had done with these recommendations. Ministers have set in chain a lengthy process, and they are not going to be deviated from it, no matter how embarrassing or difficult things get. It is not clear how long they will be able to hold that line.

Now, further evidence has emerged that the Government were warned about AWEMA, this time in 2007. The Western Mail says that a former chair resigned five years ago after alleging that its chief executive was awarding himself unauthorised pay rises:

Documents seen by the Western Mail show that on July 2, 2007 the acting chairman of Awema, Mr PK Verma, resigned, together with two other trustees.

In a letter to a senior Welsh Government official, Mr Verma, who has since died, alleged that attempts by him to call a special meeting of Awema’s trustees had been thwarted. He had wanted the meeting to discuss “the remuneration of the director [Naz Malik], in particular the authorisation of salary and pension increases that had never been before the board” as well as “the management and supervision of the director”.

Explaining why he and two other trustees were resigning, Mr Verma wrote: “... we have all come to the conclusion that it may be better to resign and leave the Assembly to sort out what is a most unsatisfactory situation.”

AWEMA may be an independent charity but Ministers also have responsibilities here and it is time they faced up to them and started answering the very many questions that have arisen.

Update: The report has been published and it is absolutely damning. In summary the Minister's statement says that her investigation has identified significant and fundamental failures in the control and governance framework within AWEMA:

• Governance arrangements in relation to management and to the AWEMA Management Board of Trustees;
• Financial controls and processes;
• An absence of key policies and procedures; and
• An organisational structure that does not adequately support the operations of AWEMA.

She continues; In light of the current control framework the report concludes that it cannot provide any assurance that there are appropriate arrangements in place to safeguard and make proper use of the Welsh Government, WEFO and Big Lottery funds entrusted to AWEMA.

In light of this, Dr Rita Austin, Chair of AWEMA has been informed that funding for AWEMA under the Advancing Equality Fund is terminated with immediate effect. In addition Dr Austin has been informed that the three ESF Convergence agreements with AWEMA have also been terminated. WEFO’s Project Inspection & Verification Team will carry out an immediate review of the eligibility of expenditure for EU funding under these projects and will expect the full co-operation of AWEMA in completing this work. Action will be taken to consider whether grant funding should be reclaimed.

The Welsh Government will continue to liaise closely with South Wales Police and the Charity Commission, and provide them with any help it can in fulfilling their responsibilities in relation to AWEMA.

In taking these decisions, very careful consideration has been given to the need to protect participants in the ESF Convergence projects as far as is possible. WEFO has approached AWEMA’s co-sponsors to consider what alternative arrangements might be put in place. The co-sponsors have indicated a willingness and ability to work with WEFO to make arrangements to safeguard the position of people benefitting from the AWEMA led projects. I will make match funding available to the co-sponsors to help support the continuity of programmes.

The First Minister and I, along with the Permanent Secretary, consider that there now needs to be a full and thorough independent review of the history of the funding of AWEMA by the Welsh Government.

It is appropriate that the Wales Audit Office should carry this out and I can confirm that they have agreed to undertake this review. The Permanent Secretary is in the process of agreeing the scope of the review with the WAO.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Eric Pickles, a puppet master with broken strings

Today's Telegraph reports that despite strenuous efforts by the English Local Government Minister to freeze Council tax, 18 councils, including some in the Conservative heartlands, have rejected an offer of central government money that would allow them to deliver the policy.

They say that official figures indicate that 199 local authorities, about half of all councils, have so far unveiled their proposed levels of council tax from April:

Some 181 councils have agreed to freeze their levy but 18 have already warned they will increase the tax. They include Tory-controlled Surrey, Cambridgeshire, Peterborough and East Cambridgeshire.

The Government has introduced laws that would force councils to hold a referendum if they wish to increase the levy by more than 3.5 per cent. However, local authorities are typically proposing increases at just below the “referendum-trigger” threshold.

Eight councils including Brighton & Hove, Chesterfield, Darlington, and Leicester have proposed increasing their tax by 3.5 per cent. Stoke-on-Trent is proposing a 3.49 per cent rise and Gravesham an increase of 3.48 per cent.

The Government has offered councils funds to enable them to freeze the tax – and last year, every local authority took the money and did not increase the levy. The scheme was designed to help local residents following years of inflation-beating rises.

This year, some council leaders have claimed that they are only being offered a “one-off grant” and therefore have to increase the tax to ensure their finances are sustainable in the long term.

Eric Pickles, is arguing that councils have a “moral duty” to freeze the Council tax but it is becoming increasingly clear that he is finding the task of orchestrating such a complex and diverse sector too much, with the result that many are now defying his blandishments.

Good grief, what next?

Decent song. A video best watched with the screen switched off.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

More on AWEMA

The First Minister has been answering questions again today on the alleged financial irregularities and other matters around the All Wales Ethnic Minorities Association, on which issue I posted yesterday.

It appears that the Government's report will be published on Thursday, though I understand that it will not address the human resource issues that have caused so much anguish for many former employees of the charity.

The First Minister says that the Government will then carry out a lessons learned review and publish the 2003 report into AWEMA at the same time. That is hardly satisfactory and looks set to drag out the affair for many more weeks.

Next week is half term. If a suitable and accepable conclusion has not been reached when the Assembly reconvenes on 21st February then the pressure on the Government to act decisively to resolve this controversy will be even more intense.

Back to school

Am I the only one who is disturbd by this report in today's Telegraph senior civil servants are being sent to “leadership school” amid concerns they do not have the skills to run major projects like the Olympics, welfare reforms and new high-speed trains.

The paper says that the new system is an effort to avoid debacles like wasted public spending on a £12 billion NHS computing system that never worked. From October, senior civil servants, including permanent secretaries and director-generals, will have to obtain qualifications from the academy before they are allowed to be in charge of major projects.

It is not that we have not known about these shortcomings, just that it has taken so long to do something about them.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Questions unanswered

I have been asked to meet the Welsh Minister responsible for equalities later today, presumably to receive a briefing on progress on the Government inquiry into race equality charity AWEMA.

As is outlined on this blog some very serious accusations have been made about this organisation. A report commissioned by the charity's trustees recommended its Chief Executive be suspended pending a disciplinary hearing. Instead, he received a written warning.

The report alleges that Mr. Naz Malik, who has been in that role since 2001, used "Awema funds in an inappropriate way", including paying off credit card debts worth £9,340. There have also been accusations of bullying and sexual harrassment.

The Welsh Government have suspended all funding to AWEMA, including £8 million for European projects pending the outcome of the review, and yet the author of the independent report and other key witnesses say that they have not been interviewed at all.

The BBC report that the Tories are starting to make the obvious links between the Labour Party and AWEMA itself. This is because of the strong association between the Malik family and the party.

Mr Malik's son Gwion Iqbal Malik stood on Labour's Mid and West Wales regional list at last May's assembly elections. Pictures on Facebook show him campaigning with the first minister. In one photo, his father Naz is seen standing behind Mr Jones at a voter's doorstep.

Personally, I am prepared to give the Government the benefit of the doubt until I see the report, but there are many questions that need to be answered about it and the process that has led to this point. Today's meeting will need to be very convincing.

Update: I meant to mention the 2003 investigation and report into AWEMA, which is not a public document. The real question is what did it say and why is it not published? This report has the potential to be the real smoking gun in this case. It is time the Welsh Government made it widely available.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Unlikely parody

To be honest the comparison between Ed Miliband and Gromit's friend, Wallace had passed me by, but now I look at the photographs in today's Independent and consider the mannerism and general haphazard approach to life, I wonder why I had not seen it before.

Still, kudos to the Labour leader, he is not the one to complain publicly about the parody, instead that honour goes to senior figures at Aardman Animations, who are concerned at the reputational damage to their iconic plasticine puppet.

The paper says that things came to a head when yet another cartoon appeared in the national press on Friday – the eighth in The Times to portray Mr Miliband as the inveterate inventor:

The cartoon, by Peter Brookes, showed Gromit pinned against the wall with a boot mark on his back, while Mr Miliband insisted he was "completely relaxed" about criticism from his brother David. The latest cartoon was published "with continuing apologies to Aardman".

Is this Ed Miliband's Spitting Image moment?

Saturday, February 04, 2012

New energy from a fresh broom

The loss of Chris Huhne from Government was inevitable once he was charged, however it is difficult not to draw the conclusion that the constant exercising of 'sharp elbows' was bound to end badly in some shape or another, whilst leaving few political friends to pick up the pieces.

Having said this, the Liberal Democrats will miss Chris Huhne's presence in the cabinet, where he was a big hitter and consequently was able to press forward with the party's green agenda with impunity.

We now have Ed Davey in his place, a Minister who has already achieved success in reforming the Royal Mail whilst setting aside some of the proceeds to secure the future of Post Office branches up and down the country.

Today's Telegraph reports that Mr. Davey's first ambition in his new post is to tackle soaring power bills. They say he will set out new plans that will allow homeowners to group together to buy cheap gas and electricity at knock-down rates.

The paper reports that the plans are based on the principles of the ‘Groupon’ website, which features discounted gift certificates for members that can be used to buy expensive products cheaply. This is not a new departure as Mr. Davey, in his former role as Consumer affairs minister in the Department for Business, spent the past few months developing the plans with Chris Huhne.

Nevertheless, any relief from the unremitting pressure of increasing fuel bills will be welcome and if Ed Davey can pull it off then he will have hit the ground running in his new role.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Clegg asserts Lib Dem position on tax cuts again

This morning's Telegraph reports that Nick Clegg has continued his campaign to secure help for the lower paid with the insistence that Conservative plans to give married couples a tax break must take second place behind a Liberal Democrat tax cut for low-earners.

The paper says that as ministers debate next month’s Budget, pressure is mounting for a targeted tax cut to ease pressure on household finances and stimulate the shrinking economy:

Mr Clegg last week called for an acceleration in Coalition plans to raise the starting point for basic rate tax, a policy designed to increase the take-home pay for low and middle income earners.

He told the House magazine that the threshold must be raised before Tory hopes of a married couples’ tax allowance can be considered.

The threshold plan is far from complete, he said, suggesting that other tax cuts are a long way off.

Mr Clegg insists that the Coalition agreement between his party and the Tories must be honoured, meaning the Lib Dem tax cuts must come first.

“I think the Coalition agreement is very clear that the precedence on tax cuts is the [personal] allowance and we haven’t come anywhere near to delivering what we set out we would do,” Mr Clegg said.

“There’s a very clear chronology to which tax cuts are most important. The Coalition agreement says the priority is another tax cut [rather than married couples].”

It is policies such as these, with the emphasis on increased social mobility and justice that have marked out the Liberal Democrats contribution to the coalition.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Brotherly love

So, just who is running the Labour Party really? I only ask because now that Ed Miliband's brother, David has decided to speak out and question the direction of the party any authority the leader once had appears to be dissipating.

The Independent reports that the former Foreign Secretary is more than a bit disconcerted at the way his brother is doing his job.

David has called on Labour to admit "loud and clear" what it got wrong while it was in power and urged the party to embrace radical public- service reform. It is an attempt to arrest the leftward drift of Labour and pull it back to the Blairist agenda that saw it achieve unprecedented electoral success.

Whether a policy change of this nature would be enough is difficult to judge. After all Tony Blair was a young charismatic leader in touch with the public psyche. Ed Miliband on the other hand....

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

A memorandum of deliberate misunderstanding

I am not in the habit of defending the English Health Minister but there are times when the Welsh Labour Government go looking for a fight even when they are in the wrong.

Walesonline reports that Andrew Lansley wrote to the Welsh Government to complain he only found out about its policy of removing and replacing faulty PIP breast implants through the media.

They say that he asked to be notified in future if the government in Wales takes a “contradictory” approach to England:

He wrote: “I would like to take this opportunity to seek your assurance that in the future you will inform my department if the Welsh Government decides to take a contradictory approach to a public health issue before we learn of it through the media, which was the case in relation to your comments regarding the replacement of PIP breast implants on the NHS.”

According to the Welsh Government's spin doctors this is “arrogant and patronising”. They say that Mr. Lansley is "behaving like devolution never happened" and once more they have raised the issue of the so-called "respect agenda”.

Their problem however is that Mr. Lansley's letter is perfectly consistent with devolution and in particular with a memorandum of understanding signed by the Welsh Government amongst others that agrees in paragraphs 4 and 5 that all of the UK's administrations will seek:

* to alert each other as soon as practicable to relevant developments within their areas of responsibility, wherever possible, prior to publication;

* to give appropriate consideration to the views of the other administrations; and to establish where appropriate arrangements that allow for policies for which responsibility is shared to be drawn up and developed jointly between the administrations.

Doesn't the lack of respect in this instance lie with the Welsh Government who have ignored this agreement and then complained when they were asked to comply with a commitment that they voluntarily agreed and signed up to?

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