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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Christmas and New Year Recess

The Assembly has not had a formal meeting since Thursday but it has still been a busy week for most Assembly Members.

On Friday I was back in Cardiff Bay in my capacity as a member of the Assembly Commission to meet staff at their Christmas brunch, and then onto Pyle, Morriston and Gorseinon for advice surgeries. I spent the weekend writing and printing a Christmas leaflet for my ward giving residents information on church services, refuse collections, PACT meetings, useful numbers, holiday chemist opening times and much more.

I will gloss over the Swansea Tottenham game quickly and move onto Monday where, in between visits to the vet with my cat, I met constituents, caught up with casework and knocked the doors of local residents.

On Tuesday, I carried on with casework, leaflet delivery and went with the governors of Burlais School to look at the new building currently under construction in Cwmbwrla Park. Yesterday, I visited Parkland School to see for myself the playing fields the council are seeking to sell off.

The loss of this open space will have a devastating impact on the school and the education of the children there. It will deprive them of a valuable green lung and leave very little room for children to play and for teachers to deliver the foundation phase. I have already written to the council asking them to think again on this proposal.

Following that visit I had a very useful meeting with Youth Cymru to discuss their Trans'form project and other work they are doing. Today I am off to Snowdonia National Park to look at projects they have underway. It means that blogging will be light over the next few days.

I am looking forward to learning about the Dolgellau Townscape Heritage Initiative, seeing the Coed y Brenin mountain biking centre, visiting yr Ysgwrn, the home of World Ward One poet Hedd Wyn and seeing the award winning hydro scheme at Plas Tan y Bwlch.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Farage the messiah?

The Independent has today's story to stretch credibility with the reported comments of  Ukip’s Commonwealth spokesperson, Winston McKenzie:

In an interview with Chat Politics, he said the Eurosceptic “army” was behind their leader, who can “do no wrong”.

“Jesus was one man, we’re his army. Farage is one man, and we’re his army and that’s what it’s all about,” he said.

“Farage is like (non-stick) Teflon – he can do no wrong. Everywhere he goes, it doesn’t matter what he says or does - he gets away with it.”

This is an interesting take on Farage and not one I believe he will encourage.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Story of the week

Meanwhile the Sun has this:

Animal welfare groups are prosecuting a porn film maker after she used her CAT in a bondage film.

Zorro, five, was trussed up and hoisted in the air with his legs dangling as film-maker Hera Delgado whispers: “Good boy, good boy, you’re enjoying this aren’t you?”

International animal welfare group PETA is now taking legal action against Delgado, 34, of Berlin, who has gone into hiding to escape possible repercussions from cat lovers.

Ms Delgado is convinced that the cat enjoyed it:

Delgado, who has made scores of sado-masochism and bondage films, claimed the decision to use Zorro was “spontaneous”.

She added: “The clip had no sexual component, it was not a perverse thing. It was not animal cruelty. He purred the whole time.”

A prison term is clearly not a sufficient punishment.

Headline of the day

The Western Mail has this:

Jimmy Osmond breathalysed by police on way to McDonald's

This will appeal more to those of us of a certain age. It is all kicking off in Llandudno

Monday, December 15, 2014

Is Wales getting a worse deal than the other nations?

There is an interesting article in this morning's Western Mail reporting on proposals by Alan Trench, one of the country’s leading constitutional experts. He has published a blueprint for how the different nations of the UK can work together at a time when the constitution is in a state of flux.

Mr. Trench believes that Wales get a “worse” deal than any of the other nations from the loose arrangements that determine how governments work together:

Mr Trench is concerned that UK ministers are in charge of resolving disputes – even when the UK Government is involved in the disagreement. He argues that Whitehall departments do not run the risk of sanctions if they fail to respond to grievances.

In his report, he claims this skews politics in favour of the UK Government and results in less accountability and poorer policies.

Key proposals include:

- Having an “independent and impartial” person or group of people resolve disputes;
- Introducing a more “structured” relationship between the Welsh and UK governments, with the Wales Office and the Minister for Government Business in Cardiff playing a more active role in managing relations.
- The creation of a “dedicated secretariat” for Joint Ministerial Council meetings which would be “independent of any government” and;
- Launching a devolution committee at Westminster to ensure greater coherence.

Mr Trench said: “The UK’s system of managing intergovernmental relations is fundamental to making devolution work, but it is simply not fit for purpose. It fails to recognise the way the UK’s territorial constitution works, and leaves the ball very largely in Whitehall’s court.

“This affects all three devolved governments, but hits Wales worse than the others. The UK Government needs to take a much more engaged approach rather than allowing the situation to drift along, or treat devolved governments as nuisances or adversaries.”

He concludes his report: “Is the UK Government willing to make a series of changes, some minor but some major, and some which will involve a measure of political difficulty or even embarrassment, in order to achieve those outcomes?

“Is the UK Government sufficiently committed to the union, not just in a rhetorical way but in substance, to do what is necessary to make that union function better and to help its citizens understand why they have the structure of government that they do, with some things being done differently across the UK and some things being similar or the same?

“An enhanced approach to intergovernmental relations, which improves the substance of governance but also enables the UK Government to provide symbolic answers to those questions, is a keystone of enabling devolution to work as a sustainable, durable and effective form of democratic government.”

These are all important questions and desperately need to be addressed in any discussion on future constitutional arrangements.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Vince Cable says a judge-led inquiry into British torture links may be necessary

Today' Telegraph reports on the comments of Liberal Democrats Cabinet Minister, Vince Cable that there should be a judge-led inquiry into Britain's alleged involvement in US torture if investigations by MPs and police fail to restore public confidence.

The calls come as Sir Malcolm Rifkind, chair of the Commons' Intelligence and Security Committee, strongly hinted former prime minister Tony Blair and former foreign secretary Jack Straw will be ordered to give evidence on what they knew.

The Tory grandee has requested America hand over redacted sections of a controversial Senate report into CIA's involvement in torture that make mention of British involvement.

Downing Street last week admitted that key passages of the report were censored at the request of British spies.
Appearing on BBC One's Andrew Marr show, Mr Cable was asked if there should be a public judge-led inquiry into whether Britain was complicit in torture.

"We certainly don't rule that out," said Mr Cable, the Liberal Democrat Business Secretary.

"At the moment we've got several inquiries taking place at the same time... Police are looking at direct involvement in I think the Libya case, the allegations there. There is Sir Malcolm's committee. I think they've got to run there course."

"If at the end of it, it doesn't appear that the truth is emerging, that people imagine there's some kind of cover-up, then of course a judge-led inquiry is the right way to proceed."

Vince is absolutely right to call for such an inquiry. We cannot associate ourselves with the sort of abuses perpetrated by American intelligence agencies under George W Bush.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Guardian looks for immigrants on the M4

There was much excitement in my household this morning when, on opening the Guardian newspaper, we found that one of their journalists and a photographer had abandoined their plush London office to  come to South Wales.

The plan is to retrace Nigel Farage's infamous but abortive journey to Margam, which was allegedly disrupted to the point of being irretrievable by hordes of immigrants doing everything they could to stop him reaching God's own country.

For once the Guardian journalist has no excuse, she cannot avoid reaching the promised land. All she has to do is to stick to the M4 and she will be here.

Will her piece carry the usual Guardian misconceptions about South Wales? Will she join many of her colleagues who have repeated clichés about so-called industrial wastelands from ivory metropolitian towers, without once visiting some of the most beautiful and spectaclar scenery in the UK? Will she actually get out of her car and experience the tremendous hospitality and friendliness of South Walians?

Well, it is difficult to say, because out of two dozen paragraphs, only one relates to her experience this side of the Severn Bridge, whilst the photographer didn't even get that far, presumably giving up because he had forgotten his passport or something:

I leave the photographer at Swindon station and continue west, wheeling over the Second Severn Crossing and into Wales. The motorway is black, near-deserted and whipped with heavy rain, and I finally reach Port Talbot seven-and-a-half hours after I set off. At least insurgent populist demagogues don’t have to conduct interviews. Admittedly, it does take me five hours to get back to London, but mostly the lanes are quite clear, the delays due to the nighttime roadworks underway and the 40mph speed restrictions as workers set out traffic cones. I peer at them as I pass: burly men in neon tabards, the air lit up by their breath. They’re holding up the traffic, it’s true, and they may very well be immigrants. On the other hand, Nigel, who else is going to mend the potholes?

Still, I cannot disagree with her coinclusion. Immigrants are vital to the continued functioning of our economy. If Farage has his way, the whole British way of life will collapse into chaos. But then, maybe that is the idea.

Friday, December 12, 2014

UKIP claim spending on constituency offices is lawful

The Western Mail finally catches up with my blogpost of 2nd October, where I queried whether UKIP was using public money to establish a campaigning base to win parliamentary seats.

The question arose because of a comment by their Welsh MEP, Nathan Gill that he had been waiting for UKIP to establish their target seats in Wales before opening an office, stating: "We've now come to a decision that Alyn and Deesside is one of our best prospects and we have therefore opened an office at 50 Chester Road, Shotton on Monday. We will soon be opening an office in South Wales too, again in a target seat."

As the paper says, European Union rules relating to publicly funded offices for MEPs state: “The premises must be used solely for the parliamentary activities of the Member.” Another states that “appropriations” [MEPs’ allowances] “may not be used to finance any form of European, national, regional or local electoral campaign”.

Mr Gill claims that it is all above board: “It’s true that my offices at Shotton and the one opening on Saturday in Merthyr are in the same buildings as Ukip campaign offices, but there are clear demarcation lines between the parts of the buildings used by me and the parts used by Ukip. I am renting part of both buildings from the local Ukip parties, and this is entirely in line with European Parliament rules.

“I have visited the Shotton office half a dozen times since it opened. I also use it for surgeries."

This is fair enough and I have no reason to doubt Mr. Gill's word. What I would like to know though is on what basis the rent is being paid? Has an independent survey established the correct proportion of rent Mr. Gill should pay his party for the use of the office for example? And what rent is UKIP itself paying for the use of the rest of the premises?
No doubt it will all come out in time.

P.S. My interest in this does not come about because UKIP worry me in the sense Mr. Gill claims but purely in the interests of properly scrutinising how public money is spent. I am subject to that scrutiny. Mr. Gill should not be an exception.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Labour hypocrisy on privatising the health service exposed

Nick Clegg reportedly told the House of Commons yesterday that the only Health Secretary to privatise a hospital was Labour's Andy Burnham. Despite all the protestations he has been proved correct and suddenly Ed Miliband's strategy for attacking the government over the way they have reformed the English health service is in tatters.

Over at the Times, David Aaronovitch nails the Labour position. He says that the official opposition have no credible plan for funding the NHS and are hiding behind alarmist nonsense about ‘Cameron’s market’:

But there is a problem with the way in which the word “privatisation” is being used. The NHS throughout the UK is — in most people’s eyes — distinctive from private healthcare in that patients are not asked to pay. The state picks up the tab. We call that “socialised medicine” and who then exactly provides the patient with a bed, or a nurse, an X-ray, a syringe or a diagnosis is a secondary question to patients. As long as it is done well.

It seems common sense that contracting a service to a private (or voluntary sector) provider is not per se privatisation any more than the contracting out of street cleaning. A council refuse collection is as much a public service whether carried out by council employees or a French-owned company.

Unsurprisingly the King’s Fund, the independent health think-tank, though highly critical of the government’s reforms, described the claim of privatisation as a “myth”.

Even so, and even under the principle that contracts for NHS England-funded services should be tendered out to “any qualified provider” (ie, not “any old profiteer who can turn a quick buck”), in fact the value of such contracts is low. Ninety four per cent of the value of contracts lies with NHS providers — 94 per cent. That’s practically a North Korean election result.

Back to Mr Burnham and his mission to destroy “Cameron’s market” (suddenly a bucolic image of a Witney street fair being set ablaze by Messrs Burnham, Balls and Miliband runs through my mind). Because it was indeed Labour who brought in the idea of any qualified provider. In 2006-07, 2.8 per cent of the value of NHS contracts went to the private sector. By 2010-11 it was just under 5 per cent. Now it is 6.1 per cent. How can this possibly be imagined as some kind of epistemological break between the days when Mr Burnham was the actual health secretary, and now?

It can’t. He is guilty of doing a reverse Lansley. He is slagging off for political gain the very things he championed in power, just as Andrew Lansley did the very thing in power (one of those dreadful “top-down reorganisations”) that he’d slagged off in opposition.

He continues:

Dr Chand, a Labourparty member, wrote recently that after 1999 Labour “marked the start of a transition of the NHS from a public sector provider to include the private sector under the disguise of choice and competition”. While disagreeing with his doctrinaire belief that the private sector is the devil and with his definitions of privatisation, Dr Chand is surely right about the direction Labour took.

So the obvious truth is that, for whatever reason, Mr Burnham has changed his mind fundamentally about private involvement in public medicine. It’s a full 180-degree turn, and he has done it, I would argue, not out of conviction, but to pacify his activists and scare the voters.

And quite possibly to divert them. As of now Labour, the party of the NHS, has (in common with the other parties) no credible policy for bridging the NHS’s coming estimated £30 billion funding gap.

The party has ruled out an increase in national insurance and the gimmicky mansion tax wouldn’t cover a fifteenth of it.

Oh for heaven’s sake, all of you. With the election due in five months’ time, and with the loonies knocking at the window, we need to do better than this.

Precisely!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Five years of missed targets

It is five years since Carwyn Jones became First Minister and so attention has turned to how his government has performed. It is not a pretty picture, at least according to the Western Mail:

* The key measure of prosperity, GVA, was 74.3% of the UK average per head in 2009, but by 2012 had fallen to 72.3%. Labour abandoned a 2010 target to raise it to 90%.

* In 2009, the latest figures showed Welsh GDP stood at 89% of the EU average (2006), but the most recent figures (2011) show this has fallen to 74%.

* NHS bed numbers have fallen from 13,000 in 2009/10 to just over 11,000 in 2013/14.

* Wales’ performance in PISA rankings between 2009 and 2012 got worse in science and maths and Labour’s target to raise performance by 2015 has been ditched.

* The number of patients waiting more than eight weeks to access diagnostic services has increased by 1,088% from 1,906 in December 2009 to over 22,000 in September 2014.

* The Welsh unemployment rate has been consistently above the UK average for every month of Carwyn Jones’ premiership.

* Welsh Gross Disposable Household Income (GDHI) remains one of the lowest of all UK regions.

* The Welsh claimant count has never been below the UK average during Carwyn Jones’ leadership.

* Wales has qualified for a third round of EU handouts, despite the spending of £4bn of EU aid since 2000.

* Average Band D council tax has risen by 17.5% since 2009/10 and by 150% since 1997/98 from £495 to £1,276.

* Ambulance response time targets have only been met once in the past two and a half years. In December 2009, 59.4% of ambulances responded to a category A call within eight minutes. In October 2014, the figure was 55.5%.

* Carwyn Jones has admitted that he and his Labour Ministers took their “eye off the ball” on school standards.

* The First Minister pledged to fund education 1% above the block grant until the school funding gap with England is eradicated. The latest data shows it has widened from £496 per pupil in 2009 to £604 in 2011.

* Labour’s target of halving child poverty by 2010 was missed, while child poverty rates have risen every year.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Labour need to widen their appeal says Mandelson

Another day, another siren voice for Ed Miliband. The Telegraph reports that Peter Mandelson believes that the Labour Party is heading for “great self-destruction” unless it broadens its appeal by reaching out beyond its core vote:

Speaking at an event in Westminster, the former business secretary, who helped Tony Blair achieve a string of victories with the creation of New Labour in the 1990s, warned that the party currently lacked enough supporters to win a general election.

He warned that the party could not afford to “not bother” with large groups of the electorate.

The Labour peer’s words came after a respected academic study found that Labour had lost many of its working-class supporters during Mr Blair’s years in power, particularly among those who were put off by the then-government’s immigration policies.

Research by the British Election Study found that hundreds of thousands of voters who abandoned the party at the 2005 and 2010 elections, often going to the Conservatives, were now planning to vote Ukip at the 2015 poll.

I am aware of course that the Liberal Democrats could do much better in the polls but we are in government and suffering from taking difficult decisions. The fact that Labour are not further ahead and are struggling to retain their core vote despite all that has happened over the last four years and despite being in opposition, must be a worry. At least Mandelson recognises that even if Miliband does not.

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