Tuesday, 24 July 2007

A (very) light grilling

Peter Hain is facing his annual grilling before MPs on Parliament's select committee on Welsh affairs.

Not too much to disturb the airwaves yet. The session actually began with the committee chairman congratulating Hain on the Wales Office annual report. Hopefully other members of this scrutiny committee will fulfil the hardcop function.

Members of the Labour/Plaid Cymru coalition in the Welsh Assembly Government won't have enjoyed the Hain advice on their plans to review the way Wales is funded from Westminster.

In brief, the secretary of state views it as "a perilous exercise" that could lead to a cut in its budget.

He told MPs that public spending per head in Wales is 11 per cent higher than in the UK, and 14 per cent higher than in England.

"I don't think there is any guarantee that replacing the Barnett formula would get a better deal for Wales."

He was also cautious about any calls for corporation tax to be reduced in Wales, as EU rules meant that cut would have to be off-set elsewhere - possibly in "a reduced budget for Wales".

The Wales Office's top civil servant also faced a rare public grilling. Alan Cogbill was questioned about a memo leaked to Dragon's Eye that suggested he was less than chuffed with his department's performance on an improvement programme.

In the memo, Cogbill wrote: "I've been disappointed that despite good efforts and some improvements we have not made decisive progress.

"I'd say reasons are weaknesses in priority and direction, communication, co-ordination and response".

On a couple of occasions the media that have gleaned snippets from inside the office and if they just came and asked me straight they'd get their straight story".

(We did ask to speak to him at the time but the Wales Office turned down our request for an interview).

Cogbill told the MPs he thought the department had had "a decent year and done a good job for Ministers and for Wales."

He confirmed that the Wales Office had spent £37,000 on an improvement programme.

Sadly he wasn't asked about another snippet I've gleaned - the external consultants brought in promised civil servants they would be given "Lego-style" bricks so that officials could make their own ideas on restructuring the office "three-dimensional".

Apparently the bricks never arrived, although any link between their non-arrival and the lack of progress with the improvement programme is coincidental.

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