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Archives for December 2008

And in 2009 ...

Betsan Powys | 18:59 UK time, Wednesday, 31 December 2008


... my plan is to feel a lot better.

Apologies for spending the past few days, when I should have been back in work, in bed feeling rotten. You've got on with it rather nicely in my absence though it has to be said. Thank you all for cheering me - and even getting me - up.

Given it's the language (now there's a surprise) that's broken all comment records on this blog, I'll wish you all a bilingual Blwyddyn Newydd Dda and a Happy New Year. Yes, Welsh first because it is my mother tongue.

Now I'll get back to bed and enjoy the fireworks from afar.

Christmas wish-lists

Betsan Powys | 12:42 UK time, Friday, 19 December 2008


So playing the iPod shuffle wasn't deemed to be enough.

Within twenty-four hours of making donations to their chosen charities, Nick Bourne and Alun Cairns had to up the contrition ante and pay back the hundreds of pounds claimed for their iPods to the public purse.

If Nick Bourne believes that will be enough to save his skin in anything like the long-term -and beyond Christmas has felt like long-term this week - then he must, by now, be alone. The briefing that his time is up hasn't been silenced, nor the jostling in the race to succeed him.

Karl Williams, Wales' political betting guru to those who don't know him, has come up with odds on who takes over when Mr Bourne goes:

11/10 Fav - Jonathan Morgan
7/2 - David Melding
9/2 - Angela Burns
11/2 - Paul Davies
13/2 - Andrew Davies
10/1 - Darren Millar
12/1 - Alun Cairns
16/1 - William Graham
25/1 - Mark Isherwood
25/1 - Nick Ramsay
25/1 - Brynle Williams

If Mrs Isherwood and Mrs Williams have been wondering where to put their money in the current economic climate, they might be tempted to take a punt on their husbands. Then again they'd probably be better off sticking to a 'punt' too if I were them - or to translate from the Welsh, a pound.

Or they might spend it on the Christmas edition of the Big Issue where Assembly Members have been asked to outline their Christmas wish amongst other things.

Nick Bourne's?

"My Christmas wish is for a peaceful and secure Christmas and 2009 for all. January 1st is my birthday so New Year's resolutions are not usually on my mind."

Not usually.

Incidentally: remember that other Christmas wish I mentioned? The Plaid official and the Welsh Language LCO?

An informal chat with one Welsh Labour MP in Westminster this week is worth noting:

When will the LCO finally reach the end of its journey then d'you think?
This I can promise you: you'll be asking me exactly the same question at the Christmas do next year!

His message? Now is not the time to put any more pressure on Welsh businesses. Prepare to redraft.


Betsan Powys | 15:16 UK time, Wednesday, 17 December 2008


iPod-gate is what the Western Mail is now calling the furious response to the Welsh Conservative leader's expense claim and while they're at it, they're calling on Nick Bourne to go.

So what are sources close to Mr Bourne calling the Mail story? Nothing new.

But those same sources say that Mr Bourne has made a donation of £250 - pretty much the cost of the iPod paid for by the public purse - to the NSPCC.

It's a recognition of the response to his expense claim and will no doubt be welcomed by one his favoured charities.

So where does this leave Alun Cairns AM following his leader. Despite being a fluent Welsh-speaker, and no need to learn the language, he too claimed for an iPod.

Which means he too is having to play what we'll dub the iPod shuffle.

He's giving £200 to the Help the Heroes charity.

Is this the end of the matter for now? Sources say there will be no response to the Western Mail's call for his resignation.

As one put it - they could hardly call for him tomorrow. Can they?

Walking the walk

Betsan Powys | 12:56 UK time, Tuesday, 16 December 2008


It's simple says what I must call a senior Conservative source: it is about how many of us are prepared to be bold. It's about how many are prepared now to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

The answer, I suspect at the moment, is not quite enough. A majority of Conservative AMs might be angry with Mr Bourne and have lost faith in him as leader to one extent or another but if one or two are "prepared to smile" while "storing dissent", have concluded that it would be wise to listen to senior voices in Westminster calling on them to "close this down" before any more damage is done, then Mr Bourne can continue to put off any talk of an urgent group meeting before Christmas. He can listen to political speeches on his iPod over Christmas, hone his Welsh and think about how to win as many seats as possible if there's a General Election around the corner.

Last night Jonathan Morgan AM sent an Email to his colleagues and their office staff. You won't be surprised to know that it's been leaked, nor will you be surprised to know that he is unhappy that "many members were asking William for a meeting before Christmas but that this is being refused".

He's referring, of course, to Chief Whip William Graham.

His Email tells the leader that "I believe it imperative to assess the damage created by the allowances story since Friday, and I would suggest as follows:

1. We need to examine how we can tighten up our own procedures as a group to show that we are serious about spending public money properly. Regardless of Sir Roger's review perhaps we can take a lead;

2. The group needs to look at and understand how the Leader's allowance and what it is supposed to cover;

3. The strategy for reclaiming the position as a party which has challenged Labour's waste.

This last item is critical and requires some thought".

It appears from the Email too, incidentally, that Jonathan Morgan had not talked to Nick Bourne over the weekend, despite the leader's claim to have talked to every member of his group.

But Nick Bourne has made his position entirely clear now. He's going nowhere and intends to lead the party into the 2011 elections. He knows he can't go on forever but now is not the time to go. He's happy to talk through the expenses issue with the group in the New Year but has no plans to "do a Mike German" as some insist he must now do. In other words he's not planning to give an assurance that he'll be off with plaudits and pats on the back for all he has done for the party - perhaps after the European elections.

Quite right too says Clwyd West's Darren Millar AM. He's "agnostic" about the need for a group meeting but is anything but about the outcome. That, he says, "has to be clear backing for Nick". He's like to see Nick carrying on in the job for some time yet and has absolutely no plans to form an alliance with Jonathan Morgan, an alliance that puts him in the deputy's position.

No deal then by the sounds of it.

Which means those "who are prepared to be bold" must work out a cunning plan if they're to oust Mr Bourne and get the "dynamic way forward" they're seeking.

As they've put it themselves, they must put up or shut up.


The leader, his iPod and his group

Betsan Powys | 21:33 UK time, Monday, 15 December 2008


Tomorrow the Director of the Welsh Conservatives, Matthew Lane, will be attending a meeting in Central Office in London.

It's a meeting that's been scheduled for quite some time and at which campaigning plans for the next General Election will be discussed - an election that could, after all, be not that far away.

So a few questions:

When Matt Lane meets Welsh MPs - as he has planned to do for some weeks - will the matter of Nick Bourne and his expenses come up? As Director in Wales Matt Lane is not from the political wing of the party. He's a paid official so some might feel it's not an issue to discuss with him. But if it does come up, will the point be made that the whole episode hasn't gone down terribly well with the small group of MPs in London and their constituents?

Will the desire to get on with the job of beating Labour at the next election mean that in the end, questions about Nick Bourne's iPod - and his judgement - will be regarded as irritating but insignificant enough for the matter to be 'closed down'?

Or will there be a reluctance to allow that to happen?

Meanwhile in Cardiff there's only one question: will enough of the unhappy individuals who make up the group of Conservative AMs push for and arrange a group meeting with Nick Bourne before Christmas?

Or is Mr Bourne right when he said on Radio Wales today that he has spoken to every member of the group and has their support to get on with the job?

The Hart and the sword

Betsan Powys | 13:23 UK time, Monday, 15 December 2008


Here's an image for you: Edwina Hart holding a double-edged sword.

It isn't mine - it's Karl the bookie's. He's been galvanised into giving us his latest odds on the race to succeed Rhodri Morgan as leader of the National Assembly Labour Party, or as Karl puts it, the "Carwyn leadership bid".

Carwyn Jones, the Counsel General and AM for Bridgend is in North Wales today spreading the message that only a vote for Labour can deliver future prosperity for the North and that he's dead set against independence.

He goes even further North - to Iceland - to make his point.

"That country has virtually gone bankrupt while Britain, under the leadership of Gordon Brown, has been leading the world in developing progressive policies to address the financial crisis. That's why Labour is a devolutionist party, not a separatist party. Labour is a unionist party and we belive that the future of North Wales lies with a Labour-led Assembly and a Labour Government at Westminster".

But Karl the bookie has been looking closer to home. A year ago, he says Carwyn Jones had the race in the bag. Now? Read on:

4/7 Carwyn Jones
2/1 Huw Lewis
7/2 Edwina Hart
25/1 Eluned Morgan

So why is he no longer the odds on certainty to take the job?

The bookie's looking at the national picture. The momentum's with the Conservatives and "if this was to boil over onto the Welsh front, the next Welsh election will be a political betting minefield". It also means Carwyn Jones could be unseated from Bridgend where his performance last time round didn't impress the bookie. Majority went down 2.3% to 40.3% in a seat classed as marginal: swing required - 5.2%

And so he looks to Health Minister and Gower AM Edwina Hart even though her majority, incidentally, went down 9.5% to 34.2% in a seat clased as highly marginal: swing required - 2.2%. Karl concludes that she could glean enough support to prevent a Jones the Counsel General coronation only to find that she's let Huw Lewis, the Merthyr AM in through the back door. Got the double-edged sword? On the other hand she could back the Bridgend AM and see him safely in Rhodri's seat.

Eluned Morgan who is soon to stand down as an MEP? He has her down as the favourite come the next leadership election - calculating that if Carwyn Jones wins this time and then loses his seat, there could be another run at the leadership election round the corner.

Back to the Edwina Hart image. I'd bet on only one thing: that when Edwina Hart makes up her mind and is clear about her position, then we will all know exactly where she stands. It's rare for her not to make her position crystal clear after all and I don't imagine this will be any different.

She will also have done enough homework to be as sure as she can be that joining the race doesn't hand victory to anyone else. If she wants the job and calculates that she can win it, then she will: Ms Hart will be Queen. If she doesn't or can't then at the very least, Edwina Hart will be kingmaker.

Deal or no deal?

Betsan Powys | 22:44 UK time, Sunday, 14 December 2008


What would you expect from a chartered surveyor?

William Graham, the Conservative whip and South Wales East AM is the sixth generation principal of a family firm of surveyors in Newport. Look up their website and you'll see the family firm pride themselves on two things: they offer professional, objective advice and the service is always friendly.

It should be no surprise then that yesterday morning, William Graham, wearing his whip's hat, was busy doing the groundwork and gathering the facts he needed to offer some professional and objective advice - not to Gwent's concerned homebuyers in this instance but to his boss, the Conservative leader, Nick Bourne.

He rang around to find out in just how much hot water Mr Bourne really is. His expense claim for an iPod (and by the way when I mentioned the iPod on Dragon's Eye on Thursday night, the production team's knowledge of the price tag of a coveted iPod Touch when it first came out was uncannily accurate) will have heated the water to boiling point but it was already pretty hot for the Tory leader after the Rhodri Morgan dodgy birthday dossier affair.

So how many members of the group have lost confidence in him? The answer William Graham got was that all but a handful have lost faith in the boss to a greater or lesser degree and that significantly in a group of twelve, a couple who in the past have been angered by the boss but reluctant to jump off the fence, are now coming down against Mr Bourne.

He was told what we've been told for some time now but then telling it straight to the group whip when he comes a-calling on a Saturday morning is a quite different matter to whispering it to journalists in Cardiff Bay.

So what of the alliance I hinted at here? Is it true - and the rumours were certainly swirling around the Assembly last week - that Jonathan Morgan has struck a deal with new kid on the block, Clwyd West AM Darren Millar, a deal that would give the leadership to Mr Morgan with Mr Millar as his deputy? A nice north south balance there and an alliance of two groups who until now had been holding back from the kill in the hope of securing the top job for their man.

But Jonathan Morgan has never wanted to let go of the loyalty card too soon and he is adamant that no deal has been struck. At Christmas parties and constituency lunches this weekend the turkey was unavoidable and so were the questions about a deal. He is sticking to this line: there isn't one.

Which means Nick Bourne, from whom we've heard nothing, must be hoping that the man most likely to succeed him is telling the truth, that the deal would be harder to strike than we're assuming, that the Christmas recess takes the edge off the anger of his group and that the next call he gets isn't from his Chief Whip telling him it's all over ... in a professional, objective and friendly manner of course.


Betsan Powys | 14:27 UK time, Thursday, 11 December 2008


Tonight, before I come back in to look the Dragon in the Eye, I'll be going to a school nativity play and looking out for one particular angel in her supermarket wings and borrowed halo. There will be good will to all mums and dads. That is when I'll know that I've left Cardiff Bay for the day, where there is very, very little goodwill to be found these days.

AMs are angry. They watched last week as Sir Roger Jones, Chairman of the Independent Review Panel into their future pay and expenses, suggested on Dragon's Eye that some of them don't offer "value for money". They listened to his assessment of their work, too bound up by constituency work, not effective enough in scrutinising the assembly government, not getting stuck in where it really matters. Six out of ten was the gist of it.

And they're crying foul - loudly. How are we to have faith in an "independent" chair asks one when it's clear he's made up his mind long before the panel has finished taking evidence, let alone report back next Spring?

Another, from another party, has been to see the Chief Executive and Clerk to the Assembly, Claire Clancy. She heads the staff of the Assembly Commission who make sure the Assembly and Assembly Members can do their jobs. In this instance her job was to face an AM who put it pretty bluntly: he has lost confidence in the independent panel and in the process.

Another, from yet another party, believes the Assembly Commission itself, chaired by the Presiding Officer and made up of the PO and four AMs, one from each party, is "politically out of control". The review, she believes, is simply a case of the Presiding Officer wanting to make a stance and create headlines where none are needed or warranted.

Not that Sir Roger Jones will mind very much. I remember first meeting him over twenty years ago. He ran a pharmaceuticals business in Tredegar that manufactured thalidomide. He was open about it, prepared to be interviewed about it and speak plainly-in Welsh at that. If the message is getting out there that he's determined to "ensure value for money for the people of Wales" and shake things up a bit, he'll feel he's doing his job.

And tomorrow - before recess but on a Friday when all is quiet in the Assembly - another tranche of AMs' expenses so far will be made public.

Last time a £2000 sofa, a £1,000 surround-sound TV and a £2 Pyrex bowl left AMs looking out of touch with the people they represent. I have no doubt that there will be more sofas, more bathroom refits, more expensive, top of the range televisions this time around along with the couple-of-quid claims to which members are perfectly entitled but that do little to enhance their reputations.

One name keeps cropping up: that of Nick Bourne's. He leads a Conservative group that is not a happy one. It is not a united one. There are rumours of an expensive I-Pod and expensive taps that in themselves amount to little more than those headlines politicians ride out. The significance this time is that the rumours are rife, almost urgent, frantic. They come at a time when his authority in the group has already been severely undermined by the dodgy birthday dossier aimed at Rhodri Morgan and - we eventually learned - signed off by Mr Bourne. Last month I was told, not by a member of the group or of his staff incidentally, that he was "hanging on by his fingernails".

Goodwill is lacking. Mr Bourne is well aware of that with the Christmas recess approaching fast. What he really needs to know is whether the will to do something about it, the will to strike alliances that would oust him, is lacking too.

Whitehall Christmas

Betsan Powys | 15:25 UK time, Wednesday, 10 December 2008


"All I want for Christmas" confided one Plaid official recently, "is the Welsh Language LCO"

Well Whitehall, if not Santa, has done its bit. The Welsh Secretary, Paul Murphy, has just told Assembly Members in the chamber that the bid for legislative power over the Welsh language has been scrutinised by Whitehall departments and is now sitting on his desk. It'll be published "sometime in the New Year".

Which means she had better ask Santa for something else.

Something for nothing

Betsan Powys | 06:58 UK time, Wednesday, 10 December 2008


Later today James Purnell, the Work and Pensions Secretary, will unveil the UK government's plans to reform the welfare system.

The language is one of sanctions and penalties, more stick than carrot.

The aim is to get a million people off benefits and back into some form of work. If you turn down a reasonable job offer, turn down or fail to turn up for interview, then you'll face losing some of the benefits you were due or be asked to do some sort of mandatory community service.

If you're on incapacity benefit then you'll be expected to show that you're preparing to get back into work. In other words, as Mr Purnell has put it, he wants to make sure - particularly now that economic times are tough - that "there aren't people in a boat not rowing".

Yesterday the First Minister told me that he'd sat down with James Purnell and talked him through the Assembly Government's objections to his plans - objections that almost spill out of the latest Welsh Assembly Government cabinet papers published. He started out talking about rhetoric, about the implication that people who don't have jobs, who take home sickness or incapacity benefit are "tagged or stigmatised as scroungers".
Some of the policies themselves being suggested were, he said, very sensible and perfectly reasonable but they way they'd been talked about - now there he differed from Mr Purnell.

But the objections spelled out in the cabinet papers run deeper than rhetoric. Welsh Ministers are worried that families who are already vulnerable and in debt will get deeper into debt. They're worried that will have an impact on crime. They're worried about the impact of the rule changes on those with mental health conditions.

They're worried about cost: that the Assembly Government could end up footing the bill for many of the new skills development programmes and careers advice from within its own budget. That could "stretch Assembly Government resources".

And all of this the First MInister had conveyed to the Work and Pensions Secretary. The telling line - the one that took Welsh ministerial objections way beyond rhetoric - was this one: "Clearly, whether you are going to actively participate in the labour market to some extent is determined by your perception of whether there are lots of jobs available, and that's going to be very different if you live in Mountain Ash than if you live on the outskirts of London".

In other words if you live near London you'll know that there'll be job opportunities there somewhere if you go looking. If you live in Mountain Ash, then you don't. After ten years of a Labour government in Wales, whose fault is that the Conservatives might ask? In fact Chris Grayling, the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, has already asked the UK government why it is that young people are finding it ever tougher to "do better than their parents ... For ten years the government has been telling us it has the policies to solve the problem. But it hasn't worked".

The changes to the benefit system will of course apply equally across the UK - the benefit system isn't devolved - but one size, Rhodri Morgan had argued, does not fit all.

And there, in the cabinet papers, Welsh Ministers suggest doing something about it. Why not, they propose, pilot a different system in Wales, one that perhaps involves incentivising work? Where the rhetoric at least is more carrot than stick, where the "intervention regime" is most appropriate to Wales?

That sounds to me like a proposal for a very different benefit system in Wales to the one James Purnell will be unveiling this afternoon - the kind of proposal that will have the proverbial eyebrows in Westminster well and truly raised.


Betsan Powys | 13:59 UK time, Tuesday, 9 December 2008


On churches I'm with Simon Jenkins.

I've tramped round my fair share of "England's Thousand Best Churches". In fact I can think of one wet weekend in the North Downs when it felt as though we were planning to work our way through the rest of the book by Sunday.

But if ever I've spotted a damp, bedraggled photo-copy of the relevant page from his book pinned to a notice board in a church porch, I've learned something I didn't know, gone back to see something I hadn't spotted.

Now I see that Simon Jenkins has dismissed the Senedd as "insipid". He's talking architecture of course, not quality of debate, though if you're currently listening to First Minister's Questions, you may well feel it's about time something was done to buck it up a bit. The thought, I notice, has crossed their minds in Northern Ireland.

What does Rhodri Morgan think? The question is short, the answer characteristically lengthy and detailed. He wants to steer clear of Punch and Judy politics but accepts that lengthy, detailed responses to lengthy, detailed questions in the chamber do little to excite the public and therefore instill public pride in Welsh politics. Confused faces peering through the glass at events in the chamber suggest he's got that one right.

This is, after all, "the home of Welsh democracy". I'm quoting Nick Bourne. He was actually talking this morning about the red brick building that used to house the National Assembly, the one that is stuck to the posh, new bit but all the same, the Conservative leader was in full flow in its defence. He wasn't talking architecture. He was objecting to the "outrageous" plans to hold a reading of Patrick Jones' poetry - poems that usually come with the words 'blasphemous' and 'offensive' attached - in the Assembly building this Thursday. The whole group is a hundred per cent behind him on this one and Mr Bourne would have to admit that he doesn't get to say that very often these days.

The poet has been invited to give the reading by two Assembly Members, Labour's Lorraine Barrett and the Lib Dem Peter Black. Their message? That if you think you may find the poems offensive - and there's a good chance you might - then stay away. No-one has a right to turn objection into preventing others from listening. The building is secular and AMs have a right to arrange meetings in it as they see fit.

But the Conservative group, galvanised by "massive postbags", is unmoved by arguments around Freedom of Speech. Nick Bourne is now arguing that the reading may well be illegal. He wasn't entirely sure why but thought it might amount to inciting hatred on religious grounds. The Assembly's lawyers are unconvinced.

It was a heated debate between Mr Bourne and the press pack. It had more than a little of Punch and Judy about it come to that. If you're still watching events in the chamber - as I am - you may just be starting to wonder - as I am - whether just a little bit of aggression for its own sake, just a small but vigorous step towards the bear pit, wouldn't be welcome.

60% v 40%

Betsan Powys | 19:46 UK time, Monday, 8 December 2008


The new leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats and the first woman to lead a political party in Wales is Kirsty Williams.

Let's wish her well because she has, to put it bluntly, one hell of a job.

The good news for the new leader is that she won comfortably. "It's the best possible result for the party" whispered one member of the executive committee rather loudly in Peter Black's ear. Because 60% v 40% - or 910 to 612 to put numbers on it - is the kind of result political parties like. There's a clear winner with a clear mandate. The "runner up" as the Lib Dems called Jenny Randerson today, gets a respectable vote but is well and truly in second place.

But hang on: to have a clear mandate, those who voted for you must have a clear idea of what it is you intend to change, in what direction you intend to take the party.

Kirsty Williams was absolutely clear in this campaign that she intends to change the party. She intends to change the relationship between the leader and grassroots members and put in place a structure that makes communication with ordinary members more direct. She wants to smash the "Cardiff Bay bubble". She could do that.

She was equally clear that she wants the party to have a clear message to communicate, one that voters will identify with the Lib Dems, one that will appeal to them, one they'll talk about and one that will deliver to the party seats in Swansea and Newport that they've talked about for too long and where they've failed, in the end, to make a big enough impression. That message will have to be found on the journey on which she has pledged to take the party - the journey "back to its radical, liberal roots". That, she will inevitably find much harder to achieve.

But then you ask the 910 people who voted for Kirsty Williams what they have given her a mandate to achieve and I'm pretty sure most would give you a far simpler answer: they just want her to make a mark, to stand out as a different leader, to get people interested in Lib Dem politics, interested in politics full stop, to score genuine hits against the government, to get their voice heard, to take hold of the party and lead it from the front.

The other three party leaders know that this 37 year old mother of three looks nothing like them, sounds nothing like them. She will stand out. As Rhodri Morgan put it a little earlier, when another party elects a leader who is younger than any one of your children, then you know it's about time - maybe - to move on. Note the stubborn maybe.

But they're not afraid of her. They're not at all afraid of what she can throw at them, not afraid of the impact she will have on her party, not afraid of the impact she will have come the next time we vote.

All three leaders will be wondering, though, what this means for future coalitions. This, after all, is the woman who voted against the rainbow coalition with Plaid and the Tories last year, the woman who fought this election carrying the "rainbow wrecker" label, the woman who all the same won 60% of the leadership vote.

At the Labour Party conference in Manchester this Autumn one public affairs man and Labour supporter had it all worked out. Kirsty Williams would win, unite the party, talk coalition with Labour and Plaid would be out on their noses in no time.

I didn't believe it then and I'm no more convinced now. Let me add that his prediction at Plaid's conference in Newport back in March was that only one of the candidates - Republican or Democrat - could simply not win the US Presidency.

And that was Barack Obama.

Waiting no more

Betsan Powys | 14:36 UK time, Monday, 8 December 2008


The new leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats and the first woman to lead a political party in Wales is Kirsty Williams.

69.44% of the party's 2600 members voted, 59.9 per cent for Kirsty Williams and 40.1 per cent for Jenny Randerson.

Lib Dames a-waiting

Betsan Powys | 12:45 UK time, Monday, 8 December 2008


Their fingers are itching but Lib Dem officials over in the Wales Millennium Centre are having to hold off from counting the votes in the Welsh leadership election.

Supporters of Kirsty Wiliams and Jenny Randerson are all waiting too ... for the postman. Lib Dem rules say the ballot boxes won't be opened until midday OR until the last postal votes arrive.

So the party has rules around when precisely they can open ballot boxes but not around what happens when there's a tied vote in a crucial debate on taking the party into coalition government?

Red letter day 2

Betsan Powys | 09:46 UK time, Friday, 5 December 2008


It's been a long time coming and there are few details yet - only the one that truly matters to former Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain. The Crown Prosecution Service will not be taking any action against him over the late declaration of donations of £103,000 to the Electoral Commission.

There'll be a statement at 10am and my colleagues are already heading to Neath to talk to Mr Hain.

Until a few weeks ago I got nothing but head shaking when I asked around Westminster whether Gordon Brown might invite Peter Hain back into his cabinet. No-one believed the CPS would take action against him after all. When his name was cleared, wouldn't Number 10 be on the phone? At a time when all hands are needed at the pump wouldn't his experienced hands be pretty valuable? Most thought it unlikely.

Then Gordon Brown brought Peter Mandelson back to man the pump. I wonder if they're still so sure it's unlikely.

This statement from Peter Hain:

"I said all along that reporting some of the donations to my 2007 Labour party deputy Leader campaign late was an honest mistake. Now everyone knows that it was.

"After ten months in limbo while the inquiry took its course, I now look forward to tackling again the issues of social justice, human rights and equality as I have done for all 40 years of my political life, both outside and inside government, from anti-apartheid protester to cabinet minister."

Red letter day

Betsan Powys | 18:10 UK time, Thursday, 4 December 2008


Monday December the 8th was to have been a red letter day for all 60 Assembly Members. At least I imagine there may be one or two AMs who, sitting at their desks in Cardiff Bay, had put a note in their diary - in red ink - simply saying "Expenses published today".

A breakdown of how much AMs have been spending and on what was due to be published on Monday but not any more. Just as we start debating what to expect, who's heard what, we're told it's more likely the figures will be released during the following week now ... in other words, during recess.

One former AM is convinced that someone in Cardiff Bay is - or ought to be - getting "twitchy".

If so, they'll have to twitch a little longer and make sure they're out and about and unavailable in the constituency when the red letter day does arrive.

In the meantime make Sir Roger Jones' day.

The man chairing the independent panel reviewing AMs' expenses and allowances is on tonight's Dragon's Eye and is keen to hear from you. He wants you to have your say. He must have thought this issue, above all others, would get the ink flowing. So far, how many have replied, online at least? None.

By the way the photograph is of Cardiff Bay - with the Senedd on the extreme right (what a line) - at 3am this morning. It comes courtesy of a colleague who works some daft hours writing bulletin stories and who is, if you ask me, clearly wasted in radio.


Betsan Powys | 13:23 UK time, Wednesday, 3 December 2008


"The annual value of television output in English for Wales will have declined by £25 - £30m in real terms between 2006 and 2013, the year before the ITV licence expires".

Whose report, out today, says so? The Broadcasting Advisory Group.

Who they? There are four members: Huw Jones, former Chief Executive of S4C; Julie Barton, former editor of BBC Radio Wales; Geraint Talfan Davies, former Controller of BBC Wales, a man of many hats and Professor Kevin Morgan, Professor of Governance and Development at Cardiff University, an old hand at this task force business.

What was their task? To give the Assembly Government an idea of how you, if you're a television viewer in Wales, can get your news and watch programmes provided by someone other than the BBC. With ITV Wales news dwindling fast, they put it like this: "ensuring that English language television programmes from Wales continue to offer plurality to viewers with regard to news, current affairs and general interest programmes".

Plurality - that's where it's at. How, in Wales, should you go about it?

Here we go.

Broadcasting is not, remember, a devolved issue. It remains the responsibility of the UK government. In fact no-one wants the responsibility for it here thank you very much ... not yet anyway. So as far as any money goes, that should come from the UK government and UK tax payers says the advisory group.

How much? They recommend sticking with that figure of £25-£30m and creating a fund, one that would be divvied up by the Wales Medica Commission, a newly-established body that would be independent from government.

Independent broadcasters, existing broadcasters - S4C, Channel 4, ITV - social enterprises or any combination of the above would bid for a share of the money. They'd use it to provide things like an evening news service, a current affairs programme, documentaries or drama relating to Wales.

The advisory group also raise the possiblity of setting up a completely new channel for Wales in order to maintain distinctive programming in Wales.

Why would the UK government come up with the money? How would they be persuaded to regard Wales, in this instance, as a special case?

The group offer their own answer to that one: "The democratic and cultural deficit described in this report is of sufficient seriousness for it to command a very high level of priority and urgency in the formulation of governemnt policy".

Let me put my head above the parapet and add this: when a weekly government lobby briefing a few weeks ago started promptly at 10.15am every journalist in the room worked for one broadcaster: the BBC.

You might distrust the whole concept of lobby briefings - that, though, is another matter. On this occasion the room filled up pretty quickly with four colleagues, one each from PA, the Western Mail, the Daily Post and ITV Wales.

But was that healthy? No, it wasn't.

Calling Welsh MPs

Betsan Powys | 15:08 UK time, Tuesday, 2 December 2008


A press release arrives from Welsh Labour:

MP's not a "Rubber Stamp" - Jones

Welsh Labour's Counsel General, Carwyn Jones has said that Members of Parliament should not be expected to be a rubber stamp when it comes to Legislative Competence Orders.

Speaking in response to business questions at the Assembly, CARWYN JONES explained:

"The Government of Wales Act allocates a clearly defined role for Members of Parliament in the passage of Legislative Competence Orders. It is true that MPs are expected to examine whether it is appropriate for the Assembly to receive powers, rather that to second-guess what might be done with them, but any suggestion that they have no role in examining the devolution of power is wide of the mark.

Our parliamentary colleagues have much to offer in the way of experience and it is appropriate for them to produce reports that inform both governments on the way forward with legislation, in exactly the same way as AMs do.

"With goodwill at both ends of the M4 there is no reason to suspect that the present law-making arrangements cannot work, but we must understand that when it comes to LCOs, both MPs and AMs have a valuable role to play."

Hang on.

Welsh Labour's Counsel General? Do they have one? Isn't Carwyn Jones the Assembly Government's Counsel General?

And why feel the need to spell all of this out now ... why issue a full frontal press release from Transport House almost the minute his words are uttered in the Assembly chamber?

Is this a case of paving the way for an imminent climb-down over devolving powers in the area of affordable housing to the Assembly?

Or is he perhaps thinking more in terms of a leg-up and of those crucial votes in Westminster that could one day put him in the First Minister's seat?

Message received, Parliamentary Labour Party?

UPDATE: The Italics have caused the so-called 'furniture' to disappear from the side of the blog page. I've re-published the page without italics and added a few words that may help to enlighten confused commentators. I did say may.

Dragons, mice and lions

Betsan Powys | 10:54 UK time, Tuesday, 2 December 2008


What's the biggest story in Wales today?

Andrew Davies finally lifting the lid on the millions of pounds that make up the Strategic Capital Investment Fund?
What is SCIF? It's a big pot of money for which the Finance Minister held the key and for which the Assembly Government, in these tough economic times, now hold out much hope.

He always intended to dole out £50m this year, £100m next year and go out with a bang of £250 the year after that. But he had a cunning plan: to spend it strategically.

In other words so far, the government had failed to do that. No more. Andrew Davies and a group of experts would scrutinise each bid for a slice of capital from each department, consider it in a strategic, cross-cutting kind of way and spend the money in a way that gets the biggest bang for the Welsh buck.

Was it a bit like Dragons' Den we wondered?

Did each Minister venture into the Finance Minister's den with a trestle table, a few props strategically hidden under a black cloth to be whipped off at just the right moment to win him over? A living statue or two? A bit of rap to make their bid stand out?

And did he sit there in a black leather chair with £350m on the table next to him, fingering it thoughtfully, toying with each candidate, scoffing at their projections for efficiency savings in the year 2010-2011? "I'm out!"

Andrew Davies seemed to like that thought but no, it had been rather more prosaic than that. Ministers put their bids forward, he discussed them with his expert committee, took an overview of priorities and doled out the money to 19 projects. Business cases haven't been finalised and the details announced so far are sketchy. "£70m towards a major investment to enhance hospital services in Swansea" wouldn't get past Peter Jones and the gang. Nick Bourne and the gang point out they'd like to know more.

What are the headings? Regeneration - tick. Climate change - tick. Sustainable transport - tick. Skills - tick. Resilience? Positive lifestyles? Sounds a bit Dragons' Den to me.

And what's the upshot?

See above. The government, as far as I can see, still intend to spend £50m this year, £100m in the next and have kept back just £50 of the final tranche of £250m in case disaster strikes.

What they have done today is announce early where the money will go. That means plans can be put in train to attract matching millions from the public, private and voluntary sectors. It means the money will be spent sooner.

Or would you plump for Ieuan Wyn Jones' statement this afternoon to the Assembly on The Rail Programme and re-prioritisation of the Trunk Road programme?

A vote for the laying of the final budget? Or even Mike German's very last appearance at First Minister's Questions as Lib Dem leader? I can think of two who'd vote for that.

But how about looking further north - to Scotland and the publication of the Calman Commission's interim report?

Cautious? Yes. Read all about it here and here.

Two quick thoughts: firstly Sir Kenneth's clear conclusion that "devolution certainly is working." Make note. He means, I imagine, that devolution in Scotland is working for Scotland. It has been a success in Scotland. I wonder what he'd say about Scottish devolution viewed from England, the bit of the consitutional jigsaw you suspect is actually at the heart of this whole exercise?

And follow the money. The Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, has already dismissed the Commission's report - which rules out any thoughts of handing full financial pwers to Scotland - as "a constitutional mouse". What Scotland needs, he says, are financial powers to build "a lion economy".

Prepare for battle. And bear in mind that any proposals for a needs assessment of Scottish spending levels in the future would of course be a UK wide assessment of needs.

And that means us.

Laws and Sausages

Betsan Powys | 15:16 UK time, Monday, 1 December 2008


"There are two things you should never let people see how they're made. Laws and sausages."

The world weary observation from President Bartlet's chief of staff Leo McGarry, the late John Spencer, as he despatches his deputy Josh Lyman to the Hill for another session of congressional pork barrelling and arm-twisting to get a piece of legislation through.

I'm no expert on The West Wing. Neither, come to that, do I know much about the making of sausages. As a vegetarian for over twenty years I steered well clear of them - but few people who've spent time in and around the process of making laws come away feeling it's either a simple, transparent, or particularly democratic process.

Since last May, of course, the National Assembly's been making primary legislation - Measures - and also receiving new powers from Westminster via the Legislative Competence Order process. And, of course, with added powers come higher stakes. We're talking about actual, serious real world changes in areas like the NHS, school transport, and children's education. And the higher the stakes, the greater the pressure within the process.

The most high-profile Measure making its way through the system at the moment is in that last field - 14-19 education. This is the Assembly Government's Learning and Skills measure, which sets a legal framework for a major educational shake up, giving teenagers the right to choose from a much wider variety of courses in their local areas, both from their own schools and colleges. It's just finishing its Stage One phase, where it's been examined both by the Finance Committee and by a dedicated Measure committee.

The Finance Committee report certainly didn't pull its punches.

The Measure, it said, should go no further until the Government come back with accurate estimates of how much it will cost. What's more it said little or no work appeared to have been done by the Government on these estimates. I'd call it a D- report, with 'must do better' written in red ink. The Measure committee's report is due out tomorrow and although word on the street is that it's been revised to be less critical of the detail of the proposals, it still won't make particularly pleasant reading for the Skills Minister John Griffiths, who's charged with piloting the Measure through.

But back to the laws and sausages. There was an intriguing paragraph in the Welsh Conservative leader Nick Bourne's letter of support to Shadow Immigration Minister Damian Green, following his arrest at the end of last week.

Following the expressions of solidarity, there came this. "We must clearly remain ever vigilant. For example, just this week there were veiled threats to the Finance Committee chair threatening her with removal if she did not modify her committee report. Naturally she refused."

Hello? What might this have to do with alleged leaks of Home Office documents? The answer - not very much - but the Tories are sending out a message. The committee chair Angela Burns felt under significant pressure to water down her report, which she refused.

Now where might that pressure have come from? Her fellow committee members? I don't think so. There are no stories of huge flare-ups as the report was being finalised. According to the Commission the report was agreed by committee members, which doesn't sound particularly acrimonious. So if the threats referred to in the letter didn't come from within the committee, they must have come from without. And who has an interest in seeing the Measure progress smoothly? Well, the Assembly Government for one. Ms Burns, we're told, is keeping a dignified silence on where the threats may have came from, but is said to have been left "bruised" by the process (and she's proved herself no shrinking violet since her election).

This is the part of the sausage factory the public don't see - in fact, it's the part hardly anyone sees. Conversations in corridors, unminuted meetings, cups of tea. But where does the process of compromises, assurances and agreements essential to moving the process along stop, and the darker world of veiled threats, as Mr Bourne puts it, begin?

I'll leave that question in the air.

But the very fact it's being talked about shows that the stakes are higher these days, and that Ministers really do care what is said about them.

At the same time, can anyone think of a recent flagship education policy which blew up in the Government's face due to inadequate costings? Sometimes it's important for people to point out the need for firm foundations, no matter how unpalatable to those in power.

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