Sunday, December 21, 2008

Barry Town AFC Special Meeting

If a week is a long time in politics, it’s an age in football.

It feels like several lifetimes since I was part of the campaign to keep Barry Town afloat in 2003, ending with taking the club out of administration.

Unfortunately, and to keep the story short, the club is in trouble yet again, with the owner talking about closing down the business.

Tomorrow night (Monday), there will be a special meeting at the Football Club on Barry Road to discuss ways of pulling the club out of trouble once again.

Barry is one of the biggest towns in Wales, and deserves a football club at the highest level. I just hope that we can pull the irons out of the fire once again and get back to building a club that represents all of the communities in Barry.

In Touch

I saw a copy of the new Conservative leaflet in Barry the other day.

The strapline says: ‘No Negative Politics’

The headline says: ‘Labour Cut Means Council Tax Rises’

You couldn’t make it up, could you?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Newydd's Cemetery Approach Re-Think

If there was one story that's already cheered me more than the thought of Christmas, it was on Wednesday when my inbox contained a press release from social housing landlord, Newydd Housing Association, announcing a rethink over their plans to build on Barry's Cemetery Approach.

It is a little over a year since a stormy Vale of Glamorgan Council Planning meeting backed Newydd's plans to build outside Merthyr Dyfan Cemetery, ignoring hundreds of letters and a petition signed by thousands.

However, planning permission was taken back a few months later when it became clear that the land had previously been allocated as public open space.

Newydd had planned to appeal this reversal in February, but have now changed their mind.

Undoubtedly the current economic situation is playing on Newydd's mind as much as anything else (although surely affordable family homes would be the most needed accommodation in the present circumstances?), but it would be wrong not to pay tribute to everybody who has been involved in the campaign, either as members of the Save Cemetery Approach Action Group or independently.

I am also glad that Plaid have been unwavering in their attitude towards the development, consistently opposing this on the grounds that it would be inappropriate for the area and that, having attended the meetings and written regularly to the local press on the issue, I've played my part in the campaign.

Now we have to make sure that the 'rethink' doesn't just mean waiting until an upturn in the market to continue with the original plans.

Back on the Blog

Apologies for not posting during the last few weeks and to anyone who's missed my thoughts on the world.

Unfortunately, there's just not enough hours in the day to fit in absolutely everything that I'd like to get done, but I'm hoping that the Christmas recess will give me the time to catch up with a couple of different topics and put my thoughts down on 'paper'.

There's certainly been some interesting developments in different sectors - the Queen's Speech always provides material to discuss, the provincial elections in Quebec, the trials and tribulations of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in Wales as well as some local news stories in Barry.

I'm looking forward to sitting down next week and bashing out some of my thoughts!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Pre-Budget Report Reaction

Alistair Darling’s sprinkling of fairy dust from Monday seems to finally be settling and now that we can see the Wizard of Oz’s lips moving, we can get to the nitty-gritty of the Pre-Budget Report small-print, and, specifically, their effects on Wales.

I’ve already explained that I don’t think that a cut in VAT will be enough of a financial stimulus to justify its top billing as part of a recovery package, and also that the introduction of a new higher rate of income tax is more political policy than economic.

Here I examine the various measures that were specifically introduced by the UK Government on Monday.

Public infrastructure works

The second largest part of Labour’s financial stimulus is a public infrastructure works programme, but this isn’t the ‘new’ money that we were hoping to see.

The money being used is being brought forward from that which would have been spent as part of the present three-year spending period.

The idea here is that the financial stimulus would provide jobs now in the hope that the economy will recover by the time that this money would have been spent in 2010-11 so that those employed would be in gainful employment.

It’s a snub in many ways to the devolved administrations as, because much of this spend is in England-only fields already allocated in the spending review, there will be nothing extra available to assist what were in any case tight spending reviews.

Just like the difference between the VAT cut and a genuinely radical proposal, this fails to cut the mustard. If I and my generation are going to be paying for Labour’s failure for most of my life then I’d rather it was going on something that would be useful for generations, perhaps solving many of our coming energy supply problems with, for example, tidal lagoons.

Labour have no vision for how to deal with the problems we’re facing – it’s like they’re reading a textbook, and following it line-by-line, rather than take the opportunity to create something new out of the challenge.

Efficiency savings

Perhaps more worrying, though, are the unintended consequences for Wales of England’s ‘efficiency savings’.

Proof positive of the need for a review of the Barnett Formula is that savings being made in England’s health budget (£3 billion on estates with ongoing savings of £100m per annum) impact on Wales, irrespective of our needs.

That alone could lead to a loss to the block grant of some £200m from Welsh Assembly coffers, or, even if the current grant were to be ring-fenced would slow further growth dependant on funding to the English Health Department.

In coming years, in order to meet new targets set as part of the PBR, further efficiency savings will be made from the Health and Education budgets in England, leaving Wales further short-changed.

Already, in fact, £100m has been lost from Wales in 2009-10 from the figures in the 2007 and 2008 Pre-Budget Reports

In the short term, the UK government tell us that the shortfalls will be closed with money from the End Year Flexibility.

What they failed to explain openly to the Welsh media in their press release was that this ‘end year flexibility’ is, of course, money that already belongs to the Welsh Assembly – but what’s a little bit of spin between friends?

Or did they just think we wouldn’t notice?

Royal Mint

Well buried on page 119 of the Budget report is the news that, amongst a range of government arms-length owned companies, they are considering alternative future business models for the Royal Mint in Llantrisant.

It’s not quite clear what these models might be, but given the still neo-liberal colour of this government, privatisation or out-sourcing will undoubtedly be amongst them.

Llantrisant is a very nice part of Wales, not far from the M4 and the Vale of Glamorgan, but, already dealing with job losses from nearby plants run by Bosch and L’Oreal, anything which endangers the 700-odd jobs at the Royal Mint must be opposed – especially in the current economic climate.

Wales, it seems, whether with a Labour or Conservative government in London, is still in the economic frontline when it comes to jobs under threat.

The Vulnerable Poor

The yah-boo politics of Westminster has reverted back to its tribal nature as Labour reply to any comments from the Conservatives with taunts that they would have done nothing compared to the package announced by Labour.

Yet this PBR is amongst the least re-distributive reports from Labour in recent years, and very probably will have less effect on those most in need that many other budgets in recent history.

A little money has been brought forward for pensioners and children, but nothing life-changing.

Having brought forward child payments that were scheduled for 2010, they announced nothing for the kitty the following year.

The IFS/Barnardos released a report earlier this year suggesting that £3bn pa would rapidly deal with child poverty, supposedly a key government pledge. Yet this was roundly ignored in this PBR.

The same goes for Winter Fuel Payments for the elderly in 2009, after being much touted by the Chancellor and Prime Minister as their solution in 2008.

It’s actually quite shocking that these groups have received so little attention in this Budget – the only positives being the announcement of an End Child Poverty Bill (call me a cynic, but I rather action to legislation and target setting) and announcing an increase in the pension for 2010-11 that will be at least a 2.5% rise.

As these groups represent both our future and our past, they should be treated with a little more dignity and respect.


There’s a lot more that could be said on this Pre-Budget Report, some good, some bad.

The use of green taxes was disappointing, especially the air tax shift back towards per passenger rather than the expected tax per plane, but the help for small and medium businesses was more than some might have been expecting.

Ultimately, though, it was a bit of a dog’s dinner - trying to do lots of things, but failing to do any of them well.

As a financial stimulus budget, it will probably fail to really stimulate the economy, although, whatever happens, Labour will shout and bully to say that it will have achieved the measures they claim it was intended for.

But then, if it really is a Budget for a Spring election, then they would say that, wouldn’t they?

Policing Powers Review

The Home Office consultation on policing powers and protection units is coming to an end shortly.

With rumours that Barry Custody Suite will be closed and that suspects from the Vale will be taken to Cardiff after the opening of the new Cardiff Bay Police station, this is an important topic.

Below are a number of comments on their suggestions:

1. That the power for approving extension of detention is lowered from Superintendent to Inspector and this can be carried out over the phone leaves the process open to abuse. Extending detention is a serious decision and one that should be made by a senior police officer only after carefully examining the case. It should not be trivialised in any way.

2. The use of short-term holding facilities for less serious offences is explained as being separate to arguments about police estate capacity, but you can’t help but feel that this is part of the issue.

The idea of the short-term holding facilities are to avoid the need for taking suspects to police stations when there is no need for an investigation, quickening processing and dealing with issues in a shorter time.

The operation of a short-term holding must be carefully monitored. Where, exactly, are these going to be sited, who will be responsible for their running, and, who, independently, will ensure that these safeguards are properly enforced.

If this policy is adopted then there should be a regular review of the operation of the short-term holding facilities.

3. Taking blood specimens for analysis is a very important issue in cases, especially drink-driving, and it is important that specimens are taken as quickly as possible.

The 2003 amendments to the 1988 Road Traffic Act allows either a medical practitioner or registered health care professional to take these specimens at a police station.

I have concerns that the need for speed and for ‘best use’ of police time lead to a dumbing down of technical responsibility and expertise within the custody area, and that this must be monitored.

4. Finally, forensic scientists have a dual responsibility to their patients and to the police regarding the suitability of a patient to reside in a police custody suite and fit for interview.

There are suggestions that the NHS will have the responsibility for carrying out treatments in future.

If so, who will make these crucial forensic decisions, bearing in mind that up to 60% of those arrested have chronic health problems and 40% have mental health problems.

Another issue here, of course, is the delineation between UK and Wales-spend with policing under UK control, but the NHS under the Assembly. If the NHS are going to have to carry out additional tasks then I hope that the UK Government will be increasing the block grant proportionately.

* With thanks to Cllr Shirley Hodges for her comments and bringing this issue to light.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Referendum Time...

While a referendum on further powers is very much part of the political debate in Wales, it’s going a little further in Greenland, who vote today on a greater level of autonomy.

Colonised in 1721, the island gained basic self-determination in 1979 from Denmark, except in defence and foreign policy and, according to polls, is expected to vote in favour.

The stimulus is the possibility of extracting large amounts of oil from Greenland’s waters – with the US Geological Survey estimating around 31.4 billion barrels of oil.

The new contract between Greenland and Denmark would see them share the profits; Greenland taking the first 10 million Euro and then taking a 50 per cent cut up until 430 million Euro – matching the subsidies that Greenland receives from Denmark under the current system.

I don’t know enough about the Greenland situation to discuss parallels in any depth, but some of the arguments and attitudes seem similar to what happens in Wales.

These attitudes vary between those who see Tuesday’s vote and the oil issue as being a step towards independence, those who think that this level of devolution will be the most successful form of governance for the island, and, it seems as always, those who think that being in charge of your own affairs is a poor idea.

Small in population and a long way from the government in Copenhagen, the results and consequences for Greenlanders will be very interesting.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Pre-Budget Report Pre-Thoughts

If the ideas being trailed in today's press are as far as Labour are going to go in this afternoon's Pre-Budget Report, then it looks to be a very damp squib.

The two main suggestions are an emergency cut in VAT and a new high level of income tax after the next election.

I find it strange to agree with John Redwood, but his comments about the fruitlessness of the VAT change were, in my opinion, spot on.

The intention is supposedly to increase consumer confidence and get people to spend, but with the actual price cut being only around 2%, I cannot see how that will happen.

For example, an £11.99 CD or DVD will be around 25p cheaper. A £40 pair of jeans will have a pound off the current price tag - but with sales offering 20% off already, I cannot see what incentive this will offer, even if high street retailers decide to pass on the savings rather than just make a little extra profit for themselves.

It is only when you reach significant sums of money - £500 for a smart new television that the savings become noticeable, and, by then, who cares?

Plaid have already suggested a serious VAT cut from 17.5% to 5% on labour-intensive industries that would cheapen costs of necessary work such as housing renovations and make the price comparatively attractive - more than 10% cheaper than at the moment.

But if the government wants to make a real difference then they should be putting money in people's pockets and give them the chance to spend it.

For a not-dis-similar figure to the cost of the proposed VAT cut, the government could cut the amount of income tax paid by standard rate tax-payers and let that money filter through into the real economy, helping low-earning families and taking a good few people out of the tax trap altogether.

The headline-grabber this morning, though, is the proposed new rate of income tax for high earners - postponed until after the election.

Let's not pretend that this is anything to do with the current crisis - this is party politicking par excellence, a line in the sand that if the Tories dare to cross will see them hammered by Labour as being the party of the mega-rich.

The amount of money that will be raised by this is minimal. People who earn more than £150,000 per annum already have excellent and expensive accountants who are experts in tax planning and avoidance, so without additional compliance measures this is little more than a gesture.

If Labour were serious about this as a tax-raising scheme to balance a hopelessly overblown Budget, it would be set at 50%, rather than the middle of nowhere 45%, it would start at £100,000, and it would be introduced in the next financial year.

But they're not serious - they just want the Tories to say it's bad so that in spite of leading us into the recession they can claim that they are the party of the people, and the Conservatives the party of the Toffs.

Brown and Darling are fiddling while our economy burns.

Or will there be a surprise this afternoon?

Friday, November 21, 2008

27 Steps to an LCO

Tomos Livingstone and Betsan Powys both make reference to Hywel Williams' recently released list of actions that must be completed in order to make an LCO.

Previous publications have suggested far fewer stages than this.

The Devolution Guidance Note 16 (DGN16) written to assist people at Westminster in Summer 2008 says there are six stages, although the Bevan Foundation's Evolution of Devolution notes that these represent a series of actions, not just one event.

The House of Lords Constitutional Committee report on scrutiny of Welsh Legislative Competence Orders, published in December 2007, suggests there are ten stages, although some of these take place simultaneously in Cardiff and Westminster, in effect meaning there are far more stages actually occurring.

The '27 steps' attempts to unpack the different actions to make a coherent and comprehensive description of the process of making an LCO.

Tomos Livingstone is wrong when he suggests 27 places at which an LCO can fail - there are only certain points where it officially 'falls', but it shows that the process is a bureaucratic nightmare where a secretarial absence or a mis-filed letter, never mind actual disagreement on the LCO, can lead to huge delays in transferring powers to Cardiff.

Just to give an example, I'm pretty sure that most of the Welsh public are unaware that LCOs are scrutinised or checked by four different committees at Westminster, by the two Houses of Parliament (sometimes, but not always, by a delegated legislation committee) and passed through the Welsh Office on several occasions.

The phrase Kafka-esque springs very much to mind.


For those interested, here are the 27 steps again.

"1. Announcement of LCO or ballot made (there could be other pre-LCO stages in the case of a ballot where it must be submitted or by an Assembly committee as the result of a petition)
2. Negotiation between Cardiff Bay & Whitehall on LCO text
3. Agreement of Cardiff Bay & Whitehall on LCO text (‘Whitehall clearance’)
4. WAG Minister lays proposed order in Plenary and accepted by vote
5. WAG Minister sends copy to Sec of State
6. Business Committee starts legislative committee in Assembly
7. Assembly Committee opens consultation
8. Sec of State publishes draft for pre-legislative scrutiny and invites Welsh Affairs Committee to scrutinise LCO
9. Sec of State invites Constitution Committee to scrutinise LCO
10. Welsh Affairs Committee asks for submissions
11. Assembly committee and WAC meet jointly or consecutively to take evidence – this has usually been consecutively and therefore could conceivably be 2 stages in the process
12. Constitution Committee scrutinises LCO
13. Assembly committee write report
14. Welsh Affairs committee write report
15. Westminster Government responds to WAC report
16. WAG & London Govt agree text after committee recommendations
17. WAG Minister lays draft order before Assembly
18. Assembly discuss and vote on LCO in plenary
19. First Minister informs Sec of State that LCO has passed or that the draft order was rejected by the Assembly, in which case it would fall
20. LCO is laid before both Houses of Parliament
21. Joint Committee of Statutory Instruments Scrutiny
22. Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee Scrutiny
23. House of Lords debates draft Order
24. Delegated Legislation Committee to discuss LCO
25. House of Commons passes draft Order without debate
26. Sec of State for Wales recommends Her Majesty in Council to make order.
27. Her Majesty makes the order

The Welsh Assembly now has the Measure making powers applied for in the Legislative Competence Order and may choose to make a Measure within these powers."

Biomass Plant: Right Idea, Wrong Place

One of the discussions in Barry in recent weeks has been the proposed Biomass Plant to be located on Woodham Road on the Waterfront.

There are clear advantages to the plant, which will be a 9MW wood-fuelled renewable energy plant, according to the plans laid before the local councils.

Most obviously these include an increase in renewable energy supply to around 22,000 houses on the national grid (effectively every house in Barry), fuelled by reclaimed wood from local recycling operations and that would otherwise go to landfill.

I'm fully in favour of the principle of a biomass plant in Barry, but it's the location that needs to be considered.

Residents facing the Docks already have air and noise pollution from the Metal Recycling Plant near them and the whole northern Waterfront area is due to be the site of a significant number of houses as part of the Barry Waterfront Phase 2 development.

It makes no sense then, to site a 24-hour industrial plant nearby, when there is ample space only a mile or two away on the Atlantic Trading Estate or even on the industrialised southside of the Docks.

I also think that any permission for building a plant of this size should include an Environmental and Traffic assessment from the Vale Council to ensure that quality of life is maintained for local residents.

I look forward to further debate between the council and the developers and hope that Barry can play its part in a more environmentally friendly Wales.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Tax Gap

Despite the Labour benches trying to persuade the public that our economic problems are ‘a global phenomenon’, they can’t disguise the fact that it was Gordon’s economic policy failures that have left our finances in such a parlous state.

One of the actions they could have taken over the past decade was to fix the ‘Tax Gap’ – the amount of money that tax planning, avoidance and evasion takes away from the government.

When tax plans are introduced through Parliament they are done with an idea of their effects in mind.

Even under the present administration many of the taxes are progressive and redistributive.

Unfortunately, many of these tax changes don’t work in the way their authors intended due to loopholes in the system, exploited by both individuals and companies.

A pamphlet published earlier this year by the TUC and the Tax Justice Network claim that around £25bn per year is missing from UK government receipts due to tax planning and avoidance – with individuals with an annual income of over £100,000 costing the exchequer £8.4bn per year due to tax planning (or ‘clever accounting practices’ if you prefer).

Basically, the people who should be paying the most tax because they earn the most money find their way around the system.

But this isn’t a game – it is schools, hospitals and key services that suffer because the better paid can afford someone to look after their returns, while everyone else pays what they are supposed to.

To put the figures into context, the Tax Justice Network estimate that ensuring half of that £25bn went to its rightful place would provide enough money for fifty hospitals.

£25bn, by the way, isn’t far off the year’s expenditure for the whole of Wales.

The House of Commons Public Account Committee agrees with many of the points in the pamphlet.

Their recent report on managing corporation tax of large businesses points to the fact that only 50 of the top 700 large businesses in the UK pay two-thirds of corporation tax, with 181 businesses paying none whatsoever.

The Tax Justice Network estimate that a figure of around £70bn of tax evasion – that’s just not paying it, as opposed to planning a way of avoiding it – wouldn’t be out of the question.

That’s most than £100bn possibly missing to the government every single year.

The scary thing, and this is where you get the feeling that government’s left hand wasn’t aware of its right hand, is the cuts in Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) under Labour.

Just think about it – the organisation that goes out and collects money for the government has had to face consistent cuts to the point where it is unfit for purpose. It’s nonsensical.

HMRC need well-trained and well-supported staff so that they can detect tax evasion, so that they can wheedle out those who want to beat the system rather than accept the responsibility of paying tax.

Instead, the government have tried to enforce efficiency savings on them. According to one internal compliance review in an office, highlighted by the PCS union, cutting staff leads to £74m of savings and a loss of £204m in tax yield - nearly £3 lost for every £1 saved.

Wales has suffered heavily on this issue, and is set to lose more jobs in Convergence Fund areas across west Wales and the Valleys, because of the misguided centralising beliefs of the Labour government.

I hate to be the person that tells you that more taxmen would make the world a better place – but if companies and individuals all paid their tax as they should then it would be a smaller tax burden for the rest of us, and with that extra money we go do something decent and socially redistributive – like take the poorest in society out of the tax loop and end child poverty in the UK.

What a thought.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Evolution of Devolution: A critique

A brief critique on the ‘Evolution of Devolution’ pamphlet published by the Bevan Foundation last week to co-incide with their conference on the enacting of the Government of Wales Act in Cardiff and London over the past 18 months or so. Whatever you might make of the contents of the pamphlet or of the event, it's important for Welsh democracy that these discussions are held - and that their findings are held up to scrutiny.

Firstly, I must say that it’s rather brave (or perhaps foolhardy) to publish a pamphlet with the same name as a conference before the event itself takes place.


I wasn’t there in Cardiff last Thursday, but it might be misunderstood that the common title is representative of the views expressed, and I’m pretty sure there would be some on the panels who might have rather different opinions on the devolution system than the three authors of the pamphlet.

In fact, and to be fair to them, they admit that themselves in the pamphlet’s conclusion.

Why might they need to admit it? Well, quite possibly because the central assumptions of the pamphlet are untenable from several positions on the Welsh political spectrum.

The authors go to great lengths to show that we in Wales have never had it so good in terms of self-governance – backed up by wide-ranging comment on the events of the last year.

It is, for want of a better title, a Hain-ist perspective on the devolution question.

And therein lies the problem with the pamphlet – its starting position is couched in the terms of Westminster’s idea of devolution: that power begins in London and can be devolved (and perhaps taken back), and adopts language accordingly, rather than taking its starting point as sovereignty lying with the people of Wales.

It is a Labour-style document with a top-down power structure that tells us that we should be grateful for what has been offered to us.

The central message of the pamphlet is to point to the significant potential of the powers given by the GoWA 2006, and to suggest that those who believe the settlement to be somehow narrow in its scope take the time or trouble to make better use of the available powers. As opposed, of course, to the powers they actually want.

One of the first issues tackled is whether or not the post-GoWA 2006 Assembly is a parliament, based around a number of unassailable criterion to note that the similarities outweigh the differences.

But this is rather like comparisons between vehicles with four wheels and a gearstick.

What’s under the bonnet? We all know the Assembly is not a shop or a church, but we also know there are significant differences in the powers that are held in Westminster and Cardiff Bay, in the power relations between the two governments and in the ability to legislate on many different issues.

Framework powers and LCOs

Where the authors discuss ‘framework powers’ (pardon me for using the Westminster term, but it’s where I work), I think they underestimate the difference between these and the LCO and their origins. Part of the reason for the LCO system (as explained in the Better Governance for Wales White Paper) was to prevent a logjam of parliamentary time taken up by Wales-only Bills, such as, say, the Transport (Wales) Act.

It naturally makes more sense to use a Bill that will be passed through Parliament to insert clauses relating to Wales, providing they are appropriate, where they will be scrutinised in the same way as other Bills rather than to create additional parliamentary bureaucracy through the use of the LCO system.

Bearing that in mind, it seems strange that there appears to have been no automatically activated procedure in which UK Bills are discussed at either civil service or ministerial level between Westminster and Cardiff Bay – especially as Whitehall mandarins may well have expected to be dealing with at least the same party at both ends of the M4.

This was especially clear, I think, in the Education and Skills Bill, which has been singled out by other committees at Westminster for its’ strange take on devolution (creating new powers for England, but making Wales ask for an LCO so that they can make a Measure for the same powers).

It also brings to mind the difference in scrutiny levels and time associated with these two different routes – ‘framework powers’ and ‘LCOs’.

In discussing the stages of an LCO, that authors adopt the language and terminology of Westminster’s Devolution Guidance Note 16, DGN16. This argues that there are six stages to an LCO, although the authors note there are perhaps several sub-stages to some of these.

Certainly, the Lords’ Constitutional Committee claim ten stages, many of which take place simultaneously. Taken independently of each other, it is clear that there are far more separate actions than this in the progress of an LCO from its first announcement from the First Minister (or however it comes into being from a backbench AM, Assembly committee etc.) until finally being approved by Her Majesty in Council.

I must also point out that the term ‘Whitehall clearance’ used in DGN16 to define the agreement on the subject and contents of LCOs, has a wonderful way of sticking in your throat as you tug your forelock.

The authors rightly point to the very mixed picture regarding the pace of LCOs through this process, although I am wary of their pointing to the apparent success (so far!) of the Red Meat LCO as being ‘proof’ that the second wave of LCOs will show that the lessons of the first wave have been learnt – not least as many of the first wave of LCOs haven’t actually got through yet.

Perhaps it’s worth bearing in mind that unlike large Bills in Parliament, most LCOs are relatively unproblematic (in Cardiff at least!) and are also rather short, barely a page or two.

They are also right to say that everyone is learning – although again what this says for forward planning of the process, I’m not sure. Certainly, the fact that DGN16 wasn’t written in the first year of the system suggests that the proposals had been little considered at the time of the 2005 White Paper.

Meanwhile, the various ‘teething problems’ regarding finding adequate parliamentary time and ensuring joint scrutiny of LCOs, or even ensuring that scrutiny of the LCO to be considered was done in both places, suggest a work in progress that some might hope to have been solved, or more clearly evolved, at an earlier point.

Increase in lawmaking powers

If there is a genuine bonus in the 2006 GoWA then it is the widening of access to lawmaking powers. In Westminster, the overwhelming majority of Bills that reach the statute book are government sponsored, but the hope is that the Assembly will provide LCOs and Measures from a variety of sources, including as noted backbench AMs and Assembly committees, (even if some of them, such as Peter Black’s local government LCO get shot down in flames before they start).

Unfortunately (and you knew there was a but!), should the Welsh Affairs Committee in London decide that they don’t want to do as much work on LCOs, then we can guess which ones will suffer.

The authors draw attention to the ‘rules’ attached to LCOs by DGN16, and then use some case studies to show how these are variously interpreted in Cardiff Bay and Westminster, but I won’t be discussing them in depth here as I’ll be commenting on my concerns with the LCO process separately.

Finishing off, one of the more heartwarming points made towards the end of the pamphlet is the increase in Measures in the second year of the One Wales government than LCOs. Well, yes, it’s helpful to have a government that wants to govern and not spend all its time just trying to get its hand on powers.

Now we just need to push that forward to its logical conclusion and give the Assembly the powers to do its job without having to check it’s ok with Westminster first.

Post Office Card Account - So what changed then?

Alistair Darling 14/12/2006 col.1028

"European Union procurement rules leave us with no option but to tender competitively for this product, and we must ensure that best value for money for the taxpayer is achieved"

James Purnell 13/11/2008 col.965

"I can announce today that the Government have now decided to cancel the current unfinished procurement exercise and to award a new contract for the continuation of the Post Office card account directly to Post Office Ltd, within the terms of the relevant EC regulations"

So does this mean that Labour were lying in 2006 about the need to tender or couldn't find a loophole, or that they are desperately trying to wriggle out of a hole right now - and are likely to face court action from the competing bidders?

Don't get me wrong for a second, I think it's excellent news (and well deserved) that the Post Office have the rights to the POCA until 2015, but how much has this ultimately pointless tendering exercise cost the public purse, private companies' faith in government promises and business and stress to sub-postmasters and the whole Post Office?

Why couldn't they have got it 'right' first time around?

And let's hope that Darling fellow doesn't end up doing something important like running the country during an economic crisis...

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Adam says "Yes!"

Adam Price uses his column in Golwg today to urge supporters of a Welsh Parliament to get out there and start campaigning in favour of a referendum.

Having watched last year's consensus over support for a referendum slowly dissipate - the Tories' Roberts' Review has fudged big-time and Labour in the Bay have seemingly become content to let their London masters tell them how it's done - there is a need for an energetic and vigorous 'Yes' campaign to re-invigorate Welsh politics before we all get bogged down in the tedium of Peter Hain's LCOs.

Any 'Yes' campaign must be cross-party and involve everyone across Wales.

Wales is too important to let people outside Wales take our decisions for us.

Kirsty Williams and the Cardiff Bay Bubble

Lib Dem leadership candidate Kirsty Williams yesterday criticised Assembly politicians for being caught in a 'Cardiff Bay Bubble', suggesting that they should listen to constituents rather than interest groups.

Presumably she means something like the Enterprise and Learning Committee's meeting yesterday where the committee listened to petitioners from Pride in Barry's calls for a continuation of funding for Phase 2 of Barry's Waterfront development (which, incidentally, they did very well).

One problem - Kirsty's on the committee, yet couldn't be bothered to attend to listen the concerns of constituents.

As usual, the Lib Dems have shown that they only care when there's an electoral advantage for them.

With such brazen hypocrisy, it's unsurprising that the Lib Dems are seen as a party whose message changes with the wind and why they are spectacularly ignored in Barry and the Vale.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Lib Dems & Devolution

More evidence today that the Lib Dems don't quite understand how devolution works.

The Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Bill creates a Fund that will give money to the UK government and devolved administrations from dormant accounts, with the money to be used for 'good purposes'.

The Lib Dems, on the other hand, have put down amendments to tell the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish administrations how they should spend their money.

What a Difference Ten Days Make...

The difference ten days make...


Road Vehicles (Display of Registration Marks) Regulations 2001Bob Spink: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what recent representations he has received on the Road Vehicles (Display of Registration Marks) Regulations 2001; and if he will make a statement. [231374]

Jim Fitzpatrick [holding answer 29 October 2008]: I have been contacted by the Welsh Assembly Government and by other hon. Members on behalf of constituents.The Government have announced its intention to allow the voluntary display of national flags on vehicle number plates in England, Scotland and Wales. We are looking at how this change can be brought forward as soon as possible.


Vehicle Number Plates

Mr. David Jones: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he proposes to amend the Road Vehicles (Display of Registration Mark) Regulations 2001 so as to permit the display of the Union Flag and the national flags of Wales, England and Scotland. [224689]

Jim Fitzpatrick: The Regulations have not yet been amended and the matter is currently under review.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

UN votes against Cuba Blockade..again

For the seventeenth consecutive year, the UN showed its' disapproval of the American blockade of Cuba with 185 countries, one more than last year, voting against the contined US economic embargo.

Albania changed its vote this year in the annual 29th October vote, while the US, Israel and Micronesian island, Palau, voted against the resolution.

UK vote against Nuclear Weapons Disarmament Resolutions

The United Kingdom voted against key disarmament resolutions when they were placed in front of the United Nations General Assembly this week.

The UK, along with the US and France, voted against a motion to remove missiles from high-alert status. The vote was 134 in favour of the motion, 3 against with 32 abstentions.

The same three countries voted against a later motion about eliminating nuclear dangers in the context of disarmament, the UK this time losing the vote 121 to 3, with 45 abstentions.

The UK did vote in favour of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, along with 167 other countries and only the US voting the other way.

On the other hand, they also voted against the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use of Nuclear Weapons, Reducing Nuclear Danger, on the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons and the draft resolution on Missiles.

I'm sure there'll be some very interesting questions raised in Parliament regarding these votes.

Life Expectancy in Wales

Life expectancy figures from birth in the UK were announced today, showing an average for Wales of 76.7 years for men and 81.1 for women.

This compares to 77.5 years for men and 81.7 years for women in England, 74.8 and 79.7 for Scotland and 76.2 and 81.2 for Northern Ireland.

Life expectancy is highest in rural parts of Wales and lowest in former industrial areas. ranging from 74 years for residents of Neath Port Talbot and Rhondda Cynon Taff to 78.6 years for residents of Ceredigion.

For men, the best places to be born are Ceredigion (79.7 years) followed by Monmouthshire and Powys (both 78.6 years), while for women, it's 84 years in Ceredigion, 83.7 years in Monmouthshire and 82.2 years in Powys.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Newbridge Memo: 'The Palace of the Valleys'

There is a Westminster Hall debate today about Lottery funding of Newbridge Memo, the 'Palace of the Valleys' according to Sue Madoc.

It's actually a debate called by Don Touhig, concerned that the Newbridge Memo, which came second in the recent BBC Two programme, 'Restoration' and was recently refused Lottery funding - for the second time.

Plaid's Hywel Williams made the point, with which Don Touhig agreed, that if it wasn't for the money that has been syphoned from Wales to the Olympics then perhaps the money would be available for this restoration. An estimate made by Alliance published last December suggested that Caerphilly Council area where Newbridge is situated has lost £6.2m.

Strangely, the government department which is responding to the debate is the Welsh Office, which has no say over Lottery Funding, rather than the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which does. Hardly the purpose of a 'debate'.

Just Four Olympic Contracts for Wales

In answer to a written question in today's Hansard, the Minister for Olympics admits that, so far, only four Olympic contracts have been awarded to businesses or organisations registered in Wales by the Olympic Delivery Authority (ps don't try looking for the Welsh version!).

These are Glamorgan County Cricket club, John Evans Photography, Office of National Statistics and Strategy and Solution Limited.

Not a good business return for Wales on the monies that could have been spent elsewhere.

Monday, October 27, 2008

No British Holiday

Apparently, the Government has given up on their much hyped and much criticised plans to celebrate a 'British Day'.

I welcome the end of the discussion about a meaningless, fake British Day, but as I noted on Glyndwr Day last month, England and Wales have the lowest number of Bank Holidays in the European Union.

I believe that we should continue our campaign, as backed by Plaid's conference this year, to fight for a national holiday in Wales, and that powers regarding this single day holiday should be transferred as soon as possible from Westminster to Cardiff Bay.

Labour rolling back devolution?

Today's Local Transport Bill, now in its third reading, is a mixed bag in terms of devolution.

On the one hand, new powers regarding Quality Contract Schemes for buses are being devolved to the Assembly, on the other hand, Wales is losing a 'Traffic Commisioner', as noted by Stuart Cole of the Welsh Transport Research Centre, back in July.

Traffic Commissioners' responsibilities include the licensing of Heavy Goods Operators and the registration of local bus services, amongst other powers.

Under the present system, Wales has its own Traffic Commissioner, albeit based in Birmingham, where the post is joined with Traffic Commissioner for the West Midlands.

The new system suggested by the Government in this Bill would end this post, with the role being replaced by a team of ‘roving’ commissioners across the UK.

The exception to this would be Scotland where they would keep their commissioner.

Plaid have tabled a series of amendments that would ensure that there is a Welsh Traffic Commissioner based in Wales, as recommended by the Welsh Affairs Select Committee and the National Assembly's Economic Development and Transport Committee when this was last discussed in 2004.

When so much of transport policy is devolved to the Assembly, it makes no sense to have a commissioner based in London who has no knowledge of Welsh transport.

He or she should be in Wales where they would be closer to the issues and the policies with which they have to deal.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Show me the jobs

I was hardly surprised to see that Leanne Wood was unimpressed with the comments of Cardiff University Professor, Patrick Minford in today's Western Mail.

It's all very well saying that those who are claiming should be "more flexible", but sometimes, there just aren't jobs available.

To take the Rhondda as an example, in mid-September there were 270 live vacancies at the local Jobcentre Plus but 1,580 claimants - that's 1 job for every 5 claimants.

How about Clwyd South where there's 168 jobs for 990 claimants? That's the same ratio.

Ynys Mon's pretty much the same - 269 live unfilled vacancies for 1,172 claimants. Almost the same.

Wales needs to develop an entrenepeurial, improved work-based culture that treats people well, looks after them, nurtures their talents and gets them to contribute to the society in which we live.

This can only be achieved by valuing people, not writing them off and dismissing them.

As we suffer through a downturn not of our making, we must inspire Welsh based industries to grow in their communities, and then, through job creation and fair redistribution, we will get the fairer society that we are working towards.

Icelanders are not Terrorists

I visited Iceland for the first time in my life earlier this year, watching Wales beat the home side in a friendly in Reykjavik. I didn't think that the country would be playing such a large role in my life nearly six months later.

A little over a fortnight ago, the UK government took action under the 2001 Anti-Terrorism, Security and Crime Act (part 2, section 4) to freeze Iceland's assets. It's a wonderful example of a wide ranging law being used for a very different purpose than that which was intended.

The actual section reads:

"The Treasury may make a freezing order if the following two conditions are satisfied.
(2) The first condition is that the Treasury reasonably believe that—
(a) action to the detriment of the United Kingdom’s economy (or part of it) has been or is likely to be taken by a person or persons, or
(b) action constituting a threat to the life or property of one or more nationals of the United Kingdom or residents of the United Kingdom has been or is likely to be taken by a person or persons."

and goes on to say that this can be a government or a non-UK resident.

I find it very scary just how wide-ranging this power is when taken to its fullest extent, a result perhaps of a government in London without adequate scrutiny and able to pass whatever it likes.

With Iceland set for a boost from the International Monetary Fund today, I hope that this ridiculous situation will draw to an end, that a solution can be found to the economic problems being faced and we can take another look at a law that surely needs better qualification for being used - especially as Alistair Darling is accused of acting rashly and misunderstanding the conversation with the Icelandic Finance Minister by the Financial Times.

Policy by Blog

Unfortunately I wasn't able to attend the Bevan Foundation-sponsored 'To blog or not to blog?' event on Tuesday night at the Assembly (the downside of working in London!), but was very interested by some of the issues and debates that were discussed (as read on various blogs).

Matt Wardman is right when he says that the blogosphere and bloggers should not be treated as one entity, or even one community - it never was and characterising it as such was simply lazy journalism for those back in the 90s who thought the internet was some kind of fad that would quickly disappear.

For professional politicians, it's an opportunity to get their message across without the constraints of a reporter or a sub-editor getting in the way; for online journalists it's a way of drawing attention to issues that they consider important but might not be covered in the mainstream media, for whatever reason; others just want to get their two-penneth worth out there - whatever the reason, as long as it contributes to debate or gives me a new angle on the world, then, personally, I'm interested in reading it.

There have been a marked increase in Plaid/Welsh nationalist blogging in the last year or so, and with good reason - being the bottom up party that Plaid is, being a Plaid blogger means that there is a good chance that your ideas will be read, analysed and discussed at all levels of the party and, if people agree with you, acted upon.

On that basis, one of the fascinating developments for me has been watching the development of a Welsh economic policy on the internet by Plaid bloggers - a quick scan of blogs by Adam Price, Leanne Wood, Rhydian Fon James and others shows Plaid members, elected or otherwise, using the internet as a means to open up policy for debate and putting issues out for discussion, not hatching it behind closed doors, scribbling figures on the back of a fag packet.

It's the democracy of the internet that allows participation - and it's that democracy (even if economic policy is a little harder than 'learn three chords and start a band!) and interaction that makes blogging worthwhile.

After all, why write a paper and wait three months for a response when you could have people telling you what they think later on tonight?

The Cost of Irresponsibility?

I wrote a short piece on Monday about the announcement of the UK's national debt figures for September 2008.

Since then, the Centre for Policy Studies have published a brief report by Conservative MP Brooks Newmark estimating that the cost of what's 'hidden' from the national debt figures - relating to unfunded public pensions liabilities, the full cost of PFI projects, Network Rail's debt and Bradford & Bingley's nationalisation - is much higher than the official figures.

They estimate that this figure is as high as £1,854bn, three times the official figures announced on Monday, or, including the further £500bn that's been promised for bank bailouts, £2,354bn.

In addition to Monday's figures, this has been broken down as being:

* £1,071bn on public pensions using the discount rate from the risk-free yield on index-linked government debt (as the government is not at risk of default),
* £30bn for Bradford & Bingley (using the justification that by being the second nationalisation in a year it is, by definition, not a 'one-off'),
* £20bn for Network Rail which the government would have to pay if the company failed; and
* £100bn for PFI projects - not including the ever-present risk of failure of PFI (this is a Tory pamphlet, so they don't want to suggest that private finance might be a bad thing!)

Including the banking bailout, this amounts to 161% of the UK GDP or £96,475 per household.

Perhaps Gordon shouldn't have been quite so quick to start pulling up figures about our GDP debt compared to other countries

Plaid in Parliament

Contributions made by Plaid MPs in Parliament this week:

* On Tuesday, 21st October, Elfyn Llwyd hosted an adjournment debate about ex-servicemen in prison, using figures gained from parliamentary questions tabled during the Summer recess. The debate was well received by veterans’ organisations and was covered in the Daily Telegraph. The aim of the debate was to raise concern regarding the large number of ex-servicemen in prison and their treatment following tours of duty in war zones.

* Elfyn’s campaign received a positive response from the Minister for Prisons and also from the Prime Minister when he raised the same issue at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, 22nd October.

* During Welsh Questions, which was also held on Wednesday, Elfyn raised the issue of Welsh council savings currently being held in Icelandic banks.

* In Monday’s statement from the Prime Minister on the European Union summit last week, Elfyn asked whether he had been successful in convincing all EU countries to continue their support for tough climate change targets, as supported by Plaid Cymru.

* Als on Monday, in questions for the Department of Work and Pensions, Elfyn drew attention to economic problems in Meirionydd Nant Conwy.

* During Welsh Questions on Wednesday, Hywel Williams asked the Welsh ministers whether, as part of the debate on cross-border services, he would be holding an investigation into the use of health services by people moving to North Wales after retirement.

* In Transport questions on Tuesday, Adam raised the issue of minimum wage standards for seafarers.

* On Wednesday, Adam responded to the statement made by the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, calling for better and responsible lines of credit to small businesses from bank.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Dutch provide support for SMEs

The Dutch government yesterday announced increased credit-line support for small and medium sized companies having trouble getting credit from their banks.

The new rules will allow companies with a workforce of up to 250 people to apply for the support, which will see the Dutch government guarantee a loan of 1.5m Euro, up from 1m Euro, with new businesses eligible for support of 200,000 Euro, doubled from 100,000.

The regulations will encompass 700,000 businesses employing 4 million Dutch workers.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Budget Deficits and National Debt

This morning's Public Sector Finances report informs that the UK is currently £645.3 billion in debt in September 2008 (i.e. before the latest round of partial nationalisations).

That's pretty much £10,755 per person in the UK (based on a round 60m population).

If Wales were to start from scratch financially tomorrow, then based on the Oxford Economics Foundation report published in July on our own debt (itself based on the UK's own profligate spending on war etc.) , it would take us almost 70 years of independence to build up that £645.3 bn level of debt.

Friday, October 17, 2008

BBC License Fee Abolition Bill

There is a Private Member's Bill being discussed in the House of Commons today that calls for the scrapping of the BBC License Fee.

Personally, I appreciate both sides of the argument - that the BBC needs a secure stream of funding to continue to produce world class programming (at which point I should add that I welcome their announcement that they plan to produce more programmes in Wales), but alternatively that the License Fee can be seen as a sort of poll tax on every family with a television, a regressive tax that takes into account neither usage of BBC services nor the ability to pay.

Unfortunately, while listening to the debate in the background I saw a pop-up of one of those mildly threatening TV license fee detector van adverts. 'We know where you live'.

What better advertisement for the Big Brother society?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Canada goes Conservative....almost

Last night's Canadian election saw victories for the Conservatives and losses for the Liberals, with Harper's Conservative party winning 16 seats compared to the 2006 election, up to 143, just twelve short of a majority.

In contrast, the Liberals slipped to 76 seats, down from 98 seats, while there were increases for both the NDP, who went up to 37 seats from 30, and the Bloc Quebecois, who were up 2 seats at 50, remaining Canada's third party.

The Green vote, which had polled strongly throughout the campaign, was squeezed at the last minute.

Two independents were elected.

Local Authorities v Registered Social Landlords

Hot on the heels of yesterday's Welsh Affairs Committee report on the Housing LCO, where one of the contentious issues was the issue of suspension of the Right to Buy, today's Statistics Wales report informs that Registered Social Landlords in Wales, such as Newydd in South Wales, charge tenants 7% more rent than Local Authorities, and charge higher rents in every single category of housing.

Of course, there may be good reasons for this - more newer housing or more better quality housing, both of which come about as a result of a Westminster government supported system that finances RSL's but not local authorities - hence the need for stock transfer ballots across Wales to stop councils getting themselves into a financial pickle over their need to meet housing quality standards by 2011.

On the issue of yesterday's LCO report, one of the things that left me feeling uneasy was that of the 9 members of the committee who signed it off, just three had attended both of the evidence sessions on the Housing LCO, and three (Conservatives David T.C. Davies and Mark Pritchard and Labour's Nia Griffith) had not managed to attend either session.

Monday, October 13, 2008

So what's the Purpose of the Welsh Secretary?

There are regular rumours of the government's intention to merge the Secretaries of State for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

When this is raised, we are told that it would be dreadful for Wales to lose its seat at the top-table, that we will be unable to influence British policy - one of the central reasons given by unionists for their support for Britain rather than an independent Wales.

It seems strange, then, that, instead of fighting the battle for Wales over the local council investments in Iceland, and ensuring that our councils' money comes from central reserves, he would rather that the Assembly, a non tax-raising body, should bear the brunt of this.

Plaid's economic adviser, Eurfyl ap Gwilym, has already noted that, while local government is indeed in devolved territory, the contingency funds that are being used to assist English Local Government groups are not, and have no such Barnett consequential.

Therefore, the Treasury is responsible for helping our councils, not the Assembly.

The question we must ask, though, is not just about who's responsible, but why Paul Murphy is so keen to be Westminster's man in Wales, rather than Wales's man at Westminster?

Canada Votes Tomorrow

The Canadian election takes place tomorrow, a day after Canadian Thanksgiving, giving the parties one last opportunity for campaigning.

The world's economic difficulties seem to be finally catching up with Stephen Harper's Conservative Party, whose polling has slipped to 34%, only a handful ahead of Stephane Dion's Liberal Party, who are now running at 29%.

In terms of seat distribution, this would leave the Conservatives with 128, well short of a majority (155 is the magic number), and just one more than at the start of the campaign, with the Liberals on 92, down six on the end of the last parliament.

The 'winners' in this situation would be the NDP, who are set to earn 19% of the vote and pick up 4 seats (up to 34), and the Bloc Quebecois, who will win back rural seats from the Conservatives, and go from 48 to 52 seats. The Bloc are currently on 9% of the national vote and 39% in Quebec itself.

The Greens meanwhile are currently on 8% of the national vote, but are unlikely to be able to make that count in any single seat. Two independents are backed to be elected.

Lowering the Voting Jersey

Today's Guardian reports that this week will be the first time that 16 and 17 year olds will be allowed to vote in Jersey.

Similar moves to reduce the voting age have been made in Guernsey and the Isle of Man.

Although a Bill to lower the voting age in the UK is unlikely to make headway this year, there will undoubtedly be pressure put upon the government to include the measure in next year's Constitutional Renewal Bill.

At this year's Plaid Conference, one of the motions passed reaffirmed our commitment to lowering the voting age and ensuring that young people play a full and frank role in our society.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Banks and the Bailout

I had planned on blogging extensively on this - having spent much of the week knee-deep in economic theory, but I've been rather beaten to the punch.

Adam Price's detailed and thoughtful blog here builds on the thoughts of Rhydian Fon Jones last night.

My favourite comment of today, though, goes to Robert Chote of the Institute of Fiscal Studies.

He writes in today's Telegraph that: "In an ideal world, we would have faced the current turmoil with a smaller debt and a smaller budget deficit, but we did not."

Rather unsubtle pointer as to where the blame might lie, no?

At (H)Arms Length

When should government be in charge and when should control be at arms' length?

Is it a question of governance or ideology, or both, or neither?

Most criticism of the One Wales plans for an NHS reorganisation (removing most vestiges of that introduced by Vale of Glamorgan Labour AM, Jane Hutt, when she was Health Secretary) have centered upon the fact that Edwina Hart has drawn powers in which she will control and nominate board members.

It is argued that this makes the NHS politicised (as if a free national health service wasn't political enough!) .

On the other hand, a major point of conflict at Westminster over the recent months in the Planning Bill has been the creation of an Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) which would make National Planning Statements and take decisions out of the hands of politicians.

This then removes the accountability of decision making, so goes the argument.

When, then, should government hold powers to make decisions themselves, and when should there be quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations formed to keep these decisions at arms length from political interference?


Children Are Unbeatable!...Almost

One of the disappointments of the parliamentary system is that often the most important or contentious topics aren't raised because of 'procedure'.

Yesterday, for example, Elfyn Llwyd had put down an amendment to the Children and Young Persons Bill that would remove from law section 58 of the Children's Act 2004, the excuse of 'reasonable punishment', or 'reasonable chastisement' as a reason for hitting children.

Human rights are the same for adults as for children, so why is it that our law, criticised internationally by the European Committee of Social Rights and, only last week, by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, gives adults the right to hit children - within some vague woolly worded explanation.

There are 19 countries in Europe that have banned this, the National Assembly voted to ban this in a vote in 2004 (if only we had these powers in Wales, eh?!) and all four of the UK Children's Commissioners back the removal of this clause.

Yet yesterday, Labour talked it out by giving just four hours for amendments to the whole bill, getting as far as the second set of six groups of amendments.

That's when you feel that democracy doesn't work the way it should do.

Hywel Williams Begins Blogging

A welcome to the blogosphere to Caernarfon MP, Hywel Williams, who launched his Welsh language blog, Y Ty Mawr o'r Tu Mewn, this morning.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Assembly Enterprise Committee to meet in Barry

I was pleased to hear at the weekend that the Assembly's Enterprise and Learning Committee will be meeting in Barry's Memorial Hall tomorrow (Wednesday).

For one thing, it's always good for politicians to get away from the bubble, whether that be in Westminster or Cardiff Bay, and see different locations from the same committee room week-in, week-out - it's a freshening up of the political scene in which politicians go to them, rather than expecting the public to come to 'us'.

On the agenda for the meeting are the Pride in Barry petitioners, who are concerned that monies that the Welsh Assembly has made from the sale of land on Barry Waterfront will not be re-invested into the town.

This is a crucial amount of monies that must be re-invested into Barry, and into the town's Waterfront area, to prevent Barry from becoming just a Cardiff dormitory town.

The last thing I, or anyone else in Barry, wants is to find out that the dithering of Conservative and Labour councils over the last 15 years will leave us with a big housing estate on the Waterfront where we could have had a thriving new part of the town - for both year-round residents and tourists to Barry.

Darwin Conspiracy

Tonight I'm going to a talk by Ray Davies, the author of the Darwin Conspiracy, at the London Welsh Centre.

Davies claims that Darwin's Origin of Species was largely plagiarised from the work of Welshman, Alfred Russell Wallace, who wrote to Darwin, explaining his ideas on evolution.

Whether you agree with Darwinism or not, it should be a fascinating talk!

Laying down the Law

The Wales Office today published their call for pre-legislative scrutiny of the proposed LCO on Agriculture and Rural Development - the Red Meat LCO laid down by Elin Jones a fortnight ago in the Assembly.

Let's hope that the LCO's continue through the Westminster treadmill at the same rate.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Bill

The first serious piece of legislation to be discussed on the floor of the House of Commons on their return is the second reading of the Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Bill, which has already passed through the House of Lords.

This Bill provides the legal and administrative framework for distributing assets from dormant cash accounts.

Dormant is defined in the Bill as a period of 15 years during which the customer has not initiated any activity on an account.

This only includes bank and building society accounts and not dormant accounts in National Savings & Insurance as the Government argues that this is already in public usage, or other unclaimed assets, e.g. life policies, pensions, lotteries etc., due to possible legal difficulties in arranging this.

Assets will be distributed by the Big Lottery Fund on a national basis. According to Lord Davies of Oldham, who was leading the Bill through the Lords, this money will be divided using the Barnett Formula. The administrations will be required to use this money for social or environmental purposes.

This is a voluntary agreement between the Banks to supply this money. In the Lords, Baroness Finlay of Llandaff called for reserve powers in the Bill to enforce this agreement should the banks not take part in the way intended by the Bill.

Similar schemes are in existence in other countries, e.g. Ireland, but it seems strange that the government here has gone for 'light touch' regulation and not a compulsory scheme.

Back to Westminster

MP's returned to Parliament today for the momentous occasion of John Mason, MP for Glasgow East, being sworn in as a full member.

It was clearly a good day for the SNP at the despatch box, with Pete Wishart, Stewart Hosie and Angus MacNeill all getting a word in edgeways during the various questions on Culture, Media and Sport and in responding to the government's statement on the world financial crisis.

From the Plaid side of the group, it looks to be a busy couple of months in the run-up to the Queen's Speech with the conclusion of this year's legislative business.

Certainly one thing that's made me happy today is news that the government is wobbling on their ludicrous 42 days pre-charge detention. Hopefully ID cards will be next.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Changes in the Welsh Office

BBC reports that the latest changes announced in Gordon Brown's re-shuffle include the appointment of Caerphilly MP, Wayne David, as parliamentary under-secretary for Wales

David replaces Huw Irranca-Davies of Ogmore, who moves to a post in DEFRA (surely an irony as DEFRA's responsibilities are largely devolved).

As this is the role largely responsible for pushing forward the LCO's at Westminster, and David is not well known for his pro-devolution standpoints (probably still smarting after Plaid beat him in the Rhondda in 1999!), I only hope that Labour will not use this opportunity, and the Tories failure to back further devolution powers, to slow down what is already an over-long and painfully confusing LCO process.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Keeping up with the Joneses

Yesterday's Daily Telegraph exposed that Londoners subsidise the rest of the UK to the tune of £2,000 each.

Today's Western Mail tells us that Wales has a tax take of £9.1bn less than the spend.

Both are based on figures published by Oxford Economics.

I guess they're referring to the same study discussed on the blogosphere by Dylan Foster-Evans and on John Dixon's Borthlas blog at the end of July and start of August.

Keep up, lads.

For those interested, much of the difference between the tax take and tax spend is 'central' expenditure, which is largely defence - an independent Wales wouldn't be building new Trident weapons or wasting £1bn on the Olympics. Read the above links for more information.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Seb Coe

I was astonished to see page 5 of tonight's thelondonpaper which featured a story that apparently quoted Seb Coe's reaction to SFA, FAW and IFA disagreement with the idea of a 'Team GB' to represent the UK (could someone explain the difference between GB and UK to the Olympic organisers in the UK at some point?!).

Coe's response: "F*** 'em"

Not happy with taking taxpayer's money from the Celtic fringe for an event in one of Europe's richest cities, taking lottery money from good causes to fund an over expensive nationalist jamboree in which we should all wear blue, red and white, Coe is equally happy to trample on a hundred and thirty years of football just to book his place in history.

I am glad that it's not just the FAW, but the Welsh Assembly Government's Heritage Minister that have ruled out support of a UK team if it in anyway endangers the future of the Welsh international football team (see p.65).

...and if that's the attitude of the Olympic organisers then I won't be supporting the whole costly venture, and will instead be reminding people of the billion pound cost of the Olympics every single time someone mentions child poverty, the NHS and education.

Irish Government Backs Savers

While Gordon dithers, and while the Conservatives play at being in charge, the Irish government have confirmed a plan to secure all savers' deposits.

In exactly the same way as the Canadian Conservatives are set to win an election by taking tough decisions and facing the electorate, the Irish have taken a decision that looks set to keep confidence in their banking system while others topple around them.

It's amazing the difference a bit of guts makes, eh?

ITV Job Cuts Announced

Just days after being given the effective go-ahead by Ofcom to cut their programming, ITV have announced cuts to nearly half their jobs, cutting 430 from their 1,075 staff.

At ITV Wales, one in seven jobs are to go - with 17 going from the 130 staff.

As warned last week, these cuts will inevitably impact on broadcast journalism in Wales, and especially on political coverage.

The National Union of Journalists have not ruled out industrial action, and I'm sure that Plaid will be fighting their corner - not just for their jobs, but for the coverage of current affairs in Wales.

New education figures released

Figures released today by Statistics Wales show an increase in the number of 16-18 year olds taking advantage of the Education Maintenance Allowance and a 2% increase in the number of 15 year olds reaching the Level 2 threshold (effectively a pass in a pre-16 qualification).

The EMA figures showed a 2% increase in the number of applicants for the past year, up to 33,290, with 94% being approved. Nearly half of the applicants were from 16 year olds

82% of the applications were from teenagers from families with a household income of less than £20,810pa and received the full £30pw EMA.

There was an increase of 10%, to 12,020 students, of a retention bonus for students continuing their studies.

Provisional examination results for Wales show a small increase in results for students who were 15 at the start of the year, with 56% achieving five or more grade A*-Cs or their vocational equivalent, up from 54.2% last year, and now the highest since the records began, with 40.8% gaining a C or above in the 'core' subjects of English or Welsh L1, maths and science.

94.0% of those who were 17 at the start of the year achieved the equivalent of 2 A-levels (in whatever form), effectively the same result as last year.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The day our banking system collapsed?

In the background, I'm listening to the debate in the US about their $700 billion bank bail-out.

My news inbox has details of the Bradford & Bingley nationalisation; Fortis, who only last year were throwing cash around to buy ABN Amro, has needed to be bailed out by governments of three different countries; Germany's Hypo Real Estate was saved by a consortium of German organisations, including the Deutsche Bundesbank.

Iceland's third biggest bank, Glitnir, has been taken over by the national government, while America's Wachovia have been bought out by Citigroup.

Will today be remembered as the day our banking system collapsed, or the day in which government intervention on a massive scale finally turned it round?

A Conservative Majority?

No, I'm not talking about the Conservative conference here!

I'm actually talking about the Canadian general election, who go to the polls in a little over a fortnight.

One of the interesting talking points is whether Stephen Harper's Conservative party will be able to ensure a majority government, in contrast to what might be a coalition Liberal/NDP government, as suggested by NDP leader Jack Layton .

Last week's polls by IPSOS suggested that the Conservatives will be closer to reaching the magic '155' than in the previous parliament, partly because the anti-Conservative vote will be split in so many different directions between the four opposition parties.

IPSOS polls suggest 153 seats for the Conservatives (up 26 on the last parliament), with the Liberals going down to 86 (down 12) under new leader Stephane Dion, fighting his first election in charge of the Grits, with losses of 7 for the Bloc Quebecois (down from 48 to 41) and a drop of 3 for the NDP (from 30 to 27). 1 independent is predicted to hold onto their seat.

On a national polling level, the IPSOS poll gives the Conservatives 39%, with the Liberals sliding to 23%, NDP 18%, Greens on 11% and the Bloc on 8% nationally and 32% in Quebec itself, 8 points ahead of the Conservatives, their nearest challengers.

Note the difference between the Liberal, NDP and Green polling and their respective seat predictions.

In Atlantic Canada, where I lived for a time, the Liberals are well out in the lead, with 40% over the four provinces and the NDP and Conservatives level on 26% each.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Sovereign Wealth Funds: The Politics

The idea of a Welsh Sovereign Wealth Fund was raised by Adam Price on Wednesday in the Western Mail, based on the possible windfall that Wales could receive from the discovery and licensing of gas in the South Wales coalfields.

Adam estimates that anything up to £15bn could be available underneath our feet.

However, instead of being joined in our call for a fund that would assist future generations in Welsh, support domestic industry, and, who knows, helping an independent Wales stand on its own two feet economically, opponents such as Lib Dem Peter Black have instead tried to use the situation to claim some kind of cleavage between Plaid members.

The Assembly response was, in my opinion, quite correct - the Assembly doesn't have the powers to currently create a fund of this nature. It also would have been overtly political to make such a claim for powers above and beyond those that will be included in the coming referendum.

But, and it's a claim that Peter himself makes when outsiders comment on Lib Dem politics, he fails to understand how Plaid work.

In our case, almost every Plaid initiative since the 1920s has been fought for, tooth and nail - we propose an idea, we are informed that said idea is 'unworkable', we continue to find supporting evidence for the proposal and, eventually, through weight of evidence and persuasion we find that, actually, the idea is very much achievable, and that all that was missing was political will.

Adam has already identified the necessary amendments that could be made to allow the Assembly to have these powers - the question is which of the unionist parties will tell us longest and loudest that we shouldn't have these powers to assist future generations of the part of the UK with the lowest GVA?

Perhaps they'll make the same arguments about Scotland as well?

Sovereign Wealth Funds: The Concept

There's been a lot of talk recently about a Welsh Sovereign Wealth Fund, following the discovery of gas in the coal streams in the South Wales coalfield area.

So what is a 'Sovereign Wealth Fund'?

Well, according to the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute, they are usually government-owned investment funds, structured either as a fund or a reserve investment corporation.

Oxford Economics notes that there are several different, sometimes overlapping, reasons:

macroeonomic stabilisation - SWF's can smoothe fluctuations in economies dependant on commodities that are exposed to sharp moves in world commodity prices

seeking higher returns - non-commodity based economies with significant reserves higher than needed for normal usage who can try to maximise returns

future generations - to create a pool of wealth for future generations long after the natural resources have been depleted

domestic industries - some SWF's have been used to restructure and encourage domestic industries.

According to IFSL, the world's largest SWF is in Abu Dhabi, whose Abu Dhabi Investment Council has assets of $875bn.

Perhaps the most famous, though, is Norway's 'Government Pension Fund - Global' which has a value of $380bn .

The country's petroleum revenues are the main source of the fund, along with net financial transactions from petroleum activities and returns from the Fund's investments. The fund pays for Norway's budget deficit.

The Finance Ministry is responsible for the fund, with Norges Bank having operational responsibility for investing in financial assets outside Norway, using Finance Ministry guidelines.

This is likely to be the model that a Welsh SWF would follow, with support for future generations and domestic industry assistance likely to feature high on any agenda of this sort.

More controversially, the formation of the China Investment Corporation, which bought 9.9% of Morgan Stanley last year, has led to accusations of state-ownership of companies, as SWF's of this nature, where the state play a more active role, have potentially far greater reach in terms of liquidity (i.e. they can call upon government reserves) than normal market-driven companies - hence American/free-market concern about buy-outs/bail-outs from CIC or the Russian Stabilisation Fund.

There are at least 52 different funds currently in existence, the largest twenty being worth more than 3 trillion dollars. However, the size of the global market for SWF's pales into insignificance with more standard funds such as pension funds or mutual funds, which, according to IFSL are worth nearly 9 times as much on a world basis.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Young European Exchange

In his Golwg column this week, Adam Price calls for a widening of the Erasmus programme - the higher education exchange that has seen more than 1.5 million people (and I'm one of them) gain the experience of living and studying/working in a different country.

Adam wants all young people, not just students (and in Wales it's usually just those following a language degree who take the opportunity) to have the advantage of spending a year in a foreign country, learning about another culture and, hopefully, learn something of the language as well.

In an economy in which knowledge and understanding of other people's languages and customs is increasingly important, this would be a way in which young people can enrich themselves as individuals as well as both the host culture which they visit and that of Wales when they return.

Sometimes it's the small things that count

I went to the bank at lunchtime today, in the Strand, in Central London, and they had a bilingual English/Welsh paying-in slip.

I'm sure it was an accident, just like the Royal Mail sending Welsh leaflets to protesters in Edinburgh, but maybe, just maybe, it was a recognition of the importance of Welsh to businesses based in London.

Or, you know, maybe not.

Concern over Ofcom Consultation on Public Service Broadcasting

Ofcom have today published their second consultation on Public Service Broadcasting, whose suggestions will undoubtedly lead to concern in Wales.

The consultation says that 91% of respondents to the first consultation found it important that both ITV and BBC continue to produce news coverage. There is a clear need in Wales for a plurality of views, in both English and Welsh, to ensure that there is competition in the media industry.

In 2009, ITV Wales will be reducing its new content from 5 hours 20 mins to 4 hours per week, losing the mid-morning bulletins and weekend lunchtime news. The minimum non-news content will be reduced from 3 hours to 1.5 hours, including 47 minutes of current affairs, with these programmes being screened at prime time. Similar restrictions are being introduced by UTV in Northern Ireland and STV in Scotland.

As noted by Leanne Wood, this reduction will lead to less awareness of Welsh issues and, very probably, fewer jobs in the Welsh media sector. She has started a Facebook group to fight this.

The changes are blamed as the result of pressures on the industry, including a downturn in advertising revenue and greater competition from digital television.

In the longer term, Ofcom are proposing a three-model proposal which would include an English language Public Service Broadcaster for Wales alone, as opposed to Wales and the West of England (as at present).

If these plans were to come to fruition, then I'm sure I would welcome it - especially after the digital switch-over (as a youngster with an antenna facing the Mendips, I was better acquainted with the news from Yeovil and Swindon than Cardiff and Swansea!) when it would be received throughout Wales - but only if it's given the opportunity to produce real Welsh television.

Intriguingly, the consultation also suggests that 'a competitive model would allow for the entry of new Welsh PSB providers."

I'll have to spend a little more time going through the documentation to work out exactly what that is supposed to mean!