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Betsan Powys | 12:51 UK time, Wednesday, 31 March 2010

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So there we have it - the list of the Celtic bloc's demands in return for their support if there's a hung parliament.

Why the fanfare? Because having been asked over the years why anyone would bother voting for them in a General Election they can't possibly win, Plaid and their friends north of the border find an answer this time round. Neither Alex Salmond nor Ieuan Wyn Jones can walk into Downing Street when all the votes are counted but in a hung parliament, they could pocket big concessions for Scotland and for Wales.

Bingo: a weak position turned into a coherent one, even one of relative strength argue Plaid.

A "pathetic" attempt to disguise their irrelevance, say the other parties.

Snazzy title? This being Plaid, then yes of course. "4 Wales, 4 Scotland" is the agreement signed in Westminster this morning. Colleagues up in Glasgow tell me Wales gets the first mention in the flyer they were sent too just in case you were wondering how these niceties work.

Detail? Short.

The pledges read like this: fair funding for Wales and Scotland, protecting local services and the most vulnerable, action to help the green economy and support for business growth.

The other detail, that neither Plaid nor the SNP would enter into a formal coalition. Their hope is, clearly, that they will be called upon to offer their support on a vote by vote basis. In other words if the maths dictates that that you really need our support in a vote of no confidendence, or to get your budget throught, you'll have it ... as long as we get something in return. In crude terms they've calculated that it's more profitable to work on an a la carte basis and surely a much easier political sell to their own party. Close but not too close.

Practical, grown-up politics, say Plaid.

A "sad spectacle" of a party clinging desperately to the coat-tails of the SNP, say Labour whose response is particularly vitriolic.

Note the interesting use language too. Plaid are not talking about a parliament that is 'hung', rather one that is 'balanced'. Why, I heard the party's Director of Elections Helen Mary Jones asking the other day, is the language surrounding agreements between parties so macho and unpleasant? It's all about 'getting into bed with' or 'cosying up to' another, larger party. A 'hung' parliament sounds stymied, hamstrung, not able to get on with anything. A 'balanced' one sounds quite different.

The other major parties have come up with choice words of their own: "a joke", "deluded", "separatist" to name a few.

Will either Gordon Brown or David Cameron come knocking? Haven't there been signs that Mr Cameron, in particular, would rather look to parties in Northern Ireland, or, of course, to a deal with the Lib Dems?

Remind me to buy new batteries for the office calculator.

For Wales see ...

Betsan Powys | 11:15 UK time, Tuesday, 30 March 2010

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_47556202_darlingosbornecable226in_pa.jpgSo what did you see last night?

An example of "a cosy London consensus at its worst" as seen through Plaid Cymru eyes?

A fascinating insight into three potential Chancellors' thinking on cutting public spending versus cutting the deficit versus cutting taxes?

Or perhaps you opted for Eastenders, or saw the cosy walls of the pub.

Let me know. For now let me hone in on one thing that we heard.

Labour have signed up to the principle, at least, that we should all share the cost - the enormous cost - of paying for social care. We should all chip in to pay for a new system and we should all, therefore, get something out of that system if and when we need it.

Those in most need will be looked after at home and those in residential care for more than two years will find the government foots the bill. How? Working out the how, brokering an acceptable deal that we will all accept on turning the principle into reality will be the job of a commission.

Is the "death tax" as the Tories dubbed it dead? Not so says Nick Robinson whose take on the debate around social care you can read here.

But what you heard was the next step in the brutal attempt to answer what Nick calls "the vexed question of how to fund social care in England." In other words for "we" read we in England? Up to a point.

In Scotland Alistair Darling's constituents get their social care for free. The point was raised with the man in charge of what happens in England, Andy Burnham, on the radio this morning. He answered with a simple "That's devolution for you" before arguing that each government makes its own decisions and hinting - though stopping short of saying bluntly - that you might get free social care in Scotland but worse treatment from the NHS than you do in England.

And what of Wales. For Wales read England? No. Social care is devolved.

IF in years to come a substantial sum of public money goes into paying for it in England, then yes, there will be a knock-on effect felt in Wales via the Barnett Formula. But it's not by any means that simple.

IF in years to come English voters have to pay more through taxation to foot the bill for social care, then any change to the tax and benefit system will impact on Wales too. We wouldn't be insulated from those changes. If allowances are no longer paid out in England, they'll be cut here too. The purse strings, remember, are held by the Treasury. It'll be up to the Welsh Assembly Government to work out how they deliver social care but the path will be pretty clearly laid out for them by tax and benefit changes made at UK level. The question of whether they follow the same path is already being asked here. It's way off being answered.

What of other figures - mocked and derided - but oft repeated last night?

What about the £11bn efficiency savings over the coming years Mr Darling detailed in his budget? How much of the £11bn will affect Wales? Last week was the first time we heard how much each Whitehall department will be asked to save, so we should be able to work out more about what the impact on Welsh budgets should be?

No, according to Assembly Government officials, we can't work out what the effect will be. Although the Department of Health will take on £4.35bn of those efficiency savings, that doesn't automatically mean that these will result in reductions in what the Assembly Government has to spend, despite health being devolved.

It's all about baselines - the Welsh budget is solely dependent on net movements of Whitehall departmental baselines in devolved areas.

Stick with me here.

Let's say the DoH baseline budget is £104bn. If the Treasury simply lops off £4bn of that as "efficiency savings" then Wales would see a corresponding reduction.

But if the baseline remains at £104bn but the Treasury demand that efficiency savings of £4bn are made within this in order to free up cash for front-line health care from other areas like administration or sick leave, then Wales wouldn't lose any money at all.

Officials in Cardiff Bay have been in contact with the Treasury and have been told that the £11bn efficiency savings are very much seen in the latter way, rather than the former. But until we all see confirmed, net Whitehall departmental baselines from 2011-12 onwards, there is simply no way of telling what the impact will be. It would be surprising if there wasn't an impact on budgets here as a result but we'll have to wait and see.

So for Wales, see - neither England, nor Scotland - but its very own set of extradordinarily difficult spending decisions just waiting to be made.

.. very new Conservative.

Betsan Powys | 12:08 UK time, Monday, 29 March 2010

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_1754838_johnmarek150.jpgFormer Labour MP and AM, former deputy Presiding Officer, former leader of Forward Wales, John Marek has joined the Conservatives.

Cheryl Gillan and Nick Bourne were in Wrexham this morning to welcome him to the Tory fold and revel in - or perhaps marvel at - what the Shadow Welsh Secretary called "his political journey".

If Caroline Aherne's Mrs Merton were in North East Wales this morning she might have been tempted to ask Dr Marek what first attracted him to the election frontrunner, David Cameron? But she wasn't and anyway Mrs Merton would no doubt accept that Mr Cameron is not a dead cert to win this election.

So I'll stick to this question: why has the man who clashed with Labour because they'd moved too far to the right joined the Conservatives?

Labour, says Dr Marek, have failed to deliver: "David Cameron's social conscience is at the heart of my decision to join the Conservative Party."

Welsh Labour hone in, not on the 'social conscience' but the socialist past.

"Since John got himself excluded from the Labour Party seven years ago, we've been watching his weird and winding political journey with increasing disinterest. We're unsure whether today's news says more about John or the Welsh Conservatives, but in any case, 'any port in a storm' is the phrase that springs to mind" comes the response from Transport House.

Very old Labour, very new ...

Betsan Powys | 23:23 UK time, Sunday, 28 March 2010

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Three years ago, when Welsh Conservative leader Nick Bourne was one politician floating the idea of a rainbow coalition gaining power in the Assembly, Monmouth MP David Davies was not impressed.

It couldn't work, he said. In fact, on paper he argued, a coalition between the Conservatives and Labour was more logical.

It would never, ever work of course: "And yet they are closer together than the Conservative Party and the Welsh Nationalist Party or the Conservative Party and the Independents like John Marek and Trish Law who are basically very old-Labour socialists".

I get the feeling Mr Davies might be reconsidering that thought before very long.

Mr Marek, the former Labour MP and AM for Wrexham who was deselected and became one of the leaders of the now defunct Forward Wales party, has apparently done some reconsidering of his own.

He might be a closer ally than the MP for Monmouth ever imagined possible.

Grounded

Betsan Powys | 10:39 UK time, Thursday, 25 March 2010

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_42596191_highlandairways203.jpgIeuan Air has landed ... for the last time.

That turbulence that had been threatening the service for some time has finally engulfed it.

Highland Airways, who operate the flight between Cardiff and Anglesey, have gone into administration, putting a hundred jobs at substantial risk and grounding the North South airlink in Wales.

What's flying about now? Accusations that too much of our money has been spent on keeping "a dead duck service" operating, as the Liberal Democrats put it.

Granted, the problems that have hit Highland Airways aren't linked to this particular flight. I don't know on what grounds exactly the Assembly Government claim it to be "a huge success" but there's no question that it's been more popular as far as passenger numbers go than many had expected.

All the same does that make it a "vital service" at a time when money is eye-wateringly tight?

The Assembly Government would like to get it off the ground again as soon as possible and Monday, will be looking for another company to take it over in the short term. Will anyone take it on for not a penny more money in subsidy than Highland Airways were getting? If not, the service is grounded for good, a cut some may rue more than others.

And on that point ... an obvious 'someone' that might spring to mind is Ieuan Wyn Jones, the AM for Anglesey and Deputy First Minister who has spent quite a bit of time on board and money on tickets and whose name has become synonymous with the flight.

Fair to point out then that the service was born under a Labour administration, a matter of weeks before Plaid came into government.

So which party will now step forward to argue more money should be spent resuscitating it?

UPDATE

Overheard at an Open University event in the Wales Millennium Centre last night? The Presiding Officer telling his audience that he would make no apologies to the Welsh Liberal Democrats for using the airlink to fly home tomorrow.

No apologies needed after all, Lord Elis-Thomas.

Map of the A470 anyone?

Stings and strings

Betsan Powys | 14:43 UK time, Wednesday, 24 March 2010

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botanic_plant_nbg300.jpgEverything in the garden is, pretty clearly, not rosy - the National Botanic Garden of Wales, that is.

It's already been given a handout by the Minister for Heritage, Alun Ffred Jones, to guard against projected cash-flow difficulties during 2010. Deputy First Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones has also agreed to postpone the repayment of rent income due to be paid by the National Garden to the Assembly Government until March next year.

First came the Millennium Centre. Then the National Garden.

First came the money. Then come the strings: an independent review, we understand, that will look into the Garden's current finances and future financial prospects and its governance arrangements.

Is it me, or do you get the feeling that with an independent review of the Assembly Government's activities involved in the field of the creative industries being published on Thursday, 'governance arrangements' might just turn out to be the buzzwords of the week?

Roll up, roll up

Betsan Powys | 09:25 UK time, Wednesday, 24 March 2010

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Roll up, roll up as Alistair Darling prepares to perform the Chancellor's tightrope walk - without a net. No net giveaway that is and no net takeaway, just a fine balancing act that he hopes will convince his audience when he reaches the other end.

He's shown a bit of leg already. Planned fuel duty increase? It'll be introduced in steps, not all at once as had been planned.

Last night's whisper that the Chancellor will announce the scrapping of stamp duty for properties worth up to £250,000 - for first time buyers - has been confirmed. Standing by, the Conservatives to point out that they first suggested doing just that back in 2007.

Perhaps one or two around Cardiff Bay are rather hoping all eyes will be on Westminster.

Again today PCS union members are on strike and picketing the Assembly.

Again today Labour and Plaid AMs have made clear they will not cross that picket line. Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are in, slamming their colleagues' decision as "absurd" and calling on them to give up a day's pay.

It's like this, said Plaid's Helen Mary Jones on the picket line last time round. I grew up learning that the first question you asked when you got a job was what union do I join? You then asked how much you'd be getting paid. She, along with her Labour and Plaid colleagues, never has and never will cross a picket line.

The message clear: this isn't just about the sort of politician you are. It's about the sort of person you are. We don't cross picket lines. They do. No bad thing to remind one or two of that with a General Election around the corner perhaps. Then again walk that particular tightrope of public opinion at your peril.

Legislation Number 5 Committee was due to scrutinise the Carers measure this morning. The sole witness, Labour Deputy Minister Gwenda Thomas, didn't turn up. Tories Mark Isherwood, Darren Millar and the Lib Dem Eleanor Burnham did. Four minutes later, with no witness to scrutinise and fellow committee members roasted for staying away, they walked out again.

Is there a public perception problem here, Carwyn Jones was asked yesterday. How can you sit here telling Welsh workers that no-one is immune to cuts, everyone must look for efficiencies, then be seen to be staying away from work? Staying away because of a strike?

Because we don't cross picket lines, was the answer but yes, we do want this dispute resolved as soon as possible. Then a new admission: if this goes on much longer, then there could be some serious problems, starting, not least, with public perception.

"How sharp of him" was Nick Bourne's response.

This afternoon the chamber will be more than half empty, a 'Supermarket Sweep' type anti-government policy motion debated in front of empty government benches. No going for the jugular though. No vote of confidence that would have raised the stakes dramatically. No desire on anyone's part, by the looks of it, to turn a drama into a crisis.

UPDATE

What a difference an M4, apparently, makes.

This end? The ladies - and gents - of Labour and Plaid are not for turning, nor are they for crossing picket lines. That end?

My colleague in Westminster, David Cornock, counted Welsh Labour and Plaid MPs in before asking how come? Plaid have put out a statement:

"Plaid's AMs have supported the right of the PCS union to withdraw labour during this dispute by not crossing their picket lines. Plaid is urging the Westminster government to return to negotiations with the union immediately and the Assembly group will be writing to the Gordon Brown's government to impress on them the need to do so.

"It is also inconceivable that Members of Parliament representing Plaid Cymru should not attend the budget debate today.

"It was a tough decision between supporting the strikers and the importance of the up and coming budget on public sector workers given the agenda of the two main parties in Westminster.

"There is a difference between this and the meaningless attempts by opposition parties in Cardiff Bay to score petty political points during such a worrying time for so many public sector workers.

"Their actions show how little they care for the people affected by the Westminster government's plans to cut redundancy payments."

Fill the gap.

Betsan Powys | 18:50 UK time, Tuesday, 23 March 2010

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Lobbyists working in Wales do not, according to the First Minister, come bearing gifts.

The culture in and around Cardiff Bay, unlike Westminster apparently, would not see Assembly Members, ex-ministers or otherwise, offering to help lobbying firms for cash, or so the Labour leader has it.

So how do you woo a minister without flashing cash? What if you're organising an event and it needs that little sprinkle of stardust? According to the celebrity booking industry, the average fee for a photocall or personal appearance for a known UK TV personality is between £4,000 and £15,000. Even little known ones might be out of the range of most Welsh organisations, so why not go for for an Assembly Government minister instead?

The government has published a handy how to book a minister guide - and just to spell it out: there is no question of appearance fees. However is it just me, or does it have a certain air of discouragement about it?

First up, it says, "Consider whether the Minister is really the most appropriate person to contact. Have you considered whether it should in fact be your local Assembly Member or (for non-devolved matters) your MP?"

Presumably this is to weed out the invitations to the openings of envelopes. Ministers don't do those, you see. It continues:"If you do wish to invite a Minister, do you know which one you should contact?" And just in case you were considering the classic party trick of over-inviting: "The chances of getting an acceptance from a Minister... do not increase by sending an invitation to more than one Minister."

There's telling you.

And as with any sort of organisation the guide warns - the earlier the better. "Ministers' diaries are heavily committed and are planned weeks, months and sometimes even years in advance."

And even if you've got your minister, beware. "Although diaries are planned well in advance, government business takes precedence and Ministers can be required to change their plans at short notice to accommodate this. A Minister's attendance at an event can therefore be cancelled with relatively little warning."

To be fair, if the number of diary markers sent out for Assembly Government ministers and deputy ministers every week is anything to go by, the public of Wales see a fair bit of their political rulers.

In Pobol y Cwm? Don't be daft. That there is the minister for ...

Ask and you shall get?

Betsan Powys | 10:51 UK time, Tuesday, 23 March 2010

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Well, well, well.

Ask and you shall, apparently, get.

Let me run you through the sequence of events this morning.

Before that first blog entry an Email was sent to the Conservatives asking whether this offer made by George Osborne to the Scottish Government was also being extended to Wales?

What read like a non-committal response comes back.

At the government briefing, taken this morning on camera by the First Minister Carwyn Jones, I asked whether the same offer has been made to Wales.

He looks slightly startled.

"No, is the simple answer. It hasn't".
"Should it?"
"I mean ... we welcome any commitment that suggests we will get a protected budget but bluntly, I don't believe that'll happen with the Conservatives and certainly no such offer has been made to Wales .... IF it's been said to the SNP government in Scotland, it certainly hasn't been said in Wales".

If?

I refer the First Minister to the offer outlined again here.

He raises an obvious question of his own. How do you get on with the job of cutting the budget deficit swiftly, while making such apparently generous offers to defer extra cuts in other parts of the UK? And we in Labour, he said pointedly, have nothing to offer the Tories. No point them currying favour with us.

Within minutes, Plaid Cymru put out a statement

"It's a significant development that the Tories have apparently conceded at last that their cuts agenda would smash our brittle economic recovery to bits. But having accepted that they were wrong in Scotland, they must now do the same in Wales".

Before I go on, let's be clear on one thing. George Osborne is not saying Scotland would be immune from cuts. He's saying that given the Scottish budget has already been adopted, then the extra cuts a Conservative government is planning to impose in order to cut the deficit won't be imposed on the Scottish Government for one year. He's deferring the pain, not sparing it.

Next up, the Conservatives.

Nick Bourne, sounding considerably less non-committal, announces jubilantly that "Wales will be treated in the same way as Scotland". He even used the word 'rejoice'.

On he went. Such an offer is not a silver bullet. The debt has got to be paid back. This doesn't mean the Assembly Government - in the event of David Cameron becoming PM - should carry on blithely spending the extra quid they've not, after all, seen slashed from their budget.

And the Liberal Democrats? No sign of rejoicing here.

Just how long is this list going to be, wondered Kirsty Williams. First there's a Tory pledge to protect spending on health, then international development. Over the weekend Scotland was added to the list ... and now, Wales? How do you make significant inroads into the national debt while all of that's going on? "One has to wonder how their plans add up". The Lib Dems must be seeing, too, a clear message by the Tories that Nick Clegg isn't the only dancing partner they're lining up.

The events of this morning unfolded in what looked and felt like an episode of The Accidental Giveaway (if giveaway, indeed, it is. The Accidental Deferred Cut just sounds like a quite different sort of film).

And before you give a huge sigh of relief at the thought of those extra cuts being put off for a year, let me just suggest you do one thing.

Look straight ahead. What do you see?

What you should be seeing, if you're looking properly, is the word 'cuts' writ large. What you will be seeing is a year where those 'cuts' that have already been hurting, will start to make you gasp.

The Assembly Government doesn't know exactly how deep they'll go but let's put it like this: rumour has it ... not, let's up the ante ... strong whispers suggest they're drawing up spending plans for 2010-2011 that take into account possible cuts of 3% on their revenue budget and 10% on the capital budget.

Whichever way you apply percentages like that, be under no illusion: they will hurt and they will hurt a lot.

UPDATE: Peter Hain has responded to this morning's pledge. I'll quote it in full:

"Yet again, Wales is merely an afterthought for the Tories. Having made a dubious offer of 'more pain later' for Scotland they have today added insult to injury in Wales. George Osborne says that Wales can have double the savage cuts in twelve months time. This plainly means it would be twice as bad for Wales in a year's time with the Tories. We in Wales know that this would wreck the fragile recovery and destroy jobs.

Whilst Labour has a credible plan to pull us through into economic recovery the Tories are looking for a short term sticking plaster, just to get them through an election year. And what happened to Conservatives wanting to cut the deficit 'further and faster'? As soon as they have to explain themselves their policies unravel. The decent mainstream majority in Wales will see right through this Tory cuts con."

The response from Labour in Cardiff is different incidentally. The suggestion this end? That Nick Bourne has overplayed his hand; that it's worth questioning whether any such pledge has been made by George Osborne and to whisper that given it's understated announcement, it might all - after the election - prove to be deniable.

Over to Mr Osborne.

UPDATE

Not directly from the Shadow Chancellor but this statement comes from a Conservative spokeperson:

"We recognise that the Welsh Assembly has already voted through the Budget for the financial year 2010/11.

"As a result a Conservative Government would therefore offer the Welsh Assembly the option to delay any in-year spending reductions for 2010/11 until the 2011/12 financial year.

"Whether the Assembly Government chose to do so would be a decision for them, and the Welsh Assembly but a Conservative Government at Westminster wants to work with the Welsh Government to get the people of Wales and Britain through this debt crisis."

Q + A?

Betsan Powys | 09:49 UK time, Tuesday, 23 March 2010

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It's been quiet on the blog - apologies. I haven't been idle, I've been on the road.

Plenty of questions to ask today, including this of the Conservatives: if George Osborne is offering to allow the Scottish Government a delay of a year in bringing in extra cuts if the Tories win the General Election, will he make the same offer to the Welsh Assembly Government?

Of the Labour Plaid coalition: have they asked?

More questions - and I hope, answers, to come.

100 days =

Betsan Powys | 12:50 UK time, Thursday, 18 March 2010

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You'll know I'm a great fan of Tenby. You may know too that it was a Welshman from Tenby who invented this: =. In 1557 Robert Recorde, yes, that really was his surname, came up with the equals sign.

Let's try it out.

100 = ?

100 days of a new First Minister = what?

On the eve of Carwyn Jones' official 100 days in office, I'm sure I can rely on you to come up with your own solutions to that particular brainteaser.

The people of Porthcawl had a go for tonight's Dragon's Eye. Their responses don't put Carwyn Jones at the top of the class. They vay from "it's nice to have a younger man in charge" to "I've not seen much of him but he's probably getting on with it behind the scenes". Such faith. Who said the public were disillusioned with politicians. There's a school girl who worries her grandmother will tell her off because she can't put a name to the First Minister's familiar face.

"If I tell you it's Carwyn ..."
"Davies!"
"It's Jones".
"Oh."

Another older voter reckons Mr Jones has done a lot for Bridgend: "I'll give him that". But to lead the country? You need someone strong, he says, you need someone to take on the huge problems we face. His version of the formula? 100 days of Carwyn Jones = not bad but just now? That's not enough.

As a nation we are, as a sharp-minded and sharp-tongued friend put it this morning "sicker, thicker, fatter and poorer" than the rest of the UK. Question her analysis at your peril unless you enjoy dancing on the head of a pin.

Yesterday, 99 days into Carwyn Jones' stewardship of the Assembly Government, we learn that the unemployment rate in Wales is still higher than any other nation. It stands at 9.2% compared with 7.8% in England. The UK average is 7.8%. 9.2% is only beaten by the English North East (9.5%) and West Midlands (9.5%). Throw the most recent GVA figures in the pot and there you have it: "poorer."

Is there very much Carwyn Jones, or come to that any First Minister could have to done to change that in a hundred days? No. Could he have sounded a bit more concerned about it, absolutely determined to tackle it? Probably. The First Minister has a style that 100 days on you'd probably describe as sanguine. Soothing. Not very Scottish Salmond. The Conservatives, naturally, have another word for it: complacent.

Back to the maths.

100 days = an unanimous vote in the referendum trigger vote - the one and only day that I've seen the First Minister furiously focused, knowing he had to deliver an unanimous vote and fired up when he'd delivered it. (Not so fired up when it came to delivering the official news of the vote to the Wales Office you might argue ...)

100 days = being seen at the climate change summit in Copenhagen.

100 days = appointing a Chief Scientific Officer.

Is that it?

Let me add one significant element to the formula.

100 days = a new readiness to shake up some of the policies established and regarded as totemic even by the previous regime, to swap dainty shoes (or should that be stilettoes) for a pair of boots perhaps? Top of the list? Communities First. You've seen the headlines. Yes, the finger is well and truly pointed at the Assembly Government for failing to act sooner, for not keeping a close enough eye on the millions they've spent under the Communities First banner. But Carl Sargeant is now going in where others had feared to tread and he'll be doing that with the blessing of the new boss.

100 days = See also Leighton Andrews, rewarded with the plum job of education and in the words of Francis Urquhart, not afraid to put a bit of stick about. He's started a few things. Let's see where they are in two, or three hundred days' time.

So class: 100 days = ?

Choosing your words

Betsan Powys | 11:19 UK time, Wednesday, 17 March 2010

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_44854345_alunffredjones203x300.jpgWhat's the Welsh word for laconic?

Yes, I'm stumped too. Perhaps bilingual readers of my colleague Vaughan Roderick's blog can help me out here. If they want a prompt, they could always take a look at this morning's session of the legislative committee that's scrutinising the propsed measure on the Welsh language and keep an eye on the Heritage Minister.

Alun Ffred Jones is not a man who lets his feathers get ruffled very often. In fact Mr Jones guards them pretty carefully. If he has ever felt like whooping and punching the air, or holding his head in his hands, he has somehow managed to resist the urge.

The pattern of the questioning this morning seemed to be this.

Catch him out with a question he hadn't seen coming and he'd pause, looks pensive then say, slowly ... no rush .. that the point raised by the committee wasn't something he'd considered in quite that way. Persist and he'd look to his left, where his adviser, the Head of the Welsh Language Unit and Media Policy Unit, was charged with trying to answer the point raised in exactly the way the committee wanted.

Take Rhodri Morgan's point. The ex-First Minister speaks Welsh. I think it's fair to say he's regarded by language campaigners as having a blind spot where the language is concerned. They argue he's bent over backwards over the years not to appear too pro-the-language and has now found his joints have stiffened - in a position where he has, perhaps, gone further the other way than he'd ever intended.

He would argue that's the paranoid nonsense of a noisy few. He has simply done his job and has always considered all sides of the argument that still lives on, if not rages on, around the language.

This morning he was doing that job: scrutinising the proposed Welsh language measure. He was interested in the role of the Welsh language Commissioner. If his or her duty is, partly, to promote equality between the English and Welsh language in Wales then did that mean in some areas like the Lleyn Peninsula, where Welsh is the majority language, that the Commissioner would be expected to intervene to ensure the English language was on an equal footing with Welsh?

Surely that should be 'some parts of' the Lleyn Peninsula? A reminder that Mr Morgan takes his Summer holiday in Mwnt, not further up the coast in Abersoch.

The laconic look, the pause. This was not the way in which the Heritage Minister had considered the Commissioner's role. In general terms the whole thrust of the proposed measure is in the other direction, in promoting the Welsh language so that it is treated equally with the English language. After all the Welsh language is the minority language by quite some distance in Wales.

Yes, yes, Mr Morgan knew that. In general that was, of course, perfectly true. But in areas where English speakers are in a minority, did the Heritage Minister see the Commissioner's role as coming to the aid of English speaking families who feel their language is not being treated equally with the majority language on their doorstep: Welsh?

And Mr Morgan wasn't giving up. He put it another way: was the duty to promote equality between the two languages, as it is laid out in the current measure, going to "place the Commissioner in a difficult position?" In other words if the point of the exercise is to promote the Welsh language - not give English language speakers an opportunity to turn to this new Welsh law to argue their own case in their own, specific and rare communities - shouldn't those who've drafted the measure have chosen their words more carefully?

The Heritage Minister had not thought of the Commissioner's role "in the way you describe it" but if there is an amiguity, "we'll look at it".

And tomorrow morning Alun Ffred Jones will look in the paper and see a letter from a dozen or so distinguished barristers and lawyers condemning the proposed Welsh language measure in some detail as inadequate.

The message? You asked for proper scrutiny. You asked the people of Wales to comment on this proposed Measure.

Guess what Mr Jones, you got it.

Days of "disinvestment"

Betsan Powys | 07:00 UK time, Tuesday, 16 March 2010

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I never did study Franz Kafka's work, though a course analysing his work was offered to the young and keen student of German that I was many years ago. I'd had a stab at the first few pages of Die Verwandlung/Metamorphosis and baulked at the sentences that seemed never to stop until they suddenly did, with an unexpected bang.

Today's report from the Wales Audit Office may be just 36 pages long and the construction of its sentences infinitely easier to follow but in its doom laden tones it has more in common with Kafka, that dark theorist of intractable bureaucracy, than the dispassionate public auditor.

It's a no-holds-barred examination of the public sector,just where we are and where we need to get to in terms of reform. It makes for pretty grim reading and will send a shiver down the spine of public sector workers and management.

In her foreword, the Auditor General, Gillian Body, says that the impending squeeze means if public sector bodies carry on with business as usual "they will simply run out of money". There. I told you the sentences were shorter .

The analysis couldn't be simpler but the medicine, I imagine, will be very hard to stomach. Perhaps the key phrase in the report is this: "In considering disinvestment, public services will need to identify novel ways of reducing their staffing bills."

It certainly adds another euphemism - "disinvestment" - to the ongoing "when is a cut an efficiency saving and vice versa" argument.

There's been some surprise among economists that unemployment hasn't risen higher during the recession. The most common answer put forward has been that many employees have accepted wage freezes or cuts, unpaid holidays, or a move to temporary part time working. In return the number of redundancies due to the downturn in demand has been kept to a minimum.

The report lays out a truly frightening scenario for an impending public sector spending downturn and looks across to the private sector for solutions in trying to deal with it. Why, the report reasons, since staff costs make up the bulk of public sector spending, shouldn't workers here emulate their private sector counterparts - more flexible working, reduced hours, a move from full to part-time working? This way, says the report, experienced staff can be retained and services can still be delivered.

If you're a worker at a car parts factory, then you might have some sympathy for that. You may already have had to practice what the WAO raise, if not exactly preach, in their report today. But how will it go down with the public sector unions? After all, the PCS is already locked in industrial action with the Government about redundancy entitlements.

You can judge for yourself. Here's the response to the report from Unison: "Transposing a private sector solution to the public sector is fraught with difficulty. The reason why the private sector went to short-time working and reduced hours was a reduction in demand for manufacturing goods etc.

"With the public sector the demand is high and increasing. For example, social care demographics show an increase in demand."

I think that roughly translates as "no thanks".

Yes, the reason why the private sector went to short-time working and reduced hours was a reduction in demand but it was also directly due to a reduction in companies' income. And the public sector, according to the Audit Office's projections, is about to start swimming in exactly the same red coloured ink.

Of course mothballing a production line in a factory means making fewer alternators or car seats. Once demand picks up, it's simple enough to flick a switch and start turning them out again.

What the unions will argue is that stopping, or slowing, a production line in public services - social care, for example - has a very real impact on people. Not as easy to flick the switch when there's a bit more money around either.

The next few years are going to be all about balancing the books. If this is an opening chapter - Kafka or not - it's going to be a long and difficult read.

The long wait

Betsan Powys | 21:33 UK time, Thursday, 11 March 2010

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It used to be a monthly ritual. The publication of Welsh NHS waiting list figures would be a litany of bad tidings, followed by a grilling for the Health Minister and a tale of despair from a patient left languishing for many months, even years on the list.

How things have changed.

Today's waiting time figures for January were published without fanfare. It's the second month for the much-vaunted referral to treatment maximum target of 26 weeks, a target set to almost universal incredulity back in 2005.

So have they hit the target? No. Well no ... and yes.

The One Wales commitment, restating the 2005 pledge, was clear. "We will reduce waiting times to a maximum of 26 weeks from referral to treatment, including all or any waits for therapies and diagnostic tests."

So let's look at today's figures. Of the 231,947 patients waiting for treatment at the end of January 2010, 3,492 were waiting more than 26 weeks and another 35 more than 36 weeks, meaning 98.5 per cent of patients were treated within the target time. This is up from 1,607 and 0 respectively at the end of December, where 99.3 per cent were treated within 26 weeks.

So close, but no cigar, you might think and heading in the wrong direction.

But hang on, say the Assembly Government. The bullet point pledges of a political programme are one thing. The real world is another. There may, they say, be valid clinical reasons why patients cannot be treated within the target time, therefore there are tolerances which should be taken into account. For the overall referral to treatment target then, the tolerance is currently 95 per cent. So, there's a "let" of 5 per cent, if you like, on the target. An excuse for failure, say the opposition. It depends whether you think the tolerance is reasonable in the end, but it does pose a problem for headline writers, at the very least. Remember, the pledge was made back in 2005, the tolerances only came on the scene in August last year.

Today's figures are also broken down into treatment times for patients admitted to hospital and patients treated without being admitted to hospital. Here's a clue about where the pressures lie. Based on the figures for the past two months, if get your treatment without being admitted to hospital, then you have around a one in 55 chance of having waited more than 26 weeks. If you need to be admitted to hospital for treatment, then you have around a one in 13 chance of having waited more than 26 weeks. That's below the 95 per cent tolerance level and a slam dunk missed target.

Of course over the border in England we hear day in day out that patients there only have to wait 18 weeks for their treatment. Sure, it's said, the Welsh NHS has made strides forward but we're still the poor relation.

But wait up. This is where our new friend tolerance comes in.

While it's not possible to directly compare figures between Wales and England, as the data is not collected in exactly the same way, it is possible to get a rough indication of performance between the two, helpfully provided at a briefing on today's waiting list figures.

So with those health warnings in mind, at the end of December 2009:

In Wales, 89.9 per cent of patients waiting were waiting less than 18 weeks.
In England, 90 per cent of patients waiting were waiting less than 18 weeks.

Winner? Wales - by a whisker.

In Wales, 0.7 per cent of patients waiting were waiting over 26 weeks.
In England, 4.5 per cent of patients waiting were waiting over 26 weeks.

Winner? Wales

In Wales, no patients were waiting over 36 weeks.
In England, 47,459 patients were still waiting over 36 weeks.

Winner? No contest.

In England, the tolerance level for their 18 week maximum wait target is set at 90 per cent. So - or so at least the argument goes in Cardiff Bay - what you gain on the time you lose on the tolerance.

There's no great appetite for introducing a target lower than 26 weeks for the Welsh NHS. It's generally felt to be a fair balance between economic reality, patient need, and the capacity of the NHS to deliver. But there's also a sense of realism too.

Let's face it: the 26 week target has only been just about hit/narrowly missed after a big cash injection. Sustaining it in a new world of tightening budgets? Now that's the real challenge, with very little tolerance at all.

On the platform tonight ...

Betsan Powys | 11:41 UK time, Thursday, 11 March 2010

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I don't often blog on demand but Emails and comments have asked for a blog post on the Prime Ministerial debates. Plaid and the SNP joined forces yesterday to make clear their objection to being excluded from those debates. So let's go for it. Let's have a debate about THE debates. You are, after all, licence fee payers and when, one day, I'm up against the wall, never say I took you for granted.

Right: where are we?

ITV, Sky and the BBC have made known the detail of their proposals for the Prime Ministerial debates in the weeks leading up to the general election. All three will broadcast a 90-minute debate between the three main UK party leaders: Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg. They won't be a free for all. Rules have been drawn up - who can ask what of whom, how much time each leader has to respond ... and so on. They are pretty detailed and specific to these three debates.

Lots were drawn to decide in which order the debates will be broadcast. The upshot is this.

ITV go first. Their debate will contain a themed section that looks specifically at domestic matters then moves on to take in general quetsions.

Sky come next. Again there'll be a themed section, this time on international affairs.

Then it's the BBC's turn to hone in on the economy before, once again, moving on to questions that are more general.

These proposals were announced in the broadsheets emphasising agreement between the three parties and the three broadcasters. 'All parties are said to be happy' was the general gist of it. Except, of course, they were not. All three parties might be contented with the deal but Plaid Cymru in Wales and the SNP in Scotland are certainly not. Their exclusion from the platform has already turned into a substantial controversy in Scotland. That may not be as true of Wales but the issue, all the same, is controversial and very much a live one.

It's the BBC, in particular, that Plaid and the SNP have in their sights. That licence fee I mentioned earlier means, they argue, that there's an additional onus on the BBC to make sure these debates are fair not just for the political parties involved but for the audience of potential voters across the UK as a whole. That, Plaid Cymru point out, includes Wales - not that any of the three debates will be recorded in Wales. All three venues are in England.

Would their objection have come as a suprise to the BBC? It's hard to imagine it would. The BBC have announced, hand in hand with the details of the debate, a series of opportunities for Plaid to appear on air, designed to make sure the Plaid take on the issues discussed, the Plaid message, the Plaid voice is also heard.

As in past elections there'll be a Welsh leaders debate broadcast by BBC Wales in peak time. That will, as in past programmes, feature all four main Welsh parties. Who each party puts forward to appear as 'leader' in that programme is up to them. It'll be broadcast in the week leading to the election - in other words, after the BBC Prime Ministerial debate has been aired.

Immediately after the UK-wide debate is broadcast there'll be a special Welsh opt out, earlier than usual, within BBC One's News at Ten. That will feature a live interview with a senior Plaid representative.

On BBC Two in Wales, the same evening, there will be a Newsnight-type slot to discuss the debate. That will feature Plaid Cymru.

BBC network radio channels, who'll also be broadcasting the Prime Ministerial debate, are running analysis programmes immediately afterwards. Plaid will be invited to take part.

The next day Radio 4's Today programme - along with Good Morning Wales no doubt - will be reacting to the debate. Plaid will be interviewed.

What this means, says the BBC, is that every effort is being made to ensure Plaid's views will be appropriately and accurately reflected.

You may well think that's bang on. You may, on the other hand, think the BBC has got it very wrong. I've spoken to people from both camps and there is little common ground.

At the Labour party conference in Swansea recently one Welsh MP argued the case that taking the campaign as whole, he feared Plaid would - as in the past he felt - be given too many opportunities to broadcast their views in Wales by the BBC. Our conversation was informal so I won't name him but it was, he thought, ridiculous to suggest that Plaid should be inlcluded in the Prime Ministerial debates. Plaid are only contesting the 40 Welsh seats out of the 650 total in Westminster. Ieuan Wyn Jones isn't even standing in the general election, he argued so couldn't possibly become Prime Minister. Why should he have a role in the Prime Ministerial debate?

Plaid, on the other hand, point to Nick Clegg and ask what his chances are of becoming PM? To have included only Gordon Brown and David Cameron in the debates, to have held what Plaid would genuinely have to accept was a 'Prime Ministerial debates' might have put them on a sticky wicket but once Nick Clegg was put on the platform, that made a mockery of the programme title argue Plaid and strengthened the case that they ought to be there too.

The response, of course, is that the Liberal Democrats are standing in all 650 seats and so, Mr Clegg could make it Number Ten. He won't of course but he could.

So how is it fair, ask Plaid, that a crucial debate about policy that will be watched by many thousands in Ceredigion and Aberconwy and Llanelli - key seats Plaid have a chance of taking - doesn't include a Plaid politician? Can the BBC genuinely argue, they ask, that voters in a seat like 50:50 Ceredigion won't be influenced by seeing Nick Clegg included in the debate and having to tune in later to hear Plaid's point of view?

Those views will be heard, comes the riposte from those who accuse Plaid of trying to stifle discussion. They'll be heard time and again on other programmes, on other outlets. The voters of Ceredigion and Aberconwy and Llanelli will not be deprived. Neither will Plaid who must accept that UK-wide, they are not a major party.

Let me add to the picture Plaid fury that the BBC, in particular, announced the proposed details of the Prime Ministerial debates without first having a proper sit-down meeting with Plaid's Chief Executive, Gwenllian Lansdown to spell out that detail. Such a meeting has now been arranged say the BBC and will happen next week.

Get this wrong, says Ieuan Wyn Jones, and "the legitimacy and integrity of the general election result will be called into question". He went on to say at yesterday's press conference that the BBC's plans were "nothing short of a betrayal of the principles upon which the editorial integrity of the BBC is built".

Over to you.

Snips

Betsan Powys | 09:49 UK time, Wednesday, 10 March 2010

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Later this morning Plaid Cymru's Ieuan Wyn Jones and the SNP's Alex Salmond will sit together in Westminster to brief the media.

They will, I'm sure, want to talk about the Prime Ministerial debates, spell out a case that says it is entirely unfair that they are excluded from three crucial platforms, three crucial programmes that will be broadcast in countries where they are standing in every single seat.

More on that later.

It's hard to imagine they won't be prepared to take answers on other issues too. What about the shopping list, the list of key principles and issues - or let's just call them demands - that they would whip out in the event of a hung parliament. The 'Snips' as Plaid have taken to calling the SNP went for it without their Welsh counterparts last week. Much irritation in Cardiff = a joint briefing this morning?

I have every faith one of my colleagues in Westminster will ask the question posed at the end of this blog entry, the one that asked how the two parties deal with the quite different demands they would make under the banner entitled "fair funding". How does the Celtic bloc operate on the Barnett formula when the two parties know and when the government with which they're bargaining knows that it means two different things in two different countries.

Barnett? Take another quick look at Gerry Holtham's report. Scotland? You lucked out. Wales? We lost out. Where do we go from here?

No surprises, though, that the two parties are planning to stick together.

Dafydd Wigley knows all about striking bargains with governments that need every vote going. And it was Mr Wigley who wrote in Dal Ati, the third volume of his autobiography, in the chapter on hung parliaments:

"Cyn y gellir cadw pwysau ar y Llywodraeth mae angen mwy na thair sedd".
"Before pressure can be brought to bear on a Government, more than three seats is needed".

He should know.

Pickets and poles

Betsan Powys | 11:59 UK time, Tuesday, 9 March 2010

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"It's just like old times" said Nick Bourne this morning.

It turns out he wasn't making a political point about strikes and picket lines. What he meant, I think, was that he was back in a room in the red brick building of Ty Hywel where briefings - pre-Senedd - used to happen. He was there and we were there because the Senedd was closed to business.

"It's business as usual for us!" added Mr Bourne pointedly.

The Conservative group met as usual today. The leader came in between 7 and 7.30am. The only unusual aspect of his morning was that he's stopped on his way to have his photograph taken with the picketers. They "quite understood" that he had work to get on with and he quite understood that they had a right to strike.

There was only one Liberal Democrat AM in evidence but the others, we were told, would have been there had there been First Minister's Questions and plenary to attend. They were working in their constituencies.

But why were Labour and Plaid Cymru AMs not there, asked Mr Bourne, Alun Cairns by his side?

Why had they withdrawn government business for the day?

Wasn't this a snub to a Labour UK government? The "irony" that there were Labour AMs standing outside with the picketers hadn't been lost on him, he said.

The upshot of the briefing? That employers coming out in favour of employees was "farcical".

Alun Cairns was in provocative mood. The lobby's collective ears pricked up.

First Minister's Questions had been suspended for the first time ever because Labour and Plaid AMs had made it clear they wouldn't cross the picket line to attend. If they considered themselves to be refusing to work in sympathy with PCS members and Assembly employees and if they were alos out on strike, then that, in his eyes, was tantamount to secondary picketing - "which is ilegal" he added, just in case the point was lost on his audience.

"If" indeed. Nice try.

So where are we?

All four parties respect the right of PCS members to strike.

All four parties want the talking and negotiating to continue.

All four parties want two sides, who seem poles apart, to thrash it out.

But two sides want to know if the other two sides are once again going to suspend government business if PCS members feel it necessary to call another strike next Tuesday?

Jeff Cuthbert, Helen Mary Jones and chair of the all party PCS group Leanne Wood were clear this morning that calling off government business had happened "in exceptional circumstances". They said too that that they never have and never will cross a picket line. No matter that they're not crossing it to do the job of those on it - they would simply not cross that line, literally or metaphorically.

So might the Assembly have to shut up shop again?

Yesterday the First Minister met the UK High Commissioner to South Africa, not in his office in Ty Hywel, but over coffee in the Hilton Hotel in central Cardiff.

A request was made that he gave us an interview while he was there, one where we could ask what happens if and when there is another strike; one where he, on behalf of the government partners, could spell out exactly what the plan was should the picket line feel the need to meet again. He could spell out the courage of WAG's convictions on this one.

Initially, the answer was 'fine, fine'.

Later it turned into something else. 'Pictures only. No words'.

I'm not sure what that tells me. Nick Bourne might suggest it speaks volumes.

Bubbles watch

Betsan Powys | 15:15 UK time, Saturday, 6 March 2010

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Who did David Cameron have in his sights this morning? Labour, or as he had it, the government of waste that has left Wales languishing at the bottom of the UK economic pile.

Who was in Nick Bourne's sights? Think Assembly leader. Labour, yes but Plaid too were put in the same yolk, both guilty, said Mr Bourne, of "political and economic bankruptcy".

If last weekend's conference saw Plaid love-bombed, there's no sign of love in this one. Who's been MInister for Economic Development for the past three years came the rhetorical question. "Windy Wyn" came the answer, who uses up his breath to blame the "so-called London based parties" for our economic woes. The audience nodded enthusiastically. So much for squeezing anyone but Labour out of the campaign whispered one or two in the back.

Julie has made an appearance too, in case you were wondering. Julie? The same Julie mentioned, out of the blue, in Cheryl Gillan's speech, that is. You know Julie. Julie Fallon from Llandudno, the first time Conservative voter. She had a cup of tea with David Cameron (and a lot of cameramen) and divulged that she's learned Welsh. A spark lit up tin he eyes of the producer of our Welsh language coverage.

And by the way, who's being blowing money on bubbles? No, not Bubbles de Vere as Andrew RT Davies (in jest, I stress) referred to our Health Minister.

It's an annual sport, checking which loyal Conservatives have dipped into their pockets to pay the £25 or so necessary to have their name appear in a bubble in the conference programme - a bubble popping out of a champagne bottle.

Note to ed: Eric Pickles, the champagne-ban man and party chairman is in town tomorrow. Best keep the bubbles out of sight.

Percentage politics

Betsan Powys | 11:36 UK time, Saturday, 6 March 2010

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Welcome to Llandudno where the sun is shining, the sea is blue and the speeches and press releases are 95% about Labour.

The wifi provision has been, let's say problematic but I'm now online and about to go and interview David Cameron about the other 5%.

12.27

How was he? He had 5 minutes to romp through the issues. So that's exactly what we did.

Are the Conservatives sticking to the campaign line that Wales can't afford another five years of Gordon Brown and Labour because, in the end, that is all there is to say?

How come, if the number one line of attack against Labour is that they've driven the UK to the brink of economic disaster, that twice as many people said they trusted Labour than the Conservatives in last week's Welsh opinion poll?

He's said that the Barnett formula is nearing the end of its life. Fact. George Osborne, in Cardiff recently, said it should be reformed and soon. Fact. David Cameron could be walking through the door marked Number 10 in a matter of weeks so what would he actually put in its place?

What did he make of Cheryl Gillan's choice of words in yesterday's pre-conference press conference? Is the referendum "some obscure constitutional matter?"

How many of Wales' 40 MPs will survive the round of Tory cuts aimed at parliamentary seats?

And .. in so many words ... just how nervous is he that he's about to blow it and lose the election?

You'll see the answers on tomorrow's Politics Show, Wales.

In the meantime a prize for anyone who can tell me what a "post-bureaucratic tool" is. Mr Cameron says he will use them to form what he called "the first genuinely post-bureaucratic government in the world".

His speech was a war on waste, a war on Labour. I wonder whether he had time to speak to the local prospective Conservative candidate in Aberconwy, Guto Bebb who made a rather interesting point yesterday on Radio Cymru .Over the past few weeks, he said, he's found, out on the doorsteps, that people have been more prepared to tell him there and then that, in fact, they plan to vote Labour. With the election in sight, the apparent shame attached to coming clean and admitting they plan to stick with Labour is ebbing away ... a bit.

Perhaps Guto Bebb can afford to say that in a constitutency Labour don't expect to win. It's a message he thinks is worth sharing. Better find out now than in the early hours of May 7th, after all.

Back to yesterday's press conference.

With Labour catching up with the Conservatives in the polls was Cheryl Gillan regretting the talk of a rugby-team's worth of Welsh Conservative MPs elected to the next parliament? I'll stick to rugby imagery. What I saw was a pretty swift hospital pass to Nick Bourne. She had never put a figure on it (Mr Bourne has ... in front of witnesses) but the Shadow Welsh Secretary is confident the Tories will have an excellent election in Wales.

Fancy a job?

Betsan Powys | 11:56 UK time, Thursday, 4 March 2010

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Fancy a job?

As far as I can make out from skim reading the proposed Welsh language measure - and that's no mean task at 136 pages long - there is no danger money attached. Perhaps there ought to be.

The job is that of a Commissioner. We have one to protect the interests of children and another to champion the rights of older people. If and when this measure becomes law then we will have a Welsh Language Commissioner too. Like the other two he or she will champion the cause, in this instance, the Welsh language. Unlike the other two, this one will have legal enforcement powers.

Who'll appoint the Commissioner?

The Assembly Government - not, note, the Assembly as a whole.

What's the job?

To set new standards that will place a legal duty on public bodies and companies who provide things like mobile phones and gas and electricity to offer some services in Welsh. How much? In which parts of Wales? That'll be up to the Commissioner.

What if they don't reach the standards imposed on them?

The Commissioner, if cajoling doesn't cut it, can fine them up to £5000.

Some more 'what ifs'.

What if they keep re-offending. After all what's a fine fo £5000 to companies who make huge profits?

The Government could legislate to make the fine higher. It could become a matter of contempt of court.

What if a mobile phone company, say, don't think the Commissioner has been fair or proportionate in his demands? What if they think he or she has gone too far?

They can appeal to a Welsh Language Tribunal. (Monty Python did come to mind ... One closely involved with the measure suggested red, white and green wigs might come in handy.)

But what if Mrs Jones in Llanystumdwy isn't happy with the level of service the Commissioner has said she can expect from her electricity company? What if she thinks it doesn't go far enough?

Um ... she can lobby her Assembly Member, or not vote for them next time round I suppose. That's democracy for you. It doesn't sound quite as immediate, does it?Perhaps those scrutinising the measure will wonder the same.

Perhaps they will look at the role of the Commissioner and wonder at just how central and crucial it is to the measure working successfully.

How much scrutiny will there be?

This is a long and complex measure. If the Culture Minister says there's a chance the Commissioner will be in post before the next Assembly election (I wonder who the government have their eye on to fill the role ... someone who'd like to make a move before the next round of door-knocking and campaigning starts perhaps?) then the proposed measure must become law by this time next year at the latest.

'Makes for bad laws' mutters a veteran of more than one legislature. Rushed law is bad law.

'It's so authoritarian' mutters another, who questions the wisdom of starting to wrangle about a measure in such a contentious area of Welsh life, just before Assembly Members plan to unite to ask the public for more powers. 'People will say - look what they're doing with the powers they've got now.'

Responses?

The Welsh Language Society got in early on Radio Wales. As they see it this measure will not confer rights on Welsh speakers to use the language in Wales. Why not, they ask? Why can't duties imposed on businesses to provide services in Welsh go hand in hand with rights conferred on those who use those services?

The CBI got in early too. Businesses want to know what will be expected of them and this doesn't tell them a thing, said David Rosser. The Assembly Government will please no-one with this measure.

Funnily enough I suspect that won't come as a surprise to the Culture Minister, or to any of his advisers.

If the proposed measure was online I'd link to it. When it is, I will.

UPDATE

As promised: read the proposed measure here.

Baying and linking

Betsan Powys | 14:18 UK time, Tuesday, 2 March 2010

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I'm out and about and away from my desk.

A good place to be but not much good for blogging. Forgive me then a few snippets and links that might appeal to you.

Try this from Michael Crick's blog for size.

There's this take on our St David's Day poll in the Guardian.

And a lively intervention from the Presiding Officer I overheard a moment ago. "This is NOT Westminster. STOP baying!"

What do you do in the Bay then?

The trouble with shortlists ...

Betsan Powys | 10:29 UK time, Monday, 1 March 2010

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Wales.

Safe Labour seats.

Jobs for life.

Shortlists in those safe seats.

What springs to mind?

Trouble - that's what. Just think Blaenau Gwent and you'll know what I mean.

Paul Flynn MP is sensing some of it over in Pontypridd after Kim Howells announced that he was off. He hasn't yet, as far as I can see, incurred the wrath of this fellow Labour blogger .. not yet.

Let me add to Labour woes.

I understand that four Labour Councillors and some individual members in Islwyn have resigned from the party, unhappy that they've had - they claim - no say in drawing up the shortlist of candidates to fill Don Touhig's shoes.

They've sent a resignation letter to Gordon Brown and here it is:

"We have become evermore disillusioned with the government over recent months. On the weekend we received news that the Party HQ has imposed a shortlist upon us to replace our outgoing MP Don Touhig, which contains no candidates from, or who live in Islwyn. This situation has occurred despite repeated calls for us to decide our own shortlist and has resulted in our continued membership of the Party becoming untenable".

"Islwyn neighbours Blaenau Gwent, where the Party refused to listen to local members before the last General Election and imposed an all woman shortlist. The action resulted in many members leaving the Party and contesting the Westminster seat against Labour".

"We will now select Cllr Dave Rees, a true democratic socialist to stand against the Labour Party and their list of Party clones in the coming General Election. Cllr Rees is a hugely popular Councillor in his Ward and has an excellent track record of delivery".

Transport House have said they'll send over the names on the shortlist this morning.

On it, I gather, is the name Tamsin Dunwoody - or "Tamsin Dunwoody ... again" as local sources put it, ever so slightly bitterly. A handful of others are London based. One currently works for outgoing MP Don Touhig.

"We told them we wanted a say in the shortlist" said one of the letter's authors, who himself went for the nomination but wasn't shortlisted. "They didn't listen".

Deja vu anyone?

UPDATE

The official Welsh Labour line:

"Nothing has been received by the party directly by the members concerned.
If it is the case that these councillors will be resigning their membership, then it is clearly disappointing news. However, after a strong Conference weekend and hugely positive recent polls, Welsh Labour is in great shape to fight the next election. The quality of the candidates applying for both Pontypridd and Islwyn merely underlined the fact that we have a deep reservoir of talent to draw on."

The unofficial Labour line:

Good riddance to difficult customers put out by Don Touhig's refusal to join a No campaign in the run up to a referendum.

The shortlisted candidates in Islwyn: Tamsin Dunwoody, Christopher Evans, Dan Jarvis, Melanie Smallman, Nick Thomas-Symonds, Angela Wilkins, Nathan Yeowell

and in Pontypridd: Jayne Brencher, Stephen Doughty, Delyth Evans, Bethan Roberts, Owen Smith.

UPDATE 2:

More official responses. This from Harry Andrews, Labour group leader in Caerphilly council:

"I'm obviously very disappointed to hear this news - these are colleagues I have worked closely with in the past and I'm saddened by the position they have taken. However, their decision will in no way diminish Labour's commitment to the serious issues like fighting to improve public services in the Caerphilly County Borough."

And from outgoing Islwyn Assembly member Irene James:

"The important thing people need to remember is that it will be down to party members in Islwyn to have the final say on our next candidate. I think we have a great range of candidates to pick from and I look forward to campaigning alongside the eventual winner to keep Labour in power in Westminster."

The constitutional ball

Betsan Powys | 07:04 UK time, Monday, 1 March 2010

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A Welsh political animal once taught me a lesson in handling opinion polls with care.

They'd been conducting telephone polling in their own patch for weeks. It had given them an answer, one they quite liked hearing. When the question was put to voters at the ballot box, the answer they came up with was resoundingly different.

"Democracy?" said the text. "Rubbish!"

So granted, polls prove nothing. BBC guidelines will tell you that they show nothing. They can only suggest.

My take on what our annual St David's Day poll suggests this year is here.

Bottom line?

The constitutional ball is moving resolutely towards an Assembly that can make laws without having first to get the go-ahead from Westminster.

Now we know only too well after Friday night that balls can be intercepted and end up the other end of the field in no time at all but look at our polls for the last three years and what you'll see is the gap between those who say they would vote 'Yes' and 'No' in a referendum opening from 7% in 2008 to 13% in 2009 and to 21% this year.

Have a look at another set of responses - the multiple choice option, the pick-what-sort-of-institution-you-want-to-see option. It backs up the blunt 'Yes' or 'No' option. Once again this year most people, 40%, say they want an Assembly with full law-making powers and some taxation powers. Another 13% wants full law-making but no taxation powers.

The number who say they think the Assembly should have more influence over Wales than Westminster is growing too - not a lot but it has grown to nearly two thirds: 62%.

You may not like some of the wording in the poll. The calls have been coming in alraedy. Why do you talk about "full law-making powers" when the Assembly wouldn't have anything like full law-making powers after a 'Yes' vote in a referendum?

I've dealt with this before but the answer is that this is the way the opinion poll question has been put for some years and tracking a thousand people's response to the same question is vital and valuable.

And Labour? Boy are they fans of opinion polls at the moment. The Sunday Times yesterday, our St David's Day poll today. Our poll points to voters having twice as much faith in Labour leaders on sorting out the Welsh economy as the Conservatives.

Plaid Cymru and Liberal Democrat supporters may well have decided that, since their leadership teams have no chance of making it to Number 10 where the levers of power on the economy lie, then they'd plump for one of the top two.

Who knows. I'm back where I started. We can know nothing from polls ... but emerging from this year's columns and percentages? A clear suggestion that the Tory story is not going smoothly just now.

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