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!

Identity Cards

I've just listened to Jacqui Smith's statement on identity cards for non-EU students and marriage visa holders.

To be honest, given the government's record on identity data loss in the past year or so, it seems difficult to believe that they are going ahead with this.

But not just that they're going ahead with the plan, but the step-by-step process through which they're introducing id cards.

As human rights organisation, Liberty, point out: "Picking on foreigners first is divisive politics; as costly to our race relations as our purses".

Like my party, I am, and always have been, against identity cards on principle. I don't believe that it is the role of government to snoop on their population - it is the role of government to ensure that support is available for those who cannot adequately support themselves. This falls well outside government's remit and its right to interfere in our daily lives.

How long before we get fined or jailed for refusing to identify ourselves to a policeman?

Welcome to Labour's Big Brother society.

And the award for the highest council tax in Wales...

...goes to Conservative controlled Monmouthshire, where, according to the Welsh Local Government Financial Statistics, the average council tax per dwelling is £1,184.


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Welsh Oath of Allegiance?

As part of the opening question in today's Welsh Assembly plenary session, Leanne Wood raised the question of the Oath of Allegiance to the monarchy.

She drew attention to a current EDM at Westminster calling on the government to allow MP's to swear loyalty to their constituents and the nation rather than the monarch.

It seems only fair to me that, in our modern democratic culture, those who believe that their loyalty lies with their constituents should be allowed to pledge their oath to those people rather than to a member of the royal family.

A different oath is already available in Northern Ireland.

During discussion on the Government of Wales Act 2006, Plaid MP Elfyn Llwyd called for a secular oath that would allow Assembly Members to swear allegiance to the people of Wales. Labour in Westminster, however, refused to allow AMs that option.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Yesterday it was childcare, today it's laptops...

Gordon Brown signed up to yet another part of the Plaid Cymru 2007 manifesto today with his announcement on providing children with free computer hardware and software to assist their learning and ensure there is no 'digital divide' between the haves and have-nots.

This follows on from London Labour's stealing of our clothes on housing (England) and childcare (Wales - see p.22, col.2).

I wonder what next? Perhaps it could be taking devolution to its logical conclusion...Well, if it's good enough for Northern Ireland....

Plaid Heritage Minister Rules Out Support for UK Football Team

Now firmly in place as Heritage Minister, Plaid AM for Arfon, Alun Ffred Jones, has declared that he will not be supporting calls for a UK football team and put at risk a history of more than a hundred years of Wales an independent football team.

A declaration that will go down well in Welsh football circles, I'm sure - especially ahead of tonight's Swansea v Cardiff match.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Fighting Objective One Job Closures in Porthmadog

Plaid MP for Caernarfon, Hywel Williams, today met with officials from HMRC to argue the case for keeping open the HMRC offices in North-West Wales.

Much of the discussion was regarding the future position of the Welsh language centre at Ty Moelwyn in Porthmadog, which now looks likely to be retained despite the 'efficiency savings' being made by HMRC that are closing tax offices through much of rural Wales.

Hywel argued the case for further development of the Welsh language services at the centre, noting the current trends for the ability to use Welsh amongst younger people - who will be paying their taxes for a long time yet, and for it to remain based in Gwynedd rather than see the jobs transferred to Cardiff or Wrexham.

Sadly, on the issue of Objective One (or convergence funding) jobs, Labour's left hand doesn't know what the right is doing - using European money to fund new jobs in less well-off areas but stripping them of the skilled and professional jobs that already exist.

Brown's Nursery Rhymes

Gordon Brown made the 'eye-catching promise' over the weekend that children would be given free nursery places from the age of two onwards.

But from the social policy side, it's hardly a radical proposal - the One Wales Government is already committed to free part-time nursery places for 2 year olds in greatest need as part of our commitment to reducing child poverty, so yet another example of Brown filching a policy from a more progressive government.

The difference is that while we consider this an important aim as part of the One Wales agreement, Brown is unwilling to commit to a time or a figure for supporting this plan in England - and with it the financial spin off that results from the Barnett Formula, money that would come in handy not just for us to introduce our plans for nursery places, but also to provide support for the Foundation Phase of education introduced this year.

There's a worry at the back of my mind, though.

As we've seen from Budget after Budget, what Brown gives in one hand, he takes with the other, and having been reading James Purnell's welfare to work plans, you can only wonder how much time would elapse between free nursery places for two year olds in England and a new, radical idea from the Department from Work and Pensions to 'convince' their parents to head back to work, now that they don't have to look after their children.

Makes you think, doesn't it? And with this government's record, you wouldn't rule it out either, would you?

Well...if we thought for a minute they'd still be there to put these plans into action.

It's all about the context

In a previous life, I taught language and communications undergraduates about critical reading, explaining to them that, in deciphering the author's intentions and purpose, you don't just read what they write, or even how they write it, but pay attention to the unwritten assumptions that underpin their text and underscore their ideology.

That came back to mind this weekend as I read three different pamphlets/reports, set in three different contexts: Wales, Britain and Wales in Europe.

Huw Lewis is considered the face of Labour's Brit-Nat wing in the Assembly, but his newly co-authored 'Changing the way Wales works' (along with Vaughan Gething of Wales TUC) belies that reputation. Across its 30 pages, there are just 3 references to the UK government, of which just one relates to policy innovations at Westminster. Comparisons are drawn with Ireland, Germany and Austria - other countries, not just devolved administrations. Whether a deliberate play for Plaid support for his supposed Labour leadership bid, Huw frames his debate in almost unconditional and exclusively nationalist terms.

That is as opposed to the recently published pamphlet 'A More United Kingdom' from Immigration Minister, Liam Byrne. In contrast to to the Huw Lewis pamphlet, Byrne's work is almost inedible from a Welsh perspective.

The aim is to discuss means in which immigrants can be better integrated into British society, but Byrne gives the impression that, under the surface, exists a homogenous society with which migrants can integrate. His perspective is exclusively anglocentric, insultingly quoting Vron Ware that 'British is easier [than English] – it’s clearly a bit more plural as it includes the Celtic fringe: Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. It seems to accommodate the regional difference'.

Thank you for describing my culture as a 'regional difference'.

From there, Byrne goes on to suggest a British day of celebration, drawing upon his heavily anglicised focus/discussion groups to suggest events and occasions that resonate through English history but which would only sharpen the distinctions with Wales and Scotland.

He then makes a political clarion call 'in favour of the Union' - that our great imperial history would never have been achieved as individual units, that 'we' would not have such a place on the world stage if we were separate and that given the integration of our different ethnic groups, independence could not possibly work.

Aside from the weakness of all of these arguments (I have yet to hear, for example, Byrne claiming that Estonia should re-merge with Russia because of the Russian population there!), it's clear that his defence of the Union is aimed solely at Scotland, Wales barely deserving a mention.

One of Byrne's most regularly repeated arguments is the need to 'learn the language' in order to integrate. That's English, for those of you not following, or who steadfastly refuse to recognise that there is more than one language on these isles of ours. I'm not demeaning the argument that learning English is a huge advantage, if not near necessity, for migrants looking to work in many sectors, but a token recognition that this situation differs in different parts of his United Kingdom would go a long way.

All this, of course, about migration, integration and citizenship whilst ignoring the reality that many migrants are transitory economic migrants from the EU (I've worked in other parts of the EU myself!) for whom these are not issues at all.

In short, Byrne's context is one in which a quarter of the world is still pink and they hum 'Rule Britannia' as they drop anchor, grateful to reach our hallowed shores.

Again, this is in contrast to the Bevan Foundation's research on 'Flexicurity' (again more on the contents elsewhere), which looks at the former Objective One areas in Wales against the background of the European Union, contextualising the Welsh economic position into the wider European sphere that seems largely ignored, or at least sidelined, by both Lewis and Gething and by Byrne. By clearly delineating a 'Wales in Europe' context, the report has greater 'body' - the purpose and aims are clearly set out, as are the circumstances into which the report is borne. In plain terms, it just makes more sense to show how wider influences impact on Wales.

The unwritten assumptions and context of a report give a huge clue as to the aims of an author - left-wing or right-wing, unionist or nationalist, libertarian or authoritarian. In the case of these three reports/pieces of research, their focus and references are key to understanding the messages being conveyed, whether you agree with them or not.

New sub-editor needed for Metro

...preferably one who understands statistics.

This morning I was greeted with the bizarre heading (p.2, col.5) telling me that there is 'Little Support for Welsh Devolution', followed by the headline findings of a survey by Aberystwyth's Institute of Welsh Politics that 39% of people surveyed wanted a 'parliament', 31% liked the Assembly the way it is, 15% wanted to go back to colonial rule and 10% favoured independence.

Aside from the maths (the WM reveals that 5% are don't know/refused to respond), I see that as 4/5ths of the Welsh population being in favour of devolution of power on some scale (on a 2,500 survey which is quite large for these things - a little under 1 in 1000 people in Wales).

With its PA news and lack of editorial comment or investigative journalism, Metro can often be simplistic, but 80% in favour seems a pretty hefty majority to me. Whether that means support for a further devolution of powers is a different thing altogether.

Turning to the survey itself, one problem that I often have with the methodology is with the discrete element of the questioning - would you say that you are in favour of independence or a parliament? Are these mutually incompatible? Can you not be in favour of both, especially if you perceive this as a process, not an event (c Ron Davies).

Either way, that's 49% in favour of more powers, 31% in favour of the status quo (but will that transmit itself as a yes or no vote in a referendum?) and 15% against the whole thing (I'll take that as a 'no' then!)

Friday, September 19, 2008

Plaid take control of Aberystwyth Town Council

Two by-elections in Aberystwyth last night saw Plaid take control of the town council, after a gain in Penparcau.

With a low turnout, Plaid's Owain Jones won the Penparcau seat after the sad death of an independent elected in May, defeating both Labour and the Liberal Democrats (who picked up a measly 46 votes). This gives Plaid 3 of the 5 town council seats in the ward.

The victory takes Plaid to ten seats in the 19-seat council, even though the Liberal Democrats held onto the seat they were defending in the town's Rheidol ward.

The make up of the council is now Plaid 10, Lib Dems 6, Labour 1, Green 1, Independent 1.

Elsewhere, the SNP's David Turner won the by-election for the Glasgow Baillieston ward that was left vacant when John Mason became the SNP's 7th MP at the Glasgow East by-election in July.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

How 'radical' is radical?

Think-tank Demos have today released a survey of 'radicalism' in British politics, according to a ranking by 100 PoliticsHome contributors based around their willingness to 'challenge the goals of society', to challenge 'incremental approaches' and to challenge 'entrenched interests and power bases'.

The survey, which only includes politicians from Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems, concludes that Conservative Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Michael Gove, one of the founders of right wing think-tank Policy Exchange, is the most radical politician, followed by Lib Dem Treasury spokesman, Vince Cable, and Labour's Welfare-to-work minister, Jame Purnell.

Of course, if Demos wanted to be genuinely radical, then they could remove their Westminster-based blinkers, look around the rest of the UK and see for themselves the radical and original thinking that's a mainstay of Welsh and Scottish politics. Adam Price, anyone?

Concerns over St Athan Plans

An article on the Public Service website highlights concerns over the future of the Defence Training Review at St Athan.

As a local resident, I am always trying to keep up to date with the latest on the development, one that 18 months ago seemed destined to take place, with champagne flowing all around Rhodri Morgan and Jane Hutt at the Assembly.

I'm not a pacifist, nor am I against the St Athan base or, in principle, it's development. However, I remain concerned about the privatisation of defence training, the effect of PFI and the effect that the development would have on quality of life in the Vale. In fact, the Vale of Glamorgan as we know it may not exist with such a giant project taking place right in the middle.

With such obvious difficulties arising for the project, whether the failure of the land sales or the slippages leading to increasing costs, it's surely time that the local MP, John Smith, stopped being so bullish about the project and started answering the questions that local Plaid members have already put into the public domain.

'Meltdown Monday'

The way to work this morning was just that little bit slower, fewer smiles than usual, less eye contact.

Suddenly being in one of the world's big financial capitals wasn't quite as lucrative as it had been.

Don't get me wrong, I have little or no sympathy for the well-paid suits who have cashed their bonuses (at our long-term expense) during the good times of the economy, but feel immensely for the human cost of those lower down the corporate chain - the secretaries, the cleaners, those on or not far from minimum wage levels who will feel the pain of losing their jobs this week and not being paid for the hard work they have already put in.

I believe strongly in entrepreneurship, in working hard, in striking out on your own and developing business and creating real wealth, but I'm not an all-out buccaneering free market capitalist because people are more important and it's the human cost - the job losses, the home repossessions, the associated stress and health problems - that hits me most.

The market will eventually correct itself, but the fall out from the failures of an unregulated banking system understood not even by those in the industry will affect every man, woman and child in the country. We simply can't let this happen again.

Jobcentre Plus Office Roll-out

Westminster's Public Accounts Committee released it's report into the DWP's Jobcentre Plus Roll-out last week.

The report is glowing in it's appreciation of the savings made by the office rationalisation plan that replaced 1,500 jobcentres and social security offices across Great Britain with 800 modernised Jobcentre Plus offices.

The rationalisation has been such a success that we can very probably expect more of this nature from others, such as the DVLA, Driving Standards Agency and Courts Service who have all been in touch to get the low-down on what made it so successful.

This is, of course, the rationalisation that saw more than 50 DWP offices close in Wales between 2004 and 2008, leaving 32 towns without a local office, and whose continuation sees another four offices undergoing consultation and with a total of 600 jobs on the line according to PCS Wales.

One of the trumpeted successes was the saving on 16,500 full-time posts as part of the 2004 Spending Review.

Sadly, finance appears to be the only success to which the report could point: 'a more cost effective network...not able to demonstrate clearly whether the project has achieved the business case objective of increasing the number of clients finding work' (2), while 'the improved office environment has not increased customer satisfaction levels significantly' (3), which makes the phrase 'improved' look strangely out-of-place.

In plain English, we've saved some cash, but we've not bothered to work out if we're doing our raison d'etre any better and the 'customer' doesn't think it's made much difference.

I'm all for cutting the waste, but too often these things cut into the bone, and if people in rural and urban Wales are being held back because of their inability to get to a Jobcentre Plus and have the service they need/require, then the changes have failed. Unless you're a government accountant.

The Cameron Effect

...or, 'Crikey, we're in trouble!'

Liberal Vision have released an analysis of Liberal Democrat MPs in England and the likelihood of their surviving a growing Tory tide in the south of England.

For sounds methodological reasons, i.e. the difference between a three-party and four-party electoral system where swings are of different proportions and move in different directions, both Scotland and Wales were left out of the analysis.

Using a uniform national swing, no fewer than 35 of the 53 Lib Dems in England would lose their seat, while boundary changes would account for a 36th losing their seat to Labour. Ouch!

But it's all ok, because their famed hard work as incumbents will keep them in their seats. So that's okay then.

Not only that, but the Lib Dems will be targetting the 50 most winnable Labour seats.

Which is great, except that, under the uniform national swing methodology adopted in the report, just five seats would be taken by the 2.3% swing from Labour to the Lib Dems. Worse still, two of these are in Scotland where the Lib Dems have actually ceded support to Labour.

As a tax-cutting, small state group, Liberal Vision are calling for a shift to the right to appeal to the Tory voters they desperately need to keep their MPs - the message that Nick Clegg was trying to sell at their mostly ignored conference.

Oh, the irony that a party that was trying to place itself to the left of Labour now finds itself trying to go to the right of the Conservatives. A party that says all things to all people - and doesn't find this lack of consistency a difficulty.

For better or for worse, Lib Dems truly think of politics differently to everyone else.

Happy Glyndwr Day!

A happy 16th September to you all today, as we celebrate Owain Glyndwr Day.

Of course, Glyndwr Day will largely go by un-noticed by most people in Wales and further afield, but it's one of the many events that could be celebrated after a Plaid motion at Conference re-affirmed the intention of an additional Bank Holiday for Wales.

Along with the Netherlands, the UK has the fewest national bank holidays (eight), while Slovakia apparently has eighteen days of holiday.

Although the cultural argument in favour of a Welsh Bank Holiday (usually identified upfront as March 1st, St. David's Day) has been won at the political level with all parties at the Assembly in agreement, one of the arguments against is economic - that it would interfere with trade with the rest of the UK if we were to be off work for a whole day.

It seems strange that these people don't take such exception to the fact that Scotland already has a different holiday system to us, not just the SNP government's decision to allow St Andrew's Day as an optional holiday (replacing a currently existing bank holiday) but also that 2nd January is taken off in place of 26th December.

Nor do they complain that Northern Ireland has days off for 17th March (St Patrick's Day) and a celebration of the Battle of the Boyne (12th July).

A St David's Day holiday would be widely welcomed across Wales. In the meantime, happy Glwyndr Day!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Effects of the 2006 National Minimum Wage Increase

I was interested to read an article in the new September 2008 edition of the Economic & Labour Market Review suggesting that the 2006 increase of the national minimum wage had no negative effect on job retention amongst the workers affected.

Common consensus from those against the NMW is that an increase in the wages of the lowest paid would lead to redundancies, but this report suggests that, of the data collected using the UK Labour Force Survey, there was no statistical difference in terms of employment exit before and after the introduction of the NMW in October 2006.

In fact, the report actually suggests that men were less likely to lose or change jobs as a result of the NMW – the higher wages across the board meaning a less pressing need to move from company to company in search of a better pay.

As a party of social justice Plaid is a strong believer in the rights of workers to be paid a fair living wage and this report clearly shows that the nay-sayers were wrong in their assumptions about the effects of a National Minimum Wage and its most recent increase.

Now, though, we need strong government action to make sure that this group of people are not the first, or should that be next, to feel the brunt of the economic crisis to which their flawed economic policies left us vulnerable.


Conferences have the potential both to complicate and confuse or to inspire and enthuse.

Judging from the reactions on various Plaid blogs when I got back into the office today (see Borthlas, Guerrilla Welsh-Fare, Bethan Jenkins and Pendroni), I'm clearly not alone in being happy with the events of the weekend in Aberystwyth.

The mood throughout the weekend was upbeat, helped by the confidence inspired by our party leadership and our Assembly ministers that the party is in good hands and that Wales is a better place for us being in government.

The Westminster group more than played their part, with motions on an array of subjects from supporting carers to helping local business, and from Welsh language juries to reducing the voting age, and keynote speeches from Elfyn Llwyd and Adam Price (more of which here). I'll be discussing the aims and effects of these motions in the coming days.

One of my high points, though, was getting to have a proper chat with new SNP MP, John Mason, whom I'm sure will do an excellent job when he gets to work full-time in Westminster in a few weeks time.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Dafydd Iwan wins Plaid Presidency vote

Dafydd Iwan has been re-elected as Plaid Cymru President after a Summer campaign fought against Elfyn Llwyd, in a "close contest".

As many people will know, I voted for Elfyn, but, like almost everyone in Plaid to whom I spoke during the Summer, I would be happy with either man in that role.

Certainly, with Elfyn still at the leadership table through his position as Leader of the Parliamentary Group, his experience and skills will not be lost at the top of the party.

I do feel that a competition for the post was very important, providing legitimacy and a mandate from the party membership for the winner, as well as allowing a debate about the future direction of Plaid.

I attended the hustings in Cardiff which was a lively discussion of how Plaid has developed over the past few years, the role of the President inside the party and what sustainable changes could be made during the next electoral cycle.

Having won the election, I look forward to Dafydd Iwan pushing forward some of the points that were raised by the membership. Again, something else for our minds to focus on at Conference this week!

Canada Votes 2008

Canada will be going to the polls on October 14th after Conservative leader, Stephen Harper, decided to go for an early election, less than three years after the Winter election in January 2006 that saw him elected as leader of a minority government.

I was living in Canada during much of that election campaign (it's hard to believe that it's nearly an election cycle ago!) , so will be keeping a close eye on what happens there over the next few weeks, mostly through the CPAC tv channel.

With a first past the post electoral system, it's very difficult for any one party to gain a working majority in Canada (155 of the 308 seats), mainly due to the solid vote for Quebec sovereignist party, the Bloc Quebecois.

Currently, the Conservatives have 127 seats, the Liberals have 98, Bloc have 48, the New Democratic Party (NDP) have 30 while there are a number of independents, one of whom (Blair Wilson) was elected as a Liberal but has defected to the Greens, whose recent polling has apparently been as high as the mid-teens.

With four parties standing across the entire country and the Bloc making it a five-party contest in Quebec, election night could be very messy in determining any widespread trends across Canada.

One more point, though: Harper is going to the polls supposedly for a mandate to lead a government through economic troubled times. How very different to Gordon Brown and his dithering last year when he could have had such a mandate himself.

Friday, September 05, 2008

David Davies? No!

Following a year of phoney war about the referendum on devolving further powers to the Assembly, in which few people (well, outside Plaid!) have really tied their colours to the mast, the campaign lurched into activity yesterday with David Davies (not the Barry swimmer!) fronting the nascent 'No' campaign.

There's more in today's Western Mail, with a former Labour councillor in Islwyn saying that he will have no problem backing the ultra-right wing Tory.

Personally, I welcome the creation of a 'no' campaign. A conversation between people who agree with each other, as most do in Welsh politics, is no substitute for the cut and thrust of debate and discussion which must be held at as public a level of possible, to involve the entire population.

Saying 'no', of course, is very easy, but it's up to us to debunk the myths and lies that the 'no' campaign will throw at us.

Timing is everything in politics and, as a supporter of the 'Yes' campaign, I'm rather glad that Davies has chosen this week to make his pledge, as it will certainly concentrate Plaid minds on the task ahead and fire the imagination ahead of National Conference.

It's time to get out there and campaign for the 'Yes' vote.

Dafydd Trystan speaks in London

Last night I had the pleasure of joining the London branch of Plaid Cymru in welcoming Dafydd Trystan, parliamentary candidate for the Cynon Valley, and former chief executive of the party to the London Welsh Centre on Gray's Inn Road.

Dafydd spoke excellently for around 45 minutes, giving his views on trends on both the UK and Welsh political scenes and then outlining his plans for the Cynon Valley, where he was born and raised, and which he hopes to win at the next General Election.

That was followed by a further 45 minutes of lively debate amongst members, discussing ways and means of developing the party, suggestions for party strategy and campaigning ideas - including, of course, the contribution that can be made from members based in London.

An excellent curtain-raiser for next week's National Conference in Aberystwyth.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Welsh education 'must do better'

As education is one of the portfolios devolved to Cardiff, it isn't an issue with which I deal on a daily basis - meaning that often my major interaction with the Welsh education system is Thursday's Education supplement in the Western Mail (Thursday's not just for the jobs section, you know!).

Today's section was more interesting than usual, coinciding with the start of the new school year. Jane Hutt's regular column focused on the development of the Foundation Phase of school, an excellent idea, but I hope that teaching unions' concerns about funding are unfounded, while, elsewhere, Fforwm, the group that represents Futher Education providers, laid out their funding needs for the coming years, although I must admit to being a little concerned at the £200m capital infrastructure investment apparently needed, of which they are currently asking for £50m.

The most interesting article, though, was a rather damning piece by Exeter University's David Reynolds, focusing on a comparative decline in GCSE passes against England. Reynolds blames this on the need for different priorities in Wales compared to England, which did not need to undertake the administrative re-organisation or consider the needs for Welsh language teaching, noting that education spending since the Assembly's inception rose by less than other major departments. He also suggests that the Welsh education system has been less able to innovate and expresses concern about the ability of Local Education Authorities to adequately supply the education needed.

Bizarrely, though, these very valid concerns and criticisms are then held up as being a possible failure of devolution. Like any institution it is the policy's undertaken that have most impact, not the powers available. Different policies would have produced different results. Rather than suggesting that it is the failure of the institution, Reynolds should be holding to account the people in power during this period - and that was the Labour Party.

Teachers' Assessments of 14 year olds

With Wales eschewing the Standard Attainment Test system used in England to examine the progress of 14 year olds, teachers' assessments of the standard reached are used to measure progress.

This year's findings regarding progress in non-core subjects, reported today, show the highest ever percentage of pupils attaining level 5 (the expected level) in all subjects except for music and art, although art was an increase on last year's results.

Sadly, achievement in modern foreign languages and Welsh as a second language were significantly below achievements in other subjects (art, design & technology, music, physical education, geography, information technology and history), rating at 61% and 54% at level 5, compared to between 70 and 75% 'pass' for the remaining subjects.

The concerning element, though, is the wide variation that exists between male and female achievement in almost all subjects, physical education being the obvious exception to this rule. Masked by relatively high results for the majority of subjects, this is very clear in both modern foreign languages, where 53% of boys attain the required level, and even more so with regards to Welsh as a second language, where just 44% of boys reach level 5, much weaker than their performances in other subjects.

Similar variation exists, especially in Welsh, between different locations. Surprisingly given the possibility of hearing and using Welsh to a greater extent in the community, the 'pass' rate for pupils in Welsh speaking areas is often less than in more Anglicised areas. Hopefully, this isn't a reflection of different norms being used across Wales to establish the criterion.

The silver lining to this is that this is part of a continuing rise in the figures, one that I hope shows genuine increase in standards - something we'll discover in two years time when this cohort reaches its GCSE year.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Concerns over Management of PFI Projects

A new report from Westminster’s Committee of Public Accounts gives a rather damning indictment of the management of PFI projects in the UK.

According to the report, more than a third of PFI hospitals and a sixth of PFI schools claim to be under-resourced, and 15% of PFI projects were not managed on a full-time basis.

Meanwhile, in spite of government advice in March 2007 not to pay management fees for ‘change projects’, i.e. where the initial contract is adapted, the Special Purpose Vehicles managing the changes ask for a payment of between 2% and 25%, costing an extra £6m.

Furthermore, with ‘major change’ being a project of more than £100,000, and one that should be open to competitive tender, less than 3 in 10 of these projects saw competition – rather missing the point of tendering, no?

Around 4 in 10 were considered unsuitable for tendering, while the remaining 27%, an £84m investment from the public, that may have been suitable for tendering didn’t actually happen - presumably leaving the public sector to pay whatever was charged.

Interestingly, as many as 1 in 5 of these ‘change projects’ were actually re-introducing features of the original plans that had been cut in the design process, usually for ‘funding reasons’, suggesting a false economy in the original project.

The report also notes wide variation in charges for ‘minor works’ conducted on PFI projects.

There are now 500 PFI projects in existence with a combined capital value of £57bn, and future payments amounting to £187bn (£100bn in present terms), with operational PFI projects costing the UK taxpayer £5bn per year.

Given that the lifetime of PFI projects is usually between 25-30 years and their likelihood of participating in such a ‘change project’, it is highly worrying that experiences so far suggest problems with the system – problems for which the taxpayer will eventually foot the bill

I’m not against the use of private finance under any circumstances, but I'm not keen on reliance on the private sector when it comes to core industries - hospitals, schools and the like.

PFI as a project appears to be on increasingly shaky ground, and I’m glad that in Wales we’ve ruled out what appears to be a clumsy way of doing business from the public’s point of view – putting tax payers money into private business to make a profit what the public sector was already capable of achieving.

The Lawful Society

Think-tank, Reform, yesterday launched an interesting new pamphlet, entitled ‘The Lawful Society’, making a series of observations on the UK criminal justice system.

From a Plaid position, the most important point made was the centralisation of the UK criminal justice system, with Reform noting that in federal countries, such as the USA, Canada, Australia and Germany, justice tends to be devolved, with an ensuing flexibility in action for the criminal justice system – something for which we have long argued in favour.

The report also recognised that the justice system works as vertical silos rather than as a joined up support system that deals holistically with problems.

Reform also questioned the value for money of the present justice system, noting the ‘arms race’ between major parties to be seen to be tough on crime, leading to the present position where we spend a higher percentage of our GDP on criminal justice than any other developed country, where we reach a new high in our prison population with each passing month (more than 84,000 according to yesterday’s latest figures) and where there appears to be little value for money in terms of rehabilitation – the re-offending rate or young people being 60% of the 2003 cohort and 90% in terms of those with multiple previous convictions.

The main thrust of their argument was about taking back justice – that the overwhelming majority of people surveyed in the UK perceived that crime was an issue for the police rather than for the community and therefore abdicated responsibility.

The report underlines some of the major concerns regarding the effectiveness of the UK’s criminal justice system, many of which could be answered in a Welsh context that took a different attitude towards crime and the justice system – that rejects the criminalisation of young people, that approaches crime as part of a holistic solution to other problems associated with social deprivation and which restores the link between action to stop crime and the responsibility of the community, rather than out-sourcing responsibility to the police and politicians who use crime, and the fear of crime, as electoral fodder.

Stamp Duty Threshold Increase

Reaction has generally been negative to yesterday’s one year change to Stamp Duty, where the threshold was raised from £125,000 to £175,000, roughly the UK average house price.

Certainly, if this was intended as a means of kick-starting an economy heading towards recession according to the OECD then it won’t be having a great effect, especially in London and the south-east, generally considered the motors of the UK economy.

In London, the average house price is more than £300,000, nearly twice as much as the stamp duty threshold, so will presumably have minimal impact in terms of helping sales to go through.

Hopefully the outcome will be more positive in Wales where the increase will mean that more than three-quarters of house sales are now outside stamp duty. It’s an innovation that may well help not just first-time buyers but many young families looking to upgrade from, say, a two-bedroom to three-bedroom house.

If the government really want to make a difference to these groups of people, though, then they will need to make the threshold change permanent, not just a gimmicky one year give-away, and index link stamp duty to house prices.

The real problem, though, is that while a saving of up to £1,750 on the initial cost of a house is good, it’s no real help to either buyers or the market if mortgage lenders are asking for far more extra than that as a deposit.

Back to Blogging

With the Autumn closing in around us, I thought that I'd take the opportunity to return to online blogging - mostly concentrating on political issues close to my heart, but not ruling out comments on other topics, language, history, sport, etc.

Some of the posts will be looking at issues in Westminster politics, others looking more directly at events in Wales or at home in Barry and the Vale.

Posts will probably encompass discussion of policy, sometimes from an academic perspective, and I'm very happy to discuss issues with anyone offering well-informed comments, or able/willing to suggest further reading around a subject.

Many blogs use a pseudonym as a way of maintaining anonymity (or maybe it's just a Welsh Eisteddfod thing!), but, having played the internet pseudonym game over the years, I've decided that it's easier to make honest comments when people know who you are and what you stand for - if I wouldn't say it to someone's face then I wouldn't be happy writing it on the internet.