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Archives for March 2009

Beyond a joke

Betsan Powys | 22:25 UK time, Tuesday, 31 March 2009


A day in Westminster where it's not simply the case that they're not laughing any more. They were never laughing.

The Secretary of State, it's suggested, was "livid" with the Delilah video. He certainly hadn't seen it before "welcoming this important new initiative" to quote Paul Murphy himself and the website that launched the video.

One senior Labour MP believes the joke has backfired to such an extent, it's damaged the party and damaged those involved in it. Taking the video down has done next to nothing to appease him. Yes, it's daft but no, you can't laugh it off. The bottom line is that it displayed signs of "panic" ahead of the European elections and that's gone beyond a joke. It's unsettling.

Add MPs' expenses to the list and laughs in Westminster were few and far between.

As I walked past Portcullis House a little girl looked up at the row upon row of windows and asked her parents if that was where "they" lived. "It's not" said her Dad, "that's part of the problem". The headlines in the newspapers on the stand outside the tube station confirmed that expenses and second home allowances in particular have got people very, very angry.

In the same way that people minded Lynne Neagle AM claiming a few quid for a pyrex dish, they mind that the Home Secretary wasn't prepared to fork out 88p of her own money for a plug. Both claims were well within the rules but that is not the point. Ask Nick Bourne.

In Cardiff Bay I'm told that plans are afoot to buy in the same technology that's used by the Scottish parliament to publish MSPs' expenses online. It will be used to publish AMs' expenses and should be in place by May.

The motivation of this particular Spring clean? Transparency and the implication that it'll concentrate the minds of some. If AMs don't want the details of 'that' receipt to be published for all to see at the click of a mouse, then they shouldn't claim it back. The trick, I suppose, for MPs and AMs will be to sense the public's tipping point - claiming what's not just legitimate but seen by those who vote for you as fair enough. Perhaps the public will respond in kind, by giving politicians the chance to explain where the money went before pointing to snouts in troughs.

MPs might be grateful that on this occasion they, at least, get to censor their claims with heavy, black pens after the money is safely paid into their bank accounts.

That's what comes to mind while I listened to evidence given to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee's inquiry into Digital Inclusion this morning. "Filtering isn't enough" said the man from the Family Online Safety Institute. "It's gone well beyond that". He's thinking dodgy websites and curious young teenagers. I'm thinking politicians, expenses and a public mood that not all MPs seem to have 'got'.

The evidence goes on. "Managing the environment has to be done by the industry and it must be done transparently".

They must be reading your mind.

Seconds out ...

Betsan Powys | 11:24 UK time, Monday, 30 March 2009


Just in case you missed The Westminster Hour last night here's round - what shall we call it - five or six in the war of words between former First Secretary Alun Michael and the Presiding Officer Dafydd Elis-Thomas. Somewhere, in the not too distant future, in a Further Education Institution somewhere in Wales, there'll be a student handing in a dissertation on it ... with copious footnotes.

Let me help them with one chapter at least.

Earlier this week a leaked letter from Dafydd Elis-Thomas to Secretary of State Paul Murphy - written "in the spirit of our often-stated agreement to make the constitution of Wales within the UK work" - warned that the time it takes to process LCOs put forward by individual Assembly Members "may soon render the ballot process ineffectual, thus curtailing one of the functions of a legislature that of allowing Members as well as Government Minister or Committees to take through legislation".

In other words, one part of the machinery - he warns - is moving so slowly that soon, another part of it will grind to a halt. And if it's not working properly it will, of course, need an overhaul.

At this point you either accept that the Presiding Officer has seen a problem coming and wants to ensure the system doesn't get clogged up to the point it's deemed to be "ineffectual" - or you spot an agenda.

Alun Michael MP spots an agenda. In fact he spotted one a long, long time ago, before the chapter headed "contrary to the spirit of devolution", or the footnote on the meaning of "micromanaging from Westminster".

This is how he put it on last night's programme on Radio 4:

"This is an accusation that is only really made by one person, which is the Presiding Officer, Dafydd Elis-Thomas who seems to have totally abandoned the normal neutrality that one expects from the speaker or Presiding Officer. I don't understand his motivation. It's a success and it's a success for the Assembly and he should be sharing in that success and I don't really understand why Dafydd Elis-Thomas wants to pretend that there's some antagonism there which there really isn't, unless he has a personal agenda on the issue".

And then this:

"This is the difference between naked nationalism on the part of Dafydd Elis-Thomas and the partnership working that is the absolute essence of devolution".

Naked nationalism on the part of the PO? Since when, ask his office, is wanting to make sure the Government of Wales Act 2006 is interpreted properly on a par with nationalism, naked or otherwise? Well, they didn't quite put it like that but you get the spirit of retaliation.

And just one more footnote for that dissertation. Peter Hain was also interviewed by The Westminster Hour. Listen back and you'll hear him making it clear that he never envisaged that the veto granted to the Secretary of State would be used.

David, George, Eric and ... Roger

Betsan Powys | 16:14 UK time, Saturday, 28 March 2009


So what have we learned?

From Local Government spokesman Darren Millar that "under a Welsh Conservative Assembly Government every pensioner household in Wales would qualify for a 30% reduction in their council tax bills" - which would save the average pensioner household somewhere around three hundred pounds.

From Party Chairman Eric Pickles that he wished he hadn't lost it on Question Time when asked about his second home allowance and that the party has the funds at the ready if Gordon Brown calls an early election.

Mr Pickles spoke in hushed tones and wandered to the front of the stage, getting close to his audience before telling them that if they had 'friends' who thought they might teach the government a lesson but weren't sure whether to give their vote to the Conservatives - they should send a message to those 'friends' direct from Mr Pickles: vote Conservative. He didn't add 'or else' in that hushed tone of his but you just thought, for a moment, that he might. His performance - well honed you suspect - had them in the palm of his hand.

Obama's campaign struck a chord, he said, because he had something to say. The Chairman seemed unconvinced that the party were able to do that yet on the doorsteps. "It's about trust ... we need to bring back their trust". That's the only way he'll get that lump in his throat when David and George make it to numbers 10 and 11.

We learned that Shadow Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan is hoping for a rugby team of MPs in Wales after the next General Election (not 7s in case you were wondering, she means the full 15) and hopes she'll still be 'managing' that team. "She's speaking positively about the numbers and good luck to her" said Jonathan Evans MEP. As a former team of one in Wales, he was rather more modest in his targets ... not to say he, too, wouldn't fancy the job of manager of course.

David Jones MP? He went one step further. He's hoping to see "a full team - and a few reserves besides". Any advances on 17?

Mr Pickles had better hope his pep talk worked. Before closing he spoke warmly of the party's outgoing Welsh MEP - his pal Roger Evans. "You should say 'thanks Derek'" whispered a colleague in Jonathan Evans' ear.

Conference notes

Betsan Powys | 11:58 UK time, Saturday, 28 March 2009


How do you make sure your conference hall is brimming with delegates?

Halve its stize with black drapes, put out fewer seats than needed and bingo, instant standing room only at the back. The old ones are the best (I mean tactics obviously, not delegates ...)

How do you turn a set that is Union Jack heavy into one that's acceptably Welsh? You put daffodils in vases and stick them on perspex tables right next to the speakers.

And how do you fend off obvious questions at your Welsh conference about the Conservative take on further devolution for Wales, or how a Conservative government would change the present system of LCOs and elbowing that the party says isn't working?

You turn it inot "an open dialogue" and fiddle a bit around the edges. A future Conservative Welsh Secretary would come to the Assembly four times a year - not once. You suggest forming a committee of MPs with constituencies along the border to "smooth out the wrinkles" caused by devolution and wait for it, the Welsh Grand would meet in Wales regularly.

Alun Cairns got 'em going with his speech on the economy. "There is a way out of the recession - the Conservative way!"

Harking back to "the dark days" of slogans on prudence and education x 3 had them rolling in the aisles. "It would be funny if it wasn't so serious" had them stopping abruptly.

Did George Osborne spot the mistake in his introductory caption? 'George Obourne' sounds more like a distant relative of the Welsh leader than "the next Chancellor of the Exchequer". Mr Osborne aspires to sound like - and be - the next Chancellor. Did changing lines like "Any public body that wants to pay someone more than the Prime Minister of the day gets paid will have to come and justify it to me" to "justify it to the Chancellor the Exchequer of the day" suggest he has any doubts? Maybe not. "They'll get short shrift I can tell you!" got the loudest burst of applause of the morning.

A lot .... of promises not to shower us with statistics - mostly broken
more stalls than in the past
lines like "You couldn't make it up"

Not a lot ... of empty seats
work for the translator
fury at the Hain/Morgan/Davies-backed video. It looks more like delight
from where we're sitting

Labour versus the Rest Mark 2

Betsan Powys | 23:30 UK time, Thursday, 26 March 2009


What was that about Labour versus the rest?

Remember this?

Nick Bourne was forced to spend his Sunday afternoon shouting "mea culpa" from the rooftops when it turned out he had, after all, sanctioned a document that personally attacked the First Minister.

Rhodri Morgan said he'd rise above "really unpleasant political stuff" like being dubbed the clown prince of Wales.

A Labour party spokesperson condemned a "petty personal attack" at a time when the opposition party should be putting forward policy ideas at its autumn conference.

So on the eve of another Tory conference, you just wonder what the Welsh Conservatives will make of Eluned Morgan MEP, Peter Hain MP and Alun Davies AM launching a new political website. It is, says Alun Davies, "an opportunity to create a positive and constructive debate about the future of Wales". It features an attack on Tory Toff, David Cameron. Does the name Edward Timpson ring a warning bell?

What will Plaid make of a website that portrays their leading lights as clowns and adopts the name of "Welsh warrior" Owain Glyndwr? Wasn't he, to use the website's own language, what you might term "a gobby nat", a bit of a fan of independence for Wales?

And what will You Tube surfers make of Eluned Morgan's cover version of Tom Jones' Delilah? Why, why, why vote Tory ... Plaidi? "An Obama moment for Welsh Labour" or with an appearance by Margaret Thatcher and John Redwood, a sign that the cupboard is startlingly bare?

What, you wonder, does Rhodri Morgan make of it?

More importantly for Labour right now: what exactly will you see in it?

Labour versus the rest - and how.

Back to Perthcelyn

Betsan Powys | 13:10 UK time, Thursday, 26 March 2009


From reading your comments, so far, on tonight's programme on the Warner family from Perthcelynit seems pretty clear that you think you know the Warners and their type only too well.

Maybe you do. I'm not sure I did get them when I first met them nearly a decade ago and I'm still not sure I get them now. But these are good people: I get that.

Yes, they should smoke less, drink less Red Bull or the cheaper substitutes, drink far less cherry brandy on a Friday night, watch less tv, eat fewer chips and crisps. They don't want to and they're not going to. Neither are they going to insist their grandchildren, Logan, Seren and their long list of cousins work hard in school and dismiss complaints that the teachers have it in for them. Perhaps they should but they don't want to and they're not going to. Dad Glen shouldn't have a fag in his mouth when he's taking his own blood pressure but he has. The children should mean it when they say they'd take on any job cleaning toilets if it meant a better life for newly born and unborn Warner babies. They probably don't.

But they are kind to each other, welcoming, funny, defiant and absolutely untouched by the millions the Assembly Government has spent on trying to lift their family and families like them all over Wales out of poverty and deprivation. The Communities First initiative has worked elsewhere. Communities took to it and made it work for them. In Perthcelyn they just didn't. The Warners' lives tell you as much.

Experts tend not to be easily moved by what they see, so when they are it must be worth wondering why.

Standing on the bitterly cold mountainside above the estate where they live, I asked the health economist what's the one thing she would do to make the lives of the next Warner generation better. She hesitated. Pulled a face as if so to say, can I really say it, do I have to say it? Then put it very simply: that she would take them away from here, bring them up in an area where life expectancy is higher, health scores generally better, half the number of people on incapacity benefit, twice as many likely to get to university.

"Let's all move to Mountain Ash" declared Glen "we'll live longer!" But the Warners are going nowhere.

You may know people like them only too well but that doesn't make the uphill struggle facing Logan and the wide-eyed Seren any easier to accept.

Some more thoughts on the Warner family - with thanks to Glen, Ann and the children for opening doors and lives so willingly all over again - here.

Culling and scowling

Betsan Powys | 16:28 UK time, Tuesday, 24 March 2009


There weren't even seven of us in the gallery this time - not if you discounted the security men who sat impassively in their dark suits, given away by their intricate ear-pieces and darting eyes.

Down in the chamber, on the other side of the glass wall that always serves as a buffer zone between the public and the politicians, the Rural Affairs Minister, Elin Jones, was spelling out in where exactly in Wales the Assembly Government intends to go ahead with the plan to cull badgers. The "intensive action area" covers around 200 square kilometres in north Pembrokeshire where around a thousand badgers will be in the firing line. The Minister has been advised that the most effective and humane method of killing badgers is cage trapping and shooting.

The elderly couple looking on seemed uninterested. The same went for the young couple but his hoodie and her bulging file had caught the nearest security man's eye.

Yes, said Elin Jones, this was an emotive issue.Yes, the only thing the scientists can agree on is that they cannot agree. There is no 100% hard and fast evidence that proves the Assembly Government is right to press on with a cull and that the UK government is wrong to try vaccines. But no, she was not guilty - as charged by some on the Labour backbenches - of being selective in her use of scientific evidence or in the way she'd interpreted that evidence. She's made a considered decision.

Joyce Watson glowered. Irene James scowled. Lorraine Barrett shook her head. Lesley Griffiths went for pleading. Please, would the Minister not reconsider and wait to see what can be learned from the English vaccination pilot areas, some of which may be just on the other side of Offa's Dyke?

The Minister could not. Her mind was made up.

Moral support came from Plaid's Deputy Assembly Group Leader, Helen Mary Jones. Spotting an empty seat behind their Rural Affairs Minister she jumped up and occupied it. The Minister sat down. The deputy rushed back to her own seat and typed furiously on her own keyboard. Up got the Minister. Back to the empty seat went the deputy, filling the camera shot, nodding her support, staring down the Labour backbenches.

Was the government truly committed to taking forward the bovine TB eradication plan or not, asked the Conservatives' very own farmer, Andrew R.T Davies? After all Labour's own Rural Affairs spokesperson was clearly dead set against them. Joyce Watson got a pat on the back. Elin Jones confirmed that, for the avoidance of doubt, yes, she was speaking on behalf of the government.

Student fees last week. Badgers this week. It's good to be reminded that both governing parties still have a few ... for today, let's call them reactors on their own backbenches.

Alun Davies shot up. He was flanked by glaring colleagues. He was glad the Minister was forging ahead with her plans. He's heard more than enough about TB in the rural area he represents - and it includes North Pembrokeshire - to know that something must be done. "We all wish there were alternatives" he said. "There are" muttered Irene James, looking as though she'd sooner trap him in a cage and shoot him than listen to any more of his argument.

A streak of a white blouse and a nearly black jacket meant Elin Jones was back on her feet and sensing the battle was over - for now.

The security men headed for the exit.

Helen Mary Jones returned to her seat.

The Minister started her round of the radio studios just as the press releases appeared. She was guilty of "massacring wildlife" to appease farmers and save the skins of rural politicians, of "giving the green light to bloodshed", of setting in train a "brutal pogrom." The Badger Trust Cymru were either choosing their words very carefully or with too little care - make up your own minds.

Remember Shambo? The fate of the sacred bullock from Carmarthenshire, who was infected with bovine TB, drew worldwide attention back in 2007. The Rural Affairs Minister, brand new to the job, learned early about long-running legal battles and noisy protests. She will by now have read the press releases and will know that her battle over badgers is not over.

Happy Birthday

Betsan Powys | 13:01 UK time, Monday, 23 March 2009


So happy birthday then, son.

A bit of a mixed bag this year. Wales lost on Saturday. Mind you, you the Irish deserved their win and at least Stephen Jones and his boot gave your Dad a chance to teach you a valuable lesson about how you must deserve your victories. Not sure how much of it sank in but he tried.

The other bit of bad news is that you're worth less than you were when you were born. No, hang on, let me try again. You, of course, are invaluable but that baby bond the government gave you is worth less than when you were born.

It was the Chancellor, Gordon Brown's gift to you. He gave you £256 to invest in a Child Trust Fund. It will mature when you're 18 and by then, he was really hoping you'd spend the money, the "several thousand pounds" it would be worth by then according to Prime Minister Tony Blair, on your education or as a deposit on a house.

You've a long, long way to go but the bad news is that your £256 is now worth £198.55. I know. The nest-egg is looking a bit brittle. You'd better start hoping, son, that the economy and the stock market are in a better shape in March 2023 than they are now.

The woman at the other end of the line sounded rather guilty when I told her it was your birthday but as she pointed out, you're not alone. There'll be another 699,999 children born in the same year as you - every year since September 2002 in fact - whose cash windfall will be shrivelling at the moment and let's face it, most of them will be considerably worse off than you are.

And by the way, if you thought being born in Wales would have added £50 to the pot, forget it. Yes, I know Rhodri Morgan and Labour pledged to give you an extra £50 on top of the £250 you were already getting if they were still in power in Wales after the Assembly election. As it so happens, I was in the playground in Cardiff North when Gordon Brown shared his delight with the news that "every child" in Wales would get the extra money. He was well on his way to becoming Prime Minister by then and this was, he said, a sign of "healthy diversity" between the nations of the UK.

Yes, that's right, Labour are still in power and in the One Wales Agreement they struck with Plaid Cymru they pledged to "implement an extra Children's Bond for all children entering school". If you look here in the One Wales Delivery Plan you'll see that the idea isn't dead. It just hasn't happened yet. The plan is still that you, along with every child in Wales gets £50 to invest when you start school and that children living in low income households get another £50 on top. Why hasn't it happened? Because the people who must work out how to divvy up the money are still working on it. They've promised to work it out by 2009 though, so perhaps you'd better start watching this space.

Sorry. Didn't mean to cast a pall over your birthday and as I say, you're in a far, far better position than many other four year olds who were opening presents this weekend. There would be plenty who'd tell you that your Dad's lecture about deserving wins on the rugby pitch apply equally to winnings and windfalls and that you and your family were lucky to get a nest egg at all.

I'll tell you about Logan, Seren, Ioan, Jasmine, Rhys and Cerys before the end of the week - children from a family up in Perthcelyn who've opened their doors to us again, just as they did nearly ten years ago and I'll tell you why all of this matters rather more to them than it does to you: a lot more. Their childhood in Wales will open your eyes. It certainly opened mine.

In the meantime, enjoy your presents. You certainly deserved those.

Old LCOs never die ...

Betsan Powys | 11:13 UK time, Thursday, 19 March 2009


You've seen the stickers in the back of car windows.

Old rugby players never die, they just pass away.
Old accountants never die, they just lose their balance.

So what would the 'Old LCO' version be I wonder?

I'm asking because the debate on the Housing LCO that was to happen in the House of Commons on Monday has been postponed. It was looking increasingly likely that the Lords, who were to debate the LCO after Easter, would vote it down as it's drafted. That would have been fatal to plans to transfer powers from Westminster to Cardiff Bay and a big embarrassment all round.

I'm back to: What next?

Back to a (re)drafting board somewhere by the sounds of things.

Just last week the Counsel General Carwyn Jones was bullish and "confident that there is no difficulty in terms of the vires of the LCO".

Jointly the Wales Office and the Assembly Government emphasised their confidence in the legality of the Order.

So if old LCOs never die ... what next?

When do we want it?

Betsan Powys | 22:44 UK time, Wednesday, 18 March 2009


The young girl had an English accent and wanted to know what I was doing standing in the middle of the student union bar in Cardiff ... without a drink in my hand.

I was there, I said, to film a piece on plans to scrap tuition fee grants for all Welsh students who choose to stay and study in Wales. Before I could go any further, she jumped in. About bl**dy time, she said. She'd only just found out, by accident, that her mate from Abergavenny was getting over £1900 that she wasn't "just because he was from Wales and I'm not. How's that right?"

They were studying the same course, doing the same work. In fact she did rather more work than he did. They sat next to each other in lecture theatres, paid the same for course books and for drinks - so why did he deserve the money and she didn't?

Her mate from Abergavenny checked first whether he'd lose out. Wise boy. Having worked out that he wouldn't - he'd be long gone by the time top-up fees came in - he felt he had to agree that targeting the money would make more sense. He doubted whether he'd qualify for a grant in future. If he hadn't been given his share though, he would have missed it.

Would he still have gone to university? Maybe but he wasn't sure. Maybe he would have been tempted to go for a cheaper course, somewhere other than Cardiff.

I've no idea whether he's spotted today's statement by the Education Minister Jane Hutt. The bottom line is that Tuition Fee Grants are on their way out from 2010-2011 and that the "remodelled" system puts a stop to free something for everyone. In future around a third of Welsh students, those from families with the lowest incomes, will get the full whack of a £5000 learning grant per year. Students from poorer backgrounds in Wales we're told, will do better than in England. The Assembly Government has not only upped the grant but upped the household income threshold for grants by £10,000. Maybe the lad from Abergavenny would squeeze in after all.

Just over a third will get something, while just under a third will get no learning grant at all. Everyone gets £1500 wiped off their debt. That will cost the Assembly Government some £13 million. Where has that come from? The Finance Minister 'found it', presumably down the back of the Assembly's leather sofas or in the mysterious pot of non-cash.

There will be golden hello schemes for some graduates who want to live and work in Wales. They'll have to fight it out over no more than £1 million put by for that. So if the little brother or sister from Abergavenny come looking for financial incentives to stay in Wales to study in a few years' time, they'll have to look long and hard.

In fact they'll have to look at the big picture. They may not get the kind of money their big brother got but the Higher Education sector will be getting £31million of "newly directed" money (directed from students' pockets say the Liberal Democrats) so at least, as one voice at the very heart of the decision to change the system put it, there's a chance there'll be universities and colleges worth going to in Wales.

What do you mean a brain drain he barked? Maybe ... but what's the point in keeping our best brains here if we've nowhere worth teaching them?

Though hang on, that full figure of £31million won't be squeezed out of the system until 2015-16 and by then the support trumpeted today for "Assembly Government priorities, such as the University of the Heads of the Valleys and the Coleg Ffederal" won't be in the gift of this government at all.

Come to think of it, by then it won't be in the gift of the next government either. It'll be up to the government after that ... and that's a long way away.

All the answers

Betsan Powys | 17:48 UK time, Tuesday, 17 March 2009


You either knew every answer to every quiz question and filled them in at home so no-one could copy, or you knew none, cared even less and went to the pub.

Either way, here they are:

"These are very searching questions. You should do this for a living." Who said this and to whom?

Lord Stephen Carter (being a smoothie) to Joyce Watson when he appeared before the Culture Committee.

Why do Rhodri and Ieuan always dance to Norman Sayers' tune?

Because both are names given to fairground horses on the Norman Sayers owned merry-go-round outside the Senedd.

Who told their fellow Assembly Members they wanted "to confine myself to North Wales?"

Eleanor Burnham.

Which Welsh Minister admits they were tempted by an Email (sent on April 1st last year) inviting them to join Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen's new party, established to promote good design? They were particularly struck by a manifesto pledge to ban net curtains.

Elin Jones. Watch this net-curtain-free space.

Which former civil servant appeared before an Assembly committee this week wearing cufflinks, one saying 'Yes', the other 'No'?

John Walter Jones, Chairman of the S4C authority.

Which 'Thatcher's child' wrote this about his own generation and presumably, about some of his mates? "There is no self respect in these people, no ambition for themselves, no hope to contribute anything to the area, nation or world they live in".

Luke Ellis - right hand man to Carwyn Jones - on his blog. If you're a former schoolfriend, then I'm guessing he's buying ..!

Who did Mark Thompson suggest might be sad not to see camera crews from both ITV and the BBC at press conferences in future ... because "someone of your, you know, good looks, you might argue the finer point of exactly which angle of your face ... " should be captured.

Alun Cairns (and yes, he did laugh in a self-deprecating kind of way).

Waving or drowning?

Betsan Powys | 16:01 UK time, Tuesday, 17 March 2009


"The irony" said Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams this morning, "is not lost on me".

What irony was that? The fact that her party is using a mechanism provided by a system of devolution they regard as absurd to stall the progress of a form of devolution they regard as twisted.

In an 'if you can't beat the system for now, use it' kind of move the Lib Dems are taking advantage of the fact that the House of Lords must approve the transfer of any power to the Assembly to throw a spanner in the works of the transfer of power over Affordable Housing. (We didn't touch on the irony of the fact that an awful lot of housing experts seem to think suspending the right to buy would have pretty limited impact in areas of housing pressure anyway ... you can have too much irony in a morning).

Plaid, say the Lib Dems, have betrayed the principle of devolution by agreeing to the insertion of a veto on the abolition of the right to buy. Its legal legitimacy is now in question and in the name of defending the devolution process, the Lib Dems want it redrawn, minus the veto. The finger is pointed not at the Welsh Affairs Select Committee for raising concerns about the transfer of powers, or at the Secretary of State for coming up with the veto (note this corrected version - the solution came from the Secretary of State having taken the Committee's view into consideration) but at Plaid for agreeing to it: "that fatal Plaid Cymru climb-down put the Welsh devolution process in a very fragile situation".

When it comes to a General Election, there's no doubt Plaid will accuse the Lib Dems of standing in the way of the Assembly Governmen't efforts to gain extra powers to do something to provide affordable homes in areas of housing pressure. Perhaps Lib Dem canvassers ought to make note of their leader's response now on a pocket sized piece of paper and keep it at the ready for voters who'll care little about constitutional tussles but care a lot about affordable housing: "We wouldn't be having to do this if Plaid hadn't sold out".

Conservative peers ought to vote against it, says Nick Bourne, on the grounds that it was never a good idea. The fact that it's got caught in constitutional quicksand now is proof, he says, that they were right to oppose it all along. I'm not sure I follow that logic but I do follow the maths. If enough Conservative peers join forces with enough Lib Dem peers, then the LCO could sink in the quicksand, not just get stuck in it.

We know that at least one peer who sits on the cross benches is 'minded' to vote against it. Bear in mind that word "minded". Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas may vote against it, then again he may not. He may not vote at all.

The irony, say irritated Labour voices, is that he's left it until now to question an Order that the National Assembly - over which he presides - has already supported democratically. Why not question raise his objections earlier? Why not question the way it was drafted earlier? With some justification, the Presiding Officer may point out that he did just that and got pretty short shrift at the time.

Six months ago the tussle over the transfer of these powers was already being described as "willy waving" by one acerbic Welsh MP. I dread to think what colourful turn of phrase he'd come up with now.

Fatal intervention

Betsan Powys | 09:24 UK time, Saturday, 14 March 2009


An update for those who are wondering what now for the Housing LCO.

Had there been no intervention from the Joint Committee of Lords and MPs then it would almost certainly have been passed 'on the nod' through both Houses before Easter. But now that the Committee has questioned whether the clause inserted to prevent the Assembly from abolishing the right to buy is lawful, a Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Livsey of Talgarth, has put down a motion calling on the Lords to decline to approve the LCO as it stands.

What that means is that it will now be debated by the Lords, a debate that won't happen until after the Easter recess.

Bear in mind that the Lib Dems fully support the LCO and want powers over housing to come to Wales. Why intervene like this then? Because, as leader Kirsty Williams puts it, "we fervently disagree with the Secretary of State's veto powers which were added to pacify devo-sceptic MPs ... Future power bids from Cardiff are likely to be controversial and I do not want to see the Secretary of State's veto power used as a tool to pacify devo-sceptic MPs every time we ask for powers".

That's unlikely to prevent accusations from Labour that the Lib Dems are themselves putting the transfer of powers in jeopardy by putting down this motion. Lord Livsey will have none of that. He wants the powers transferred, he says but not in a way that the Joint Committee regards as questionable and in a way that underlines the need "to go on bended knee to Parliament every time it wanted to implement a manifesto commitment. This is not in the spirit of devolution."

Of interest now: how will the Conservatives respond and will the Presiding Officer impress upon his colleagues in the House of Lords the need to get the LCO through, or does he perhaps accept the legal arguments on which Lord Livsey's motion is based? Lord Livsey seems to think he does - and will.

I gather that the motion put down by Richard Livsey is called a 'fatal motion', though just how fatal it proves to be for the LCO as drafted isn't yet clear.

Have a laugh.

Betsan Powys | 16:58 UK time, Friday, 13 March 2009


On red nose day, have a go at a short quiz.

Some of these people were trying to be funny, others weren't but let me stress that any elected politicians involved did NOT do it for money (at least not money they weren't fully entitled to claim).

The first to leave a comment that turns the subject from quiz answers to the Welsh language or the constitutional future of Wales has to make a donation of £10.00 to Comic Relief. Anyone who subsequently offends gets away with a fiver. Here goes:

"These are very searching questions. You should do this for a living." Who said this and to whom?

Why do Rhodri and Ieuan always dance to Norman Sayers' tune?

Who told their fellow Assembly Members they wanted "to confine myself to North Wales?"

Which Welsh Minister admits they were tempted by an Email (sent on April 1st last year) inviting them to join Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen's new party, established to promote good design? They were particularly struck by a manifesto pledge to ban net curtains.

Which former civil servant appeared before an Assembly committee this week wearing cufflinks, one saying 'Yes', the other 'No'?

Which 'Thatcher's child' wrote this about his own generation and presumably, about some of his mates? "There is no self respect in these people, no ambition for themselves, no hope to contribute anything to the area, nation or world they live in".

Who did Mark Thompson suggest might be sad not to see camera crews from both ITV and the BBC at press conferences in future ... because "someone of your, you know, good looks, you might argue the finer point of exactly which angle of your face ... " should be captured.

If you want a laugh at my expense, then S4C's Cor Cymru - Welsh Choir of the Year - tomorrow night at 20.05 on S4C is a good bet. No close ups on the bum notes would be nice.

"Labour v the rest"

Betsan Powys | 22:03 UK time, Thursday, 12 March 2009


It took more than a moment and when it came, it was half-hearted.

When former Welsh Secretary Ron Davies mentioned the name Margaret Thatcher in front of a hall full of keen politics students in Cross Keys, it was clear he'd expected at least a heartfelt groan, if not some shaking of fists. All he got was vague head-shaking from a few in the front row, what seemed like recognition from text-books and lecture notes that they weren't really expected to cheer.

His talk on the process that led to and is devolution was peppered with fascinating asides and led to furious note-taking. The word "compromise" came up a lot and Labour - no surprises here - came in for stick. "Over the past ten years we should have been able to create a wealth-sustaining economy in Wales ... Instead it's been spent on free this and free that. I do hope they're not going to have to go up to old ladies soon and ask for those bus passes back".

Fast forward a session. "Welsh politics, when you think about it, has been about Labour versus the rest" said Jonathan Bradbury from Swansea University. This scenario, the students recognised.

But when the new Director of the Governance Centre at Cardiff University suggested they should consider the possibility of a political future - and a not so distant future either - where Labour is no longer the largest party in Wales, they dropped their eyes and wrote furiously but there was nothing to suggest that their jaws were dropping.

Professor Richard Wyn Jones prodded a bit more.

Who'd spotted the results of a serious polling exercise in the marginals last year that put the Conservatives in Wales on 16 seats at least? Granted, a lot has happened since then. The Brown bounce has come and gone. Didn't it come again only to go again? There may, of course, be yet another around the corner, enough to keep a coalition deal within Labour's grasp. But it was quite possible, he argued, that when Gordon Brown goes to the polls, David Cameron's Conservatives could do even better than Margaret Thatcher's in 1983 with their record haul in Wales of 14 out of 38 seats.

Nick Bourne was more modest in the Conservative lobby briefing this week but then, he would be. Never set the bar - or expectations - too high.

I'd been asked that morning by a visitor from London how many seats the party would win in Wales. I'd talked in terms of adding six or seven seats but put the question to Nick Bourne directly. Double figures he said, taking us all on a mental journey from Cardiff North and the Vale of Glamorgan to Carmarthen West and South Pembs, Maldwyn, Aberconwy, Delyn and the Vale of Clwyd.

Was he venturing on to serious double figures, rather than symbolic ones? Was he thinking Clwyd South and beyond? He wasn't. Yet. Labour may be about to take a kicking as the Tories did in 1997 but the Tories are not in the position Labour were back then. The deal between the people and Tony Blair had already been struck. No-one claims the same for David Cameron.

Nick Bourne stuck simply to 'double figures' and what would count as a major revival for the party in Wales.

The Welsh Conservatives have chosen twenty candidates and will be choosing more over the coming weeks. Welsh Labour must choose a new leader first, one who - a senior and shockingly realistic Labour figure suggested recently - must worry not just about appealing to voters beyond the Clwyd and Loughor rivers but one who must appeal double quick to voters East of them too.

What about the North and those coastal seats? Isn't that where Labour are likely to lose big and perhaps lose long-term?

He rolled his eyes, as if already watching them fall like dominoes and his party, the one Cross Keys students will know was at one time the only truly national, all Wales party, retreating to the South and North East.

Constitutional chicanes

Betsan Powys | 16:51 UK time, Tuesday, 10 March 2009


Jeremy Clarkson relies on "The Stig", an anonymous helping hand who at top speeds guides guests through the complex and unfamiliar territory and chicanes of the racing track. I rely on "The Constitutional Stig" who guides me through ... you're there ahead of me.

He doesn't wear a helmet. He doesn't drive fast but he is required, on days like today, to think fast.

What are the implications of the conclusions to which the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has come? This is what I've gathered.

It's extremely rare for the JCSI to report in this way, in other words to express its concerns so strongly.

Its members do not say you can't do it. They have no right to say you can't do it but they have the right to say that if you do it, then in our view you are in danger of approving an Order that would not be lawful.

Why might it not be lawful?

The problem according to them is the so-called veto, the compromise, the agreement - call it what you will; the bit stuck in to get around MPs' objections to the Assembly having the power to abolish the right to buy. What it does is create a situation where Welsh Ministers and the Secretary of State must first to agree to the Assembly as an institution having that power before it can be used. Instead of power being transferred from one institution to another - lock, stock via an LCO - the Ministers and Secretary of State of the day pop up and play a crucial role.

The Committee doesn't think they have the right to do that.

It believes that part of the Order - sensible compromise or not - is outside the powers of the Government Of Wales Act 2006. It might get around the Welsh Affairs Select Committee's objections to transferring the powers but the Committee's reading is that it's unlawful.

The options: the Assembly Government and the Wales Office forge ahead. The Order is whipped through the House of Commons. How keen, however, would the Lords be to ... well ... vote in favour of an Order that half a dozen of their own number have expressed serious doubts as to its legality?

Could there be a legal challenge, a judicial review? Is there a whiff of a challenge coming for the Liberal Democrats, who claim that "if the Labour government presses ahead with this Order as it is currently drafted then it could raise serious legal questions and bring the whole devolution process into disrepute"?

The Wales Office and Assembly Government could backtrack, return to Go, collect £200 in legal bills and redraft. The Assembly has already approved the Order, so there would be quite some unravelling to do.

Backtracking? No way comes the response. Jointly the Wales Office and Welsh Assembly Government put it like this:

"Both the UK Government and the Welsh Assembly Government have noted the conclusions of the JCSI, but we are confident that the Order we have agreed, and which was approved in the National Assembly for Wales, is legal under the Government of Wales Act. We therefore intend to proceed with the Order."

Or as the Counsel General, Carwyn Jones put it in the chamber: "the JCSI doesn't have a veto of any kind over the way in which an LCO does proceed in the future. Certainly, we are confident that there is no difficulty in terms of the vires of the LCO with regard to any future devolution of power."

In other words, bring it on.

Impenetrable stuff? Almost.

Insignificant? Certainly not.

A switch-off and suitable only for anoraks? Perhaps but then sometimes, that's what blogs are for.

Oh no you can't?

Betsan Powys | 12:54 UK time, Tuesday, 10 March 2009


Remember this?

'This' was the Assembly Government's bid for power over Affordable Housing, power that would have allowed them to abolish the right to buy if they'd wanted to. They didn't as it so happens, not for now anyway but were clear enough that they did want the power to do so transferred to the Assembly.

'This' was the news that in the face of opposition from the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, the Assembly Government had climbed down and accepted that it could not abolish the right to buy without the consent of the Secretary of State.

To you and me that looked, felt, sounded like a veto. The Assembly Government dismissed any such word in press conference after lobby briefing, waved away any such accusation and called it, instead, a compromise. The Welsh Affairs Select Committee too agreed it was no more than a sensible compromise. It wasn't one the Deputy Minister for Housing Jocelyn Davies was proud of and caused some voices in Plaid to raise the prospect of a constitutional crisis.

Kirsty Williams, the Liberal Democrat leader, had a question of her own to raise: "Why give us the full powers and then dictate from London what we can and cannot do with them?"

Well someone else has joined in with the questions - the Joint Comittee on Statutory Instruments - half a dozen members from the House of Lords, half a dozen from the Commons who've been scrutinising the LCO and who've reported it "for doubtful vires."
Their verdict? That if the LCO stands "there appears to be a doubt in one respect that, if it were approved and made, it would be intra vires".

In other words it wouldn't be lawful.

In even more words the problem they've found is that there is nothing in the Government of Wales Act 2006, as far as they can see (and you would hope they can see a long, long way) that authorises this sort of veto.

The message seems to be - you can't do it.

Now what?

Use it or lose it?

Betsan Powys | 13:34 UK time, Monday, 9 March 2009


Who came up with the phrase "Use it or lose it"?

Hands up, I don't know. If I'd taken the advice it offers and always kept my brain switched on, no doubt I would know but there you go. So why does it come to mind today?

Because Plaid have made clear their determination to use the word 'Independence', to use it, to discuss it and to promote what the party believes independence would mean for Wales. They tried not using it some years ago. What happened? Their opponents did and it was Plaid who lost out.

So in 2003 the party renewed its vows with the long-term aim of independence. Shying away was out: using the 'i' word was in.

Plaid Ministers "did it" on the party conference stage. Both Elin Jones and Jocelyn Davies used the independence word in their speeches in Newport last year. Advisers were around to check whether the use of the 'i' word had been spotted and how it had gone down.

Adam Price "did it" on his blog last August, arguing that Plaid ought to reclaim the word, ought to lead the debate about what independence means and that only by laying out the arguments could the party "create a new generation of nationalists ... I fear that any attempts, however well-meaning, to obscure our nationalism in order to avoid 'frightening the horses' would be seen as devious at a time when honest politics is at a premium".

Is honesty the best policy? When the state of the economy is frightening ordinary people, you may think it's time to batten down the hatches and brace yourselves to deal with next week's supplementary budget, next month's factory closure, the next quarterly bills. You may argue that Ieuan Wyn Jones should have no time or appetite to write articles for online campaigns on an issue where there is, as Adam Price put it himself, "a credibility gap in one sense". But with this campaign Plaid are saying otherwise, that's it is absolutely the time to ask big, difficult questions about the next twenty years even if they're not being asked in the pub and in the chip shop.

So once again, is honesty the best policy? See for yourself. The online campaign is called Wales Can - no need to ask who came up with the phrase that inspired that domain name. Gall Cymru loses a little Obama-something in translation. Both sites pitch to the "independence generation" a Wales that's an independent EU member state. The goal? To achieve majority support for independence within 20 years. In other words they're after the younger generation. With apologies to most of those who comment on this blog, I'm guessing that with some exceptions, that's not you. Nothing personal: I'm out too.

So a campaign designed to talk up independence? Go online and care of Plaid you'll now find one of those.

A campaign designed to bring about a no vote in a referendum on further powers? Go online and care of True Wales you'll find one of those too.

But a campaign for a yes vote in a referendum on further powers - the deal that will be on the table if any at all? No chance.

A bundle of noughts

Betsan Powys | 17:00 UK time, Thursday, 5 March 2009


cathays.jpgIt may be that we've become inured to noughts.

This week 300 jobs go at Indesit in Denbighshire, while 440 got at Novelis in Newport and 124 at Musashi Auto Parts in Blackwood.

In February the number of those unemployed in Wales went that extra nought and broke the 100,000 mark.

The union, Unite, is talking in terms of "industrial devastation" in Wales.

Last Wednesday Rhodri Morgan, in the company of his fellow First Ministers met the Prime Minister to spell out - pretty robustly as the meeting went on I gather - how painful it would be to cut £500million from the Welsh budget, to ask why Welsh patients and the Welsh health budget should lose out to the tune of £75,000,000, or £75million because of underspending by the NHS in England? Efficiency savings implemented by the UK government are one thing. A failure by hospitals in England to spend money, another.

Today Ieuan Wyn Jones, wearing his hat as Plaid leader (the one that's come in for quite a bashing this week) calls for a £3,000,000,000, or £3billion stimulus package from the UK government to create jobs in Wales and lead the country on "The Road from Recession". Wearing the same hat he calls for high earners, those earning five noughts and more, to pay 50% tax. His point is that everything that can be thought of must be done to help those facing redundancy, to help companies survive, to help Wales emerge in one piece from the recession.

Aren't all politicians agreed? Everything possible must now be done to help those who face redundancy, who face 'choices' between staying home and getting half their total wage packet or clocking on and taking home a basic wage, without any extra shift payments.

All of which gives the news that the Assembly Government is planning to spend £41.8 million on modernising its headquarters in Cathays Park the stench of dreadful timing, the appearance of a government that is planning to refurbish its ivory tower. After all it's our money. It all comes from the core budget and "shouldn't they spend it on opening a new school or hospital?" (A pound for each time visitors to the £70million Senedd have asked me that and the noughts would be adding up nicely by now).

Nick Bourne's accusation that the government is spending our money on "feathering its own nest" will bring back echoes of those couple of noughts on that iPod and will lose some of its sting. There's not much doubt that the government operates from a "dispersed and imperfect estate" as it puts it and it seems feasible enough that plans to spend £41.8m now could save £5m a year and increase energy efficiency in the future. It's unlikely you'll care much about the "diminished image to people visiting" the ageing offices but then again, 3000 civil servants deserve to work in a safe environment.

If you're queuing up to slam a single penny spent on housing a devolved government, then it probably matters little to you how many noughts we're talking here. But to local councillors who are busy tightening their belts, to struggling manufacturers and workforces it's hard to see how it won't matter - and rankle - a lot.

Dragon's Eye will have more tonight at 2235.


Betsan Powys | 10:51 UK time, Wednesday, 4 March 2009


As headlines go, it's not exactly punchy.

"Civil war threatens to rip Plaid Cymru to pieces" is - all the same - strong stuff from the Western Mail. And it's not exactly "Gotcha" from Adam Price MP either, more of a "I hope I've gotcha" delivered to a coalition government that's set to scrap non-means tested student subsidy in 2010.

It was advised to do so by a Task and Finish group who argued the money ring-fenced by the One Wales Agreement's pledge to "maintain the current level of resource throughout the four year Assembly term" could be better spent. They advised Education Minister Jane Hutt to target the money at those who really need it. In other words scrap subsidy for all, make most Welsh students studying in Wales pay up but give more money to those who couldn't afford to.

So how is he hoping to 'get' them?

By calling for a judicial review of the Minister's decision, the Cabinet's decision, to adopt the recommendations made by Merfyn Jones and his review group.

In brief Adam Price's argument is this: that the decision to hold a review of student fees was flawed from the start, that the consultation process itself was incomplete, rushed, fundamentally flawed and that the decision to bring in top-up fees is "based on a combination of inaccurate assertions, a rushed and incomplete policy review and a deeply flawed consultation".

Adam Price knows how to choose and hit his targets. His call for a public inquiry into a government-backed loan made to steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal proved that. He was named the Spectator Magazine's Parliamentary Inquisitor of the Year and earned his spurs with Welsh steel workers.

His choice of weapon against Tony Blair and his conduct in the lead-up to the Iraq war was impeachment. At the time he said that "If nothing else comes out of this, people will realise impeachment is still an active part of parliamentary law and a minister who misleads and refuses to resign, can be removed by Parliament through impeachment."

Nothing did come of it of course but that's not to say the target wasn't hit.

This time Adam Price is threatening legal action against a government in which his own party is a partner, a government that wouldn't have come into being without the role he played in drawing up the agreement which binds it together.

So why is he doing it?

Perhaps he's trying it on. Perhaps he gauges that in the long run it'll do Plaid no harm to have noises-off on this issue. There are plenty who take that view.

Then again today's noises off are pretty deafening.

So perhaps he's doing it because it's no secret that he feels extremely strongly about Plaid's policy not to re-introduce student fees; perhaps because there is evidence that scrapping student fees did start to make an impact on persuading more Welsh students to study in Wales; perhaps because he's more convinced by that evidence than some others in his own party; because he doesn't accept that a combination of the recession, an even tighter settlement from the UK government than was anticipated, likely further, deeper cuts are overwhelming enough to make this change in policy just impossible to fight; because nobody said that being in government would be easy but that on this, he feels Plaid Ministers have given in too easily.

Is it a challenge to the leadership of Ieuan Wyn Jones? Let me answer with another couple of questions: how can it not be? And given he's astute enough to know it would be seen as such, then if Adam Price minded that very much, he would have backed off, wouldn't he?

It's Ieuan Wyn Jones who told Plaid's National Council that a change of heart wouldn't be accepted by the Cabinet. Adam Price uses that very warning to question whether the consultation on fees was genuine or "or merely a rubber-stamping exercise". That's not backing off.

There are plenty in the party - younger members, those who cut their teeth as student politicians - who will strongly agree with him. There are others who will have read his letter, which was copied to all AMs and other 'interested paties' and sensed Adam Price trying it on. There are no signs that AMs other than Leanne Wood and Bethan Jenkins will break ranks and refuse to back the decision taken by their Ministers which means as things stand, top up fees will be reintroduced unless Adam Price's legal challenge - this time - comes to something.

What happens next? Jane Hutt must respond, legal experts must decide whether there is enough substance to the complaint to constitute a breach of proper processes and Plaid? "Civil war" is going it some but they, surely, have an awful lot to talk about

"A growing maturity?"

Betsan Powys | 07:45 UK time, Monday, 2 March 2009


[Apologies that this entry is a day late appearing. All BBC blogs were struck by technical problems yesterday - now resolved.]

So the pollsters didn't call you then?

Had the polling company, ICM, who conducted the annual St David's Day poll for BBC Wales give been given the numbers of most of those who leave comments on this blog, then there's not much doubt what the result of the final question would have looked like. It would have looked very, very different, that's what.

What question? This one:

To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement? "There is a need to create new laws to help promote the Welsh language and also to ensure that Welsh speakers have more opportunities to use the language when using some services".

A thousand people were asked. 47% agreed there was a need to create new laws; 29% disagreed, 23% neither agreed nor disagreed and 1% didn't know. In other (carefully-chosen) words, the poll suggests that nearly half of us support the need to create new laws to promote and encourage the Welsh language.

The Culture Minister has just told Radio Wales this is a sign of "a growing maturity" and suggests the people are way ahead than "some politicians" where their attitude to the Welsh language is concerned.

The question doesn't refer to private businesses who provide a public service. It doesn't use the word "force" or "compel". What it does, of course, is reflect the wording of the LCO, the bid for power to legislate over the language that the Welsh Assembly Government launched recently.

We know that the wording of that LCO, as the Secretary of State Paul Murphy put it, is not "set in stone". During the the St David's Day debate in the House of Commons last Thursday he urged MPs to galvanise their constituents into "having their say on the proposals. I want to see the biggest public debate on the Welsh language of recent years". He wants that debate, he says, precisely so that the goodwill that exists towards the language isn't squandered.

That debate will ask people their views on a detailed, three page document. The poll question couldn't and didn't. But what it does seem to show is that goodwill towards the language not only exists but survives the inclusion of those words "create new laws".

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