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Archives for September 2010

Welcome to Wales ...

Betsan Powys | 17:12 UK time, Thursday, 30 September 2010


"Welcome to Wales" said the man in the audience in Cardiff's city hall "and greetings from my mother who voted for you ... to keep out the Tories".

Nick Clegg's relaxed smile turned into, well, a pretty relaxed grimace. He's clearly used to it. The audience in Cardiff's City Hall weren't hostile. They were pretty anxious though and passionate about the effect "your cuts" would have on "thousands of Welsh workers." The teacher was worried about her own job and her husband's, a police officer. The many students who'd come to listen to the Deputy Prime Minister were worried too. Quite a few had voted for his party in Cardiff Central and now wanted him to convince them that he'd "hold his own" against the Tories.

His message? That cuts to public spending were necessary, would hurt and that yes, it's a time of anxiety but that people should "keep the cuts in perspective. Even after all the decisions that we have to take which are difficult ones, we'll still be spending more money at the end of the period than we are now."

He wouldn't be drawn on the plans for St Athan and whether there is a 'Plan B' should the largest public investment in Wales, as it was once dubbed, is scaled down as has been suggested.

"We think we need to sort this out over the next four, five years - do it in as fair a way as possible - and on October 20th we will publish how we think we can do this.

Earlier Mr Clegg had been shown around the Assembly chamber. As he and Cheryl Gillan looked up, around, impressed, Kirsty Williams popped over to her seat to show him where she sits. There are no opposition benches in the chamber, of course but the boss' deal with David Cameron won't have done much to help her get out of that particular seat and into government.

Was it fair to say that Mr Clegg has a "blind spot for Wales"?

Not at all, he said. At least he was in the Assembly on an official visit which was more than Gordon Brown had managed when he was PM. The coalition in London was very supportive of this Assembly he said, and Wales as a whole.

How relaxed would he be, I asked the Lib Dem leader, if his party in Wales distanced themselves every so slightly from the coalition cuts over the coming months? Would he be accommodating, to give them a chance of striking a deal with Labour after May's elections?

"The assembly is its own master. Its not for politicians such as myself or Ed Milliband or David Cameron in Westminster to point a long finger at our party leaders here."

Pretty relaxed I thought. I wonder whether the party in Wales will think the same.

"Mr Sheen shines umpteen things clean".

Betsan Powys | 12:27 UK time, Wednesday, 29 September 2010


He was spot on as Tony Blair, won huge acclaim for his David Frost and as for his Brian Clough? Brilliant.

Now is there another role just waiting for actor Michael Sheen to take on, one that requires him to learn and convey just a couple of words of script?

I'm thinking ... "Vote Yes."

In the run up to next year's referendum on powers the whisper is that Mr Sheen is in demand to star in a campaigning role alongside Rhodri Morgan.

The Special Relationship, the sequel perhaps?

Then again maybe you're thinking The Damned United!

My Money, My Way.

Betsan Powys | 12:03 UK time, Wednesday, 29 September 2010


Tee off at the Celtic Manor is still a couple of days away - contain yourselves - but in Cardiff Bay, local government minister Carl Sargeant has taken what looks like a mighty swing at Welsh local authorities, which will have repercussions well after Team America have waved goodbye to Newport.

Most of the Assembly Government's efforts this week are aimed at maximising their substantial public investment in the Ryder Cup. A camera? Let's talk about the Ryder Cup. A lobby briefing? Did I mention the Ryder Cup?

Any ideas, by the way, how to persuade your children that it's cool to dress up as golfers to go to school on Thursday? At least they won't have to do it again on Friday. There'll be no school on Friday. An inset day. Did I mention the Ryder Cup ..?

But the exception was the statement by Mr Sargeant, innocuously titled "Your Services, Your Say" - billed as an update on his summer tour meeting public sector workers.

Once the minister had sat down it slowly dawned on some AMs that a better title could have been "My Money, My Way". For what he announced was nothing less that a complete re-evaluation of how local services are delivered in Wales: an independent inquiry, to report before Christmas, which will look at all functions carried out by councils in Wales and decide whether they could be better carried out at a regional or even national level.

We're not talking about back office here - HR, payroll and so on. It appears that the Minister is now prepared to wrest control of whole areas from local government and put them on a wholly different footing - waste, social services, trading standards for example, run regionally or even as a single national service. Mr Sargeant put it more simply - "I'm not precious about who does what."

Is he serious? A government source tells us he's deadly serious. "He is determined to take them on. He holds a lot of cards and he will play them."

But how many cards will he actually need to play? A senior local government source says that the days of councils jealously guarding their powers to protect their budgets and bureaucracy have now gone.

Ten years ago the word "regional" was a dirty word in local government for exactly those reasons. But since then, particularly in the area of waste disposal, councils have slowly begun to realise the advantages of working together. Instead of building 22 anaerobic digesters, they've built six. Cheaper all round.

The financial projections now look so grim, apparently, that even the most isolationist elements in local government are realising that the alternative to doing things differently is a very real risk that some services will become simply unsustainable. They've looked at the financial projections, woken up and as Leighton Andrews once put it, smelled the Starbucks.

Given the strength of the Minister's statement and that fact that councils are, by and large, on the same page rather than pushing against him, it appears that there are some very major changes on the way.

However, for those advocates of wholesale reorganisation of the 22 local authorities, there isn't much cheer in what Carl Sargeant had to say.

Reorganisation is the wrong message, according to the Minister. This isn't about the structures of democracy but about how we deliver services.

"Reorg" as he snappily put it, "is not where I want to be."

The numbers game

Betsan Powys | 12:39 UK time, Monday, 27 September 2010


Who did the majority of Welsh Labour party members want to lead the party?

We know Welsh MPs were pretty evenly split between David and Ed Miliband, with some pretty big beasts plumping for Ed. Not Paul Flynn who put him fifth out of five. How come? He was, after all, the only MP to do so. It was, he says, done as a tactical boost for David, his first choice. Ah well. He didn't want a job anyway.

Shadow Cabinet hopeful, Chris Bryant, a keen supporter of his former boss at the Foreign Office, understandably, put the eventual winner 4th, a fact that hasn't gone unnoticed amongst - you guessed it - his fellow Shadow Cabinet hopefuls.

We know the vast majority of Labour Assembly Members went for Ed.

So what about ordinary party members?

Their first preferences are laid out here (with thanks to the reader of the blog who sent the link) and show, as far as my maths makes it out, that 43.6% went for David, while 32.3% chose Ed. David won a majority, sometimes tiny, sometimes hefty, in 32 out of 40 CLPs. That's why, for the second week running, ordinary party members at their party conference are willing the boss to deliver a cracker of a speech. They have no desire to replay the contest. They want to accept it - it's just that they want his help, early in the process, to do that.

One of Ed Miliband's strongest backers, Peter Hain, delivers his own speech at a fringe meeting tonight. It's not enough, he'll say, to attack the Con Dem coalition - or the Conservative Liberal Democrat coalition as he very assidulously called it throughout his speech yesterday. Labour must deliver more than condemnation.

For instance:

''In Wales and Scotland next year, we must fight to win by showing we are serious about public service reform within restricted budgets. We need to present a vision for the future of a high tech, high investment, high skill economy, in stark contrast to the Coalition managing the decline of Britain''.

Great stuff, many ordinary party members will say: now let's see it.

And again: ''During our last years in Government, it was as if we'd forgotten why we were there. We'd become the establishment. We'd stopped transforming the country. We were now merely managers of the system. We were managing the economic crisis and the global terrorist threat - pretty well, most fair minded people would concede. But only Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho would get elected for being good managers''.

And how about this attack on 'simply managing'?

"We didn't come into being to put up with things as they are or to simply manage Wales, but to change Wales and meet the ambitions and aspirations of its citizens."

Ah no. That was Ieuan Wyn Jones in Aberystwyth two weeks ago.

To stay or to go?

Betsan Powys | 08:32 UK time, Monday, 27 September 2010


Ask a question once and you get the answer the interviewee had planned to give you.

Ask it twice and more likely than not, you get a different , rather less fluent version of the same answer.

Ask it yet again and make it clear you don't think you've so far got the real answer and you may well get the shortest answer of all ... but the one that tells you most.

So goes the theory. I've just heard it in practice. Derek Simpson, Joint General Secretary of Unite, was asked on Good Morning Wales whether he'd welcome David Miliband as Shadow Chancellor.

His final stab at it? That in his view, the man for the job is Ed Balls. He'd make a "tremendous" Shadow Chancellor, so if David Miliband were offered it and took it, "I would not be awfully pleased" - not exactly helpful to a new leader who knows he must prove he's in no-one's pocket.

Mr Simpson did add that his answer "is not in any way detrimental to David." This morning, like everyone else, he'll be sitting in the main hall, listening to the Miliband who lost out and trying to work out whether David Miliband has decided that he should stay, or should go.

What now?

Betsan Powys | 15:25 UK time, Sunday, 26 September 2010


So what does having Ed Miliband in charge mean for Wales? "Good news I think" said one Welsh MP. "He knows Team Wales were backing him. Can't hurt".

It means the odds on a Labour victory at the next general election have lengthened, according to the bookies standing on the steps outisde the conference centre but it means renewed vigour in the fight for an outright victory for Labour at the Assembly Elections in May, says Carwyn Jones.

The fightback starts now was the message to Welsh delegates this lunchtime. Mr Jones may be the First Minister but in Ed Miliband's Manchester he was introduced rather more grandly as "part of that new generation" who'll now be leading the Labour party - alongside Mr Miliband of course.

Will Ed Miliband as leader mean a change to the Barnett formula - the formula that's used to work out how much money the government in Wales gets each year? It should, in Mr Jones' view. Only this morning he told my colleague David Cornock on The Politics Show that Wales is underfunded to the tune of £300m per year. In other words Gerry Holtham is right. Barnett should be reformed. Why hadn't Labour done just that while they had the power to do so? Because, said Mr Jones, they "didn't have the evidence then".

How about Mr Miliband?

On Radio Wales last week, this was what he said:

"I think that lots of people talk about this new needs based formula. I don't rule that out, but I think we'd be very cautious in reopening a formula that has served us pretty well. I think you've got to pay special attention to Wales over and above the existing Barnett Formula and that's the approach I'd take in government".

Again later he said that "If we were in government we'd be saying in each spending round, well look we've got the Barnett Formula in place but Wales has got a special specific issue that needs to be looked at".

What now then, asked one Jones - my colleague Arwyn, of the other Jones, the First Minister?

"I'm looking forward to changing his mind" came the response.

So will having Ed Miliband in charge mean good things for Welsh MPs?

"When I'm introduced as the Shadow Welsh Secretary" said Peter Hain this lunchtime, "I think of myself as a shadow of my former self". Not for much longer surely, say those around him. Having so publicly backed the right horse, Mr Hain's star is in the ascendant they suggest; "back in the game" as another voice put it.

It's Ed.

Betsan Powys | 17:29 UK time, Saturday, 25 September 2010


Here it is - the result of the Labour leadership race in the handwriting of a Welsh MP, one who was there for the big moment, one who wanted the other Miliband to win and one who always has been renowned for having an eye for detail.

He did get one detail wrong in the excitement of the moment: Ed Miliband didn't get a higher proportion of the MPs' votes in the first round, nor in any other. It was the vote of the unions and the so-called 'affiliates' that was consistently higher, nudging him closer and closer to the line that stayed out of his brother's reach - a point that won't be lost on the parties Mr Miliband will now take on. Once Ann Black, the chair of the NEC whose job it was to deliver the result, blow-by-blow, called on her audience here in Manchester to applaud less because there were "quite a few rounds to go", it looked as though Ed might do it thanks to those second preferences - and he did.

A sigh of relief in the Welsh camp?

"Oh Ed will win" said Wayne David MP all those weeks ago at the hustings in Cardiff. His take, moment after Ed Miliband delivered his first - very sober and smile-free speech? That it had come down to the second preferences of just five MPs in the end. In other words it couldn't have been much closer. The referendum result in 1997? 50.3% v 49.7%. The Labour leadership race? 50.65% to 49.35%. Now comes the winning hearts and minds of those who went for the big brother because only he, they thought, was up and ready to take on the Tories - and beat them.

How will he do that? The First Minister is with the new Labour leader now - the most senior elected Labour politician in the land finding out how Mr Miliband intends to knock Mr Jones off that particular perch.

Here's one we prepared earlier.

Betsan Powys | 06:00 UK time, Tuesday, 21 September 2010


The M6 and M5 are long, if not exactly winding roads and when you read this, I won't very long have waved goodbye to them.That's why this blog entry looks as it does: a checklist of documents, prepared by a colleague, of the key communication between S4C and the DCMS when the controversial £2m cut to S4C's budget was being decided.

The documents have been released after a Freedom of Information bid by Plaid Cymru Assembly Member Rhodri Glyn Thomas - and they speak for themselves.

They show that when we, as journalists, spoke at the time of the cut having been "volunteered - yes, volunteered in inverted commas" - we hadn't realised the significance of those inverted commas, nor the extent to which they were merited.


Because while the DCMS insist the reduction in S4C's budget was volunteered, S4C insist it was not.
Because the cut may turn out to be unlawful.
Because S4C's Chief Executive, Iona Jones, was ousted from her position a matter of weeks after these documents were written.

Here they are in summary. Only names not obscured and therefore already made public are quoted here.

May 19 - Conversation between Jeremy Hunt and John Walter Jones, Chair S4C Authority. According to the DCMS notes, Secretary of State asks "in a spirit of cooperation" whether S4C would consider making a contribution to the in year cuts in line with other bodies. JWJ says wants to be helpful, will consult the Authority but would only come back with a proposition once DCMS officials had confirmed how money could flow back into the department given S4C's independent status. SoS agrees that DCMS officials will come back to S4C as a matter of urgency on the mechanics of how money could be moved back.

May 20 - an IN CONFIDENCE email from Jon Zeff (senior official in DCMS) to Iona Jones, Chief executive of S4C. Refers to discussions between the two and says DCMS lawyers say best way of returning money is on a "mutually agreed basis" although happy to discuss other options (unspecified). Also refers to timescale and amount.

May 21 - S4C receives legal advice from Clive Lewis QC that any reductions are unlawful (this is the advice released by Peter Hain last week, not part of the FOI).

May 21 - letter sent by email at unspecified time from John Walter Jones to Jeremy Hunt (but sent to Jon Zeff not the SoS). Letter makes it crystal clear based on the legal advice that S4C have received that "we cannot accede to your request" for a £2m reduction.

May 21 - email timed at 19.55 from Jon Zeff to John Walter Jones cc Iona Jones which says "This message is to confirm the outcome of my discussions with Iona, which is that the DCMS should withhold £2m from S4C's total grant over the course of this year, subject to a formal exchange of letters to be agreed next week".

May 21 - email reply timed at 20.05 from John Walter Jones to Jon Zeff cc Iona Jones which simply says "Thank you for your email, we will pick up with you again at the beginning of next week"

May 24 - email from Jeremy Hunt to JWJ (cc list redacted) which says, "I understand that following our conversation last week you have agreed to a £2m saving from S4C's grant this year, as a contribution to meeting the challenge of these exceptional circumstances. I am very grateful to the Authority for volunteering this: I know it will not have been an easy decision." He adds that his officials will be in touch about the detailed arrangements for reflecting the £2m saving in S4C's grant payments for this year.

May 24 - DCMS and S4C confirm to BBC Wales the £2m cut in response to inquiries. DCMS statement says cut was "agreed" whereas S4C's merely confirms the reduction.

May 25 - Short one-sentence letter from JWJ to Jeremy Hunt which says that further to the letter of May 24, "I have to make it clear beyond peradventure that in discussions between S4C and DCMS on this matter, it was clearly understood that DCMS decided to assume the risk of withholding £2m from S4C's grant in aid for the financial year, and this was not volunteered by S4C."

June 8 - Jeremy Hunt says in a written Parliamentary answer to Jonathan Edwards MP that the £2m cut was "mutually agreed" between DCMS and S4C.

Both the DCMS and S4C have made short further statements the DCMS reiterating that the reduction had been agreed with S4C.

S4C reiterate their contradictory position: "S4C has previously stated that the £2m cut to its grant in aid was not volunteered. S4C has not made a repayment to DCMS. The duties and responsibilities of the S4C Authority are placed upon it by statute and these duties place strict requirements upon the Authority to safeguard its public funding. We have no further comment".

Not exactly high definition yet perhaps but are things getting any less fuzzy?

The Merseyside Mingle

Betsan Powys | 10:35 UK time, Monday, 20 September 2010


It's going down better than party officials might have feared here in Liverpool but Liberal Democrat AMs will find out before most how the message of "we had to go into coalition" and "we have no choice but to cut" will go down on the doorsteps.

No wonder, then, that some are jumpy. Take Eleanor Burnham, the Lib Dem who topped the party list in North Wales last time round. She's hoping she'll top it again this time and make it back to her seat in the chamber.

She won't have failed to notice that with Aled Roberts - "the leader of the best council in Wales" to quote one senior party source - putting his hat in the ring too, she has a fight on her hands. And when you have a fight on your hands, you need as much support a you can get. If you don't feel you're getting it from all parts of the party, you start to worry.

At last night's 'do' - a chance for Welsh and Scottish party members to chat to Nick Clegg as party leader, rather than Deputy PM - Eleanor Burnham was getting worried. So worried that she executed a short but not unnoticed "verbal half nelson" on one party grandee who's turning into quite a cheerleader for Mr Roberts. She intends to fight for her place on the list and is confident her supporters at grassroot level will get her there was the message.

They parted friends and colleagues, of course but she's done nothing to change the elder statesman's mind. "Aled's an excellent candidate for us in the North" he said to me this morning.

Ms Burnham won't fail to notice the present tense, which by definition, puts her in the past.

But one bit of news will certainly cheer her up. Aled Roberts has been busy swelling the local party ranks with young supporters who are very much in camp Roberts. Only now has he realised that party rules say supporters must be party members for twelve months before they can vote for list candidates.

The present tense might be a touch more conditional than he'd thought after all.

Going first

Betsan Powys | 15:53 UK time, Sunday, 19 September 2010


Think Welsh Questions in the House of Commons. Or if you've ever been to an Eisteddfod, think that slot in the Literary Tent just before the hottest event of the afternoon: the face off between the bards.

Made the link? They're both events where people pour in and grab a seat, not because they're remotely interested in hearing what's going on but because they want to be there to hear what'll be going on next.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats at the party conference in Liverpool will know what I'm talking about. First came their "presentation", then came Nick Clegg taking questions from his party. People wanted to be there to hear some answers so in they came, early, to nab a seat.

What did they get? According to party sources what they got was a presentation that "set out the exciting year to come in Wales, highlight the strong record of the Assembly group in holding the failing Labour-Plaid government to account and emphasise the excellent record of Welsh Liberal Democrat led councils providing services to 1.5 million people - half the population of Wales".

What they did get was a stab at info-tainment, a cross between a cabaret (avoid the lectern, hold big shiny mic at an angle, try to work out what to do with your other hand, be a pro when the portaprompt seizes up leaving you making up the next few lines) and a list of the failures of the Labour Plaid coalition in Cardiff Bay (scrapped a promise to deliver Welsh language newspaper, ditched a promise to give Welsh official status, missed their target to halve child poverty by 2010). With each failure on the Lib Dem list the words "scrapped", "ditched" and "missed target" were stamped, as if by magic, in fact by powerpoint, on the screen behind them.

Then, somewhere in the middle of the full frontal assault on Labour and on Plaid came the one line that was an attack, of sorts, on the Tories. It came from Kirsty Williams. "As we approach next year's Welsh general election, I believe we can win on all fronts .. .against Plaid Cymru in Ceredigion ... against Labour in South Wales ... and yes, against the Tories. We know that at the last election we gave the Tories a foothold in Montgomeryshire that they did not merit." She wanted their celebrations to come to "an abrupt end". In the hall, filling fast now, they weren't sure whether they ought to clap or not. Was there more? Would there be clear yellow water in this presentation from Wales that they could cheer? There wasn't. They did clap, tentatively. Perhaps, suggested a colleague, they'd seen the tweets suggesting that Lembit Opik fancies throwing his hat into the ring again.

Then it was Nick Clegg's turn. The first question was from Linda Jack: "I always said I could trust you with my life and with my party. I know I can still trust you with my life. Can I still trust you with my party?"

She could, of course, came the response. And though most of the questions were a variation on the same theme - are you still one of us, can you make sure our voice is being heard, why do we get the kicking while they, our coalition partners, get the credit for our politices - the defence, each time, won over the vast majority of the audience.

This part of Liverpool is still enveloped in the warm world of a honeymoon period.

Coalition of the willing

Betsan Powys | 10:16 UK time, Thursday, 16 September 2010


The fightback starts here.

Over the last 24 hours let's say I've detected a definite change in tack from S4C. Suddenly, the mobile is ringing with people who've been quiet until now, whispering about strategies and arguments in favour of protecting the channel's budget.

So far, to be fair, the callers are from the worlds of media and politics, outside the channel. However, they're suspiciously well-briefed and very much singing from the same hymn sheet. It seems the S4C top brass have finally decided to assemble a coalition of the willing to try and defend themselves against the threat of cuts which, I'm told repeatedly, look like being 25% over four years in the best case scenario, a whopping 40% in the worst case.

That is, after all, what we're all in for, said one well-placed source yesterday. The DCMS are talking "envelopes" of budget cuts "from 25%" he said, "which of course means that 25% is a given ... or should that be taken." Still, he argued, proving not everyone's on-message, perhaps S4C should try the glass half full attitude and be thankful they'll still have what they're left with.

Then after an afternoon of phone calls, yesterday evening came the release of legal advice from the top QC, Clive Lewis, via the office of the Shadow Welsh Secretary Peter Hain. It sets out very clearly that not only would it be illegal for the DCMS to make any cuts in S4C's annual grant under the Broadcasting Act 1990 (which we knew already and which was spelled out by Elfyn Llwyd at Plaid Cymru's conference last week) but adds some crucial new information - that is, even a voluntary handback of a proportion of that grant would be illegal too. There's simply no mechanism for that return of funding to take place, says Mr Lewis, whose impressive track record speaks for itself.

This raises a lot of questions, not least about the £2m which has found its way - I choose my words carefully here - back to the DCMS from S4C in the current financial year. The exact nature of that transfer remains a moot point, depending on who you speak to. S4C dispute absolutely that it "volunteered" the cut. It came to "an agreement" with the DCMS. But if Mr Lewis is right, how come, a few curious minds are already starting to ask, would that re-payment be legal, whether it's actually made this year, or is simply shaved of next year's starting budget?

Mr Hain's office have declined to comment on who commissioned the advice about whether any voluntary return of funding would be within the law but the date on that advice is almost as striking as the contents. It was signed off by the QC on May 21st, 2010. That's a matter of days after Jeremy Hunt arrived at the DCMS, bearing his seals of office in a rucksack, we're told.

It means someone was already looking closely then at the possibility that Mr Hunt would invite S4C into a voluntary arrangement to cut its grant in order to bypass the Broadcasting Act - the question is why it's only come to light now. After all, it could have been used as a shield against that £2m which was returned earlier this year but September is the first time it's come to public attention.

Here's the opening line from the QC's advice. "I am asked to advise S4C on one question concerning the power of S4C to make a voluntary payment to the Department of Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport of money paid to S4C pursuant to section 61 of the Broadcasting Act 1990 ("the Act")."

Who commissioned the legal advice then? I'll leave you to make up your own minds.

My guess is that the S4C executives emerged from last week's meeting with Jeremy Hunt both shocked and galvanised. It was only at that point, I suspect, that his determination to reduce the channel's budget no matter what hit home to them.

The question their own supporters are asking is whether they've left it too late.

Mr Hain has made it clear that he'll take the Government to judicial review if there is any attempt to reduce the S4C budget by any means as a result of next month's Comprehensive Spending Review. He and his allies believe that it could only be achieved by passing new primary legislation, a view echoed by the Welsh Tory grandee Lord Roberts in the latest issue of Golwg, out today, where he says he believes a change in the law is "inevitable".

The best case scenario for Mr Hain and co is that the Government is forced to introduce a short new Broadcasting Bill, with the sole purpose of breaking the legal agreement for inflation increases for S4C. This could be harried through its Parliamentary journey both in committee, the Commons and the Lords. It would potentially keep the S4C funding story in the headlines for months.

However, other voices suspect that the DCMS's backstop option is to include a clause in the forthcoming Public Services Bill, to be published in a few weeks time. This would have far less impact for S4C's defenders. Would it be appropriate to do so? Opinion seems divided.

And what of S4C itself? Frantic number crunching is going on, certainly. Reducing headcount centrally isn't going to deliver the kind of savings being demanded. The main options would seem to be reducing the amount spent on the most expensive programming, or reducing the number of hours the channel broadcasts every day. Whatever happens, some very difficult decisions would have to be taken.

The statement from the S4C Authority about Mr Hain's disclosure is telling. They confirm they've taken legal advice, emphasise their responsibility to "protect the channel's public funding" and say they're examining all options within the timescale laid down by the DCMS.

It sounds like they're gearing up for a fight. The question is - what kind of forces do they have behind them? We'll see whether the phone keeps ringing.

Is he, isn't he?

Betsan Powys | 15:55 UK time, Wednesday, 15 September 2010


Another race, another set of bookies' odds - this time the UKIP leadership, which John Bufton MEP is 5-1 on to take.

But he's not standing. Or is he?

He's just released a statement in which "the MEP for Wales believes he must clarify that he is taking part in the leadership contest".

That's clear then. He is.

"While I am of course flattered to hear that I have received backing to be UKIP's next leader I must reiterate that I will not at this time be nominating myself as a candidate for the role".

So he's not?

As I type, the statement has just been re-sent: "Statement from John Bufton MEP on UKIP Leadership contest (with slight amendment)".

The "slight" amendment? "Not".

Got it?

Backing the right horse

Betsan Powys | 13:32 UK time, Wednesday, 15 September 2010


Back in July the five candidates for the Labour leadership came to Wales. It may have been more a case of five go through the issues in Cardiff than five go mad in Dorset but those who'd come along to the Millennium Stadium left very happy.

Yes, there'd been different takes on some pretty crucial issues - who would have agreed to cut what and when for one, Iraq another - but it had all been handled smoothly. Point-scoring was subtle; there was conviction aplenty. This, loyal members seemed collectively to sense, was one battle that wasn't going to tear the party apart.

Who, I asked people as they left, had made an impression?

Quite a few hadn't expected Andy Burnham to feature much but left saying he'd made a big impact. They might even vote for him. Others hadn't expected to like Ed Balls very much but had liked what he'd said. Everyone seemed to have liked Diane Abbott's style, few would like it if she won.

Which left the Miliband brothers, one of whom was going to win.

"Oh Ed will win" said the Welsh MP who'd been whipping up support amongst his colleagues in Westminster. He said it quietly but with great certainty. Two months on, despite the big money having been following big brother David ever since Ed's team are happy to say out loud that they think so too.

In Cardiff, he seemed to get the vox pop vote. "A little less new Labour" said quite a few. "At least he said sorry for a few things" said another. They would certainly have seen the Shadow Welsh Secretary standing resolutely at his side, making introductions, sticking by him from front door to podium, seemingly attached, suggested one party member, by velcro. They would know too that Lord and Lady Kinnock, though not there that day, were standing by his side in spirit.

Welsh MPs are pretty evenly split in their support for the two brothers but Welsh Labour AMs turned out in some force for Ed, standing in line behind Mr Hain on this occasion. Would it be fair to suggest, then, that Welsh Labour would heave a definite sigh of relief if Ed won - and hold their breath, just a bit, if David takes it?

Not at all, say party people. It's not as if things have turned nasty. It's not as though the Welsh party has gone wholesale for one brother over the other. Still, they add: starting to look as though he could do it, you know.

Dr ap Newsnight

Betsan Powys | 09:33 UK time, Tuesday, 14 September 2010


He's become known for that interview with Jeremy Paxman - the one that had Plaid supporters flocking to YouTube and coining a new nickname for their economic adviser: Dr Eurfyl ap Newsnight.

Dr ap Gwilym as he's actually called, was here, there and everywhere at Plaid's conference in Aberystwyth. He was gathering brownie points aplenty for putting Mr Paxman in his place and earning kudos at a newly-opened haunt for local foodies by pointing out that they'd failed to charge him for two rather nice bottles of wine. I think that's what you call putting your money where your mouth is.

He's become known for something else, too, over the past eighteen months or so - producing estimates of cuts in public expenditure that are frequently higher than most people's. An example: he predicted the impact of the coalition government's emergency budget on the Welsh budget would be £220m. In the event, it turned out to be £163m.

But in today's Western Mail he accuses the Assembly Government, the one in which Plaid are partners, of exaggerating the scale of the cuts to come. In fact the headline has him blaming Labour and First Minister Carwyn Jones for playing up the scale of the cuts. There will be Plaid ministers this morning who must be acutely aware that they - and their party - are fully signed up to government's predictions of the "grim" cuts to come.

The Assembly Government have been working on a worst case scenario of annual cuts of 3% in the revenue budget and 10% capital. They do that because they won't know the exact figures until the Chancellor spills the beans in his Comprehensive Spending Review on October 20th. Their thinking is that it's always easier to put money back into budget plans than take it out, if things turn out not be not quite so grim after all. If ministers find they're then able to dull the blow a bit, they can do that but if they can't, they might as well be ready for the worst.

Those in-the-know - or as in-the-know as it's possible to be given the inexact science of predicting the effect of the Barnett formula on cuts that aren't yet finalised - have been quietly suggesting that while things will be grim, they may not be as utterly devastating as some have been imagining. "It'll be degrees of grimness" said one. He seemed, perhaps, aware that when it turns out at the Assembly Government has any money at all to spend on things like roads and hospitals, voters may be pleasantly surprised. Between the lines he was, perhaps, starting to wonder whether backlash to the CSR will arrive too late to put people off voting Conservative in May.

From what Dr ap Gwilym says in today's article, all he's doing is pointing up a difference between his estimates and those of the Assembly Government. But don't tell me the anti-Labour headline hasn't led to some raised eyebrows in the corridors of power this morning where, the last time I looked, Plaid ministers were fully signed up to those 3% and 10% predictions.

One other realisation that's dawning is this: if George Osborne does decide to protect departmental spending on October 20th, he'll have to balance the books by looking for even deeper cuts elsewhere: for instance, in the welfare bill. He's already indicated that's the way his mind might be working. If he does squeeze welfare harder in order to lay off departmental spend, then bear in mind that Wales is more dependent on welfare payments than most other parts of the UK.

The upshot? While the Welsh budget, come October 20th, would suffer less than predicted, cuts to welfare would knock the Welsh economy where it really hurts.

Front and centre

Betsan Powys | 14:34 UK time, Friday, 10 September 2010


And the best seat in the house? No, not mine, but former Secretary of State Ron Davies's in the middle of the stage for the Plaid leader's speech. Did he need to get there early to bag a place? I doubt it.

Warm applause for Mr Davies is ringing out as I write from delighted delegates, prompting Mr Jones to quip over his shoulder "I'm a bit worried by the length of that ovation". No worries, said Ron, but was that a tear in his eye I saw?

Sacred cows

Betsan Powys | 12:22 UK time, Friday, 10 September 2010


It's an "ouch" moment that the Plaid Cymru leader Ieuan Wyn Jones could well have done without. Plaid members here in Aberystwyth have voted for an amendment to a motion calling for the public subsidy given to the north-south air link to be scrapped. That's the air link known colloquially as "IeuanAir", The air link brought in by the minister for the economy and transport Ieuan Wyn Jones, and the air link that his officials worked round the clock to keep flying after the demise of original operator Highland Airways.

Ouch ouch ouch. The response from those around Mr Jones? A stiff upper lip. This shows there are no sacred cows - or planes. Admirably philosophical, yes, but with a multi-year contract to operate the service (complete with substantial public subsidy) about to be let, if the cow is to be slain, it had better be soon. Party members shouldn't hold their breath.

Talking of sacred cows, you would think that S4C, the creation of the Conservative government of the 1980s, would occupy a fairly talismanic position for that party. Yes, it was created under some duress, but it's a tangible riposte, along with the Welsh Language Act 1993, to any other party which dismisses the Tories as anti-Welsh or failing to deliver for Wales.

So what are we to make of the reports coming out of yesterday's meeting between Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and the S4C hierarchy at the DCMS yesterday which indicate that Mr Hunt came close to putting the channel's very existence on the line?

He delivered what's being described in some quarters as "a dressing down" to Authority chairman John Walter Jones and temporary chief executive Arwel Ellis Owen, complete with chart showing money UP and viewers DOWN. Something that the younger viewers of the S4C children's service Cyw would be able to grasp. Stormy is the adjective that's being used most often to describe the encounter.

They now have a month to come up with a financial plan for the channel's future. However, the timing is strange. A month from now is October 10th, or thereabouts. The Comprenhensive Spending Review will be unveiled by the Treasury on October 20th. That's too tight to carry out any meaningful negotiations, especially since the DCMS is seen as being well ahead of many other departments in deciding on its cuts.

It's been weeks since the first whispers began to come out of Whitehall that the channel's budget could be cut by up to a quarter over the next few years. So what's happened in the meantime?

The S4C hierarchy are understood to be canvassing a plan whereby the channel is protected from cuts for two years, and that its future funding is discussed alongside that of the BBC licence fee income then. If they went into yesterday's meeting pinning their hopes on that strategy, then the tenor and outcome of the meeting would appear to indicated that it got pretty short shrift.

There's certainly deep disquiet amongst Welsh Tories, for whom S4C most certainly holds that talismanic property, about what's unfolding for the channel, concern amplified several-fold by yesterday's meeting.

They know the damage that will be caused to them if S4C's finances are slashed to the point where its quality and even viability are called into question. One senior source said, "Cheryl needs to wake up and realise how serious this is."

In any event, it looks fairly clear that Jeremy Hunt's view of the public subsidy for the Welsh language broadcaster is similar to the Plaid Cymru membership's view of the public subsidy for the north south air link - it's money that could frankly be better spent elsewhere.

There are a few more sacred cows who'll be looking around nervously in the coming weeks and months.

Central casting

Betsan Powys | 10:08 UK time, Wednesday, 8 September 2010


Given it's still quiet in the chamber and the committee rooms of Cardiff Bay, let's indulge in a game of 'what if?'

Yes, I know it's an indulgence but there are plenty of people at it quietly, in corridors and in the canteen over lunch, so let's share where their 'what ifs' are leading them.

Ballot papers will be sent out soon to Conservative Party members, who'll be urged to use their vote to choose who they want to top the regional list in next year's Assembly election in their neck of the woods.

In South Wales Central the choice is between David Melding, who topped the list last time round and Andrew RT Davies, who in 2007 was second on the list but made it safely to Cardiff Bay. Mr Davies has stormed from one shadowing job to another. He's gone from transport to education and is now the Shadow Minister for Health - onwards and upwards. He talks bluntly, is nobody's fool, is much respected by his own group because they recognise in him a man who looks and sounds like a potential candidate to replace Nick Bourne when his time as leader is up. He loves nothing better than a verbal spat with the lobby who, in turn, love seeing him coming down the stairs to the briefing room.

He's a man who speaks as he finds. He is, after all, a farmer, what you'd call an old-fashioned countryside Tory. His views on devolution? He has, as one colleague put it, "accommodated" the party's more positive stance on the Assembly. "He's gone with it but" ... the "but" suggesting he'll be voting 'yes' but not manning the phones with evangelical zeal at the Yes campaign HQ come next Spring.

David Melding, on the other hand? Mr Melding doesn't do storming. He doesn't do verbal duelling. He does, however, do influence. He's the party's 'two-brains' in Wales, the long-time author of Welsh Conservative manifestos. He's the policy director who's been instrumental in turning the boss - and much of the party around him - from the anti-Assembly camp to supporters of it, supporters of further powers for it and influential players within it. If the party has indeed "Welshed up" then the man who saw that opportunity and persuaded them to grab it, was David Melding.

So how's the battle to top the regional list shaping up? David Melding had hoped, of course, he wouldn't be on the list at all. This time round he'd hoped to be taking the fight to Labour in the Vale of Glamorgan. The executive committee in the Vale of Glamorgan had other ideas.

Back in August they chose Angela Jones Evans to take on Jane Hutt - an excellent candidate in Mr Melding's view and he's not alone. Still. Why not choose the more senior Mr Melding? There's been plenty of speculation that suggests Mrs Jones Evans was better placed, perhaps, to deal with the inevitable 'what-is-your-take-on-further-devolution' question, than Mr Melding. They would both have known what the executive committee wanted to hear. Some hedging of bets perhaps; tempered enthusiasm, with the emphasis on the tempered. Mr Melding would hardly have been in a position to deliver.

So Angela Jones Evans it was and if she goes one better than making the Vale a close run thing - and takes it for the Tories - then suddenly, who tops the regional list will matter rather a lot. Coming second on the list may well mean coming home to spend rather more time in the garden than you'd like.

So far it looks as though Mr Davies is ahead.

Back to that 'what if' game then. What if David Melding fails to be elected next May? What if he decides that, given the party membership would have chosen to put its policy director in a pretty vulnerable position, he doesn't fancy doing much more thinking for them?

Isn't it likely, suggest some Conservatives, that with such an influential figure absent from party thinking in Wales, that those parts of the party who've swallowed the recent approach but who've been dragged well out of their comfort zone along the way, will decide it's time to spit it out? Isn't it possible that with the party in government in Westminster, with a Conservative Prime Minister in Number Ten, they'd feel rather more gung-ho and decide to choose a new Welsh leader who would understand and recognise their discomfort, one who'd take what's known as "a more nuanced approach" to devolution?

The argument from people like David Melding has been that in Wales, the Conservative strategy must be to grow or die. The only way to grow, they argue, is to work with devolution, be prepared to work with other parties, do everything to ensure the Tories don't come to be seen as the eternal, official opposition - an uber protest group - in Wales.

is it fair to say, then, that without David Melding in their ranks, the impetus behind that strategy could ebb away?

A fair question and one which explains why the final order of one regional list is being asked about, mulled over and hotly debated - well beyond that bit of the country the Assembly, rather unpoetically, calls South Wales Central.


Betsan Powys | 12:40 UK time, Monday, 6 September 2010


So they're back: a "surly group", according to the FT blog, of MPs returning to Westminster. Bang, slap in the middle - the new MP for Aberconwy, looking as though he can't bear to hear another word about those public spending cuts.

Still no queues in the canteen in Cardiff Bay but when Assembly Members do flock back after their break from these offices, they'll find the very same problems waiting for them. Those cuts and how they deal with them top the list.

As the Chancellor, his party and just about everyone else prepare to deal with the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review in October, the BBC will be on Cuts Watch and inviting you all to join in. How does the Chancellor plan to balance the books? What will decisions taken in the CSR mean for us here in Wales? Where would you cut?

That last question has only partly been answered by this morning's BBC opinion poll results. I say partly because it's always - inevitably - easier to make up your mind about what shouldn't be cut than what should. It's the should bit that hurts.

Six out of ten people think it's right to cut the deficit but if that means cutting health? Not so keen on that. Education, military spending? Not those either. A pretty hefty chunk of the budget out there then. A lot of help the public are, grumbled one Assembly Member. Do it but oh no, not like that. Or that. Or that.

So what about the politicians, the ones whose parties are in power in Westminster and those who are in power here, the-mutually-exclusive-club as you might know them. The Tories will remind you this is Labour's mess they're sorting out, Labour will continue to show the red card to "savage Tory cuts", now being waved through by their "partners in crime", the Lib Dems. And who's the Minister in charge of the Welsh economy? Plaid leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones.

At last, suggested one Welsh Conservative, Plaid are getting their act together on this stuff. Their call on the UK Government to make a special economic case for Wales - much as they have already with Northern Ireland - showed Plaid were stirring "at last". He seemed to recognise the makings, at least, of a punch being landed, even it hadn't got there yet.

So where would they - any of them - cut? Who'd get rid of free bus passes for pensioners, or free prescriptions? The Tories would get rid of free school breakfasts but fiddling about at the edges of cuts to bus passes and prescriptions doesn't actually make any worthwhile financial gains, does it? If David Cameron talks tough, then will we hear just the same from Nick Bourne, or will his narrative be ever-so-slightly less tough? Not much wriggle room there, granted but then Mr Cameron doesn't have an election to fight in eight months' time.

Will the Welsh Liberal Democrats use every inch of wriggle room they do have to send out a message that has 'it's the Westminster lot, not us' written between every line? I get the feeling they might, ever more formally, as the months go by.

And how will the Cardiff Bay coalition rise to the challenge ahead, as a team of two but a partnership that's about to break ranks and punch the living daylights out of each other in the run-up to the Assembly election?

It must be tempting for Labour to talk 'Tory cuts,' do little to dull the blows other than point down the M4. The 'Tory cuts' strategy worked very well for them in the General Election, after all. It must be equally tempting for Plaid to take their daily pick between 'Tory cuts' and 'Labour mess' but as I've mentioned before now, there are key figures in both parties who simply don't think that will do. If you want to keep on governing, you have to sound and campaign like parties of government.

Come the Assembly election they will all have to come clean. Just bear in mind that the manifestos are being written right now - and keep your ears open.

Touch down

Betsan Powys | 12:35 UK time, Friday, 3 September 2010


The revamp of the HQ of the Unite union and the Wales Labour Party at the top of Cathedral Road in Cardiff is finally nearing completion - much to the relief, you imagine, of party press officers. Those shots of a building under scaffolding and surrounded by mud was quite a handy metaphor for journalists for a party that at times - after the European elections comes to mind - felt as if it was under electoral siege.

The transformation of the building from a rather drab, boxy slab into a ... umm, rather drab boxy slab with a brand new glass entrance hall has taken what seems like years, but the finishing touches are now in place.

And what touches! A series of large, flashing red lights up the side of the building have been installed, described by one passer-by as giving the place the look of an Eastern Bloc nightclub. I'll take his word for it.

I wonder if the designers realise it's on the main drag back from the centre of Cardiff to Canton? Mind you, inadvertently attracting well refreshed revellers trying to get a nightcap on their way home from the clubs may not be the biggest problem.

It's also on the flightpath into Cardiff Wales airport ...

Come again?

Betsan Powys | 16:51 UK time, Thursday, 2 September 2010


One young lad rolled his eyes and took a deep breath half way through.

Another gave up and said, not entirely convincintly, that she had an appointment to get to.

Another patient soul - in fact he was less patient than captive - stopped in Carmarthen town centre this morning to have a stab at reading the draft preamble and question for next year's referendum on Assembly powers protested at "civil-service speak". I offered up the Welsh language version instead. No go. "it's hard enough to understand in English!" he protested. "What's wrong with plain English?" But then he put his finger on it. He supposed it had to be right and accurate and explain what we're voting about "or there'd be trouble" he added.

There certainly would. In fact there's trouble already.

Ambiguity. Lack of clarity. Confusion. Not words the politicians who offered up the draft wording wanted to see from the Electoral Commission but all very much to the fore in today's report on the intelligibility of the referendum question.

There was some sympathy from the Commission for the Wales Office and the project board who came up with the wording, certainly. But you just get the feeling that what looked utterly straightforward in offices in Whitehall and Cardiff Bay turned out to be something akin to gibberish on the streets of Carmarthen, Caersws and Colwyn Bay, once the programme of road-testing began.

But what are the chances of the voters getting the information they need? The Commission seems pretty pessimistic in their report today, to be honest. So concerned are they about the lack of knowledge that they plan to provide a public information leaflet to every household in Wales at the start of the campaign.

They also warn that there's likely to be debate about whether either the Yes or No campaigns are misleading voters about the referendum subject matter.

The report says, "Such debate is a normal part of any election or referendum campaign, but where public knowledge of the referendum subject matter is low, real or perceived misinformation is likely to become more of an issue in the campaign."

This is echoed by the former chair of the All Wales Convention, Sir Emyr Jones Parry, in the notes from his meeting with the Commission, released today. He too warns there's likely to be "much uncertainty and misinformation in the campaigns" and also expresses his disappointment that the awareness-raising work of his group ceased with the end of his public consultation last November.

The Commission also responds today to the warning from two academics that the referendum result could be ruled illegal if the question does not specifically refer to a move to Part 4 and Schedule 7 of the Government of Wales Act 2006.

The Commission says that in its view, the question does not have to have specific references to the Act in it, that this would not be understood by voters, and they are not concerned that not including them could lead to a successful challenge to the result.

What seems to have struck the report authors is the somewhat frightening disconnect between the level of citizens understanding, where some struggled with the meaning of the word "devolved" (many read it as "developed" this morning) and even the very concept of a referendum, and the nuanced arguments of the academics and interest groups who also contributed, in many cases eloquently and at great length, to the consultation.

It sounds as though the idea of including the words "part 4 and schedule 7" prompted a collective head in hands moment at the Commission's HQ.

But given the very low level of public understanding of the issues involved that comes out from today's research, how confident can the Commission itself be that their revised and simplified question is itself intelligible to the vast majority of voters?

A raising of hands to the heavens and a sigh of "it's the best we can do given where we are" - I suspect - is the reaction.

Hot Potatoes

Betsan Powys | 11:35 UK time, Wednesday, 1 September 2010


No, I'm not talking Tony Blair memoirs here.

Others are furiously leafing through those, spotting scepticism about the "dangerous game" of devolution (not, perhaps, a huge surprise there) and how "desperately sorry" he felt for Ron Davies after the "boggling" incident on Clapham Common (perhaps a little more surprising given Alastair Campbell's version of the boss' take on the former Welsh Secretary.)

These hot potates are policy issues. Name three of the thorniest policy issues facing the Assembly Government. Go on, give it a go.

How about the radical reorganisation of Welsh universities? Eradicating bovine tuberculosis? A new nuclear power station at Wylfa?

Add to these the controversial Severn Barrage plan and genetically modified crops and it's very near a full house - or should that be full oven - of political hot potatoes.

Well the Assembly Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor John Harries must have asbestos fingers because he's told ministers that he intends to conduct a review of their current policies in every single one of these areas.

Professor Harries, appointed earlier this year, came over as softly spoken yet highly capable. He accepts, in his words, that he is "conscious of the extreme sensitivity" of several areas he's chosen to examine. He adds, though, that he doesn't think the fact that he will be looking at them is either controversial or surprising, given his role.

Certainly the fact that he's choosing to examine them isn't either of those. All are firmly within his remit, to a greater or lesser extent. But what could well be seriously controversial is whether we'll be allowed to know what his conclusions are. Why appoint a Chief Scientific Adviser if you don't want advice, after all. But make that advice public? Wait a minute ...

It may well be that Professor Harries' papers and findings are merely made available to ministers as a contribution to their policy formulation. Private advice, if you like, intended to stay behind closed doors.

In which case, it would be unlikely that any of his work will be released into the public domain. Look again at the topics though. Inquisitive journalists aside, there are some seriously well-organised and well-resourced pressure groups in all those areas who'll already be drawing up their Freedom of Information requests to see the results of the CSA's various reviews.

It may not be as simple as that, though. The FOI Act places a special exemption from disclosure on advice given to ministers for the purposes of policymaking, which suggests they would have little difficulty in batting away requests if needs be.

But what if WAG's own scientific adviser had concluded that Ministers' policies on say, a badger cull or GM crops or nuclear power were - in his expert opinion and that of his advisory committee - misguided or just plain wrong? Surely that would be a matter of significant public interest to the voters who elect them? After all Professor Harries's appointment has elevated him from an outside expert with a view on policy, to perhaps the key source of scientific advice to ministers.

It may be instructive to go back to Professor Harries' statement on taking up the job in February. "It is a huge honour to be asked to become the first Chief Scientific Adviser for Wales and I look forward with great enthusiasm to carrying out this new role on behalf of the government and people of Wales".

Note: and the people of Wales.

The Assembly Government have indicated that they have no set policy on how much of his work will be published but that it will be "as and when appropriate".

So who decides when it's appropriate to take a hot potato out of the oven?

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