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.