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Archives for March 2011

Trouble in Toryland

Betsan Powys | 11:45 UK time, Thursday, 31 March 2011


Drawing up a manifesto, as any political party will tell you, is not an easy process. It's an internal balancing act on several levels - leadership v membership, left v right, and ambition v affordability.

Add another variable into that - the balance between government in one place and opposition in another, and it becomes very tricky indeed, as I gather the Tories have been finding out.

Like the other parties, their manifesto process has been going on for some time, but the process has become pretty fraught in recent days.

The planned launch has been put back from the 11th of April to the 15th. So while the Tories were first out of the traps with their campaign launch last night - a somewhat rushed and messy one though it was - will now be the last of the parties to launch their manifesto. Why?

The draft which was drawn up by the Tories in Cardiff was sent to counterparts in London only at the end of last week. Alarm bells started ringing fairly rapidly I gather, about a number of non-devolved pledges within it.

The concerns were that there could be a danger that the Welsh Conservatives could stand up and promise something in the non devolved fields and run the risk of a Conservative minister in a Whitehall department turning it down flat. Cue red faces all round.

There's been a hasty process of squaring going on behind the scenes I gather. Sources in London stress that there's no question of a "veto" from them on anything in the manifesto, devolved or non-devolved. Advice is the word that's being used, but in the context of this post from the turn of the year, it's further evidence that relations between Cardiff and London remain strained.

There's certainly a degree of exasperation on both sides - from London that the plans weren't shared with them earlier so that any potential elephant traps could be avoided and from Cardiff that the launch has now had to be delayed. Certainly, that latter point suggests that at least some substantive changes may have to be made to the document - then again, it could be a question of hanging on for a last minute sign-off.

I'm told that any pledges on future funding for the Assembly - Barnett reform and all that - aren't part of the sticking points. Given the likely areas to be covered by any coalition negotiations with Plaid Cymru, it will be very interesting to see what the Welsh Conservatives promise on that and how far they're prepared to go.

But the sensitivities revealed by the current behind the scenes negotiations between the Conservatives at both ends of the M4 surely makes it less likely that Nick Bourne will be able to pull a rabbit out of the hat on something major to attract Plaid Cymru if and when he sits down to talk rainbows after May 5th.

Signing on the dotted line

Betsan Powys | 14:50 UK time, Wednesday, 30 March 2011


This is the historic moment, a little earlier this afternoon, when the First Minister signed the Commencement Order to bring direct law making powers to Wales. It's a little bit fuzzy and there's a bit of BBC camera in there too - but you get the picture.

Interestingly, this is the final step in the process. Interesting because - Her Majesty does not have to give her assent to this order (as with LCOs, remember them) for it to come into force.

Donning my anorak, I asked one of the architects of the Government of Wales Act 2006 - a non politician, since you ask - why this was written into the legislation in this form.

The gist of their answer was "because we were a bit concerned that there could be monkey business at the London end even after a Yes vote". That is, I assume, it would still be up to the UK Government to put forward an Order in Council for royal assent - and in theory, they could drag their heels.

Anyway, the powers will now kick in on May 5th, as the new set of 60 AMs are elected ready to start passing Acts of the Assembly.

These, like Westminster laws, will need to be signed by the Queen to come into force and as a special treat, here's the wording of the Letters Patent which will be attached to each one. I know in text speak that capital letters means SHOUTING but I presume that the rules don't necessarily apply to the Sovereign - and presumably there's a very good heraldic reason for it. So here goes:

"ELIZABETH THE SECOND by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Our other Realms and Territories Queen Head of the Commonwealth Defender of the Faith To Our Trusty and well beloved the members of the National Assembly for Wales GREETING:

FORASMUCH as one or more Bills have been passed by the National Assembly for Wales and have been submitted to Us for Our Royal Assent by the Clerk of the National Assembly for Wales in accordance with the Government of Wales Act 2006 the short Titles of which Bills are set forth in the Schedule hereto but those Bills by virtue of the Government of Wales Act 2006 do not become Acts of the National Assembly for Wales nor have effect in the Law without Our Royal Assent signified by Letters Patent under Our Welsh Seal signed with Our own hand We have therefore caused these Our Letters Patent to be made and have signed them and by them do give Our Royal Assent to those Bills which shall be taken and accepted as good and perfect Acts of the Assembly and be put in due execution accordingly

COMMANDING ALSO the Keeper of Our Welsh Seal to seal these Our Letters with that Seal.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF We have caused these Our Letters to be made Patent

WITNESS Ourself at . . . the . . . day of. . . in the . . . year of Our Reign By The Queen Herself Signed with Her Own Hand."

Heat shields and silver bullets

Betsan Powys | 21:01 UK time, Tuesday, 29 March 2011


Another day, another report into the Welsh education system.

The purpose of this one was to examine its structure - in a nutshell are the 22 local education authorities still fit for purpose - or do we need to move to a regional or even national system?

The recommendation, since you ask, was for a move to four regional consortia, which would concentrate expertise and - hopefully - free up more money for the front line.

Like most recent reports into education in Wales, the authors found it impossible to resist casting a very critical eye on the current situation in schools. But unlike the reports to date, this one came very close to attacking some of the few sacred cows still standing in the sector.

At this morning's lobby briefing, the First Minister deflected questions relating to pupil under-attainment in recent years with the two magic words "Foundation Phase", the learn through play programme for all 3-7 year olds.

Ministers would shy away from the phrase "silver bullet" but it seems to be working very nicely as a heat shield against the criticism that standards have slipped.

Has this section of the report, then, knocked a small but significant hole in that shield?

"Overall, we conclude that outcomes in respect of literacy are problematic at virtually all stages of education from the Foundation Phase through to further education.

"We are hopeful that the learning methods which are the essence of the Foundation Phase will help raise standards of literacy and numeracy and their application in everyday life. It is important that children are taught well initially and then those with difficulties are identified early on can be supported subsequently.

"This can be done if diagnostic testing is introduced for literacy and numeracy towards the end of the Foundation Phase. We stress that diagnostic analysis is required to help assess that a child's development is on course and that appropriate teaching methods are in use.

"A Foundation Phase without such analysis is not well founded."

And it goes on to say, "If we are not careful standards will regress rather than improve because of the introduction of the Foundation Phase."

The point that seems to be made is that while successive ministers and teaching unions have made a virtue of the lack of continual testing of Welsh pupils, in fact, that can serve to mask poor performance until it's too late.

And on an even more basic level, Wales may well be the "envy of other countries" due to the Foundation Phase, according to ministers, but without testing - how do we know that?

While it's seemed for a while that the days of 22 local education authorities are numbered, for all Leighton Andrews' rhetoric, there was a significant hit in today's report for successive education ministers, who, it says, have basically taken their eye off the ball.

"Logically, it appears that since the Minister takes action in placing a Recovery Board to ensure that standards are raised in the performance of a LA then it should be the Minister through the national education department that should hold LAs to account for their performance in a robust and systematic way.

"It is abundantly clear that this does not take place currently."

Today's statement in plenary on the report, like much of today's business, had a somewhat valedictory air about it. It will, of course, be the next Assembly Government, formed soon (hopefully fairly soon, say us veterans of the 2007 negotiations) after the elections on May 5th to confront many of these issues.

In the meantime, the small matter of those elections. All three other parties have signalled their intent to take on Labour over their record on education. Plaid Cymru seem to be casting aside any notion of collective responsibility for the past four years when it comes to this particular policy area and are looking to carve out their own distinctive space.

Both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats are also going to put this front and centre of their campaigns. The recent PISA figures are an opposition politician's dream of course, internationally recognised, clear and unequivocal, and damning. That "downward spiral" headline from today's report will be heard a fair few times in the coming weeks too.

So how do Labour respond? That heat shield is going to need some serious reinforcing, but Mr Andrews, through a series of speeches soon after coming to office which cleverly pre-empted much of what was in today's report and its equally gloomy predecessors, has tried to draw a line under the past and look to the future.

If Labour are returned to power next month, either alone or in coalition, few in the Bay are prepared to bet against him returning to his current role. And that may be one of the best defences his party will muster in the coming weeks.

Huffing and puffing.

Betsan Powys | 12:35 UK time, Monday, 28 March 2011


Here's an idea for you - one for all 60 Assembly Members to think on at the start of the final week in the life of this third Assembly.

I've bumped into quite a few AMs over the past few days who've been packing their bags. It's no fun, I imagine, putting things away in boxes in the hope that the very same boxes will be unpacked in a few weeks time by newly re-elected, hugely relieved members of the fourth Assembly.

Here's the idea: why not get rid of all Assembly Members for good and instead get Wales' 40, soon to be 30 MPs, to spend a week a month in Cardiff Bay doing their job? While Welsh MPs are camping in Cardiff Bay, dealing with Wales-only, devolved issues, their English colleagues can get on with sorting out England-only policies in Westminster. Neat or what?

In other words let's wave a permanent goodbye to "overpaid and under-employed AMs" but rather than get rid of the National Assembly itself, let's "renew" it in a far less costly form and at the same time, devolve the rest of its work down to the political food chain to local councils.

Before you make up your mind about this "fair, correct, constitutional settlement for the entire UK," it's only fair to point out, I think, that it isn't a deliverable idea by any government from Cardiff. It is, however, in UKIP's manifesto ahead of May's election, which was launched this morning in Cardiff Bay's Yacht Club. It's a key policy but one that couldn't be delivered - at least not without changes to the law elsewhere, where UKIP would, of course, also need a hand on the levers of power.

In other words, it's not going to happen. It is, however, UKIP's ambition and they're convinced it's an idea that will resonate with an over-governed Welsh public. They are just as convinced, by the way, that it's entirely logical and will help them return at least one AM to the Bay in May's election.

UKIP's Kevin Mahoney got an enthusiastic round of applause this morning when he told his assembled audience that he'd voted 'yes' to forming the Assembly back in 1997 but had been appalled by its performance ever since. He got an even warmer reception when he complained that at 15 years old, he was represented by one MP. Now he's represented by 4 MEPs, 5 AMs and 1 MP. "Let's end that" he said, arguing that three of the four parties (Labour were left out of this) have "already conceded" that an AM's job is a part-time job. How else, he asked, do you explain how AMs can also be MPs and local councillors. He named names. I won't. His point is made.

What are MPs doing all day anyway, he asked? 80% of UK laws originate in Brussles and what AMs do could easily enough be done in a quarter of the time. This was, said party leader Nigel Farage, all about offering a real voice of opposition to the comfortable political classes, not just in Wales but beyond.

So hang on. Let's take the logic a step further and ask why not save a whole load more public money by simply getting rid of the National Assembly - not just its members? The thing is, conceded Mr Farage, "there is a level of support for devolution". It was his turn to do some conceding and it would have been pretty difficult for him to do otherwise after the emphatic result of March's referendum. But devolution ought to be dealt with differently, he argued, by a party that won't mind one bit when others are "jolly rude about us ... You're going to see us engaged, perhaps, in pitch battle with the political classes, on many of these issues" he promised.

Mr Farage is certainly right on this: recent opinion polls suggest UKIP could indeed win a seat on the regional list come May. He may be right too that the other parties will be "jolly rude" about much of what UKIP have to say during this campaign. For today, however, it's worse. They've decided not to waste much puff on an idea, one politician suggested, "was obviously drawn up on the back of a very small fag packet."

Budget Day

Betsan Powys | 14:08 UK time, Wednesday, 23 March 2011


From the budget tent to the Cardiff Bay bubble.

As a result of the budget the Assembly Government will get an extra £65m over the next five years, including up to £34m next year. I'm sure they're not planning to spend it all at once.

If anyone had imagined Labour and Plaid would get anywhere today with their calls on the Chancellor to reform the way Wales is funded - and I doubt, frankly, whether there were many who truthfully did - then they'll have been disappointed.

Mr Osborne simply reaffirmed "the Government's commitment to fair and accountable funding for Wales, including taking forward discussions on all aspects of the final Holtham report".

From the Welsh parties a run through the initial responses for you:

Conservative leader Nick Bourne:

"By cutting Corporation Tax, simplifying the tax system and reducing the burden of regulation on businesses, the UK Coalition is showing clearly that Wales and the rest of the UK are open for business.

"Today's budget will provide welcome relief to families, pensioners and small businesses across Wales, who have had to tighten their belts to meet rising fuel prices.

Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, Kirsty Williams:

"The tax cuts for Welsh workers announced today, taken directly from the Liberal Democrat's election manifesto will reduce income tax by £326 for over 1.1 million Welsh workers, taking 51, 000 of the poorest workers out of income tax altogether.

"Many of the measures to boost growth and create jobs, such as the Enterprise Zones, investment in English Universities technical colleges, the holiday on business rates and the support first time buyers, will apply in England and will now need to be considered by the Welsh Government".

Shadow Welsh Secretary Peter Hain:

"George Osborne may say this is a neutral budget, but the truth is like every Tory budget is not neutral for Wales, where we have been asked yet again to pay for tax breaks for banks.

[UPDATE A Wales Office source says that's plain wrong. What the Chancellor said - they point out - is that he was adjusting the bank levy rate next year to make sure that there was no overall tax break for the banks.]

Mr Hain goes on:

"This is the same old Tories: no plan for growth, and asking families to pick up the bill for the actions of greedy bankers and the actions of this reckless Chancellor.

"This was Cheryl Gillan's big test and she flunked it. Wales is still being hit disproportionately hard by the Tory-led Government.

Plaid Cymru's Jonathan Edwards:

"The UK Government should have focussed sensibly on growth first, rather than making severe cuts.

"The truth is that the UK Government has no plan B, and worryingly there is a very real threat of a decade of economic stagnation.

"Plaid is the only party doing anything to improve our economy in Wales such as through our proposed new Build for Wales investment vehicle which would raise up to £500m and create up to 50,000 jobs in Wales.

And the response of the Green Party's Jake Griffiths:

"It is becoming clearer by the day that George Osborne's cuts are not working, and yet he is determined to carry on with the same harmful policies. Not only do they make no economic sense but they will threaten the livelihoods of the hundreds of thousands of people who rely on the services now under threat."

Come again?

Betsan Powys | 10:49 UK time, Tuesday, 22 March 2011


When Plaid Cymru unveiled proposals for their £500m infrastructure investment fund "Build for Wales" last week, Labour were right in the vanguard of attacking it.

"Completely unworkable" and "electioneering of the worst sort" were two of the choicer phrases issued by the party in response.

It's clear to me that though this plan is different to that floated in Scotland - before being sunk by the Treasury - "Build for Wales" would also, realistically, need a nod from the Treasury.

Plaid said last week that "discussions with the UK Treasury are underway to enable the establishment and operation of this entity to take place".

The response from the Treasury has a less positive ring to it: ""UK Government officials only engage with Welsh Assembly Government officials on Welsh Assembly Government business, they do not engage with individual political parties or individual party policies. No discussions with the Welsh Assembly Government officials have so far taken place on this issue."

However they confirmed that the "Assembly Government has sent a paper for future discussions but there have been no discussions about it yet".

So there were some nagging questions here. Labour had comprehensively rubbished the plan unveiled by Plaid.

This very short document that has just appeared online now adds to those questions. What it shows is that within the last couple of months, the Labour Finance Minister Jane Hutt personally signed off on putting a plan that Plaid say is the one they proposed last week - to the Treasury on the Assembly Government's behalf. The Treasury have confirmed, above, that they've received it.

Jane Hutt took the lobby briefing this morning. So did she believe then that the plan outlined by Plaid was "completely unworkable" and "blatant electioneering"? Or did she think it was worth exploring, until Plaid unveiled it as a manifesto policy last week?

Her response: that "as a responsible government, we have to look at every mechanism;" that "we have to make sure that we are opening up all lines of discussion and a whole number of policy areas as indeed I have done consistently over the past year with the Chief Sec to Treasury" and that "there are no doors that should be closed".

Labour say this morning there had been plenty of theoretical discussions amongst ministers and officials about future mechanisms for funding capital projects in Wales at a time when the money that's around to spend on big projects has been slashed. But those theoretical discussions were "a quantum leap" away from any any sort of plan, let alone the plan outlined as "Build for Wales"

They're adamant and remain adamant that the idea of bonds was never part of any discussion and that Plaid are conflating all sorts of 'what if' discussions to claim Labour support one particular plan - which they don't.

Plaid, on the contrary, insist that the very same plan had Labour backing until it became public and that far from being in a position to accuse others of "blatant electioneering" are guilty of just that themselves and then some.

Someone, somewhere no doubt has access to a paper trail that would tell us who is right. I don't.

The Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams has just told journalists that Labour are now in a "real mess" over this and that Jane Hutt has questions to answer about why her party issued what she called a "devastating critique" of a policy that she was proactively pursuing inside the government.

UPDATE 11.45

Plaid have put out a statement:

"This is an exciting and innovative proposal which could make a significant contribution to the Welsh economy at a time the Welsh capital budget is facing cuts of 41%. The other option would be to sit back and do nothing. So far, no comparable ideas have been proposed in respect of how Wales can meet this challenge.

"Plaid would of course welcome the support of the other parties to enable the public sector in Wales to invest more in its infrastructure, and would look forward to co-operating with them after May the 5th in showing a united front to the Treasury in the interests of the people of Wales."

Fairy tales

Betsan Powys | 19:31 UK time, Monday, 21 March 2011


One of the favourite bed-time stories at home used to be the one about a dragon who lives very happily on a mountain, leaving the villagers alone because he has no interest in things like breathing fire and fighting. He has one friend, a little boy who likes to listen to his stories.

Then one day, the villagers find out he's there. They're convinced he's a terrible menace because that's what dragons are. They invite a brave knight to come along and slay him. That's fine by the knight because that's what he does and anyway he's been told of the many terrible things the dragon has apparently done.

What to do? The boy works it all out.

The knight and the dragon pretend to have a big battle. The villagers are happy because they get to see a fight. The brave knight is happy because he gets a) to win and b) all the glory. The dragon is happy because for the price of a black eye or two, the villagers are happy to leave him where he is because they tell themselves that he's learned his lesson and frankly, he was never any trouble anyway.

In other words, the boy works out that it's not how you get there that's important. It's what you're left with at the end that really matters.

Over the past week or so, there've been several versions doing the rounds of the tale of the Assembly election, the campaign battles to come - both mock and real - and how deals and alliances will later unfold.

Now you're not daft. You know that when politicians tell us journalists a story, it's usually because they want to see it reported somewhere and so they tell us the story they want you to hear. Since, unlike story-time at home, you're not 6 and 7 years old and since you've worked out a long time ago that everything you're told isn't absolutely true, I'll fill you in.

Sitting comfortably?

Let's start with Labour. In the past Labour have said that if they get a majority on May 5th, they will govern alone. Seems obvious. But what, realistically - not just literally - constitutes an outright majority? At what point does an outright majority become a working majority? Would Carwyn Jones seek to go it alone on 31 seats? Or given AMs can sometimes be ill, or find they don't agree with the party line on a particular issue and won't vote for it, or are caught on a train between north and south, does an outright majority really mean 32 or 33 seats?

The message from Labour is that if they win 31 seats out of the 60, the party will expect the leader to ditch any talk of deals and form a Labour-only government. And if that's what the party expects, that's what the party gets if - if - Labour get to 31 seats.

Is that what the leader wants? There are plenty who suspect that if that 32 or 33 proves just out of reach, Mr Jones' next best option would be a tally of 29 seats on the night - a good result for Labour but with the door open to striking some sort of deal that delivers a clear, comfortable majority.

Would that deal be with Plaid?

One Plaid MP, Jonthan Edwards, has come out and said it bluntly: "the elephant in the room for Labour in Wales is - what can they really offer Plaid Cymru?" Labour can't put pressure on ministers in London to deliver anything this time round. They don't have any.

But others - in particular, others who were fully paid-up backers of the deal with Labour back in 2007 - are saying just the same, just as vehemently, if a lot less publicly for now. People who you'd have put money on being fans of One Wales Two are saying they'd need some convincing, come May, it would be the right thing to do, even if opposition would be the price to pay.

The recent Labour attacks on Ieuan Wyn Jones personally have incensed Plaid (precisely as intended, of course). "It may not be people sitting round the cabinet table in Cardiff but it's still senior figures in Labour" said one Plaid source who added the party would have to be absolutely clear that Labour could offer Plaid something worth having - or walk away - regardless of the arithmetic.

Would Plaid talk to the Conservatives? Ieuan Wyn Jones has already said given the spending cuts being implemented by the Conservatives in Westminster, that would be "very, very difficult". Privately the Tories raise an eyebrow and suggest Plaid would find it far less difficult than they're admitting out loud.

Why would Plaid talk to the Tories? Ok, it's unlikely said one well placed Tory source. It's not very near the top of the list of likely deals. But if Plaid came calling and if Nick Bourne was keen on a deal and if he asked the Secretary of State whether the 'missing' £300m from the Welsh budget every year was the price of a term in government in Wales, wouldn't she be more than happy to pass on that request to the Treasury? Certainly, came the response.

And what about that other partnership, Lab-Lib? Labour sources in Westminster reckon it would make sense. If the maths works out, Labour would have to give very little in return for kicking Plaid into touch. Bear in mind too, said a well-placed Liberal Democrat, that it would suit Ed Miliband down to the ground to forge an alliance of some kind with the Lib Dems in Wales. If it doesn't work out in Scotland, then he needs somehow to persuade the Lib Dems that there is an alternative, before the Tory/Lib Dem coalition at UK level "ossifies".

All four Welsh dragons will be breathing fire over the next few weeks. Some battles will be real, some for show. They'll also be telling me, and you, a fair few fairy tales. Just bear in mind that what will really matter for the next five years is how the story ends - and I don't think any of them are sure just yet.

Yes, we can...

Betsan Powys | 14:18 UK time, Wednesday, 16 March 2011


Let me clear: I'm updating the blog now because Plaid Cymru are clear that we have misunderstood their Build for Wales infrastructure fund proposal and that Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats haven't understood it at all.

A party spokesman tells us, "Our proposed structure is not a 'near identical' scheme to that mentioned for Scotland which assumes public sector borrowing, but rather a new type of company which is not only able to raise funds in private market but is an alternative to PFI.

"The Scottish proposal asked permission for the public sector to borrow. Our proposal has been created to specifically answer this problem - creating a funding vehicle set up as a private company with special characteristics allowing it to borrow in the market. Dialogue around this proposal is currently ongoing with the treasury."

So Plaid say their proposal might sound similar to a scheme outlined in Scotland, where the Scottish government would have been able to issue bonds to pay for large infrastructure projects. They sound similar but are, in fact, not. The fundamental difference is that under Plaid's scheme, the borrowing would be done by an arm's length body, not the Assembly Government.

Party sources repeatedly refer to discussions with the Treasury and that while they rejected the Scottish proposal, discussions around Plaid's plan have gone "a pretty long way down the line".

All these discussions, we're told, are centred on whether the borrowing would be "on or off balance sheet".

Labour still dismiss the whole scheme as unworkable. Who, they ask, would buy bonds from a Fund without assets, and without implicit or explicit underwriting from the UK Treasury? Without this, they argue, borrowing rates simply couldn't be affordable - and the Treasury have already said no.

Plaid's plan, says Labour, is a deal "that sounds too good to be true"

Plaid are insistent that it is not.

One question that's being whispered in my ear over and over again today is - who exactly is speaking to the Treasury and on whose behalf?

What I understand from well placed sources is that the discussions referred to by Plaid Cymru have been taking place between officials in the Welsh Assembly Government and officials in the Treasury.

This is significant on a number of levels.

Firstly, this is not a policy that's ever been floated by the current Welsh Assembly Government.

Secondly, it's been comprehensively rubbished by Labour, publicly and privately, at a senior level.

Thirdly, it's a key plank of Plaid Cymru's election manifesto - with Treasury buy-in the key element in its credibility.

Fourthly, are the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats being put at a disadvantage if Assembly Government officials are discussing election policy pledges with Whitehall on behalf of at least one of the governing parties here? There are a lot more than raised eyebrows at this, I can tell you.

Food for thought.

Word is my bond

Betsan Powys | 10:15 UK time, Wednesday, 16 March 2011


If politics is all about timing, then you wonder whether Plaid Cymru aren't questioning theirs this morning.

The pre-election fray may have been delayed by the need for the parties to work "to-ge-ther" for a Yes vote in the referendum - but now it's up and at 'em time.

Plaid are the latest to enter with their £500m Build for Wales infrastructure fund proposal, which, they say, would create up to 50,000 jobs over the next Assembly term, building roads, hospitals, schools and houses.

This is going to be the centrepiece of Plaid's offer on the economy for the Assembly election. Advisers have been round talking up the announcement as a keynote pledge for May, with the leader Ieuan Wyn Jones announcing it in a speech in Cardiff last night.

How would it work? Well, the Fund, a new independent entity would be set up by a Plaid Assembly Government. It would be responsible for raising the finance and procuring, managing and monitoring the building projects. The Fund, according to Plaid, could raise up to half a billion pounds from City banks.

The same City banks, incidentally, that Plaid Cymru blame for the crash and public sector cutbacks - but that's not the issue here.

The main problem is that around 24 hours before Mr Jones' speech, the Treasury categorically ruled out a near-identical scheme for Scotland, proposed by the SNP as part of the debate on the Scotland Bill. The proposal had originally emanated from a cross party committee in Holyrood chaired by Labour's Wendy Alexander. You can read more here and my colleague Brian Taylor's take on it here but here is the key quote from Treasury Minister David Gauke:

"As borrowing through bonds is likely to be more expensive than raising finance through UK gilts, these higher costs would be reflected in increased UK debt interest payments," he said.

"This would ultimately be a higher cost to the UK. In these uncertain times, we cannot afford the risk of extending the power to issue bonds."

So that's a no, then. And given much of politics is about timing, it's unfortunate to say the least.

In the briefing paper to accompany Mr Jones's speech, Plaid Cymru say "Discussions with the UK Treasury are underway to enable the establishment and operation of this entity (the Fund) to take place."

It would seem that those discussions are not likely to be fruitful.

Does David Gauke have a point about bonds? Well, Plaid themselves admit that they would have to pay annual interest to the bondholders. Where would the revenue come from for this?

After all, the much quoted Glas Cymru bond model for Welsh Water has a guaranteed income stream every year from water customers. Where's the income stream from schools and hospitals built using these bonds? Roads can be tolled, certainly, but unless it's the £1bn M4 relief road, it's hard to see that being a runner for improvements on the A470.

On hearing the Plaid Cymru proposal, one party leader remarked, "This is the one, isn't it?" What did they mean?

Their view was that there is always one proposal in a Plaid Cymru manifesto which leaves the party wide open to attack - and even ridicule - by the other parties. In 2010 it was their "maximum wage" policy as Elfyn Llwyd found out so painfully on Dragon's Eye during the campaign.

The other parties have all come up with their own take on the Fund for the Welsh electorate. It is, say the Conservatives, irrelevant because it's "a completely un-costed sweeping announcement".

Labour's take? "Questions are bound to be asked as to why Plaid Cymru have waited until they are about to leave Government before unveiling a plan to create thousands of jobs and bring in half a billion pounds. The assumption will be that it is completely unworkable and electioneering of the worst sort."

The "gobsmacked" Lib Dems send an image of a slice of pie in the sky.

The problem for Plaid is they've nailed their colours very firmly to the mast now on the Fund. This isn't kite flying a year out from an election, but number one on a list billed as "Headline proposals for the 2011 manifesto".

What do they do now? They will have to stick to their guns now, of course but it makes it far more tricky for them to "pledge" the £500m fund and their 50,000 jobs to the voters.

What they can do, mind you, is ask the Welsh electorate for a mandate to take their argument for a Fund to the Treasury. And when the Treasury say 'no', you can bet it'll be "London standing in Plaid's way".

The Big Freeze

Betsan Powys | 23:59 UK time, Monday, 14 March 2011


The Big Pay-out - that's what getting a Yes vote in the referendum on March 3rd was really about. At least that's what it was about if you listened to the grievances of a whole lot of people up and down the country in the run-up to the vote.

More powers? Yes ... but this was about more money for politicians. And no matter how many times those politicians argued that how much money they get, let alone whether they deserve any more, isn't up to them but is in the hands of an independent panel, there were plenty who wouldn't quite believe them.

"Come off it" said one of those in the audience after the last of the referendum debates. "I know Carwyn said it won't happen but it will when they think we're not looking any more".

Well, he can stop looking for the next four years. It's official. This morning's report from the Remuneration Board for the National Assembly has confirmed a four year pay freeze for Assembly Members.

You can be pretty sure that the board's chair, the Rt Hon George Reid, didn't have to get the thumbscrews out to convince AMs of the need for a freeze. In fact all four parties fell over themselves, to a greater or lesser extent, to pave the way for it. A pretty shrewd move, you might say and not unsurprising given the wider public spending context and the proximity to elections. All together now: we're all in this together, we hear you, we feel your pain, we'd like your vote.

So from May, Assembly members' base salary will be fixed at the March 2011 level of £53,852 per annum for four years. Factoring in inflation, that's a pay cut.

Could this deter talented people from standing for election to Cardiff Bay? The Board asked that very question. Looking at the last four years, it examined the "opportunity cost" of earnings foregone by those who were elected, had they continued in the jobs they were doing before taking office.

Their conclusion: "The data suggested that the majority of those currently holding office as Members were not likely to have been adversely affected financially when taking office, based on a comparison between the current level of Members' base salary and the current average earnings within Wales of their previous professions."

So that's a no, then. But the report goes much wider than the issue of AMs salaries and asks some pretty interesting questions about the way the Assembly's worked so far and how it might work in the future.

It seems clear that the Fourth Assembly is likely to operate in quite a different way from its predecessor. In terms of committees it'll sweep away and streamline much of the current structure. As one well placed source put it, trying to have 45 backbench members staffing 19 or so committees is an inefficient way of working in anyone's book.

Two other areas of today's report are worthy of note. Firstly, despite its hefty length and detail, it does push certain decisions into the future - among them the question of what salaries should be paid to leaders of the opposition and whips. Partly, this is due to a need to wait to see what the exact political make up of the new Assembly will be.

In terms of the opposition leaders, the Board felt they hadn't received enough information about the roles and responsibilities. This could be to do with the breakdown between work in the Assembly as opposition leader and the wider role as leader of a political party. But it seems clear that after May, the Board will get the information and make a decision.

More intriguing is its position on whether party whips should be paid. After all, it's an internal party management role at the end of the day. A whip is tasked by his or her party leader with making sure their colleagues vote the right way. In short - why should the taxpayer foot the bill for the role of keeping members in order and voting the way they should? If it's your nightclub, the logic goes, why should you be able to apply to the council to pay for your bouncers?

This year, the Government Chief Whip is paid an extra £26,385 on top of salary, and the Opposition Chief Whip an extra £12,168.

According to the Board the rationale for, and evidence supporting, the 2008 decision by the Assembly Commission to pay party whips is "opaque".

"The evidence we have received - based largely on discussions with Members and our survey - did not give us any clear understanding of the overall responsibilities of the whip role within the Third Assembly, or the likely responsibilities within the Fourth Assembly, particularly bearing in mind that there are only 60 Members in total. In addition, there was a lack of clarity about which aspects of the whip role are for the business purposes of the Assembly and which are party political."

The Board may end up keeping the payments to whips but they've certainly put a marker down.

The other area which will see a real difference from today's report will be Assembly Members' support staff. Bucking the austerity trend the amount allocated to AMs for staffing will be increased from a maximum of £80,244 this year to a maximum of £89,000 for next.

The Board is clear what it wants to see in return. From May AMs must demonstrate that at least one of their staff work "to support them in the formal committee and Plenary business of the Assembly and with a significant research element". The message is clear - the quality of scrutiny is as vital as the constituency casework undertaken by all 60 members.

George Reid himself admits it won't change the culture overnight but if there was one thing people were even more concerned about than politicians pocketing more cash, it was the extent to which laws will be scrutinised in future.

Today's report should go some way to satisfying them on both fronts.


Betsan Powys | 09:18 UK time, Friday, 11 March 2011


On Thursday of last week Wales voted.

On Friday last week we discovered Wales had voted 'yes' emphatically.

On Saturday the Liberal Democrats split their time between revelling in the 'yes' vote and distancing themselves, on this side of the Severn bridge, from their coalition partners on the other side.

On Sunday the Conservatives said that they are not picking on Wales, that it means a great deal to the party ... while the Presiding Officer was telling them to get rid of their woman in the Wales Office - and the office itself - as soon as possible.

On Monday David Jones and Peter Hain told him to zip it, to stop "acting above his pay-grade", while Ieuan Wyn Jones said Plaid's manifesto would reinforce the views expressed by Lord Elis-Thomas.

He questioned the need for the Wales Office. Peter Hain questioned the need for a Deputy First Minister called Ieuan Wyn Jones.

By Tuesday Carwyn Jones seemed to be suggesting it was Mr Hain, not Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas, who had been acting above his pay-grade.

By now I was in London for days of meetings.

On the way home last night I sent a text asking how the (temporary) divorce proceedings were going.

"As with other divorces, we've reached a deal. Plaid get to keep the Dafydd Iwan CDs and Labour will hang on to the Billy Bragg albums" came the response.

There are some Labour sources letting it be known that a deal between Labour and the Lib Dems after the Assembly Election is "a done deal". Lib Lab is sorted. But it sounds to me as though Labour and Plaid's decree absolute is quite some way off.

Brand detoxification.

Betsan Powys | 11:43 UK time, Saturday, 5 March 2011


I can't see outside from my presenter's friend chair at the Liberal Democrat conference but I've just heard the protesters marching past, heading towards the Conservative Spring Conference..

One Lib Dem was tempted to stand outside the Angel Hotel holding a psign saying: "They're over there.. We're all busy sorting out Labour's mess".

As they marched on, Kirsty Williams took to the stage. "Conference we don't need to be defensive about our record in coalition ... Whilst the shadow of Labour's legacy at Westminster looms large over Wales, we have been let down by Labour in Cardiff too"m

"At the Labour Conference the Labour leader said it was 'quite easy for a Government to turn itself into a 'Strategy Factory. Well if this Government were a strategy factory then it would have been forced to shut down years ago".

Plaid? "Plaid Cymru know that they haven't delivered for Wales".

"The Tories couldn't ever deliver for Wales ... The Welsh people deserve better from 'the so-called 'official opposition'.

The attack on the Tories - a page full of it by the way - mentions Notting Hill but points a finger at Welsh Tories and their shadow budget decision to protect health spending at the expense of other crucial services.

"The Tories only have one policy and it owes more to Notting Hill than to Newport or Narberth ... It is an ill thought out attempt at brand detoxification".

Off to watch Welsh Lib Dems coping with a few brand issues of their own.


A blast from the past - Gwynoro Jones, the former Labour MP, and founder member of the SDP, is now a Liberal Democrat, and enjoying the Welsh spring conference. He says he joined last year, because of "Nick Clegg's courage in going into coalition". Somewhat swimming against the tide if the opinion polls are to be believed, but they'll take all the good news they can get this weekend!

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Taff, the Chancellor George Osborne is addressing supporters from the other side of the Westminster coalition. It's shameful, he says, that the "Labour/Nationalist Welsh Assembly Government" is cutting the NHS budget when according to him, he's given them the resources to protect it.

By cutting, of course, he means their decision not to increase health spending in line with inflation each year, instead giving it a broadly cash flat settlement. The Welsh Tories are pledged to increase it each year, and totting up the difference, come to a round figure of a around a billion less spent on health under the Labour/Plaid Cymru plans.

It's not only Labour and Plaid, too, who've rejected the ringfencing policy. Back across the river this afternoon, Kirsty Williams was pretty scornful too. The Welsh Tories, she said, only have one policy - and "it owes more to Notting Hill than to Newport or Narberth", that is, protecting health spending.

The snag being with this is that it's also the declared policy of her party in government in London. The Taff's a river with a fair few twists and turns, not least between the Swalec Stadium and the Angel Hotel, and there's a fair bit of twisting and turning going on hereabouts this afternoon.

Clear signals

Betsan Powys | 20:46 UK time, Friday, 4 March 2011


There may be two conferences in town this weekend but from Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams a clear signal tonight - perhaps made with renewed vigour after last night's result in Barnsley Central- that from now until May, Welsh Lib Dems are doing it their own way.

"You know with the budget cuts they are proposing here in Wales, there will always be clear blue water between us and the Tories.

"But they're over in the Swalec Stadium this weekend, so it's good to know we've got the River Taff between us as well".

More from the Lib Dem conference tomorrow.

D Day

Betsan Powys | 09:17 UK time, Friday, 4 March 2011


They've cast their vote - and if you chose to use it, so have you. Meet four of our People's Assembly members. On day one of the short campaign they were in the Senedd, explaining to Radio Wales listeners why they were undecided which way to go in yesterday's referendum.

Today they were back. The three on the right : Rebecca Wasinski, Linda Bennett and Gareth Protheroe eventually decided to vote 'No. Aled Morris went the other way and voted 'Yes'. All the signs are that the opinion polls were right and that it's Aled who'll be on the winning side.

If so, then let's be clear about what this means: when the debate around turnout and the complexity of the issue have been had, once the powers flowing from the referendum come into force in Wales, there will be four legislatures in the United Kingdom, each with direct law making powers.

The jigsaw of different policies will become more complicated, the differences potentially more puzzling to citizens.

Verification of the votes is underway. Counting begins at 11.

I'll be broadcasting pretty much non stop from now until late tonight, but I'll be updating you here too with analysis as best I can as it all plays out.

You can follow BBC Wales's online live page all day here

**1325 UPDATE**

Some thoughts, as I dash from studio to studio!

We're currently sitting somewhere around the 65-35 mark in favour of yes - it could still change as more results come in, but it seems - seems - to be settling around there.

So far, the opinion polls seem to have been bang on the money in predicting the result - ICM, YouGov and others, take a bow.

As far as turnout prediction is concerned, perhaps not so good, but it's that headline figure which will have the pollsters smiling.

As I write, Newport has come back as a Yes, which will have campaigners there who've been frowning a lot in recent weeks smiling too.

Just who's responsible for the Yes camp's smiles across Wales is already a matter of competition between the parties of course - along with the very useful intelligence about the way the vote is going across the 22 authorities comes the gentle reminder about how hard Party X worked locally and how Party Y really got its vote out. May 5th is not so far off now.

Also smiling is Tory leader Nick Bourne - the results we have so far, as well as our ICM poll would seem to show that Conservative voters opposed to further powers seem to have stayed at home. And the quiet prediction from some Westminster Tories that North Wales could be more No than Yes has been comprehensively refuted.

On we go!

Shock result

Betsan Powys | 16:59 UK time, Wednesday, 2 March 2011


At one point in this particular game the odds on the underdog winning were 400-1.

They've just won.

Nothing like a reminder that these things can happen ...

This blog will be closed to comments from 6am tomorrow morning until 10pm tomorrow night.

On Friday BBC Wales online are planning, for the first time, to run a live page as part of coverage of the referendum result. It'll kick off at about 10am and the aim is to update every couple of minutes.

We'll be on air from the stunning contraption near the Senedd steps from 10.30am and expect we'll know by around lunchtime whether the three opinion polls published since yesterday by ITV Wales, S4C and Wales Online have been near the mark.

If - if there is, as they all suggest, a Yes win, will all four Welsh party leaders stand side by side to face the cameras and announce that it is "a very good afternoon / evening / night for Wales?"

Or will the consensus be over before the party gets going?

Counting down

Betsan Powys | 15:10 UK time, Tuesday, 1 March 2011


Where have I been?

I've been outside the Cardiff Bay bubble. I said I might be some time and I was ... but I'm back blogging and am back, for now, in the Senedd bubble. In my absence two rounded studios have been erected on platforms outside - not, as my colleague Vaughan Roderick points out, in tribute to Jane Russell - but to house the temporary studios from where we'll be broadcasting on Friday.

So where are we?

The polls - the latest by YouGov for ITV's Y Byd ar Bedwar last night - give the Yes camp a twenty per cent lead over No. In other words, next to nothing has changed in terms of the polls since the campaign began. The Yes lead over No hasn't closed.

The bookies, Ladbrokes among them, appear to have had a fallow time. You'd think we were in tough economic times. One punter "has taken a patriotic plunge" and put a five figure sum on a Yes result. You'd frankly need to have five figures to spare to squeeze much money out of odds of 10/1. If you have that sort of money burning in your pocket, I'd better warn you the odds have since been cut to 1/16. It's 6/1 if you want to bet on a No victory, though even the bookies warn you "the odds are now starting to make a 'yes' result look like a formality."

They weren't accepting any of that on Blackwood high street this morning. Despite it becoming very obvious in the past week that True Wales are being outgunned by the better backed and better resourced Yes for Wales, despite there being little sign of True Wales campaigning outside their "heartland" of the South East, as the tireless Nigel Bull put it this morning, despite the odds and despite the polls, they remain convinced that there will be every sign of support for their cause on Thursday. Support? Yes. Victory? Few now believe that's likely.

Throughout the campaign there's been the promise of a "name" coming out in support of the No camp, a name that might sway some Labour voters who feel they ought to vote Yes out of party loyalty but who really want to vote No. I suspect we'll hear from one "name" at least before too long and I suspect few will be surprised by who it is. As a colleague put it, prepare for a split in the Papal Knight vote.

Another "name" has had an almost miraculous change of heart in the past few days.

On the first of our debate programmes Russell Goodway described himself as "unconvinced". Anyone who watched the programme from Aberystwyth would have been in no doubt that the former Labour leader of Cardiff Council was very, very, very unconvinced. But now he's not. Now he's going to vote Yes.

One AM rang him in fury after the programme. She'd fallen off her chair in shock when she'd heard him. He'd caused a "furore". I'm prepared to bet the conversion happened - not on the road to Damascus - but somewhere on the A470, while Mr Goodway was on his way home from Labour's conference in Llandudno last weekend. Some party members sensed what they described as "panic" at the seaside, a concern that if the vote is lost on Thursday, Labour will be blamed for not getting their vote out. For what it's worth the same voices question the need for panic and think the vote will be a Yes but that "it's tribal politics that will drive it through, not conviction".

Back to Blackwood high street.

The inflatable pig, which comes from China, deflated before my eyes this morning. It needed a quick roadside AI job with a pump before it could continue on its journey. why a pig, I asked? Because of the Animal Farm connotations, apparently. We're all equal, except some are more equal than others, perhaps. Politicians setting out to try and do the right thing but in the end, doing more harm than good. That was the idea. Power corrupting. True Wales believe Assembly Members have failed to deliver for the rest of us and so, they don't deserve a stronger grip on the levers of power.

And for the record, True Wales want you to vote. They want you to vote NO. They don't want you to stay at home so that a low turnout calls into question the legitimacy of the result. I say that because there was a suggestion this morning that one of their number had been calling on voters to abstain. They've roundly denied it, pointing out that they've always labelled Thursday "Vote No" day. Anyway, there's no point asking people to abstain, said a friend's Mum this morning. "People are too apathetic to abstain".

So what of Yes for Wales?

The party leaders are heading out now to hand leaflets to shoppers in Cardiff, near the Castle where their vote Yes message was projected last night. They're in trouble with the Assembly Commission for bathing the Senedd in the same image without prior permission ... now where have I heard that phrase before.

Labour leader Ed Miliband is making the most of St David's Day. Celebrate it by voting Yes on Thursday, "so that people in Wales can have more say over their economic development; more freedom over housing decisions; more control over their thriving culture, and more say over the historic buildings that bring people from around the world to visit Wales". Not exactly pithy enough to be on a Welsh lady tea towel but you get his drift.

Bottom line: Yes campaigners are quietly confident that the vote will be won. Two to one with a low turnout is a figure I've heard more than once. It took 500,000 to win in 1997. A low turnout means the winner could take it all with as few as 300,000 votes this time. If Plaid, Labour and the Lib Dems can't deliver that, then prepare for a very long inquest. If they can, prepare for a very quick gear change to pre-election hostilities.

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