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Archives for February 2009

Out on a limb

Betsan Powys | 00:12 UK time, Friday, 27 February 2009


It's late but the job is done.

Nick Bourne has reshuffled his shadow cabinet and Jonathan Morgan, the man seen by many as the obvious choice to replace Mr Bourne, certainly the most openly critical of his leadership, is out on a limb. What was that about leaving it too late?

He has no portfolio but will be nominated as chair of "the very influential Audit Committee". A strong adjective to describe a man who is now in a much weakened position.

The ultra loyal William Graham has gone too. He keeps his position on the Assembly Commission and the money that goes with that job but the role of Chief Whip along with heritage and business manager has gone to Alun Cairns. He'll speak on the economy alongside David Melding. Why two? Because it "underlines just how seriously Welsh Conservatives take the challenge of helping Wales emerge in a strong position from the recession".

Andrew R.T Davies takes over at health, Paul Davies education and the Welsh language. Darren Millar takes on local government, Angela Burns the environment portfolio but will continue to chair the Finance Committee. Mark Isherwood will speak on social justice and Brynle Williams rural affairs so not, after all, transport. Was the former fuel protester ever offered that particular job? "Can't comment" comes the answer.

So no job for Jonathan Morgan and no doubt either who's in charge, for now.

Marmite First Minister?

Betsan Powys | 18:14 UK time, Thursday, 26 February 2009


marmite.JPGSo who's laughing now?

The Clown Prince of Wales , that's who, a Marmite-love-him-or-hate-him First Minister as some have portrayed him in the past.If so, today's poll would suggest we're fans of the stuff you spread on toast.

65% of those questioned said they felt Rhodri Morgan had done a good job. Only 21% thought he'd done badly - pretty remarkable figures for any politician on his way out.

Pretty daunting figures for a Labour politician on his or her way in to the job too and most daunting of all for the Welsh Labour party, who can put off for not much longer the job of finding someone to fill those shoes.

[One poll, two threads - cheeky I know but how often does the boss foot the bill for an opinion poll in Wales?]

Mind the gap.

Betsan Powys | 17:01 UK time, Thursday, 26 February 2009


Ok, so it's a snapshot.

It suggests plenty but proves nothing. It's an opinion poll that has sought the views of a thousand people in Wales and no more but boy, it's good to have it.

You'll find the details here.

The headline? More than half - 52% - of the thousand people questioned say they'd vote for the Assembly to have full law-making powers. As far as we can tell - and there's been some digging - it's the first time the yes vote to this sort of question in this sort of poll has passed the 50% mark.

But hang on.

The result this time last year? A yes vote of 49%. So let's note the symbolism but recognise that of more significance is that gap of 13% between the yes and no votes: 52% to 39%. The gap is growing year on year. Last year it was 49% to 42%. I gather another poll conducted recently (which may be work done for the All Wales Convention, maybe not) found exactly the same gap between yes and no.

But enough of a gap to trigger a referendum? Enough of a shift to tempt the politicians to go for it? Absolutely not.

The margin is growing - and in your comments I look forward to see how many concentrate on the 'slowly', how many on the 'surely'.

Knives out?

Betsan Powys | 12:23 UK time, Thursday, 26 February 2009


Come back at 5pm and I promise you'll be awash with figures. It's that rare day - the day we publish the results of an opinion poll in Wales, on the future of Wales.

I wonder though if it's a good day as well, to reshuffle your entire cabinet? Nick Bourne apparently thinks so. Welsh Conservatives "have nothing to say on the matter" but there are loud - and extremely angry - rumours coming from the third floor that there's a major reshuffle of the shadow cabinet underway.

Let's put it like this. It sounds as though the man who was gunning for the leader before Christmas, Jonathan Morgan, is no longer in the health job. Having refused the education portfolio, I'm not clear he's in any job at all.

If the news is a surprise to you, more significant is that it's turning out to be a big surprise to those involved too. There are Tory AMs seething, describing the mood as "appalling" and all the signs that today may turn into a day of long knives.


Expect an official announcement tomorrow morning.
Expect a pattern of out with the old, in with the new.
Expect answers to some obvious questions: has Tory leader Nick Bourne done enough to pacify the young guns who were out to get him? Will Jonathan Morgan regret not having plunged the knife in deeper when he had half a chance?
And expect confirmation of an appointment that would put that of a vegetarian as Agriculture Minister in the shade: a former fuel protester taking on the transport portfolio?

Ivan Cameron

Betsan Powys | 09:50 UK time, Wednesday, 25 February 2009


Last week in Barry David Cameron was asked why he'd voted in favour of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.

He was asked the question by someone who was clearly passionately, genuinely against the Bill, against any form, as he saw it, of tampering with nature. The question was posed politely and calmly but there was no disguising the strength of feeling behind it.

Mr Cameron didn't look at all surprised and was equally calm in explaining why he'd voted as he did.

It was about Ivan, about watching a 6 year old son who was sometimes - regularly - racked with pain, who had cerebral palsy, suffered horrendous epileptic fits and about asking himself as a father whether it was wrong to try anything that might lead to more understanding of conditions like his son's.

"I just found I couldn't say no", he said "and so I voted yes".

His answer made an impression, even among those who remained opposed to his policies and his party.

Ivan was taken ill last night and died in the early hours. To David, Samantha, Nancy and Arthur Cameron, deepest sympathy.


Betsan Powys | 10:00 UK time, Tuesday, 24 February 2009


I once found myself in a pretty sticky situation in Bosnia.

I was working for HTV Wales, based in Split but determined to be the first Welsh journalist to get to Bugojno in Bosnia to interview Royal Welch Fusiliers whose colleagues and in some cases, brothers were being held hostage in the Muslim town of Gorazde.

The Australian cameraman and I set off at dawn, having been advised that setting off early gave us the best chance of making it in one piece .The thinking went like this: the snipers would have been drinking a lot to fend off the cold of the night and wouldn't be in any condition to aim straight. I thought how pleased my mother would be to know that, as we headed off.

We'd nearly made it when we came to yet another checkpoint, the last we hoped before arriving in Bogojno. We'd been through countless checkpoints already, all manned by Croats who'd waved us through with our countless accreditation papers and press passes, including in my case a HTV Wales pass.

But this time, as I flashed my pass their faces fell, the guns came out and so did I from the car pretty sharpish. This was a Muslim checkpoint and too late, I realised the HTV - as they saw it - stood for Hvratska TV, Croatian television. Thankfully they let me explain before we were finally waved through to meet eighteen year old soldiers from Caernarfon and Bangor who wished they'd never seen the huge former shoe factory that had been their home for what felt like far too long.

It was the Serbs who'd taken their fellow soldiers hostage in Gorazde but though we tried more than once, I never made it to the Serb-held areas Bosnia to tell the story first hand.

And now comes the news that supporters of the work of the All Wales Convention owe the Serba - and the Russians - a vote of thanks.

How come?

The Chair of the Convention, Sir Emyr Jones Parry, will not be heading off to Bosnia after all. Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko is Bosnia's new EU and international high representative, "pending approval by other members of the country's peace council" say Reuters.

That's because the Russians, according to Bosnian media, were against appointing a British diplomat to do the job because Bosnia's Serb Republic wouldn't accept a British diplomat. Reuters report that the "Bosnian Serbs see Britons as biased against Serbs after British diplomat Paddy Ashdown, who had served as international high representative in Bosnia from 2002-2005, sacked a number of Serb officials and took measures to strengthen the state."

So, thanks to the Russians, Sir Emyr gets on with the job here.

On Thursday we'll add to the debate by revealing the results of a poll on further powers for the National Assembly conducted for BBC Wales. Some seem to think they have an idea what it says. That would show a certain genius, a Gail Trimble-like genius, given that not only have we not been told yet what the level of support is for full law-making powers for the Assembly.

The pollsters are only half way through the job of posing the question.

Me and my shadow

Betsan Powys | 16:47 UK time, Monday, 23 February 2009


Annable Goldie, leader of the Scottish Tories, has reportedly been invited by David Cameron to attend shadow Cabinet meetings in London once a month.

Why? An attempt, perhaps, to build links between Holyrood and Westminster, to bring Edinburgh and London closer together in the run-up to the General Election. Her title? Shadow First Minister.

Here's a sign, say Scottish commentators, that Mr Cameron does want to make devolution work effectively.

So what of Nick Bourne? Has the same invitation come his way?

Mr Bourne has been to Shadow Cabinet meetings several times in the past I'm told and will continue to attend "as and when".

By the way a thought: is it better to be Shadow First Minister or real life Leader of the Opposition?

A sheep is a sheep

Betsan Powys | 11:45 UK time, Monday, 23 February 2009


sheep.jpgA sheep is a sheep: it's official.

Thanks to exemplary co-operation between Rural Affairs Minister Elin Jones and the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, a report on the Assembly Government's bid for power over red meat - yes, salami slicing taken almost literally - has led to unanimity and clarity on one thing at least.

A sheep is a sheep.

Section 3 of the Select Committee's report on the Red Meat Legislative Competence Order is worth a read. "Cattle" and "pigs" are both defined in the proposed Order. "Cattle" means "bovine animals, including bison and buffalo", while "pigs" means "porcine animals, including wild boar and other feral pigs".

But sheep?

"There is, however, no definition of "sheep" within the proposed Order. The Minister
for Rural Affairs in the Welsh Assembly Government, Elin Jones AM, confirmed in oral
evidence to the Committee that the meaning of "sheep" is sufficiently clear to make any
further definition unnecessary: "Sheep require no definition because a sheep is a sheep".

It's good to know.

Lattes, debts and defeats

Betsan Powys | 08:03 UK time, Monday, 23 February 2009


Half term and recess at the National Assembly comes to an end and in a finaI flourish, we turned yesterday into a day out in Aberystwyth. Ah yes, we know how to live.

A lot has changed since my student days in the 1980s - the view from the Arts Centre is the same, the price of a latte something else. Come to think of it, I don't think we'd even heard of a latte back then. Milky coffee in the Penguin or the Cabin did us fine and if we felt sophisticated, a slice of tahini shortbread from the Graig Cafe. My friend from the valleys, the one with a car, the attitude and the opportunity to get out of Aber to find out about exotic things like tahini put me on to that.

We hadn't heard of lattes but then, we hadn't heard of student debt either. We queued to pick up our grant cheques from the county council and left Aberystwyth with BAs and a clean-ish financial slate.

Ieuan Wyn Jones left Aberystwyth this weekend with something else - a bloody nose.

It was delivered by the national council who made it clear they won't buy at least one of the compromises born out of coalition government, the one that says non-means tested student subsidy will be abolished before the next Assembly election. They don't like it, they won't buy it and voted in favour of a motion put forward by the Westminster group reaffirming the party's opposition to top up fees and calling for any decision on a change of policy to be deferred until after the next Assemby election.

Cue the leader and Deputy First Minister spelling out to his own party that he wouldn't be able to deliver such a change in the government's plans. The coalition government's plans are that current fee levels will be maintained until 2009/10 but after that, non-means tested grants go. That means fewer people get grants but some of them who do get grants - because they can prove they really need grants - will get rather more in their pockets.

Ministers put forward an alternative motion, one that took account of the National Council's unease and pledged to review the issue. It was defeated.

So what?

What can the National Council actually do to hold the leadership to account? We're still trawling through the party's constitution looking for a definitive answer to that question. In the meantime this sentence is worth noting: "the group (of AMs) will decide on the policy line to be taken by members of the group in relation to matters being considered by the National assembly but within the framework of:

1.2i the policies of Plaid Cymru - the Party of Wales as decided by Conference or National Council".

Work that one out.

Is there an appetite to deliver something more meaningful than embarrassment for the leadership? No sign of that.

Is there a realistic prospect of Ieuan Wyn Jones and his Ministers trying to sell a different deal, a third way on student finances to each other, let alone their fellow members of cabinet? Let's see.

Is this simply a message in a bottle lobbed at the leadership by a party that knows some coalition compromises will be tougher to defend on the doorsteps than others come 2011? Adam Price MP puts it like this on his blog: "The Labour Party is entitled to their policy but they have no right to impose it unilaterally on us as this was not envisaged in One Wales".

On the doorsteps of Aberystwyth and every other Aber and Llan come 2011 it would probably sound more like "they made us do it".

Direct from Cameron

Betsan Powys | 00:19 UK time, Tuesday, 17 February 2009


First the Cameron Direct statistics: 160 people in the audience in Barry Comprehensive School Hall; 20 questions answered in bang on an hour by one man who when he took off his jacket knew immediately who he reminded us of: "Oh it's not a Tony Blair moment or anything".

Number of seconds before the first Gavin and Stacey joke? I made it seven. "Thanks to the Headteacher and his wife for the cakes. If I'd eaten them all I'd be the size of Smithy by now". Few in the audience got it. Why? Because despite living in and around Barry, they didn't look as though Nessa was their type. They didn't look, nor sound hostile either.

That had been the plan. Mr Cameron's office had asked, said a party member and candidate who there to see how it's done, for a hostile audience, "the more hostile the better." That's been the idea of Cameron Direct nights - confront, hear it as it is, charm the socks off them. The audience members I spoke to beforehand were not Conservative voters. They were, as advertised, anything but. There were Plaid protesters outside, one or two who seemed to have come into the hall. There were school pupils who had friends who were Communists, others who were committed Labour supporters.

But hostile? Not so as you'd notice.

The Cameron Direct backdrop, on its first visit to Wales, has what look like three targets positioned just behind the leader's head but there were few bullets coming his way. The first question started with the words "To what extent do you think the government has failed both young and old people ..." which gave a brisk, relaxed Mr Cameron his first chance to talk about a different "Conservative means, Conservative approach to delivery".

He cantered through prescription charges, bonuses for bankers, British jobs for British workers, woodland habitats, quantitative easing ("not quite yet in the league of pushing money down Barry High Street in a wheelbarrow Zimbabwe style ... to buy Welshcakes"), banks who won't lend, why he voted in favour of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, the threatened closure of a local care home by the council, irresponsible parents, MPs' "lush" final salary pensions, the barrage ("our excellent candidate Alun Cairns and I don't quite see eye to eye on this one ...") bias at the BBC ("a tad left of centre but I don't complain too much about that") and devolution.

Mr Cameron had told me earlier that he'd read Lord Roberts of Conwy's report on further devolution for the Assembly like this: it had showed that the case for further devolution has not been proven and that what concerns people are lost jobs, lack of credit, "not endless tinkering over processes". He had a word for it: processology. I'd asked when that interim report would become a final report? It is, apparently "a living document" that will evolve as circumstances change.

But in Barry Mr Cameron went a decisive step further.

The context first: he was asked whether, for Wales, a full parliament with tax raising powers was the answer to the its current economic difficulties. No, said Mr Cameron. Creating a parliament doesn't, after all, create money. Barry Comp's headmaster might be adept at spinning money out of cobwebs but create a parliament, he said and what you get are more politicans, higher salaries, bigger pensions.

But he didn't stop there. I wrote it down. "No, I don't support the idea of a full parliament with much more power".

I turned to a spin doctor to check I'd heard right. Doesn't 'much more power' sound like primary law making powers? "Context" he mouthed. "Context". Granted, Mr Cameron had been asked whether a parliament with tax raising powers would solve our economic woes and didn't think so but neither, according to the words he spoke, does he support the idea of a full parliament with much more power. Which begs an obvious question: what does Nick Bourne, who does, make of that?

But journalists weren't allowed to ask questions. It was back to whether England needs a Commissioner for older people, Mr Cameron's cooking skills as trumpeted by Vogue magazine, appreticeships, student fees and it was goodbye.

Warm applause, an audience most of whom will say good things about him to their friends - "I know he just wants our votes but he seems more genuine that most of them" - job done.

Tidy. There, I can do it too.

S is for ...

Betsan Powys | 17:40 UK time, Monday, 16 February 2009


Now where were we?

Sir Emyr Jones Parry, it turns out, intends to wear two hats if the second is offered.

The jobless figures in Wales hit 100,000. As the bulletins spewed out figures all day, the family in whose kitchen I was sitting argued about numbers and noughts. 2 million without jobs, one said. No, I heard three. Four million they said this morning. Sitting in their kitchen, it felt less than important. The point was that they were convinced, more than ever, that they will never work. "There's nothing out there" is a mantra now given a stamp of approval by newsreaders.

And David Cameron is back in Wales, this time planning to meet as many 'S's as possible. 'S's? Tell a Conservative canvasser that you plan to vote, well, not for them and I was once told you're marked down as an 'S'. You know, a Socialist. Well tonight Mr Cameron wants to confront difficult questions, he wants politics in the round, politics in the raw with an audience of 'S's in Barry Comprehensive.

His messages for them so far today? That the Welsh economy has fared badly for the past ten years, that Rhodri Morgan and his government are at fault and that you're fed-up with talk of further devolution. It's about proper jobs, not processes. Make what you have work. Yes, he'd cut the number of Welsh MPs because cutting the cost of politics is necessary and important, yes, he'd definitely have a Welsh Secretary in his cabinet and yes, Nick Bourne did the right thing in paying back to the public purse the cost of his i-Pod.

Oh and thank you to those few who let me join their club in the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, the "I can't watch" club who pace up and down the concrete corridors where the pitch is out of sight but the groans and screams are audible enough. "You mean you can't watch either?" asked one rugby supporter incredulously, as though watching politicians should have inured me to the brutal contest that was the match. It hasn't.

Boris Johnson was swept away by the "bone on bone" battle he saw on Saturday. Off to find out whether his boss comes across any such hostility in Barry.

Bosnia bound?

Betsan Powys | 00:01 UK time, Wednesday, 11 February 2009


Perhaps it's the thought of having to travel up to North Wales, leading the All Wales Convention, that has put Sir Emyr Jones Parry off the job.

Perhaps it's something else.

Perhaps he intends, somehow, to keep sitting in the Chair for some time at least but a story that was spotted here and is confirmed here suggests Sir Emyr may be off to Bosnia.

Now if that's news to you, you might be interested to know that we're getting the distinct impression it could be news to one or two key people in the Welsh Assembly Government too.

Neither I nor my colleagues have yet spoken to Sir Emyr but he would, presumably, have had some say in the matter before his name was put forward for the post of EU Special Representative in Bosnia. Whether the position is eventually offered to him or not then - and we're told we'll know in around two weeks' time - he was clearly up for it. That, in itself, is significant.

If he is offered the post and accepts it, wouldn't that leave the All Wales Convention holed below the waters it is testing?

Near misses and direct hits

Betsan Powys | 15:59 UK time, Tuesday, 10 February 2009


Yesterday I bet you all winced when you watched these shots of near misses on a level crossing at Llangadog.

Today I bet you would have winced had you watched First Minister's Questions. No near misses here, rather direct hits. Nick Bourne took the full force of asking the wrong question, based on the wrong information to a First Minister who swept him aside.

Why, asked Mr Bourne, had business leaders not had a chance to speak at the Economic Summit in Broughton on Friday?

Rhodri Morgan was picking up pace as he came down the tracks. What tittle tattle! He was in the chair himself and distinctly remembered inviting representatives from business to talk. Come on Nick, he goaded, you've got to do better than that. Balderdash!

Why oh why, asked Mr Bourne, had Jane Hutt, the Minister in charge of Lifelong Learning and Skills, not been at the Summit? Why wasn't she there to answer questions?

Then came the moment of impact. Bad news for Mr Bourne. She had been there. What's more she'd taken part, answered questions, the lot. A waste of two questions. 2-0 to the First Minister. "Poppycock! Not good enough Nick" he blared. The staunchest of Mr Bourne's supporters sank in their seats.

"When the boys have stopped arguing over who was or wasn't there ..." It was Kirsty Williams' turn. More bad news for Mr Bourne. Her questions were sharp, useful and scored direct hits. Had the Assembly Government talked to banks about the availability of credit? Had the First Minister made representations to the EU on state aid rules that govern the interest rates at which Finance Wales - who are there to help small and medium size businesses - can borrow? Would he do either of these things before the next Summit?

There was no answer from the First Minister.

Mr Bourne had his near miss before Christmas. Today's direct hit will have done nothing to make his position safer.

Going back

Betsan Powys | 21:26 UK time, Monday, 9 February 2009


Back in the year 2000 I got to know a family who live in one of the most deprived areas of Wales. Let's be honest, I got to know them only because they live in one of the most deprived areas of Wales.

Back then the National Assembly was in its infancy and in its red brick home. The debating chamber was a familiar sight on news bulletins the family didn't really watch. Labour had yet to forge a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in a deal the family were unlikely to care about. Rhodri Morgan - yes, Mum and Dad at the very least would know of him - and his minority administration were going it alone, determined that tackling the health and social inequalities between different areas, between different social groups, between different families in Wales should be a priority.

And so there was a new policy initiative about to be launched on the block: Communities First. As the script put it back in 2000: "Their (the Assembly Government's) plan is to tackle deprivation head on in the hope of forging a healthier Wales ... What the Assembly wants is for families like this one to expect far more for future generations than just to manage".

The family, who'd agreed to take part in a programme looking at health inequities in particular, were managing but no more. They weren't aware that they were living in a deprived area but I've just checked and their area of the Cynon Valley is still up there - or down there - with the most deprived Lower Super Output Areas (LSOAs) in Rhondda Cynon Taf and in the top 10% most deprived category in Wales.

Communities First was a long term plan of course and at its heart was an aim that was spot on: to spend money where communities needed it spent, for the Assembly Government to listen to what people told them they wanted, rather than tell them what they'd heard before.

So nine years on, with the Assembly celebrating its tenth birthday, it's time to go back and to see how the family has fared.

Before I go up to see them this week I know one thing for certain: that in his most recent report the Chief Medical Officer in Wales stated that health inequities remain in Wales. They remain significant in Wales. Overall life expectancy is on the up, deaths from heart disease are decreasing, the health of the nation is improving. But the same report makes it clear that inequalities between different areas, between different social groups, between different families in Wales are not decreasing.

The programme started with shots of the young Nigel running like the wind on the mountain above Perthcelyn. It ended with the obvious: "Where you're born can dictate how long you live ... How well you live plays a part in how young you die".

So this week it's back to meet the family to find out how many have been born since the last time I met them, how well they've lived and whether Communities First has reached out and caught them in its net or not.

Today I've talked of nothing but bankers and bonuses, the Home Secretary's "within-the-rules" expenses claim and the insolvency threat to the restaurant at Llanerch Vineyard: "It's a sign of the times". I've discussed Freedom of Information requests for information regarding Welsh MPs' expenses. I've talked about the methodology of quantifying how much you have appreciated - or otherwise - Rhodri Morgan as First Minister.

If the family want to talk about any of that, I'll be listening. In fact from Wednesday onwards, I'll be doing little but listening to whatever they want to talk about and hoping to learn something of what a decade of devolution has done for them.

Then there were seven

Betsan Powys | 15:20 UK time, Wednesday, 4 February 2009


Ok, so not everyone who visits the Senedd leaves impressed with what they've seen. The building? That usually goes down pretty well but the debating that goes on in it?

I give you two former Cardiff students, Steve Lowe and Alan McArthur, now authors who visited the Senedd last year on their "Quest for Britishness". They came, they saw, they were bored.

"It's as if the Welsh local councils have devolved upwards all the most tedious bits of their business ... 'What do you think they'll be debating now?" ask the councillors of Caerphilly Borough Council as their tray of drinks arrives in a sunny pub garden. 'Bargoed relief road, I expect. For half an hour!' Then they all laugh like drains.

What we're saying here is: the Welsh Assembly is tedious. At one point, a party of 50 or so schoolchildren trooped into the gallery and sat down. About three and a half minutes later, they all tropped out of their national debating chamber, none the wiser. None the wiser, but bored out of their ****** minds ... So this is the bright new devolved democracy, is it? Because to our eyes it looked - sorry about this - just ... "

I'll leave it there but let's just say the language is unparliamentary.

So was Conservative Health Spokesperson Jonathan Morgan's according to Plaid's Leanne Wood in the chamber this afternoon. He inquired after the health of Labour Deputy Minister for Skills John Griffiths, so concerned was he by his "schizophrenic attitude" - claiming skills to be crucial to any chance Wales has to emerge fitter and stronger when the economic upturn comes, while cutting sixth form and Further Education College budgets by over 7%.

She was overruled but Mr Griffiths was pelted from all directions. He wasn't helped by the timing. AMs had just debated a report from the Childen and Young Person's committee and heard a warning from Labour's Huw Lewis that they had promised much but done too little for families and for children trapped in poverty. "Damaged children don't recover" reverberated around the chamber long after he'd made the point.

So what possible sense was there, asked the Conservatives, in talking about upskilling and reskilling, in trumpeting skills as the vehicle to drive us out of this recession, then very carefully calculating what colleges need to continue doing their job. Then cutting it by 7.43%?

"So much for caring. So much for social justice from this government" from Andrew RT Davies was followed by any number of direct quotes from Labour ministers - including 'London Labour' Ministers as Plaid have taken to putting it - emphasising the crucial role further education must play in a time of recession. The Lib Dems were ready with their figures. How was it that one college in the North East of England had been given £60m, asked Jenny Randerson, more than the Assembly Government has spent on the whole sector in Wales over some years?

Plaid's Janet Ryder appeared. Was she going to intervene, to speak out against the Labour Plaid government, just as she'd taken to voting against their policies recently? Apparently not. She may have resigned as the party's education spokesperson but not to shout from the backbenches. She left the chamber. Her successor Nerys Evans took over. She pointed a finger at the settlement from the "London government". She praised the ReAct and ProAct schemes and the £68m they'd be channelling into reskilling and apprenticeships. But to Tory cheers she went on: that didn't justify these huge cuts in further education. They made no sense. The government had to think again.

"It's wrong Minister!" It was Darren Millar's turn, the Shane Williams of the Tory benches - he gets up, takes up the attack, the crowd perk up a bit and listen.

There wasn't a crowd though. Not even schoolchildren on their best behaviour. There were nine of us in the gallery watching as John Griffiths came back at them. The government was, he said, in a "tight, challenging public spending situation". But what about that £68m the government has put into the skills economy, a fifth of which could go into FE colleges if they're prepared "to show flexibility?" What about the deprivation uplift, the dialogue the government was still having with colleges and what about Cameron's Conservatives and their plans to cut public spending on an unimaginable scale?

It was their debate so Bourne's Conservatives got the last word. Andrew RT Davies speaks plainly. Labour's response was dismissed in seven words, one each for those of us now left in the gallery. "It was the usual rant, it was".

It was a decent debate.

The camera below us whizzed on its circular track to focus on the next politician to speak and the next debate: personal debt in Wales. The gallery emptied.

Mopping up

Betsan Powys | 16:29 UK time, Tuesday, 3 February 2009


I'm not sure what the Welsh word for "tosh" is.

The Culture Minister probably knows if anyone does but since Alun Ffred Jones was answering a question in English in plenary a few moments ago, he could stick with "tosh".

What is tosh? In his view, the Daily Mail's version of the Assembly Government's bid for powers over the Welsh language.

He said it with some gusto, adding the Mail "probably has some virtues". "Name one" shouted someone. He chose not to. Instead, he carried on putting away the full-tosses being dealt by all parties, enjoying what Conservative David Melding called the "precious" level of consensus in the chamber. They must all have read the Mail this morning. Unity is strength.

Mr Melding's boss, Nick Bourne, tried out some Welsh as if to prove "that" i-Pod had been worth every penny.

But as "that" language LCO started on its journey, I wonder whether AMs had also read this over breakfast. If they did, what do they make of it? It's the Government Response to the Welsh Affairs Committee's Seventh Report of Session 2007-08. Perfect with tea and toast if ever so slightly drier than the Mail but it'll be of interest to anyone who still cares about that other LCO, the one that dealt with the transfer of powers over Affordable Housing.

A quick recap: the Assembly Government asked for the power to end tenants' right to buy council homes in areas of extreme housing pressure. The Welsh Affairs Committee weren't convinced that's what they really wanted at all. After all what they'd said they wanted originally was the power to suspend the right to buy, not abolish it. Did they really want the power to abolish it? Yes, said the committee scrutinising the LCO, yes, we do.

Shum mishtake shurely said the Welsh Affairs Select Committee. That bit about 'ending' the right to buy was an unintentional consequence of the way you'd drafted it. Bad advice guys. Not your fault. It can be put right though.

The result? The powers will be devolved but the Welsh Secretary will have a veto on the matter. Ministers will only acknowledge that word "veto" in private by the way. In public it's all about 'agreement' and 'a sensible way forward'. In his letter to the Chairman of the Committee, published this morning, Paul Murphy calls it a "significant change".

But if AMs did read on, I wonder whether they noticed a later paragraph, one that refers to other changes recommended by the committee. Mr Murphy writes "I agree with these conclusions, but consider that they relate more closely to the detail of any legislation brought forward as a result of the Order being made than to the drafting of the Order itself. In think it more appropriate therefore for the Welsh Assembly Government to consider these conclusions in the context of drafting a proposed Assembly Measure. I have drawn the Committee's conclusions, and my support for them, to the First Minister's attention".

In other words - the Committee can only recommend alterations to your bid for extra powers. How you use those powers is up to you. But in this instance I agree with the Committee so when you come to drawing up actual laws, I expect you'll bear that in mind, won't you Rhodri?

So what?

So it's just worth noting what looks like the Welsh Affairs Committee's influence on future measures and so another little chapter is added to the convoluted story of the process of transferring powers from Westminster to the Assembly.

Fire alarms and false alarms

Betsan Powys | 19:04 UK time, Monday, 2 February 2009


On with the scrutiny then, though not before this morning's so-called Technical Briefing in the Senedd - where we get to ask what we think are clever questions and officials get to sigh loudly before answering them - was interrupted by a fire alarm.

That it was a false alarm turned out to be good news. That the announcement telling us so was in English only? Not so good.

"You never know. They may even give us the powers to make sure our own services are bilingual" muttered the official who didn't want anything to go wrong today.

So who'll have the job of carrying out the pre-legislative scrutiny on the Welsh Language LCO? The membership of the new "Legislation Committee Number 5" could be crucial after all.

The names we've heard mentioned are Labour's Alun Davies and Lesley Griffiths, Plaid's Leanne Wood, Mark Isherwood and Darren Millar for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrat Mick Bates.

Who'll chair? "A pipe-smoking North Walian" is the clue. Either Lesley Griffiths has adopted some strange habits or it's ... Better not, just in case his wife doesn't know he smokes ...

And finally ...

Betsan Powys | 12:40 UK time, Sunday, 1 February 2009


... here it is.

We've wondered, we've made informed guesses.

You've already spelled out your views on the need to impose duties on any part of the private sector with regard to the Welsh language.

Now the LCO, 6 pages long - 3 in Welsh, 3 in English - is sitting on my desk. We're as certain as we can be it's the real thing so on your marks, get set ...

First this:

(1) Part 1 of Schedule 5 to the 2006 Act is amended in accordance with this article. (2) In field 20 (Welsh language), insert -

"Matter 20.1
Promoting or facilitating the use of the Welsh language; and the treatment of the Welsh and English languages on the basis of equality.

("On the basis of equality" - does that mean "equally" or does it point to wriggle room?)

This matter does not include the use of the Welsh language in courts.
This matter does not include imposing duties on persons other than the following -

"The following" are along the lines we predicted: public authorities, those with contracts to provide services to public authorities, companies who receive public money amounting to £200,000 (any public money whatsoever by the looks of it) or more in a financial year; social landlords, regulators, companies who supply gas, water or electricity services, postal services and post offices, railway services, telecommunication services, ... far too many for some, far foo few for others. No supermarkets. No chippies. Oh but sewerage services are there and worth noting that "telecommunication services" doesn't include broadcasting, radio or television.

Let's move on:

Matter 20.2
Provision about or in connection with the freedom of persons wishing to use the Welsh language to do so with one another (including any limitations upon it".

Recognise the Thomas Cook clause?

Now word about a Commissioner but then "Matter 20.1" clearly devolves the power to create that powerful role.

No mention of sanctions, other than the final words, which we've already dubbed the "get-out clause" for Whitehall departments: "... any functions so conferred or imposed may not be enforced against Ministers of the Crown by means of criminal offences".

Does that mean the Chief Executive of, let's say, Vodaphone or Orange could face a fine if the company doesn't comply but a Minister of the Crown would be treated differently? Do they have what looks like a de facto opt-out?

Just bear in mind that this is an LCO. It is a request for power - what reads as wide-ranging, lock, stock and barrel power - over the Welsh language. It is not yet about future measures, not about which duties the Assembly Government is intending to impose on any part of the private sector. That comes later. The battles over phrases like "where reasonably practicable" (see the 1993 Welsh Language Act) come later.

What the Assembly Government want you to ask at this point is this: who should have the competence, the power to legislate over matters affecting the Welsh language? Us or the UK government?

Six pages of detail says you'll have some trouble with that.

Now ... go.

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