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Archives for June 2009

7, 11, 24 ...

Betsan Powys | 14:45 UK time, Tuesday, 30 June 2009

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keifer.jpgFirst Plaid came up with their "7 4 '07" policies.

Then in 2011 it was Labour's turn to launch their election manifesto (or 'Mamifesto' as one of Leighton Andrews' mates thought it should be called with its pledge to supply extra support for childcare via "mobile mammas") and gave us "11 for 11".

We should, then, not be surprised that tomorrow, two years into the term of the Labour/Plaid government the coalition partners will be launching One Wales 24, a document marking the half-way point in the One Wales programme and a promise of 24 special events happening up and down the country. See what they've done there?

It's not yet online. It will be first thing tomorrow so when you can take a look at it and when we're not up to our eyes trying to make sure a complex story that involves each of the four parties and a lot of money is ready to be broadcast before the end of the week, let's debate it.

In the meantime the sobering thought that when I did run an online search for 24, what came up? Jack Bauer, who else and these adjectives all used in just a few paragraphs to describe his very own 24: "addictive .. acclaimed .. suspenseful .. trend-setting .. compelling .. astonishing .. momentous and shocking".

No pressure then on the script writers of One Wales 24.

Door opening

Betsan Powys | 09:56 UK time, Monday, 29 June 2009

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It is his job of course but I've never heard the Presiding Officer sound quite ... well quite as much of a presider as he did this morning on Radio Wales.

Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas was out to ooze authority and use his three minutes to say "nah nah nah nah nah" to those in Westminster who've dared suggest that MPs are 'independent' agents. They are not, he said. They are public servants and therefore directly accountable - as are Assembly Members - to the public for everything that they claim.

That is why you can hover your mouse on this and at a click, read AMs expenses for 2008-09. That is why, from this Autumn, you'll be able to click month by month if you're interested and find out what your Assembly Member has spent and claimed back from the public purse.

And let's give Lord Elis-Thomas his due (in lieu of expenses for coming in early to do the interview.) He has presided over an institution where those who work in it, for it, visit it can utter the word transparency without blushing. Along with the Assembly Commission he has decided that not all publicity is, after all, good publicity and that coming clean, going for the option of disclosure is better than being dragged kicking and screaming online and only then when the thick, black pen has done the rounds.

But hang on a minute. Just before we get too carried away with our virtue here in Wales - as though there's something in the water that makes Cardiff Bay more virtuous than Westminster - let's cast our mind back a few years.

Yes, there were the iPods, the sofas, the tvs and bathroom makeovers. But I'm thinking institution here, not individuals.

It was only a few years ago that Freedom of Information bids to the Assembly enquiring about AMs' expenses were turned down. Openness? What openness?

As late as April 2007 - in other words after the 2006 Government of Wales Act had created the situtation where there was an Assembly Commission in a position to respond - we sent an FoI bid to the staff of the Presiding Officer requesting access to expense claims and Additional Costs Allowances. The final paragraph went like this:

"I understand that the individual expenses claims of members has been publicly available in Scotland since 2005. I trust that as part of its ongoing commitment to transparency and openess the Assembly will wish to follow suit". As it so happens, back then, no it didn't.

Back came the response:

"The files referred to in your request contain information which is considered to be personal to the Assembly Member concerned, and where relevant, the staff who work for them and third parties. Therefore the release of this information would again not be consistent with Data Protection Principles and are, therefore, also exempt under section 40 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Whilst it is possible that the files contain information that may not be personal information then the cost of reviewing each of the files and redacting any personal information would be disproportionate.

However if you are able to be more specific with your request we can give you a breakdown of Assembly Members expenses".

It didn't wish to emulate the Scottish transparency then ... but it does now. It took another bid before the door finally opened. The software used to put all claims online today is the same as that used by the Scottish Parliament. The principle is the same here too: your claims are generally based on receipts. If you're out of pocket, you get to claim it back.

And there are more reforms on the way, ones that will inevitably touch things like the second home allowance that has almost become a dirty word to uttered only very quietly and within the confines of the Fees Office.

Sir Roger Jones' recommendations will be made public a week today. The man must feel ever so slightly like a striker facing an open goal. Who's going to argue with him when he has 2, 251, 968 Welsh voters on his side?

What did I miss?

Betsan Powys | 20:15 UK time, Thursday, 25 June 2009

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A question from a member of a faith group on human rights and asylum seekers. Silence from the panel who look to Sir Emyr. He recognises a hospital pass when he sees one. He is, after all, a bit of an expert on the UN and the relations of any number of international institutions with it.

Foreign affairs, yes, they would be reserved. But the panel has had a moment to think. That doesn't mean, says Helen Mary Jones, that Ministers in Wales can't raise a voice about issues like asylum seekers. What about Ama Sumani, says the Archbishop, who was deported despite receiving life-prolonging treatment in a Cardiff hospital? Legal powers are one thing. Moral powers are another.

Lord Richard Livsey is short and sharp: what should or would trigger a referendum?

Richard Wyn Jones evokes his "several" dead grandfathers to explain why he's not a betting man. By several, we take it he means two. Forget 'should' then. What WILL trigger a referendum? David Cameron taking over at Number 10.

Tristan Garel-Jones isn't sure how to answer the question but IS sure that if there is to be a referendum, then the talented Welsh men and women who don't happen to live in Wales, maybe because "they've reached the top of the tree in London or in Paris," should be allowed to vote. No! shouts the audience. So what are we saying to young, ambitious Welsh people asks Mr Garel-Jones who make it to the top? Gee, ta, says the audience, jam packed full of people who are on their way to the top in Wales, if not there already.

What are we saying to Sir Emyr he adds? I don't know what his personal life is (perish the thought that the man should have one until the ink on his report is dry) but does he get a vote? What about the Welshman who happens to have become Archbishop of Canterbury?

The other Archbishop, the one who has at least reached the top of the tree in Wales, tries to answer the question posed, as does Sir Emyr. The referendum should be held when the politicians choose to hold it and they won't hold it until they're quite sure it is at the very least winnable. His job is to set out the arguments but the real job, he smiles, is working out which are the killing arguments.

Nick Ainger wants to see a referendum triggered but is entirely clear that it ain't going to happen. If Labour and Plaid pulling together barely scraped a yes vote last time round, there's no way it'll be won any time soon. If it's lost? Then what does that do to the crediblity of the Assembly, that ten, twelve, fifteen years down the line the people of Wales can't be persuaded to give it more powers?

It's over to the audience - still smarting and feeling dissed by Tristan Garel-Jones. "I'm going to set up a new organisation" says a woman who has jumped to her feet, "Madams (as least I think she said Madams ...) for Sticking to the Point and Answering the Questions! A large part of the audience loves it.

"I'm a proud Welshman" says the next to get the microphone, "that's why I want a referendum so we can say No for once and for all". The other, smaller part of the audience loves it.

Time to vote. If there were a referendum tomorrow, would you vote?

87% would. 13% would not.

And if you voted, would you vote to leave things as they are, or vote to give the National Assembly law making powers all at once?

64% want law making powers; 36% don't.

Is that nearly three quarters asks the compere, clearly thinking with some pleasure that these public events are all over.

Sir Emyr jumps in. Nearly two thirds I think you'll find ...

Time for refreshments and "a treat" - arias sung by a young Chinese opera student who is probably hoping to reach the top of the tree in her own country. Beats a curry.

It is now.

Live from City Hall ...

Betsan Powys | 19:08 UK time, Thursday, 25 June 2009

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I know you didn't ask for a live blog of the All Wales Convention's final public event but ...

As I arrive at City Hall Derek the weatherman is setting up to give you his version of the weather. There's thunder on the way. Inside the All Wales Convention is setting up to try, once more, to gauge the political climate ... Thunder on the way? Or a damp squib?

Outside too a group of No campaigners, people I've got to know on first name terms over the past few months and a gang determined to use this last opportunity - the last public event held by the Convention - to make their voices heard.

"Ask them how many of the people here tonight work for WAG in one way or other!" says Dave to Trisan Garel-Jones. "Good idea" comes the response, followed by "What's WAG?"

Inside Plaid's Helen Mary Jones uses her own experience of the LCO process to illustrate her own version of the complexity of the system, the many hurdles she had to negotiate before reaching the point she'd wanted to reach from the beginning. She looks pleased to have told her story so succinctly and effectively.

"Very glad to hear you got there in the end" retorts Tristan Garel Jones.

Richard Wyn Jones and Archbishop Barry Morgan join in. The present devolutionary settlement gives us a system that is not a sensible way of making government. It is neither clear nor transparent. No-one should dismiss that fact.

It's Nick Ainger's turn. Legislation IS complex. The environment is complex too. And if complexity and taking your time leads to better scrutiny, then all the better. He WANTS Wales to reach Part Four powers (into real Convention-speak here) but he doesn not think the people of Wales could vote for it. It's a mistake to get bogged down in a Byzantine debate about whether a system is Byzantine.

Sir Emyr? Ah. the traditional Jones-Parry disclaimer. He may have a view but if he does, it's of no interest to any one and will have no bearing on what he has to say tonight.

The first round of applause for the first man to have asked for equality: the right to decide for himself what devolutionary settlement we have in Wales.

True Wales are keeping their powder dry.

Tristan Garelt-Jones has just proven that he was brought up speaking Welsh before moving to Spain. He adds in English, please don't get hung up on the idea of devolution for devolution's sake being a good thing. He brings into the debate that infamous slippery slope. Loud applause.

It's not helpful, says Helen Mary Jones, to refer to that slippery slope. "Why not? It's what you want isn't it" says Mr Jones!

The debate is heating up.

Off to broadcast on Newyddion.

Tightrope walking

Betsan Powys | 08:50 UK time, Thursday, 25 June 2009

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An early doors interview with Radio Wales about the All Wales Convention's last "public event" in Cardiff, in City Hall tonight. No curry. No tea-dance. Just the promise of a "lively and thought-provoking debate."

There are a few Joneses promised as well, from all sides of the debate. There's Plaid Assembly Member Helen Mary Jones and Professor Richard Wyn Jones, the man charged with leading the drive at Cardiff University into researching governance, devolution and what it all means.

On the panel too, Lord Tristan Garel-Jones, the former Conservative Minister who floated the idea of the Welsh diaspora having a vote in any referendum on the country's future.

And of course, Chair of the All Wales Convention, Sir Emyr Jones Parry - no hyphen, no Summer to look forward to either because now starts the job of writing up his report for Rhodri Morgan and Ieuan Wyn Jones.

Sir Emyr has already talked about the "fog" as he puts it surrounding Wales' current devolution settlement. You suspect if you were to ask him how many of us understand the settlement with which we currently live, he wouldn't talk in percentages, not even tiny ones. He'd talk in terms of a few dozen, if that.

You suspect too that one set of Joneses will bring that cutting from the Western Mail with them tonight and argue that fog is one very good reason for having a referendum. Bring in an era and a system which is simpler, which people will have voted for themselves and which may even pass an adapted Tony Benn-style test of democracy: simply understanding what power you've got, where that power came from - let alone how that power is exercised and to whom you're accountable.

The other will point to the fog and say that the referendum game is up. If we don't understand the current settlement and frankly, if we're showing little desire to cut through the fog, how could a referendum shine a genuine light on where we want to go from here? We don't even know from where we're starting.

Last night Sir Emyr told BBC Wales of another real problem that faces one set of Joneses more than the other. In the pub, he said - and I'm guessing he must have hard-drinking spies that tells him about conversations down the local - "people are talking about who's in and out of the Lions test team, have I got a job to go to tomorrow, the economy. What they're not talking about are which powers the Assembly has. I'm sure of that".

Cue the Joneses again:

They're not talking about it yet precisely because the present system is so complex that nobody gets it, the yes campaign hasn't even got going yet, the debate hasn't started, just the gathering of evidence so we can have an honest, decent, national debate about the future of our country.

Or

That's it then. People aren't talking about it because they're fine as they are. They've got more important, if not bigger fish to fry, real problems that need sorting before you start going on about the constitution and LCOs and all that stuff that only those other Joneses care about.

Before the interivew kicked off this morning the presenter whispered urgently: "It says in the notes that I'm to ask you what Sir Emyr will be doing next, now that the public meetings are over ... Why? Is he becoming a tightrope walker or something?"

Ah no. That's what he's been doing for the past eighteen months ... if not for most of his career. By the time his report comes out in November we'll be able to establish just how good he's got at it this time and whether he'll decline a safety net, go for broke and point Ministers in one, clear direction out of the fog.

I've started so I'll finish

Betsan Powys | 20:56 UK time, Wednesday, 24 June 2009

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Twelve hours ago I knew far less than I do now about dinosaurs, Greek mythology, the High School Musical films, Julius Caesar, The Simpsons, the first Plaid Cymru MP Gwynfor Evans and what sound like incredibly exciting but bloody books about demons and spies along with any number of subjects that appeal to today's bright young things.

By young I mean ten year olds vying to become this year's Mastermind Cymru champions. I now know rather more about all of the above, helped along by the fact that I have all the answers written on the card in front of me.

Some will get a lot right but no-one will get everything right. Every single one of them will all be glad when it's all over ... which brings me back to the Welsh language LCO and the row it has stirred. Ah yes, I've started so I'll finish. I'm not referring to the comments following yesterday's posting, though - as is traditional on this blog - nothing gets you going into your corners, seconds out, like the mention of 'yr iaith'.

No, I'm talking about the fury amongst members of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee that the Secretary of State saw fit to announce a meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee to discuss their report on plans to devolve power over language legislation to the Assembly before the report had seen the light of day. Not on.

Peter Hain's desire to "get the dirty washing done before recess" was one thing as one angry voice put it but he'd shocked everyone by jumping the gun.

The first anyone knew of a debate before the Welsh Grand next month was an announcement on the Wales Office web site. Not on again. The ink on the Select Committee's report will hardly be dry by July 8th so Welsh MPs will barely have had time to consider it. Mr Hain might be "under pressure from language campaigners, from the CBI, from his own side, from all sides but ..." his fellow Welsh MPs had been "stunned" by the way he'd played things.

A statement this afternoon from the Chair of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, Hywel Francis makes that icily clear: "I have informed him he will need to consult with me and the opposition parties before a Welsh Grand Committee can meet to discuss my Committee's Report."

There's tellin' 'im.

As a colleague put it the other day Mr Hain is very, very pleased to be back in office and is very, very keen to get on with things. On this occasion, just that little bit too keen by the looks of it. The debate before the Welsh Grand has been postponed.

The new date? Pass.

A grand old time

Betsan Powys | 15:45 UK time, Tuesday, 23 June 2009

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People in Gwydyr House, as a friend of mine once said, shouldn't throw stones. But they can throw up interesting stories on a Tuesday afternoon and some light on the future of the Welsh language LCO while they're at it.

We're expecting the Welsh Affairs Select Committee to announce what they make of the LCO over the next few weeks, if not days. Every wink, every nudge suggests that negotiations with the Assembly committee have been more than cordial. They've been "extremely pleasant" as one MP put it and "both sides have learned a lot from each other". I bet he very nearly added: "No, really!"

Bottom line? The wave of protest in response to plans to put language legislation in the hands of the Assembly just hasn't crashed over the Wales Office as some in Gwydyr House had expected. Yes, there have been issues, some serious, raised by parts of Welsh business and industry but otherwise? More muted, you suspect, than anticipated.

When we find out how "pleasant" the Welsh Affairs Select Committee's final report will be, there'll be some more to-ing and fro-ing between the Assembly and the Wales Office but the final Order should be in place within weeks.

But first, on July 8th there'll be some grand standing and I mean that almost literally.

The Select Committee's report on the order will be debated by the Welsh Grand Committee next month - the first time an LCO-in-the-making will have faced this particular hurdle. Why? Because this is an important issue, a contentious issue. When the Government of Wales Act was in the making, Peter Hain made clear that those sorts of issues would be debated fully - and here we are, a chance for every Welsh MP to have his or her say.

And then? Then, some time during the next term of Parliament, the Welsh Language LCO will be debated on the floor of the House of Commons. It won't go through on the nod. It will be debated in full, the first time in 16 years that "the language" will be discussed in the Commons.

Will MPs chomp at the bit, try to catch Mr Bercow's eye and give the order a good kicking?
Possibly. One or two contenders come to mind.

Or hang on a second: with a few months to go before a General Election, isn't it more likely that they'll take the opportunity to stand one by one and praise the order, welcome the passing of a sensible piece of legislation that they will hope, in turn, will lead to sensible Welsh laws being passed by the Assembly, securing the future of a Welsh language that (in it' place) they support ... and vote it on its way?

On its way where next? To the Privy Council possibly by Christmas and bear in mind that the born-again Welsh Secretary Peter Hain will also, then, be well on his way to claiming that it is he who delivered for Wales the most significant boost for the Welsh language in quite some time.

Boogie on down

Betsan Powys | 11:57 UK time, Tuesday, 23 June 2009

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A quickie between lobby briefings:

The dance company formerly known as Diversions is now known as National Dance Company Wales.

To celebrate this "dynamic new name" the company turned to dynamic Assembly Members to contribute to a new video which was on show as I left the Senedd last night - under the slogan "Dance is for the nation."

Kirsty Williams has got rhythm, Andrew Davies and Dafydd Ellis Thomas have plenty of oomph while Rhodri Morgan has got to watch he doesn't step backwards or he'll be off the parapet outside his fifth floor office. "Rhodri Morgan's timing was amazing!" enthused the lithe young dancer who'd taught him the moves. Not entirely sure his potential successors as holders of the office on the fifith floor would agree with her. Perhpas their dance is called "the straining at the bit".

But ... where was the Conservative mover and shaker? Do Tories not dance?

Nick Bourne was invited but had, he says, "a clashing engagement" - one he probably worked very hard to find.

No relation to Mathew then ...

The Landlady

Betsan Powys | 12:37 UK time, Monday, 22 June 2009

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I woke up yesteray morning in a B+B in Pembrokeshire to find the landlady in the kitchen leafing through the Sunday Telegraph.

I should explain that she is a landlady cum barrister, who tends to her garden and to people like me at weekends and who despite being of a certain age, still works as a barrister during the week in Cardiff. I get the impression that not much gets past her and that not much ever has got past her.

She is also the widow of a politician who might have become a Conservative MP himself had he not chosen to fight a seat that's been in Tory hands only once since it came into being - and that was some twenty years too late for our landlady to start worrying about allowances from the inside.

She knew personally one or two of those whose breakfasts on Saturday had, perhaps, been a little uncomfortable. "He was at Oxford, used to be all for the poor people" she chided "and just look at how much he's spent on his home!"

She had, however, had enough of the revelations. It was time to do something about it and the same went for Assembly politicians too.

She'd never been to the Senedd building. I urged her to pop in, wondered what she'd make of the glass walls, the open galleries, the chamber with its many vantage points. Yes, she said archly, she'd heard all about the idea of conveying transparency. Maybe it was me but she didn't sound convinced.

Next Monday you'll be able to go online and discover what your Assembly Member has claimed in the past financial year. If any of them have bought iPods or bargain pyrex dishes, you get the feeling they won't have claimed any public money for them this time round. If they've dared buy a sofa at all, it won't be one they'd be ashamed to tell their constituents they helped pay for, though it might be one they'd be ashamed to show their neighbours.

Online transparency here will reflect that of the Scottish parliament so if you want to get used to it, take a look at their guide here.

But before you can say "Expense Headings Financial Year 2008/9 onwards" it'll be on to the verdict of Roger Jones and his panel of five who've been considering what AMs should be allowed to claim for and what they should not. Their report will be made public in a fortnight's time.

Should AMs be allowed to buy a second home at all? Shouldn't they, instead, be given a contribution towards renting a property in Cardiff?

Should regional AMs work together and rent one office between them?

And should allowances be based on attendance? In other words could the idea floated by Gordon Brown, only to be shouted down as "paying 'em just to turn up to work", come into force in the National Assembly? Hands up those of you already tempted to coin phrases about the Brussels gravy train coming, not to Westminster but to Cardiff Bay? Coin? Or should that read 'revisit'?

And what of the Assembly party leaders? Will they urge their groups to accept all of the recommendations, whatever those will be? Or will they take a risk and take on Sir Roger if they don't like his conclusions? "What and commit electoral suicide?" said one official this morning.

"By the way who is the MP for the constituency these days" asked the landlady - harking back to her husband's old stomping ground - as we left. I told her. "Never heard of him" came the response.

Pity the Telegraph journalist who'd have had to pick up the phone to this political wife.

Payback time

Betsan Powys | 19:44 UK time, Thursday, 18 June 2009

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From the princely sum of £1.00 to over £6000 14 of the 40 Welsh MPs have put their hands in their pockets and their conscience at ease by repaying money to the public purse.

One or two names here we hadn't expected to see. But then one or two we'd expected to see ... who aren't there.

We've contacted them this evening all to ask what's behind the payback.

Bottle Blanks

Betsan Powys | 16:37 UK time, Thursday, 18 June 2009

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So what have we learned today?

Number one: that without the Telegraph's uncensored copy of MPs' allowance claims, we'd know far, far less about how some politicians have abused the system than we do now. Take one look at the redactions in the allowance claims put online today and you'll know what I mean.

Why blank out every single detail on a train ticket that cost £8.50? What effect do MPs themselves think it'll have on curious constituents to put up for all to see a page with nothing on it but a big black box and the sum: £117? Black boxes usually contain vital information. If these do, it's only thanks to a leak to the Telegraph that we know what that information is.

We've learned that it was Ogmore MP, Huw Irranca-Davies - a junior UK Government minister - who claimed for a case of House of Commons whisky as part of his MPs expenses. The water of life was meant as a raffle prize in his constituency.

It was, he said, clearly an "error and indefensible" and he'll be paying back the £127.66 that he was paid. [I'm sorry to add to his woes but put VAT on top of that and the cheque should be made out for ... more like £150. Must be good stuff that House of Commons whisky.)

Over in Monmouthshire, David Davies MP has defended payments made to his family's business as part of his claims. Last year his expenses show that he paid nearly £2000 to a company called Burrow Heath based in Newport -- the payments were for production of newsletters and other promotional material. Burrow Heath was his Dad's haulage company which has now ceased trading.

Mr Davies is adamant that there's nothing amiss here. The work was done at short notice and at cost value, neither he or any of his family made any profit from the work. He now uses a specialist company in London for the production of such material -- one that is used by many other MPs -- and the real costs was significantly higher.

"People will question it" he said "but then people will question anything. But if I knew then what I know now ..." You just wonder whether the independent panel he intends to establish to scrutinise all of his expenses claims would have had a quiet word. I think so.

What do you make of it all? In Cardiff Bay this afternoon the upshot was this: very little, if any outrage, no sack em all from those who stopped to chat to us. They were sick of it.

There's been a sea-change: most said they'd be prepared to pay more in salaries rather see a system that encourages politicians to search for loop-holes.

More pay 'em more than hang 'em all?

Reason and redactions

Betsan Powys | 11:11 UK time, Thursday, 18 June 2009

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Just how bad is claiming back for a wreath on Remembrance Sunday?

If your MP has claimed for food during recess should he or she say sorry or do you accept they were working, even if they could have gone home?

How much is reasonable to claim for cleaning a flat in London? (At least I've learned which of my colleagues pay for cleaning their own houses ... and how much.)

How upset would someone be to find that the cost of that bottle of House of Commons whisky their MP handed over at Christmas wasn't just claimed back but that the charge for delivering it to his home was claimed back as well?

And advice on tax? There's an awful lot of that.

If you want to check what your local MP has claimed back over the years then you can do so here.

A dose of medicine

Betsan Powys | 11:42 UK time, Wednesday, 17 June 2009

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"Let us remember" said Jonathan Morgan in a speech last week "that the majority of people who support Welsh Conservatives are not millionaires. They are not landed gentry with moats and duck houses. They are hard working men and women living in terraced streets and on housing estates. They want a good, gritty, no-nonsense Welsh Conservative party to stick up for them".

He was pretty clear about something else too: that if the Welsh Conservatives are to break through in Assembly election terms, they need to be seen as "a truly Welsh party". It is, he says, "time to be purposeful in motive".

I think the former Shadow Health Minister would consider scrapping free prescriptions as "purposeful".

Yes, the Conservatives here - as in Scotland - have consistently rejected and voted against the introduction of free prescriptions. But telling people who currently don't pay that under a future Conservative Assembly Government they would have to reach for their purses in the supermarket pharmacy queue once again is quite another matter.

Scrapping prescription charges was never, in their view, the best use of NHS funds nor the fairest way of doing things. Welsh Conservatives were never inclined to accept the Assembly Government argument that free prescriptions are a long-term investment, a freebie - yes - but one with a purpose. It was designed to encourage those who were deterred from coming off benefits and taking a job to get back to work because prescriptions, at least, would still be free. They would not lose out. It was designed to improve the long-term health of the nation.

What the Conservatives called it was "an expensive con trick". This policy meant millionaires were let off paying for prescriptions and that was plain daft, especially at a time when money is tight and the NHS needs every penny spent in the right place.

Just look at Wales said the Scottish Conservatives back in April. Abolishing prescription charges there has led to a seven fold increase in the use of antibiotics! (Not a figure an Assembly Government spokesman recognises, incidentally.) Don't go there!

Why, counters the Welsh Assembly Government, should people with heart disease, high blood pressure, those who've had an organ transplant have had to pay in the past? This way, the unfairness is removed. The system is fair.

Both sides claim then, that 'fairness' is on their side.

So who would pay if charges were reintroduced?

Well ... 93% of prescriptions were free before the charge was scrapped .If you were exempt then, you'll probably be exempt if charges are reintroduced in future.

Young people, in other words those under 25, pensioners, those on income support, those with "certain medical conditions" and - added to the list of exemptions by the Welsh Conservatives already - those facing cancer treatment would not pay. There is also "a grey area" into which the party now intends to delve more deeply. In other words that list may well grow as past unfairnesses thrown up by the system are thrown at the architects of this policy change.

How much would "those who can afford to pay", as the Shadow Health Minister Andrew RT Davies put it this morning, have to pay per prescription? "A modest fee" of between £3 - £5. Prescription charges in England now are £7.20. In Scotland they're £4, though the plan there too is to move towards abolishing them by 2011.

If you plump for £4, then how much would the NHS save? Somewhere in the region of £30million per year is the figure the Conservatives have put on it. Given that when charges were abolished in 2007, the cost to the Government was put at £29.5 million in the first year, the maths seems to make sense.

Any money saved would be ring-fenced and spent in areas like palliative care and improving the care of stroke patients. That would be fairer, say the Conservatives. How can the same old Tory agenda of slashing public spending be seen as fairer, comes the response?

But add those "grey areas" and precise figures become rather imprecise.

And what about the cost of re-establishing the mechanism around administrating the charges, means-testing, checking against fraud (how many 'pregnant men' used to be exempt?) All that will cost.

What about the bigger picture, ask fans of free prescriptions? What about those asthma sufferers who don't want to shell out £8 for two inhalers so go for the blue one that makes them feel better rather than the brown one that actually treats their condition. Their health gets worse. They end up in A+E. Look at the global picture and the £30m starts to look like ... well, an expensive con trick perhaps.

"It's not a vote winner "says one Plaid AM. But it certainly does what it says on the tin, the one with the label that says Welsh Conservatives - distinct policies - use by 2011.

What happened next?

Betsan Powys | 15:23 UK time, Tuesday, 16 June 2009

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Last week Labour Finance Committee member Alun Davies issued a call to arms to his fellow members and threatened to subpoena the Deputy First Minister, Plaid's Ieuan Wyn Jones.

What happened next?

Apparently, Mr Davies has lost his place on the Finance Committee. Another Labour member will be appointed in his place.

Proof that doing your homework can sometimes get you kicked out of class.

UPDATE 16:55: The man himself says the story is not true. Which means a senior source who was pretty clear that it was true, has some explaining to do.

Cunning plans

Betsan Powys | 15:16 UK time, Tuesday, 16 June 2009

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A simple point from an impeccable source who's noticed that the Lords Grand Committee debate on the Red Meat Order took place last Wednesday. Oh yes, there are people who keep an eye out for these things.

The point?

The Red Meat LCO was introduced immediately after the Summer recess last year. Given it's the least controversial order imaginable and it's taken a full parliamentary year to get through, the chances of getting the brand new Housing LCO through by next May must be in doubt.

He adds, darkly, "... unless they have a cunning plan".

Ashes to ashes

Betsan Powys | 11:26 UK time, Tuesday, 16 June 2009

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Apologies that blogging has taken a back seat for the past few days. I'll comfort myself with the thought that one former Minister, at least, would be glad to know that what he might call 'proper work' has got in the way of blogging.

This morning the death was announced of the Housing LCO. One half expected to find a small announcement in the obituaries section of the Western Mail - perhaps along the lines of:

In Affectionate Remembrance
of
THE AFFORDABLE HOUSING LCO
Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances
R.I.P.
N.B. - The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Gwydyr House.

Those of you of a sporting bent will get the reference...In terms of the saga itself, I won't go through it again. I'll leave you to catch up with the tortuous life and now death of the Assembly Government's first attempt to gain powers that would allow them to increase the numbers of affordable houses.

It has been formally withdrawn but don't despair. A new one has been born, even if Andrew Davies' announcement at this morning's briefing felt every so slightly premature, as though the man holding the new baby could have done with a few more weeks before telling the world about it.

But a brand new LCO there is. It'll be included in the Government's new legislative programme before the end of the term and then tabled in the Autumn. There's some suggestion that having seen the original, this LCO's spin around Whitehall departments for approval could take a little less time. All the same, I'll state the obvious: there will be an election by next Spring at the latest and if the LCO hasn't made it through all the hoops before then, it'll be back to the beginning in Westminster terms at least.

Will the new Order include the controversial powers that would allow the Assembly Government to abolish the Right to Buy in some areas? Mr Davies said that their "thinking on the whole issue of affordable housing has moved on considerably" and there was now a need for much broader powers over the area.

Here was proof, he said, that the LCO system was working.

Funny that. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have read it as proof that the process is, in NIck Bourne's words, "falling apart at the seams".

Mr J and Mr G

Betsan Powys | 12:43 UK time, Thursday, 11 June 2009

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They came, anoraks buffed to a shine and answered four rounds of questions on a decade of devolution.

The Public Affairs Cymru annual quiz drew lobbyists, journalists and politicians - the sharpest, most competitive political brains in the Bay no less. There was some sport and general knowledge in there - real life stuff - thrown in to confuse those who haven't dared miss one First Minister's Questions since 1999. You mean you don't KNOW who the Welsh national football team manager was on the day the Assembly first met in plenary?

Which political party came out top? Victory amongst the politicians to The Lord Derbys - the Welsh Conservatives, team title harking back to the party leader back in 1859 when they last won the popular vote in Wales ... and beating the other parties for the second time in five days as they put it. It helped that Welsh Labour didn't field a team. Insert your quip here.

I'll try a couple on you as long as you promise not to resort to Google.

Name the Assembly Members who've been present for some part of all three Assembly terms. (Much debate last night but the teams and question setter eventually agreed there were 37 names, so 37 points up for grabs).

In percentage terms which Welsh Assembly seat has the biggest majority?

Name the five permanent Wales rugby managers since devolution ... and

when the Assembly was established, how many Welsh MPs and Lords became AMs?

A clue: Ieuan Wyn Jones is one of them, the one name forgotten by all three of the teams who were in the lead at that point. Shame!

No danger though of AMs on the Finance Committee forgetting Mr Jones. They've taken on the Deputy First Minister before now on what they see as his "breathtaking" refusal to disclose to them a document detailing private advice he was given by an expert panel - advice that he considered before putting together the Assembly Government's road-building strategy.

There is history here.

All the same hearing a Labour Assembly Member, Alun Davies, threatening to subpoena Ieuan Wyn Jones to appear before the Committee to justify why he is withholding the information caused his fellow members to sit up and press officers to finish their lunch early.

Chair Angela Burns said she'd check with officials whether such a move was possible. Mr Davies was there ahead of her. He'd done his homework. He'd checked the Government of Wales Act 2006 and was entirely clear that Committees have the right to subpoena Ministers to appear before them.

What a shame he couldn't rustle up a team to appear in last night's quiz with that sort of knowledge of procedures.

The official response suggests Mr Jones "would be more than willing to meet the Chair of the Committee to discuss this issue and to reassure the committee, once again, that due process is being followed". His refusal to make the private advice public before decisions have been taken and policies announced, it says, "is entirely consistent with the Government's Code of Practice on Access to Information."

By the way how many votes did Lord Derby and his Conservatives win in Wales back in 1859 to top the poll? The answer to that one is a whopping 2,267 votes to the Liberals' 1,585 votes. No need for Lib-Dem type local focus teams back then to knock on doors.

And that Welsh national football manager ...?

It was Bobby Gould.

Labour: The Remake

Betsan Powys | 12:51 UK time, Wednesday, 10 June 2009

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If you drive past Transport House these days - Labour HQ - and if you believe in pathetic fallacy, then take a good look at the building.

If you've ever been to a rugby match in Cardiff, whether in the days of the Arms Park or the Millennium Stadium, you'll know the office block I mean. It's the one opposite the Westgate pub, just where the police prevent you from driving into town on match days, a green triangle outside, where protesters with their banners used to gather before marches. It's where I went (yes, as a young reporter) to interview Rhodri Morgan MP in 1993 about the appointment of John Redwood as Welsh Secretary and where he railed against "the Pol Pot of privatisation" coming to Cathays Park. I rushed back to the BBC's offices in Llandaf to get the clip onto the lunchtime news, though it's the Yorkshire Post that's credited with coming up with that particular label.

I drove past Transport House this morning as usual and it looks bombed out. It sits in a sea of mud, surrounded by steel barriers and scaffolding, the handful of Welsh Labour posters stuck up during the election campaign not disguising the fact that the place looks under siege.

If you wanted a metaphor for a party machinery that's 'broken', 'kaput', 'incapable', 'non-existent' - all words I've heard used to describe it over the past few days - then there it is and that's by its friends. 'The machinery' is down to a handful of people, working without fistfuls of cash and with their own members now pointing a finger directly at them through those steel barriers.

What's worse is that those Labour members seem convinced that the other side have got it sussed. "I didn't see a single Conservative out campaigning" said one pretty sharp Labour operator the other night. The conclusion? That given they made in-roads in areas where Labour hadn't seen it coming, the Tories are well-resourced, tightly-run and making use of modern campaigning tactics behind the scenes. Knocking on doors isn't where its at.

For what it's worth I'm not sure that's true, unless you still think phone-bashing and telephone campaigning is 'modern'. It was in the days of the Arm's Park perhaps .. but I am pretty sure they'll have just those sorts of techniques in place and ready to go long before a General Election.

Lack of cash played its part in hindering the campaign, says Rhodri Morgan. Add it to "the toxic combination" of anger at expense claims and the economic downturn and there you have a stab at explaining why Labour lost in Wales.

But this morning Huw Lewis AM came out and said more bluntly and more directly than anyone else so far that the First Minister is wrong to stop there.

Here's a sample of what he had to say:

Labour's nosedive in popularity in Wales goes back way before the recession but when he put his head above the parapet after the Assembly election in 2007 and said that something very basic was going wrong and needed addressing, he wasn't very popular. Only now has the penny dropped within the Welsh Labour movement, he says.

"There is something specific about the Welsh dimension of politics that is bad for Labour" is how he put it. Yes, it's chronically under-resourced but there is "something else amiss here" with the political message. The party shouldn't be trying to come up with "silver bullets for parts of Wales" but should rather be searching for a message for every man and woman in Wales, one that must be found and communicated rapidly.

He ended with a rallying cry along these lines: We need a remaking of Labour in Wales from top to bottom, not just the Labour party but the Trades Unions and all the progressive allies we've made over the past ten years that are deserting us.

All of this in a three minute interview on ampm.

In the middle Huw was asked why then did he - leadership contender - want Rhodri Morgan to stay on? Why would he want the man who has presided over this nosedive, who voiced a specific concern for voters west of the Loughor and Clwyd rivers, who steered the Welsh party away from the modernising machine of New Labour, to continue in his job?

Because, he said, there was "something particular about this moment" that made things searingly bad for Labour and it would have been even worse if Rhodri Morgan wasn't there at the top. "Rhodri is held in very high regard, especially by the voters".

That's patently true. His recognition and popularity scores in a recent BBC Wales poll caused a polling expert in London to send me an Email: "With figures like that, Rhodri Morgan for Pope I say". But is Huw hoping the First Minister presides over the changes needed, is there in the eye of the storm working out which way to go, or is his role simply to keep things calm at the top, even turning a blind eye when he doesn't like the look of the "remade" Welsh Labour party?

One thing must now be very clear to those in Transport House and well beyond: the Conservatives are focused on taking seats at the General Election that suddenly look winnable. They're realistic, by which I mean they're not including Alyn and Deeside on the list just yet and don't imagine they'll win more seats than Labour come a General Election.

But between now and then, they're getting on with the job of getting that rugby team plus elected and between now and then it's clear Labour members and activists who want to stop them are not going to keep quiet.

By the way if you want to comb through the European election results constituency by constituency, here they are. Scroll down and click under the second picture for a full breakdown.

1865* and all that

Betsan Powys | 10:25 UK time, Tuesday, 9 June 2009

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It's 1865 and Aberystwyth sees the opening of the Royal Pier. It had cost a staggering £13,600 to build.

The Mimosa sets sail for Patagonia and the Welsh colony that survives until today - the one that's given the world what must be its most intriguing accent - is founded by Michael D. Jones.

The Ffestiniog narrow-gauge passenger railway is the first of its kind in the world and the Whitford Point Lighthouse on Gower is the only cast-iron lighthouse ever built in the UK.

South Wales Cricket Club travels to Gravesend to play the Gentlemen of Kent and John Jones (writing as Mathetes) publishes in Welsh his Sermon to the Students of ... where but Haverfordwest.

Oh and at the General Election the Conservatives win the popular vote in Wales.

Not since the morning-after-the-night-before back in 1865 then have the voters of Wales woken up to find they've voted Tory. Now you've gone and done it again and finally, after dreadful performances at the polls that seem to have gone unnoticed elsewhere, Labour's dwindling fortunes in Wales have got MPs listening and worrying.

Not just Welsh ones either. Tom Harris, who last night was one of a handful of members to speak out against the Prime Minister, does a nice line in stunned surprise. "The Conservatives beat Labour in the the popular vote in Wales (and no number of exclamation marks after that sentence could do that statement justice)".

Peter Hain, back in the Wales Office and a man with a mission, doesn't do surprise. He said before the votes were counted that it would be disastrous and it was. He's sounded warnings many times before now that punishing Labour = a Tory win. Now that voters can actually see that staying at home and not voting Labour really does get you a Tory victory, it's bye-bye hypothetical dire warnings, hello reality.

Of course the problem for Labour is that the voters may not dislike the idea of letting the Tories have a go. They may even quite like it. They might notice that the sky hasn't fallen in and may even be tempted to stay home again come the General Election. Why not, unless they're convinced that their reasons for not turning out this time - or even giving their vote to someone else - have been addressed.

A perfectly accurate but slightly blase 'you can't read these results across to a General Election' and 'at least Laborur voters stayed at home rather than switching', surely won't wash with them.

After last night's meeting of MPs in Committee Room 14 in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister looks a deal safer than he did before all the desk banging and loud applause. "We've been re-educated" muttered Paul Flynn as he headed off to the canteen later. "Haven't you heard Betsan? Everything's fine. Gordon is the man for the job. Whatever made us think otherwise?" Unconvinced wasn't the word.

At least one MP that we'll put down as a Welsh waverer has been convinced that the best option, for now, is to give Mr Brown his unequivocal support. The others were pretty much convinced of that already.

A colleague who had a word with Mr Brown last night in the Commons reports that after the meeting the Prime Minister was "like a new man" before adding, "I'm not quite sure why".

In Wales there's agreement that the warring has got to stop and the fightback has to start. This, this and this are all worth a read.

As even the most loyal MPs still made clear last night there have to be practical, specific changes without resorting to what sounds like "childish finger-pointing" as Rhodri Morgan put it yesterday. Because they are still acutely aware that taking down the Prime Minister by inflicting a thousand cuts will simply prove more painful, more protracted and will do yet more to take down with him any chance the Labour party has of winning a General Election.

* UPDATE: Mea culpa.

The Western Mail's Tomos Livingstone puts me right. It was1859 not 1865. If I'd put my glasses on to read the graph I'd have seen that he's right. Tomos very kindly tries to let me off the hook by saying they were probably two posh men and a dog voting back then and that they'd probably started to discuss the plans for the pier in Aberystwyth at least. But six years earlier it was by the looks of it so let's go for the opening of the East Bute Dock in Cardiff and the opening of Corris Railway instead.

The rest stands!

Giggs and Jenkins

Betsan Powys | 16:26 UK time, Monday, 8 June 2009

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I've just seen Rhodri Morgan.

The election results, he said, were awful, "a kicking - the worse I remember".

Just as he said after the local election results last year - in fact pretty much word for word what he said after the local election results last year - "the tide is turning against Labour but it is (still) not time to panic.

There was a typical Rhodri Morgan line: "We could have had Ryan Giggs and Katherine Jenkins at the top of our list - we would not have won".

His list of must-dos? Stay united, be seen to sort out the expenses mess, listen to the message delivered last night. How? On that front he said bluntly that something will be done, something will be moving before the end of this term.

It might have concentrated minds in Westminster, of course, that Labour lost 15 constituencies last night that are held by Labour MPs.

Time to panic?

Betsan Powys | 14:42 UK time, Monday, 8 June 2009

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Remember this?
I hope those students who sat furiously taking notes in Cross Keys three months ago went on to use some of what they heard in their essays. If they did, they may well get a retrospective A+. At last night's count Labour supporters and officials found themselves cheering Labour wins in Blaenau Gwent and a hair's breadth victory in Cardiff West, the First Minister's patch. Conservatives mouths fell open when I suggested we'd heard they'd won Alun and Deeside.

The second Conservative candidate, Evan Price, started to consider the possiblity that he might get elected. A Brussels job on the line, how was he keeping his cool? "By remembering how I feel when I'm in front of a nasty judge" he said. "I think to myself that he can't kill me and can't get me pregnant, then I get on with it."

He came within a thousand votes of finding himself with job, if not with child.

Plaid started the night predicting Labour could well come in third. As the results came in, the realisation dawned quickly that they'd done well in the seats they're targetting at the General Election but elsewhere? Had they paid the price for being Labour's partners in Cardiff Bay? Or had they just not fought hard enough outside those target seats? When it had got cold enough to put our coats on, Plaid had long since realised the blue line was the one that told the story last night.

The Conservatives took Wrexham, Gower. "Gordon Brown - the Prime Minister who lost Wales!" muttered one of their number with a smile that said this was much, much better than they'd seen coming. Even with Ukip notching up enough votes to take the fourth seat, the Tories had enough to beat Labour.

It was a bad night for the Liberal Democrats. Is Lembit-land still Lembit-land when his party come third to the Tories and Ukip? If it isn't, with what exactly does Kirsty Williams respond?

Let's be clear. We've had an election a year in Wales and Labour has done increasingly badly at each one. Their share of the vote has fallen, their performance has been breaking records in a bad way for some time. But somehow, they haven't been seen to pay the price electorally. This election is the one where that has happened.

Last year Rhodri Morgan didn't pretend the local election results in Wales were anythign other than awful but it was, he said "important not to panic". Today the Labour party in Wales does seem to be panicking.

Fingers were being pointed at Transport House long before the votes were even counted. Now people are speaking plainly. Among them, outgoing MEP Eluned Morgan.

"There was a problem with our message. The message wasn't clear. I was part of our campaign and I can't tell you clearly what our message was ... This was a kicking and we have to rebuild the party in Wales. That won't be easy. There's a myth about a Welsh Labour machine. There isn't much of a machine and at the moment lack of money really worries us as a party".

I arrived in Millbank a few hours ago to be greeted by a taxi driver who was better at recognising languages than Tony Benn. He wondered "what the hell happened in your neck of the woods love?" before admitting (and that's what if felt like) that he'd voted Ukip for the first time ever at these elections.

Bumping into John Curtice, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University I heard him telling Labour activists that there wasn't "a crumb of comfort for them" in last night's results.

Let me try: this was disastrous for Welsh Labour and yes, the Conservatives did very, very well. In fact add another 'very' in there. So if there's any comfort, it must lie in the first half of the sentence. This still looks more like a stunning Labour loss than a huge Conservative victory but then that's only a comfort if you can do something about it - and do it fast.

Counting Sheep

Betsan Powys | 19:36 UK time, Sunday, 7 June 2009

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On a night when blogging should come in to its own I'm in a hanger just outside Haverfordwest- next door to BP Go-Kart racing by the way- and without internet connection. My claim for Blackberry may be made first thing tomorrow! I'll feed what I can to my colleagues in Cardiff.

Peter Hain, who was there for that "very good morning in Wales" has already foreseen a "very bad" night for Labour on the Politics Show. Alun Davies AM who is here to face the cameras is looking "very glum". All parties have set up makeshift offices- a chair and laptop and are jockeying for position. No one wants to sit under the sheep-racing poster (Lamphey, 10th July, a bargain at a fiver a ticket).

Plaid are refusing to put any money on their chances of beating Labour in the share of the vote. A reminder; no party has polled more votes than Labour in Wales in a national election since 1918- a fact that Plaid did check with reporters earlier just in case. The Conservatives still reckon Labour could come third which would "very bad" for Mr. Brown. We're told the declaration could be as early as 10 o'clock barring recounts or errant sheep!

UPDATE; Lib Dem faces are getting glummer. Not only are they running third in Montgomery behind the Conservatives and UKIP but UKIP seem set to come fourth and very possibly take a seat. The Conservatives look set to take first place in the popular vote, winning in Rhodri Morgan's Cardiff West and most, if not all, the Clwyd seats. Labour may edge Plaid by holding on in the valley battlegrounds like Neath Port Talbot and Caerphilly.

UPDATE 2; It now appears that Labour may just have held on in Cardiff West. Labour seem also to have held on in Newport East while loosing Newport West.

UPDATE 3; It looks as if the Conservatives may have won in Labour's great Clwyd stronghold Alyn and Deeside. Alun Davies has perked up. Labour are ahead in Blaenau Gwent. And that's good news? Plaid are ahead in Conwy by ten votes. Contrary to earlier rumours the Liberal Demcorats have not won Ceredigion. Plaid have.

UPDATE 4; Labour have not won in a single constituency outside Glamorgan and Gwent. The Conservatives have taken Alyn and Deeside by 700 votes. Labour have also lost in Gower (to the Conservatives) and Llanelli (to Plaid).

Safe seats

Betsan Powys | 21:31 UK time, Friday, 5 June 2009

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There are an awful lot of letters and Emails doing the rounds today and another is on the way. This one is to Rhodri Morgan and it's asking him to reconsider his plans to step down on his 70th birthday in September.

The author? Huw Lewis who is, as we tend to put it, "widely expected" to be a candidate when a leadership contest begins.

He's told an audience in Rhyl tonight that he doesn't think that contest should begin in the Autumn after all. With Labour in turmoil, he thinks the First Minister should stay put. He should stay in the job and put off those plans to head off every morning to his garden shed to write his book. He should stay until the Labour boat has stopped rocking and is either back on (or perhaps permanently knocked off) course.

It won't please those who are already afraid that Welsh Labour is in limbo. Huw Lewis will no doubt be accused of getting cold feet. Then again he might be praised for behaving in a statesman-like way.

You can hear his own reasoning tomorrow on Good Morning Wales.

In the meantime, I have a new friend. Tony Benn has brought a camping chair with him to College Green and sits down for a rest between tv interviews. "This is the safest Labour seat in Westminster" he told me, before asking whether I was Bulgarian by any chance. He'd been listening keenly to my piece for S4C and must have been wondering why - of all the day's developments - the Bulgarians were so fascinated by Peter Hain's appointment.

It was the black mac and heels that did it.

Hain is back

Betsan Powys | 14:57 UK time, Friday, 5 June 2009

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Peter Hain is back - but not at Work and Pensions.

He's back in Gwydyr House, back in the Wales Office. Mr Murphy? Looks so far like a case of adding 'out' to 'in, out and in again'.

A Plaid player in Cardiff Bay texts a simple but telling response: "Oh". More significantly, what will Rhodri Morgan's response be?

Here's looking forward to Mr Hain taking on the Welsh administrative bureacracy not from the sofas of the television studios but from Gwydyr House.

Megaphone Diplomacy

Betsan Powys | 14:32 UK time, Friday, 5 June 2009

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As I put (rushed) the children to bed last night a car drove past the top of our road ferrying a megaphone-carrying First Minister around his constituency. He was doing his bit to persuade the voters of Cardiff West not to go to their beds without casting their vote.

The response from some, we're told, wasn't good and when Rhodri Morgan gets the cold shoulder in Canton, that is very bad news for Labour.

Labour in Wales are privately admitting that they're facing the real possibility of a double electoral whammy come Sunday night:: Plaid topping the poll and getting more votes than them, while the second of the two seats Labour held in the European Parliament goes to Ukip. Ukip need 50% of the vote of the party that tops the poll + 1.

Losing the seat would hurt. Losing to Plaid would hurt far more and make the hard yards they already face in 2009 even harder.

There are stories around that Labour are trailing Ukip in Pembrokeshire, losing out to both Plaid and Ukip in Llanelli and Carmarthen West.

I wonder whether Rhodri Morgan will be more determined to run for that garden shed to start writing his book or whether the calls on him to stay on until the party can deal with his departure will get louder?

Will Hain be handed a return to the pack?

Betsan Powys | 13:50 UK time, Friday, 5 June 2009

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The last time the Prime Minister vowed to fight on and fight to win he stood right in front of her, microphone at the ready. That was Paris in 1990. This morning I bumped into John Sergeant at Cardiff Central station as it dawned on the Labour Party that Gordon Brown too intends to fight on, and fight to win.

Mr Brown looks as though he has just about enough cards in his hand to shuffle them. An obvious card to reinsert in the pack? Neath MP Peter Hain - replaced by the man who last night tried to play a trump card against the Prime Minister. James Purnell is gone and Peter Hain must be itching to replace him.

Junior minister and Cardiff West MP, Kevin Brennan, was seen yesterday in Downing Street. Expect to hear his name mentioned. Will Paul Murphy stay put or will he be seen as a heavy-hitter who'll be needed elsewhere? "I've been in, out, and in again" said Mr Murphy on Wednesday, not expecting perhaps for things to be shaken all about quite so soon and quite so dramatically.

The game isn't over. It is 2-1 to Gordon Brown as one Labour voice put it to me this morning, but it is only half-time.

Hurricane James

Betsan Powys | 23:31 UK time, Thursday, 4 June 2009

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What was that about half a dozen named hurricanes in a season?

Number three hit tonight with the resignation of James Purnell, the man who took over from Peter Hain as Work and Pensions Secretary. What's still not clear is whether it's open season on the Prime Minister now.

Wales Office Minister Wayne David says not and Operation Toughing-it-out got going on tonight's Dragon's Eye. James Purnell, says Wayne David, was part of a "very small and distinct minority" and the "silent majority" in the Parliamentary Labour Party continue to support the Prime Minister. He's "absolutely convinced" Gordon Brown will lead the party into the next election and that James Purnell has got it wrong.

Kevin Brennan - a player in a Brown reshuffle? - agrees. He's "surprised" by James Purnell's resignation which he thinks is "unnecessary and out of line" with the majority view of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Hywel Francis says he's 100% behind the Prime Minister.

Dai Havard suggests that bigger names than James Purnell might be required to resign from the Cabinet in order for Gordon Brown to stand down but "it's going to be an interesting few days."

The one voice, so far, calling on the Prime Minister to go belongs to Paul Flynn.

Mr Flynn hopes "that Gordon Brown accepts the expected majority opinion of the Parliamentary Labour Party and that he makes a swift and orderly exit ... There is now a wide-coalition asking for change in the PLP".

Toughing it out? More like the musicians on the Titanic says Conservative David Jones who has just one message: bring on an election.

First Secretary, second home?

Betsan Powys | 14:10 UK time, Wednesday, 3 June 2009

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Listening to the radio first thing this morning I learned that we've just entered the official hurricane season, the Atlantic hurricane season at least. I wasn't wide awake but gathered that each season brings with it half a dozen or so 'named hurricanes' - you know, those rather inappropriate names that sound more like women from chapel than destructive forces of nature.

Let me add to the list.

This morning Hurricane Jacqui has been followed by Hurricane Hazel and the Prime Minister must be wondering whch named hurricane hits next. One Welsh MP suggested, only partly in jest this morning, that I should be heading off the bookie to put a fiver on an election next month.

The list of MPs forced to defend their expense claims continues to grow too. BBC Wales will soon be publishing an online list of what's been claimed by and about Welsh MPs along with their responses to those claims.

Alun Michael has been on the hit-list most recently for designating his family home in Penarth as his second home.

In a statement to the BBC this is what Mr Michael has said:

"My main home has always been in Penarth but - in common with all Ministers - the system defined Ministers as being London-based and required Ministers to claim on the constituency home as the "second home" irrespective of any personal arrangements. That kicked in immediately when I became a Minister in 1997. Being able to change definitions is a quite recent development following a rule change, and I have now used that choice - now that I am out of Government and a back-bencher - to designate Penarth as my main home and to reflect the reality of my situation. That choice wasn't there in the past. During my time at the Assembly I was still an MP but I was intending to stand down at the general election and the question of designation never arose".

Nobody has Alun Michael down as keen to grasp more than his fair share of expenses. From what I know of him, that is not the man's style.

But it does seem as though his first home was in London even when he was First Secretary of the National Assembly for Wales. He led the government and led the country but his first home wasn't in that country.

Strike you as odd?

Chinese whispers and Achilles heels

Betsan Powys | 07:50 UK time, Wednesday, 3 June 2009

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At yesterday's lobby briefing Carwyn Jones was asked by one of my colleagues about the UK Conservative Party's attitude to further devolution to Wales.

The Counsel General said something about the Assembly government being more concerned about the attitude of the Conservatives to the present settlement, let alone to any further devolution.

What could he have meant?

Was he alluding to a story that had tongues wagging in Cardiff Bay yesterday - one about a breakfast meeting that took place in Westminster a few weeks ago? It involved the great and the good from the world of higher education in Wales and MPs from across the political divide.

The story goes that the Shadow Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan asked a question about the future of Welsh universities: would they be better off if they were not devolved? What did the Vice Chancellors think? Perhaps they could come back to her. In other words, to the ears of some of those present, she seemed to be suggesting the Conservatives, if in power, would consider repatriating higher education. In other words they would consider un-devolving it, taking it back under the wing of the UK Government.

Good story...up to a point.

The Welsh Conservatives say nothing of the kind is on their radar. Yes, the Shadow Welsh Secretary who may, after all, be Welsh Secretary in the not-too-distant-future has asked for a report on higher education in Wales and the challenges it faces but that's no more than a politician doing her homework.

There's an alternative - and much more benign explanation of course. Was the Shadow Welsh Secretary simply musing about the acknowledged funding gap between Welsh and English universities? It could all be in the intonation of the voice - which is somewhat difficult for outsiders to discern, particularly as the meeting was held under the Chatham House rule.

Politicians in Cardiff - none of whom were at the meeting as far as we know - are adamant that Cheryl Gillan's implication was clear, and for then, not in any way benign.

I've spoken to people who were at the private meeting. They either didn't hear the comment themselves or had only heard the discussion about it afterwards. Eventually, last night, I was given the name of another academic who'd been there and who had heard the comment and on asking Conservative MP David Jones whether repatriation was really being considered, was told something along the lines of 'You bet'.

I rang thim, to be told that he hadn't, in fact, been at the meeting at all. He was happy to talk through issues around funding and the future of the body that funds higher education but that, significant as it is, isn't the same story at all.

David Jones hasn't commented and the Welsh Conservatives simply say there are no plans to take responsibility for Welsh universities and higher education institutions away from the National Assembly.

Why were hands being rubbed with glee in Cardiff Bay yesterday? Because this story - filtered through however many Chinese whispers - would seem to confirm a narrative that's been growing over the past few weeks and months: that attitudes in the Conservative Party at UK level towards devolution "are hardening" the closer they get to the levers of power. It also indicates that the three other parties in the Bay are coming to see this as the Achilles heel of the Welsh Conservatives too.

The Western Mail have run the story on their front page this morning: you can read it here.

"The Truth"

Betsan Powys | 16:42 UK time, Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Comments

Do MPs really, really want an early election?

If they do, the good news for them is that they'll get a chance next week to vote in favour of dissolving parliament.

Plaid Cymru and the SNP have decided to use their allotted time in parliament next Wednesday to force a dissolution debate and attempt to force the hand of David Cameron and Nick Clegg who've been saying they really, really want an early election ... and early bath for quite a few.

As it happens a BBC team has been disturbing sun-worshippers in Cardiff Bay this afternoon, asking whether they want a chance to vote soon. The response? Yes, they do, overwhelmingly, though the response that came in the form of a song by rap artist "The Truth" will probably prove just a bit too long for the 10 o'clock news to include.

Come in number ...

Betsan Powys | 14:26 UK time, Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Comments

Just back from Swansea Marina and a morning's broadcasting on the News Channel.

As I left Cardiff first thing the daily number of MPs standing down stood at three. By the time I left Swansea the news was breaking that Jacqui Smith is standing down as Home Secretary.

Bobbing in the marina, nose to nose, were two boats called "Doghouse" and "Storm". The boat next door, "Harmony" had been put up for sale.

Any takers?

Countdown

Betsan Powys | 22:49 UK time, Monday, 1 June 2009

Comments

An Email pops into my inbox offering a course on "Dealing with Trauma". That it just so happens to be election week is, I know, a coincidence but the timing seems pretty apt.

By this time next week 736 European Parliament seats will have been won and lost, the Conservatives will know how much of an inroad they've made into local council chambers in England and Gordon Brown will have an idea to what extent you've believed him that he's the man to shore up the economy and sort out Westminster.

But before looking ahead, I can't help thinking back to this event a month or so ago - just a few days before the revelations about MPs' expenses started appearing in the Telegraph.

A woman in the audience, one who was there out of genuine curiosity not duty, asked Rhodri Morgan how he and his fellow AMs planned to fire the interest of young people in Assemby politics. It was tough, he said. Young people were interested in political issues but not inspired, perhaps, by political institutions and daily politics. The Assembly wasn't alone, he added. Look at Westminster - how many young people are interested in what goes on there?

What caught my attention was her response, a comment along the lines of 'Oh forget about Westminster. Nobody's impressed with that institution any more.' It was almost a brush-off, an off-hand dismissal of 'that other institution' that caught me off guard.

Fast forward a week or so and to another event, a public meeting held by the All Wales Convention in Monmouth. The expenses saga has already turned into a crisis of confidence in politics and in politicians. Public anger is palpable and shows absolutely no sign of subsiding. People can parrot which MP claimed for what. A new word has been coined - flipping - and has made the move from the headlines to pub conversations where it does real damage to reputations.

Three, four times, in different guises, the audience in Monmouth asked the same question. It went something like this: the current system of devolving power to the National Assembly relies on the guiding hand of Westminster. That's how it is and that's how - for some, though not all who posed the question - it ought to be. But how can we now have faith in the guidance offered by that hand? If has, after all, been caught in the cookie jar.

The logic is questionable. The genuine fury and loss of faith is not. Ieuan Wyn Jones showed last week that he'd already recognised that.

But given it's election week let's keep a cool head and think ahead no more than a few days.

The polls suggest that though MPs from all the major parties have been named in headlines, the fury and loss of faith is being directed, mostly, at Labour. The Conservatives don't emerge unscathed either.

What would that sort of pattern mean in Wales?

It would mean that Labour's second seat is vulnerable.

If all four major parties are pretty close, it could be one seat each.

Logic - not always useful during weeks like this one - would point to a result that has Labour, the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru neck and neck come Sunday night.

If enough Tory voters sense blood and if waverers are persuaded to stay away from UKIP, or if Plaid get the faithful out and score well enough on protest votes, then the table of MEPs will have changed by Monday morning and a whole lot more with it.

If Labour edge it, the canvassers will tell a story of anger and disdain, the percentages a story of huge losses but the table of MEPs will tell a story of no change. Two Labour MEPs, one Conservative, one Plaid.

We could well hang on to that second seat, one senior Labour voice suggested today but if that happens - and was it me or did they seem rather too willing to imagine losing one scalp - then the battle will be on come Monday to make sure the party doesn't pretend that two seats = no problem.

Perhaps I should press a button and forward that Email.

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