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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Today is the day as Park Homes Bill is launched

Rather busy day today as I travel up to Llandrindod Wells after the Assembly Finance Committee to launch my private member's bill on Park Homes.

The Bill is intended to modernise the licensing system for park homes across Wales - giving local authorities the resources and powers to award and monitor licenses and to ensure site owners pass a fit and proper persons test.

I also intend to offer more protection to mobile home owners wishing to sell their homes without prior agreement with site owners.

Throughout the course of researching and gathering opinions on this Bill I have often been disturbed by stories of mobile home owners being harassed, intimidated and exploited by a small minority of site operators.

Of the 900 responses I received to my survey four out of five were from mobile home owners who were retired and on fixed incomes. More than half were over the age of 70.

Many of them feel that they do not have the protection of the law or the support of local councils with regards to their rights in disputes with site operators.

This Bill will put those rights on a firm, statutory footing

The launch will take place at a Consumer Focus Wales event in front of 60 or so Park Home residents. I am really looking forward to it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Playground tactics on AWEMA

Labour's response to the AWEMA crisis has fluctuated wildly between embarrassed silence and over-the-top tit-for-tat name calling. A good example is this response from one of their publicly-paid spin-doctors:

There was strong criticism of the Welsh Government in the chamber this afternoon when opposition parties forced an urgent question but surprisingly the Conservative, Plaid Cymru and Liberal Democrat leaders didn't raise it in First Minister's Questions.

A government source has seized on this, saying:

“Opposition parties clearly chickened-out of confronting the First Minister over AWEMA during FMQs this afternoon. The WAO report scuppered their attempt to smear the Government on this issue. They have failed miserably.

Perhaps the real reason it was not raised in First Minister's questions was because an urgent question had been granted immediately after that event. However, if we turn the government's comment on its head for a minute, would not a more valid question be:

"If Labour consider this issue to be so important that only the First Minister can answer on it (and I would not disagree on that), then why was he not put up to answer the urgent question? More to the point why did he not stay in the chamber for the urgent question?"

I am sure that the First Minister will have his opprotunity to be scrutinised on this matter.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Kicking racism out of football

The decision of Jason Roberts, Rio Ferdinand, the Swansea City Football team and other footballers not to wear Kick It Out T-shirts last weekend has certainly started a debate as to whether racism can ever be properly removed from the game as well as whether the work being carried out by a particular organisation is sufficient or not.

Over at the BBC, Richard Langley, an English-born Jamaican international who played for QPR, Cardiff City and Luton Town during a 12-year career in the Football League, writes about his experiences of racism in the game and discusses what should be done to stamp it out. He raises some important issues:

There have been too many high-profile people encouraging us to sweep the issue of racism under the carpet.

Even Sepp Blatter, the president of world governing body Fifa, has encouraged players who suffer racial abuse on the pitch to resolve it with a handshake at the end.

What has been most frustrating is that these opinions have been printed quite freely. Yet search for opposing views and they are not as visible.

The fact that this racist behaviour is wrong and should be punished has almost been silenced, perhaps through fear of legal ramifications.

Liverpool's decision to support Luis Suarez was both disappointing and foolish. Likewise, Chelsea were wrong to back Terry.

It appears some players are untouchable.

Following the incidents in Serbia, the Football Association urged Uefa, which governs football in Europe, to take action against the Serbian FA. I totally agree with this response. However, it also angers me. We do not seem to have our own house in order yet are quick to criticise others.

Let me explain.

In my view, the FA showed too much loyalty to Terry. It may have taken the England captaincy from him but he remained in the squad, until deciding to retire from international duty.

Yet look back and what happened when other England players transgressed?

Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer were suspended from the England squad while they awaited trial for the alleged assault of an Asian student.

Alan Smith was omitted from the England squad while he waited for an FA hearing into claims he threw a bottle back into the crowd during a match.

And Rio Ferdinand was dropped by England following allegations he missed a drugs test.

Why were the goalposts moved to accommodate Terry?

I think that explains why many players resented the pressure to wear T-shirts, however in my view there should have been other ways to make their perfectly valid point. That is because the T shirt demonstration was not just about reinforcing a particular campaign, it should also have been a statement of solidarity against those who demonstrate racist behaviour, especially amongst fans.

Those who do exhibit such unacceptable behaviour may take comfort in the fact that the campaign to tackle racism is divided in this way. Yes, the authorities need to act on their own statements in a more consistent way and show no tolerance of racist behavour, but the players too have to be united in this regard.

The FA must bring all the parties together and resolve this dispute as soon as possible before the campaign falls apart in acrimony.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Managing crises

It is in the best interests of politcians not to give the impression that running the country is anything like that porrtrayed on 'The Thick of it', if only. Today's Telegraph takes that narrative the other way with the revelation that one of the Prime Minister’s key advisers has admitted that most of his time is spent on “day-to-day crisis management”:

In his first interview, Oliver Dowden, David Cameron’s deputy chief of staff who oversees domestic policy, disclosed that he was “surprised on a day-to-day basis” by the news agenda.

The admission will add to concerns that the Prime Minister’s office is “dysfunctional” and unable to influence events following the resignation of key members of staff.

The Daily Telegraph has learnt that several members of the Cabinet are now privately giving warnings that the growing allegations of government incompetence will undermine the Conservatives’ re-election efforts.

One Cabinet minister said that Mr Cameron needed to “sharpen and harden” the Downing Street operation as the Conservatives would be judged on “competence, not compassion”.

My suspicion ias that Mr. Dowden is just being unusually honest and that the situation he describes is no different to that faced by any other government. He may wish to reflect however, that his honesty has just added yet another crisis to those that will need to be managed.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

An occasional round-up of Welsh blogposts Part Five

This is the fifth in a series of reviews of Welsh blog posts that have caught my eye over the last month.

The Wales Audit Office report into AWEMA has been simmering in the background for some months and has now emerged with a bang. It is likely that Ministers will be asked to account for their role in the failure to scrutinise this organisation in the Assembly this week, however the appearance of the report has at least led to the former Chief Executive of the body to go public for the first time. The blog, A Change of Personnel was not impressed:

The only point I would add to the general discussion is that while the Civil Servants are taking the majority of flack over the Government’s failings on AWEMA, we need to remember that Civil Servants don’t act independently of Ministers who set tone for the Department they run. So if poor communication and lack of accountability were the order of the day then Welsh Minister's are clearly are fault, despite what the Wales Audit Office had to say.

And for all denial of wrong doing coming from Cardiff Bay you have wonder why Carwyn Jones, Jane Hutt, Edwina Hart and other Ministers involved weren't willing to sit down with Betsan Powys, Adrian Masters or Martin Shipton on Thursday to tell their side of the story - at the very least they owe the numpties who vote them in time after time an explanation over this sorry mess, the rest of us saw through the smoke and mirrors years ago and remain unmoved by Labour's continued incompetence and indifference in governing Wales.

Glyn Davies MP has been reflecting on news that Assembly Members have been having training on how to ask questions and on presentation. He adds a new twist to the controversy with the suggestion that his predecessor as MP for Montgomeryshire might have a role in instructing us:

The Assembly Commission could have recruited cheaper advice from former Montg. MP, Lembit Opik who has recently launched The London Academy Business School, where he offers himself as  a guru on public speaking and presentational skills. Am told he charges £149.00 for a 2 hr course. Its advertised as a 'personal and tailored experience' and 'provides tips to make your presentation sparkle'.  OK, I know he didn't look too good when that wrestler had him in a headlock, but I remember Lembit as always quite well turned out. He's seemed a bit unsure of career direction for a while, but could be that the desire of AMs to smarten themselves up creates an opportunity for Lembit to use his skills for the benefit of Welsh politics again.

Meanwhile the controversy over the UK Government's challenge to the Assembly's Local Government By-laws Bill and the possible challenge to the Official Language's Bill rumbles on. However, Alwyn Ap Huw thinks he has smelt a rat:

From a nationalist point of view one could see these legal challenges as a way of highlighting the deficiencies in the Welsh devolution settlement and making the case for more devolution, but that is not what the Welsh Labour Government is doing; Welsh Labour, on the whole, is lukewarm about giving the Assembly further powers.

The Labour government in Cardiff is basically having a pissing competition with the Con-Dem government in London in order to prove that they are "standing up to the Tories". They are allowing the governance of Wales to stagnate in silly legal challenges. Rather than using the limited powers that we voted to give the Assembly in the referendum for the benefit of Wales, Labour is abusing that mandate by bogging the right to pass Welsh laws down in petty party politicking and point scoring. Yet again - the Labour Party is putting what's best for Labour before what is best for Wales!

Paul Flynn is back at work after his suspension from the House of Commons, but he has never relented from pursuing his hobby horses, this time on the suppression of Prince Charles' letters to the UK Government:

The Queen has never strayed into politics. Charles cannot stay away. Letters kept secret. They prove he would be a poor monarch.

Time we copied the practise of most of the free world and elected our head of state.

If Charles is not 'politically neutral' he is not fit to be Head of State. Tories should not stifle truth on his character and prejudice.

It has to be said that much as I agree with Paul, the previous Labour Government has been culpable in this as well. The other big issue of the week has been the TUC march against the cuts. On the IWA blog, Anthony Barnett suggests they are missing the point:

Now, the demonstration is to be repeated. The aim of 20 October is to carry on 26 March. But what’s the point when the argument about austerity has already moved on – it isn’t working and that’s official. Another march, another day. It isn’t new, it won’t be bigger unless I’m missing something. What’s the point?

Any kind of organisation or movement has to learn, to grow. It has to be a learning experience for those who participate and for its leaders. This is especially so now when, to leave aside everything else, we are facing the possibility of a second financial crash (if David Potter’s sober analysis is right. But the TUC is not responding to this. And if it isn’t learning it will be shrinking.

Finally, Gareth Hughes spots a new political trend in the way that Plaid Cymru are promoting themselves. Henceforth they are to be called the Party of Wales or POW so as to better appeal to non-Welsh speakers:

Come election time if two smiling individuals turn up at your door speaking English and being positive about the world, don’t slam the door in their face thinking they’re Mormons. Chances are they’ll by POWs not escaping but garnering votes.

You have been warned.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Gary McKinnon - a matter of principle

The Telegraph reports that America is preparing formally to complain to Britain over Home Secretary Theresa May’s decision to block the extradition of computer hacker Gary McKinnon.

The paper says that row over Mr McKinnon has turned into the biggest cooling in trans-Atlantic relations since Lockerbie bomber was released three years ago:

Senior US officials are now understood to describe the relationship between the Obama administration and Mrs May as “finished”.

Mr Holder is understood to feel “completely screwed” by Mrs May’s decision not to extradite Mr McKinnon because of doctors’ fears that he might kill himself, complaining that the US has wasted million so pounds on legal fees for the case.

The Daily Telegraph understands that Mr Holder has refused to return Mrs May’s phone calls since her surprise announcement on Tuesday.

Really? Personally, I am proud that the UK Coalition Goverment took this decision. There were clearly extenuating circumstances in the McKinnon case and it took a Home Secretary with real guts to recognise that and to stand up to the USA.

If America wants to respond by going off in a massive sulk then that is their lookout. The balance has been restored in UK-US relations after a decade of capitulation under Tony Blair.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Leveson has sense of humour failure

Personally I am looking forward to 'The Thick of it' on Saturday when they will sending up public inquiries, but it seems that not everybody has the same level of anticipation.

The Independent reports that the editor of The Times was required to write to Lord Justice Leveson earlier this summer explaining why the paper had run a short story revealing that the BBC2 show's current series would satirise a public inquiry run on similar lines to the press ethics inquiry.

They say that the story was 208 words long and did not appear on a prominent page. It also referred to the findings of an opinion poll which asked for the reaction of people to positive and negative statements about the inquiry.

Even Leveson cannot control the way that his inquiry is portrayed in the media or on satirical TV shows and nor should he.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The scandal continues

The Wales Audit Office report published today into the AWEMA scandal is a very significant document, not least because for the first time we have a detailed assessment of how disjointed and chaotic the process of Government is in Cathays Park.

A senior official from the Wales Audit Office said on Radio Wales this morning that this is now the 19th report in the last 5 or 6 years that has identified weaknesses in the way that the Welsh Government issues and monitors grants. And yet no lessons have been learnt and the same mistakes are being repeated over and over.

The point was also made as to how silohed the Welsh Government is. Civil Servants in one department do not talk regularly or in a systematic way with their opposite numbers in other departments about matters of joint concern. In some cases it seems that civil servants were afraid to speak out in case they were being seen to be racist. That is an unsustainable culture and needs to be addressed urgently.

The report clearly states that there was no evidence of undue political influence with regards to the way that AWEMA was dealt with, despite there being senior members of the Labour Party at the top of that organisation. I am happy to accept that, but this conclusion does not excuse Ministers of political responsibility for this mess.

After all Ministers had concerns raised with them in 2003 and 2007 but apparently not enough was done to stop the rot. Previously posed-questions now need to be answered as to what action Ministers took in response to these reports and how vigorously these were followed through.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Cat fight

As this a day for the animals I cannot let the moment pass without mentioning the fight that broke out yesterday between Number 10 Downing Street and their neighbours in Number 11.

Of course we are well used to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer falling out during the time of the previous Labour Government, but that has not been the pattern so far. However, yesterday's spat was not between Cameron and Osborne, but their cats. The full story is here.

In this instance, Osborne's cat, Freya emerged triumphant. I have no doubt that this will not be the end of the matter. Expect further disagreements in months to come.

A spokeswoman for the PM would only say the pair "co-exist". But she added: "I'm not going to get into the adventures of our feline friends in Downing Street."  Very wise.

Badger spoof hits the spot

I don't usually post spoof articles here but this one on the Newsbiscuit site proved irresistible. In their conceit that sections of the M5 and the Severn Bridge have been shut due to thousands of badger refugees fleeing in convoy from villages in Gloucestershire and Somerset over the border to Wales, they have hit on several important truths.

The main one of course is that the badger cull is not supported by the science and is likely to cause mass perturbation and the consequent spread of bTB to other areas. There are other points about asylum but I will let you work that out for yourselves:

Badgers from both counties began to flee following the news that armed Government agents were advancing deep into their territory to perform a 70% cull.

Whole badger families took to the roads as the threat of persecution and genocide escalated. Mothers and fathers comforted their young through driving rain as the procession advanced towards the Welsh border. Carrying white flags they ignored demands from angry toll booth operators for their crossing fees. Some badgers spoke of older and infirm badgers succumbing to the wheels of impatient juggernauts or simply lying down exhausted on the hard shoulder.

Michaelwood Service Station was reported to be besieged as angry badgers queued and clawed for provisions in a desperate bid to fuel their journey towards the Welsh border. Starbucks denied that they were cashing in on the crisis by adding 25% to a standard cappucino.

In a response to the situation David Heath, the Agriculture Minister, refuted suggestions that the Government was creating a politically sensitive cross-border situation. ‘I would like to reassure the little black-and-white creatures which everybody loves, that they are not all under threat,’ he said. ‘Nobody wants to see a single badger killed, however we do promise to perform a clean kill for hundreds more and, on this basis we urge the nation’s favourite wild creatures to return to their homes.’

A spokesman for the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said, ‘We are extremely worried. If badgers want to flee the county because they feel persecuted, they should have the right to do that. The Security Council is taking a very close interest in the welfare of British badgers and will be holding an ineffective and unresolvable emergency session about the British government’s crimes against badgers.’

A spokesbadger from Dark Wood in Somerset described the precarious and violent situation inside the county. ‘This is a very worrying time for badgers but one which we shall overcome. We are an enduring lot, and we may move out for a time, but we wait, and are patient, and back we come. And so it will ever be. Snuffle snuffle.’

Meanwhile gift shops across Somerset are worried that, despite an increase in supplies public opinion will create a decline in the sale of souvenir shaving brushes and badger tail key rings.

Tiime for a rethink I believe.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

To be a King

The controversy over Prince Charles' private correspondence to UK Government Ministers so as to influence policy seems likely to rumble on after the Attorney General overturned a decision made by three judges to publish his letters to seven different government departments.

The Independent reports that Dominic Grieve believes that the letters reflect the Prince of Wales “most deeply held personal view and beliefs” and “are in many cases particularly frank.” As such he said that publication of the letters, written between September 1st 2004 and April 1st 2005, and believed to primarily concern environmental matters on which the Prince is particularly interested, could “damage … the Prince of Wales’ political neutrality, and “seriously undermine the Prince’s ability to fulfil his duties when he becomes King.”

He said: “The Sovereign cannot be seen to favour one political party above another, or to engage in political controversy. This is an exceptional case meriting use of the Ministerial veto to prevent disclosure and to safeguard the public interest.”

Perhaps the Prince should have thought about that before he wrote the letters. Dominic Grieve concluded: “in my view it is of very considerable practical benefit to the Prince of Wales' preparations for kingship that he should engage in correspondence and engage in dialogue with ministers about matters falling within the business of their departments.

“Discussing matters of policy with ministers and urging views upon them falls within the ambit of 'advising' or 'warning' about the government's actions.”

Whether this decision becomes the subject of judicial review has yet to be seen.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Twenty Five years ago today

Do you remember this?

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Badger cull under fire again

Today's Observer contans the most devastating attack yet on the UK Government's plans to launch a badger cull in England. The paper says that Britain's top animal disease scientists have launched a devastating attack on the government's "mindless" badger cull, accusing ministers of failing to tell the truth and demanding the immediate abandonment of the killings.

More than 30 eminent animal disease experts have written to the paper to describe the cull as a "costly distraction" that risks making the problem of tuberculosis in cattle worse and that will cost far more than it saves.

The scientists have rejected the idea of scientific support for the cull, which could wipe out 100,000 badgers, a third of the national population:

The cull policy is "mindless", according to Lord John Krebs, one of the UK's most eminent scientists and the architect of the landmark 10-year culling trials that ended in 2007. "The scientific case is as clear as it can be: this cull is not the answer to TB in cattle. The government is cherry-picking bits of data to support its case."

Another signatory, Lord Robert May, a former government chief scientist and president of the Royal Society, said: "It is very clear to me that the government's policy does not make sense." He added: "I have no sympathy with the decision. They are transmuting evidence-based policy into policy-based evidence."

The current government chief scientist, Professor Sir John Beddington, refused to back the cull. Asked if it could make a meaningful contribution to tackling TB in cattle, he said: "I continue to engage with Defra [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] on the evidence base concerning the development of bovine TB policy. I am content that the evidence base, including uncertainties and evidence gaps, has been communicated effectively to ministers."

The Government's response just exacerbates their problem. They say that "leading experts Defra brought together in April 2011 agreed that the evidence shows that culling done in the right way can reduce the spread of the disease to cattle, with benefits remaining for many years. The culling policy has been developed to maximise the benefits shown in previous trials, and to minimise the impact of badgers spreading disease beyond the cull area by including hard boundaries such as motorways and rivers."

However, the scientists say that the two-page document produced by the April meeting does not support the cull. Professor Rosie Woodroffe, of the Zoological Society of London, said: "The document simply does not endorse the policy."

She has pointed to research which shows that just 14% of badgers in previous culls had TB and just one in a hundred had severe symptoms. "Furthermore, all the evidence shows that culling badgers increases the proportion of badgers that have TB," she said.

The paper adds that in a separate development, nine leading vets have written an open letter, co-ordinated by the Humane Society, to Defra and Natural England. They warn that the shooting permitted by the cull licences "will inevitably result in the targeting of many pregnant sows and, if culling extends towards the end of the open season, could result in the shooting of lactating sows, leading to the starvation of dependent cubs.

Time for a rethink by the Government.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

What happened to Rory and Amy?

I am in the Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference in Brecon all day so this should keep you occupied until I am back.

Hat Tip to Mark Pack

Friday, October 12, 2012

Welsh Tory group embarrassed by voting mistake

There were red faces all around on Wednesday night as Conservative AMs contemplated their basic error of voting the wrong way in an Assembly debate.

As the BBC report the Tories mistakenly voted in favour of calling the UK government incompetent over its handling of the West Coast main line. I understand that the phone lines between Cardiff and Westminster were buzzing that evening.

As all the Ministers involved were Conservative this is embarrassing to say the least. The Welsh Liberal Democrat group were left as the only ones voting to support the UK Government in an effort to show solidarity.

If we had known the Tories were going to ditch their own party in this way, we could have voted for the motion as well.

No deal done on welfare cuts

Conservative Ministers were very keen to play tough for the grassroots at this week's Tory Party Conference but the reality is that they still need to get agreement from their Liberal Democrats coalition partners before they can deliver on their rhetioric.

As Mark Pack reports, Nick Clegg has made it clear that no deal has been doe on further cuts to Welfare Benefits:

"Nothing in detail has been agreed on further cuts or savings to, to welfare. The Conservatives, of course, entirely entitled to set out their stall about what we do as a country is we have to tighten our belts further as we, indeed, were at our party conference. My attitude has always been very simple, very straightforward – which is that as we have to make more savings as a country, as we do, you start at the top and work your way down not, not the other way round."

Now the Deputy Leader of the Parliamentary Party, Simon Hughes has spoken out on proposals to scrap housing benefits for the under-25s:

Speaking on the BBC’s Question Time last night – alongside former housing minister Grant Shapps – Simon Hughes, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, said he would not agree to the proposal and nor would party leader Nick Clegg.

He said: "Grant made clear it’s not a done deal across the coalition and I, as proposed and as I’ve heard it, would not agree to it. I’m very clear about that and I’m very clear about it for the sort of reasons that prompt the question.

“I have a mate who works for Centrepoint which is the big charity working with young single people who can’t stay at home and I’ve done a lot of work with him. I asked him for four figures today and he gave me these figures: There are about 385,000 youngsters under 25 claiming housing benefit – 17% are employed – so they use it to top up their employment and if they didn’t have it they probably couldn’t afford to stay where they are living and they would probably have to give up their work. So on that basis, it seems unintelligent. Seven percent are sick or disabled so they’re not going to be able to go to work and half of them have dependent children. Are you really saying that we should be depriving a 23-year-old mum of the money she needs to keep a roof over the head of her two little ones? Lastly, I’m for collecting more money from the people who are very well off in this country.”

He said 1 out of 100 people own about 15% of the wealth in the country with 10% owning half. “Now come on,” he said, “If we want a society where we pay off our debts and cut the money, let’s collect money from those that can afford to pay, not take money from youngsters who are struggling with all the other pressures when they’re trying to bring up kids and survive."

Quizzed about whether Nick Clegg would agree and make this a dividing issue in the coalition and absolutely refuse, Hughes said: “Nick does agree with me.”

Once more we have the Liberal Democrats standing up to the worse excesses of Toryism.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Has Wales Office lost the plot?

Since the Welsh Assembly secured full law making powers in 2011, we have passed just two bills and both look like being challenged by the UK Government.

I am beginning to fear for my own private members bill, which was sent to the Presiding Officer on Monday to determine whether it falls within the Assembly's competence to determine. Does the Secretary of State for Wales have a problem with us legislating to regulate Park Homes?

The Supreme Court is meeting as I write to consider the UK Government's challenge to the rather esoteric Local Government By-Laws Bill. They object to the fact that we are taking away from the Secretary of State for Wales the ability to approve by-laws, something he has not done for over a decade.

Now, the Wales Office has referred concerns over the Official Languages Bill, which was passed last week, to the Attorney General for England and Wales, Dominic Grieve, to determine whether it goes beyond the Assembly’s powers.

The Bill says that Welsh and English have equal status as languages within the Assembly however, although the Wales Office accepts that we can legislate with regard to the Welsh language, they say we are not able to do so on English. It is almost as if devolution never happened.

Thus the self-evident fact that we are able to conduct proceedings in English cannot, according to the Wales Office, be incorporated in an Act of the Assembly. How absurd is that?

Whatever the legal niceties, and our legal advice is that reference to the English language is incidental to the provision the bill makes in relation to Welsh, politically this is a rather bizarre fight to pick.

We will have to see if commonsense prevails once the Attorney General and his political masters start to consider the matter.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Lobbying for influence

Being in government has many benefits but I am not so sure that the increased attention of lobbyists is one of them. It is little wonder therefore that Tory party activists are complaining at the way that these particular professionals are dominating events at their conference.

The Guardian reports that senior Conservatives fear that members are being put off by the vast numbers of political consultants and pressure groups at fringe events and stalls. They say that lobbyists have paid more than £10,000 to hire permanent venues at this year's conference in Birmingham where their clients are able to mix with ministers, special advisers and other influential figures.

They add that meetings with lobbyists have to be declared by ministers or special advisers if organised through official channels in Whitehall, but meetings at party political conferences do not. Marquees are believed to cost more than £20,000 to hire for the conference whilst Tory accounts show that the party made more than £1.42m from conferences last year, four times the 2007 figure.

The paper say that the Liberal Democrat conference has also become much more lucrative since the party achieved power, making £570,000 last year. Labour does not publish figures, but insiders said the cost of hiring out stalls had been nearly halved since the party lost the last election.

It is getting that the whole point of some conferences is to make money for the political party concerned. That is not healthy. At least the Liberal Democrats still debate and vote on policy at their conferences.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Welsh Government takes a breather on change to anti-smoking regulations

The BBC report that the scheduled debate on the order that would  exempt film and TV sets from the smoking ban has been put back so that the Welsh Government can better explain their intentions to Assembly Members.

Ministers want to change the law because they fear producers will not come to Wales if actors are not allowed to smoke when filming. However, anti-smoking groups question whether there is evidence to back those fears and suggest that such a change will be the thin-end of the wedge in terms of undermining the smoking ban.

This rowing back by the Welsh Government appears to be driven by the mathematics in the chamber. Both Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Liberal Democrats have said that they will vote against the change in the regulations, whilst it is understood that the vast majority of Tory AMs are of the same mind.

The Government's biggest problem though is in the Labour group where a number of AMs are pushing for a free vote on the issue. It is unclear whether this new charm offensive by Ministers will switch the balance of opinion sufficiently to get the amendment approved.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Another reason to end the English badger cull

Today's Independent carries an important article about the ability to distinguish between TB in cattle and a vaccine administered to prevent infection. They say that British scientists have made a breakthrough which may enable cattle to be vaccinated against TB, doing away with the need to cull the badgers believed to be infecting them.
They say that vaccinating cattle against bovine tuberculosis is currently banned throughout Europe, because there is no way of distinguishing in existing diagnostic tests between an animal that has merely been vaccinated, and an animal that has actually contracted the disease. Vaccinated but healthy cattle would thus appear contaminated and could not be sold or traded abroad and TB vaccination of cattle has been prohibited across the EU since 1978.

My understanding is slightly different, that it has been the export of vaccinated cattle that has been banned not the act of vaccination itself, which has been available for a few years. Furthermore, the existence of this test has been known for some time. It was certainly one of the arguments being used by those opposed to the Welsh badger cull a few years ago.

Perhaps the fact that it is a cull of badgers in England that is now imminent that the UK media are taking an interest in it. Nevertheless, this article underlines once again why this cull is wrong-headed and needs to be stopped.

Guardian columnists and the Welsh language

I have often been critical of Guardian journalists for seeking to impose a sterotypical view of Wales from their cosy desks in London, without having any real knowledge or understanding of the country. Well I have had my attention drawn to yet another example through Twitter.

Writing on Thursday, columnist Simon Jenkins discusses with apparent authority, the decline of English dialects and the position of minority languages. However, the sweeping generalisations he deploys casts doubt on the depth of his understanding:

Welsh has a vitality of its own, largely thanks to being suppressed for centuries by the English. Now "official", it risks falling into the Catalonian trap of identifying political autonomy with a linguistic steamroller. This drives natives who do not speak the language to seek jobs elsewhere, and deters incoming talent. In a land where every worker speaks English, reserving jobs to Welsh speakers alone must soon fall foul of human rights law. It is certainly starving Welsh schools and hospitals of qualified staff, as similar exclusivity is doing in Barcelona. The last official languages forced on the British by a ruling elite were Norman French and Latin. It was fatal to both.

I am not aware of any front line jobs that require Welsh as a prerequiste and as a consequence cannot be filled. Nor am I aware that Welsh is a factor in any shortage of qualified staff in the NHS or education other than in the Welsh medium sector where clearly an ability to teach through the medium of Welsh is a given. Perhaps Mr. Jenkins can give some examples. Better still, maybe he should come to Wales and see for himself.

Perpetuating this myth from the comfort of a London-based desk is not helpful and it is not clever.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

No nuclear future?

There is an interesting piece in the Financial Times from a few days ago outlining how Government plans to deliver the most ambitious expansion of nuclear power in Europe have gone a little awry.

The plan, which was set out by the then Energy Secretary, Ed Miliband in 2009 was to build up to 12 new reactors  on 10 sites stretching from Somerset to Cumbria. The idea was that by the late 2020s about 30 per cent of Britain's electricity would come from nuclear power. That would be an increase from the present level of 18 per cent.

However, the paper says that recent events have conspired to puncture Ed Miliband's nuclear plans. They add that last year’s Fukushima disaster in Japan, combined with the lingering effects of the global economic slowdown and rising costs in the industry, have deprived atomic power of much of its lustre:

The latest troubling news came from the sale of Horizon, a joint venture owned by the German utilities RWE and Eon that had plans to build nuclear reactors at sites in Anglesey and Gloucestershire and which was put up for sale in March. Areva and Westinghouse Electric were expected to submit bids – by a September 28 deadline – backed by Chinese state energy groups. This week it emerged that had failed to happen. Areva pulled out and Westinghouse ended up going it alone. They are now up against another consortium led by Japan’s Hitachi.

The government put a brave face on it. “We are seeing a high level of interest in the UK nuclear market, including from a diverse range of potential new entrants,” says a spokesman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

But one government insider says the lack of Chinese involvement is a “serious blow” for DECC officials who had been “over the moon” about Beijing’s interest.

There is now a question mark over who will ultimately foot the bill for what are expected to be massively expensive infrastructure projects: the most advanced of them, EDF Energy’s plan to build a new plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset, could cost as much as £14bn, according to some industry estimates.

"We need people with big balance sheets to take that construction risk and we can’t work out if the companies still in the bidding have deep enough pockets,” the insider says. “There is a worry that there may not be enough equity being offered.”.

Where this leaves Wylfa B however is unclear.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Jeremy Hunt loses the plot

You would think that the new English Health Secretary would have enough problems to occupy his mind without embarking on a personal crusade down a moral cul-de-sac. However, that is not how Jeremy Hunt sees it.

He has unleashed a storm this morning with his comments in an interview that he supports halving the legal abortion limit from 24 weeks to 12 weeks after conception. This is of course his personal view and not coalition policy. In fact it is traditional that such matters are not subject to a party whip. Nevertheless, is it sensible for a man in his position to lead this debate from the Government benches?  I would suggest  not.

Medically such a change in policy would be very difficult and cause problems for many women. I do not believe that it would be supported by the vast majority of the country. Is it not time that Cameron reined in his health secretary? Is it any wonder that he has such a problem attracting women voters?

Friday, October 05, 2012

Labour Assembly Member seeks to stifle debate

On Wednesday the Assembly Plenary was scheduled to debate a Conservative motion on neo-natal services. This had been prompted by the health service reconfiguration that is underway across Wales. However, one Labour member at least thought that we should not be discussing the issue at all, whilst the Government side took umbrage and refused to vote on it. There was a clear attempt to stifle debate as is evident from this point of order:

Mick Antoniw: I wish to raise a point of order on a matter of principle regarding an item of business on today‘s agenda, namely item 6, which is the Conservative motion, which deals with matters relating to NHS configuration. It is a matter on which it is important that there is a ruling and some clarity from you, Presiding Officer.

The point is that the Welsh Government has initiated a consultation and engagement process that is, effectively, a quasi-judicial process. Recommendations will come back to Government, which will again be acting in a quasi-judicial role. It seems to me that there is a serious issue that, when we have that process under way, we have motions that are, in effect, prejudging that process. Paragraph 3.12 of the Assembly‘s principles and practice for the tabling and laying of Assembly business states that the Presiding Officer has an overriding discretion to refuse to accept a motion if it brings into question the proper conduct of Assembly business. It seems to me that this motion raises the question of whether interfering with a quasi-judicial process brings into question the proper conduct of Assembly business. Under those circumstances, will you consider using your overriding discretion, or, alternatively, give a ruling on the matter?

The Presiding Officer: Thank you for the point of order, and for giving me prior notice of your intention to raise it. We had a conversation earlier, but you obviously needed further clarification.

The Welsh Government is accountable to the National Assembly, and Members can table motions relating to any aspect of the Government‘s work. To prevent them from doing so would be contrary to the basic principle of parliamentary accountability. The motion, if passed, will not be binding on Ministers when it comes to them taking the decision in question, and I see no grounds on which to constrain the right of Members to express their views on the matter in question.

My ruling therefore is that the motion does not bring into question the proper conduct of business, and there are no grounds whatsoever to rule it out of order. In doing so, I am acting entirely in accordance with our Standing Orders and with established parliamentary practice here and elsewhere.

As Mick Antoniw sat down an e-mail arrived from his office inviting all Assembly Members to a meeting to discuss civil liberties, freedom of expression and the right to protest.

Clearly, the concept of irony is not fully understood on the Labour benches.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Labour's control freakery rears it head again

In political circles the Labour Party is notorious for its control freakery, dating back I suppose to jokes about the way Peter Mandelson used to manage MPs.

However, if the stories about Ed Miliband having his phone confiscated after he texted Vince Cable are true, then they have managed to surpass themselves.

Sky News say that the Labour leader disclosed earlier last month that he had been secretly wooing the Liberal Democrat Business Secretary with text messages:

His admission infuriated Labour left-wingers and veterans Dennis Skinner and Ken Livingstone protested angrily at a meeting of the party's national executive committee on Tuesday.

But according to one member of the party's ruling body, the Labour leader stunned NEC members by responding: "They've taken my phone away."

One NEC member told Sky News: "They've changed his mobile phone. He now has a different phone with a different number. Someone else now has his number. When I tried to text Ed, someone else replied."

Apparently, Vince Cable still has his phone.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Liam Byrne isolates Welsh Labour even more

I blogged a week ago how the pronouncement by Scottish Labour Leader. Johann Lamont that Scotland cannot continue to afford policies such as free personal care, free prescriptions, free university tuition and a continuing freeze on council tax has left Welsh Labour isolated within the UK.  At the time I suggested that her position left Carwyn Jones out on a limb within his own party on issues that chime with the social democrat consensus that Ed Miliband is looking to embrace.

Well judging by signals being sent out by the shadow work and pension secretary, Liam 'there is no money left' Byrne, there is no consensus at all. Wales is going it alone, and long may that continue. Still,given the way that Carwyn Jones attacks the opposition in the Assembly for the policies being followed by the UK Government, he cannot escape some association with the direction his party is now going in.

The Telegraph reports that Labour will consider scrapping universal benefits such as free bus passes and winter fuel payments for the middle classes if it wins the next election. It is also significant that neither Ed Balls nor Ed Miliband have said they will reverse the cuts being implemented by the UK Coalition, presumably because they very much mirror those being planned by Alistair Darling before the last General Election.

As for welfare benefits, Liam Byrne has called for a review of the strict new tests which recipients of disability benefits must pass, something I support, but has he forgotten that those tests were put in place by the previous Labour Government in the first place? And all the indications are that Labour will cut welfare benefits again if they are re-elected in 2015, as they were doing before 2010.

We will not let Labour forget that the next time they stand up in the Assembly chamber to have a go.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Illegal trade in online data

Today's Financial Times has a shocking story identifying that 20 million items of personal data were traded illegally over the internet in the first half of this year, as more people went online.

They say that research by Experian has concluded that the amount of illegal data in circulation is likely to be four times what it was in 2010 by the end of this year.

The reason for this is that consumers have more accounts online than before, using their computers to make bank payments to utility and council tax bills amongst many others. A lot more shopping is done virtually as well. They say that the average Briton now has about 26 accounts online and those aged 25-34 have about 40 accounts:

Data are sold by hackers on auction-like black market sites, where information to authenticate credit card accounts sells for $1-$30 an account depending on the card credit limit. Passwords for email accounts sell for $1-$20.

About 90 per cent of illegally traded personal data involves the combination of an account name and password, Experian said.

The most prevalent form of identity theft is account takeover, where someone simply begins using a consumer's email or bank account. Fraudsters can also set up new accounts in a user's name, running up bills which can take a long time to sort out with creditors.

A lot of this is difficult to defend against of course but some elementary precautions help. Experian say that people's behaviour can make them more prone to having their data hacked. Three-fifths of internet users never log out of websites and a quarter never check whether a website they are visiting is marked with an image of a security padlock to denote that it is a secure site.

They also say that consumers frequently reuse the same password for many sites. A quarter use a single password for most of their accounts, many also use simple, easy-to-crack passwords, such as dictionary words or names of pets.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Inadvertent errors

Today's South Wales Evening Post contains a story I initiated regarding the amount of time people are kept waiting by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs when they ring up to query their tax credits etc. This is made worse by the fact that they tend to use expensive 0845 numbers, despite what they say in the article.

However, what attracted my attention the most was the way that they sought to reassure us that the problems are being fixed:

A HMRC spokeswoman added: "In August this year HMRC announced the recruitment of up to 1,000 additional contact centre staff, to achieve a target of answering 90 per cent of all calls two years earlier than planned."

Nobody has yet complained to me that they have been kept waiting on the phone for two years

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