Thursday, 29 November 2007

Life, crazy eights and the shock of the new

Some time ago, Peter Black challenged me to the Crazy Eight test. Sadly, the twin perils of having both a full-time job and a life delayed my response.

This blog is usually about other people, but I'll make an exception here to meet Peter's challenge. Some of the answers were supplied by Mrs C.

8 things I am passionate about:

Fair play

8 things I want to do before I die:

Suffer fools gladly
Outlive the DFS sale
Find something I'm good at
Get out of TV before HD comes in
Run one more marathon
Finish the novel
Start the novel
Be a good father

8 things I say often:

Have you seen my wallet/keys/ticket?
Is the washing machine free?
Another Barnett formula story? Marvellous!
Where's the remote?
Large latte to take away, please
Is it 6.30am already?
Anyone ring?/any post?
Any score?

8 songs I could listen to over and over and do:

Can't Help Falling in Love - Elvis Presley
Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now - The Smiths
Sit Down - James
I Saw Her Standing There - The Beatles
Imagine - John Lennon
Can't Stand Losing You - The Police
England 2 Colombia 0 - Kirsty MacColl
Love Will Tear Us Apart - Joy Division

8 books I've read recently or am still reading:

Shame - Jasvinder Sanghera
It's Not About the Bike - Lance Armstrong
The Blair Years - Alastair Campbell
The Ghost - Robert Harris
A Walk in the Dark by Gianrico Carofiglio
Complete Baby and Child Care - Miriam Stoppard
Forgotten Soldiers - Stephen Walker
Collected Poems - Roger McGough

8 things that attract me to my best friends:


As you may have guessed from some of the above, life is about to change quite dramatically.

All being well, I'll be spending the next couple of weeks getting to know our new daughter, working on my nappy-changing technique and ignoring e-mails.

I hope to rush back in time for the excitement of the Lib Dem leadership election.

As they say at the end of the news, bye for now.

Question Time

Harriet Harman's predicted tough question time proved to be something of an anti-climax.

Her Tory shadow Theresa May tried to score a few party political points without firing a silver bullet. Ms Harman took the opportunity to repeat her defence.

Questions remain about Labour's use of secret donors and Nick Robinson has listed most of them here. Others may yet be asked by the police.

I do like Jon Mendelsohn's euphemistic job title. Labour's chief fund-raiser is known as "director of general election resources".

Sanitised job titles are now de rigeur in 21st century politics, where lobbyists paid to put forward their client's point of view refer to themselves as "public affairs consultants".

But if job titles accurately reflected roles then we would probably be denied the delights of
Silver Stick in Waiting (if you really need to know, look here) and Steward and Page of the Backstairs, a role held by the late "Backstairs Billy" Tallon.

Perhaps the new constitutional settlement being drawn up by Gordon Brown's Government could come up with some suitably modern titles for these roles.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

The Cable Guy

You know you're in trouble in politics when the Liberal Democrats start laughing at you.

The Lib Dems have provided much amusement for the main UK parties over the years, particularly during leadership elections.

Today, the tables turned and it was Gordon Brown's turn to become the butt of a Lib Dem joke.

Today, the party's acting leader, delivered the best line during Prime Minister's Question Time: "The House has noticed the Prime Minister's remarkable transformation in the last few weeks from Stalin to Mr Bean."

Vince Cable may look like Ming Campbell's older brother but he's generally seen to have played a blinder as acting leader, highlighting Northern Rock before others spotted the problems.

He'll be gone in two weeks, replaced by Nick Clegg or Chris Huhne. Mr Cable's a keen ballroom dancing fan - I wonder if he's done enough these last few weeks to get a slot on the next Strictly Come Dancing?

Bah, humbug

They're putting the Christmas decorations up today in 4 Millbank, Westminster home of the BBC.

It's November 28.

I can just about cope with Christmas cards in the shops in August, but isn't this a little prematurely festive?

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Flag waving

Wrexham Labour MP Ian Lucas shows off his new design for the Union flag. What do you think?
He said: "This is not just a dry constitutional issue – indeed, I am aware that the politics of flags can stir some strong emotions. I am also keenly aware that there is a school of thought in Wales which means people do not feel the Union Flag represents them.

“I hope my proposal will mean that those people feel that their concerns are being listened to, that the new constitutional arrangements in the UK are marked – and most of all, that there is a wide-ranging debate on the Union Flag and what it means in Wales and the UK."

Mr Lucas raised the issue in a special debate in the Commons last night - the Government has promised to consider his views but don't hold your breath.....

Friday, 23 November 2007

Groundhog Day

The Liberal Democrats are getting terribly excited about the discovery that the Welsh Assembly Government has the power to reshape councils in Wales.

The Assembly Government got terribly excited too when the idea that the power might be transferred from Westminster was first reported more than a year ago.

Indeed, WAG got so excited they first denied they had asked for the power - only to back down when a letter from a Minister (to Welsh Secretary Peter Hain) asking for the power was revealed.

There is of course a huge difference between acquiring a power and using it - a point we reported at the time. (I'm still waiting for WAG to say sorry, mind).

I didn't realise it was a total secret - in fact Peter Black's blog from October 2006 drew attention to the announcement at the time.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

The hardest word

Westminster is a slightly calmer place today - not even an Alistair Darling emergency statement to keep us busy.

On Thursday, as Commons leader Harriet Harman sets out future business, MPs can seize precious parliamentary time to raise the issues that matter most to their constituents.

Poverty, climate change, world peace, missing child benefit records? MPs can also use it to score a few party political points. Conwy Labour MP Betty Williams raised the misuse by Plaid Cymru MPs of the communications allowance.

Ms Harman told her: "The committee on standards and privileges takes abuse of the communications allowance very seriously and rightly so as it brings our honest use of the communication allowance and the reputation of the House into disrepute."

Plaid aren't the only ones to fall foul of the new allowance - Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly has also had to write a cheque after using the allowance to publish leaflets viewed by some as propaganda.

Labour's desire to score points against their coalition partners is understandable in several ways. On April 26, Plaid Cymru's Caernarfon MP Hywel Williams wrote to Labour candidate Martin Eaglestone threatening him with legal action if he didn't retract, and apologise for, a suggestion the MPs had misused public funds.

Mr Williams gave a deadline of May 1. Mr Eaglestone didn't retract or apologise. He's still waiting for the Plaid legal squad to knock on his door.

Labour, too, will be waiting a long time for the apology demanded by Plaid for misuse of the funds.

Plaid parliamentary leader Elfyn Llwyd told BBC Wales he'd resist the invitation to say sorry: "Well, the committee don't so I think I'd rather listen to the committee than a few strange backbenchers with little axes to grind.

"If the committee had said apologise, clearly we would have done. The committee don't go anywhere near the word apology, so why should we?"

Money-saving idea

The sacked England football coach Steve McClaren is apparently to be paid £2m for not coaching the team during the next two years.

If the FA are reading this, they may like to know that I would be prepared not to do the job for half that.

I would suggest Alistair Darling might make a suitable replacement for McClaren but the idea of the Scots running English affairs couldn't happen, could it?

On the mend

Paul Flynn hasn't let a mini-stroke stop him blogging.

He reports good treatment at the hands of the NHS in London. (Has the illness sent him on message?).

One of the tests applied by nurses to test the Newport West MP's recovery was to ask if he knew the name of the Prime Minister.....

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Oh, Darling

It was jaw-dropping stuff. The Commons chamber is home to more than its fair share of fake anger and pantomime drama, but the clashes over Alistair Darling's statement yesterday were real enough.

The gasps from MPs were genuine as the sheer scale of the security breach of child benefit details - and details of how they were lost - emerged.

The body language on the Government front bench, in the words of Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail, suggested the demeanour of "the hired mourners from a Chicago funeral partner".

Calling off the election that never was, Gordon Brown said his Government had proved its competence during his first months in office. Ministers can't be held directly responsible for an official sending the UK's entire child benefit data in the internal post, but questions of competence have followed cock-ups at the Home Office and the Northern Rock debacle.

This week - two emergency Darling statements in two days - has evoked memories for some MPs of some of the less good days enjoyed by John Major's Government. Remember John Smith, late Labour leader?

"If we were to offer this tale of events to the BBC Light Entertainment Department as a script for a programme I think the producers of Yes Minister would have turned it down as hopelessly over the top. I think it might have even been too much for Some Mothers Do Have 'Em. But Madam Speaker, the tragedy for us all is that it is really happening, it is fact, not fiction. The man with the non-Midas touch is in charge. No wonder we live in a country where the Grand National doesn't start and the hotels fall into the sea".

Gordon Brown's Government isn't there yet, but the economic forecasts are less than rosy and once an administration loses a reputation for competence it's very hard to recover - ask John Major.

Alistair Darling has been criticised for dullness, but he is widely seen at Westminster as one of the more competent Ministers. Perhaps he's just been unlucky to have been holding the parcel when the music stopped.

Mr Brown's favourite joke, in his last job, was that there are two types of Chancellor -
those who fail and those who get out in time. Mr Brown doesn't think he failed.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Christmas is coming

There's nothing so ex as an ex-politician, as the saying goes. But there are consolations - the pay-off from the public purse, the pundit slot on and...... an invite to Peter Hain's Christmas party.

Last year some invitations to the Cardiff Bay bash went out in the wrong envelopes. This year some have been sent to retired politicians - e.g. Owen John Thomas AM, who stepped down in May.

Invitations have been posted to names on a list that pre-dates the Assembly elections last May.

Perhaps the elections passed the Wales Office by or its Ministers are still in denial about the outcome?

Was it something we said?

In the five months (next week) since Gordon Brown took over as Prime Minister, he's visited Iraq, the United States, Portgual, France, SNP-run Scotland, Northern Ireland and a few other parts of the globe.

There's one corner of the United Kingdom yet to be visited by the new PM. You can probably guess where it is.

Shadow Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan tried to find out more about Mr Brown's travel plans via parliamentary questions.

Here's the exchange, from Hansard:

Cheryl Gillan: "To ask the Prime Minister when he last visited Wales; and when he next expects to visit Wales."

The Prime Minister: "A list of my UK visits will be published in the usual way following the end of the financial year."

It's good to see the age of evasion is no more in this modern, transparent, new political era.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Breaking news and more..

News that may send the Elfynometer soaring......Plaid Cymru MPs have been reprimanded by a House of Commons committee for using taxpayers' money to pay for newspaper adverts in the run-up to the Assembly elections earlier this year. Parliament's standards and privileges committee has told Hywel Williams, Elfyn Llwyd and Adam Price to repay the cost of the adverts which were funded by an allowance set up to allow MPs to communicate with their constituents. The MPs said they acted on the advice of parliamentary officials.

You can read the report here.

The Plaid MPs say they will repay the money - either from party funds or their personal bank accounts.

The adverts will now count as campaign spending, pushing Plaid over the limit for the Assembly election, although parliamentary leader Elfyn Llwyd says the Electoral Commission will accept that.

He won't be taking up Labour's invitation to apologise for the misuse of public funds, as this was not demanded by the report:"Why should we?"

Friday, 16 November 2007

Law-makers in Need

This being Children in Need day, in common with other BBC journalists I am of course writing this in fishnet stockings while perched on a desk singing out of tune. Heh, it's for charidee. If you donate enough, I might actually put a suit on and go to work.

But I digress. As a parliamentary correspondent, I'm often asked: "David, how do I change the law?"

It's not an easy question, so I'm grateful to the Conservatives for drawing attention to some studious work (by Professor Keith Patchett) for the Institute of Welsh Affairs that pre-dates but anticipates the Government of Wales Act and gives an idea of the complexity of the situation.

This, in brief, is a research note prepared for Tory MPs, summarising Professor Patchett's work on the sources of Welsh-related legislation.

Current mechanisms for legislating for Wales

1.Wales-only Acts of the UK Parliament
2. Provisions in Acts of the UK Parliament applying to Wales specifically
3. Acts of the UK Parliament applying to England and Wales as a single jurisdiction
4. General subordinate legislation made by the Assembly under Acts or exceptionally under Whitehall subordinate legislation
5. Subordinate legislation made by Whitehall specifically for Wales
6. Subordinate legislation made by Whitehall for England and Wales as a single jurisdiction
7. Measures made by the Assembly under Orders in Council modifying or supplementing existing legislation
8. General subordinate legislation made by the Assembly Government under provisions of Acts
9. General subordinate legislation made by the Assembly Government as delegate under Assembly Measures

Mechanisms for extending the competence of the Assembly

10, Legislative competence orders modifying Government of Wales Act
11. Provisions in Acts of the UK Parliament modifying Government of Wales Act
12. Order of the Assembly for commencement of the Assembly Act provisions in the Government of Wales Act 2006

Possible future mechanism for legislating for Wales

13. Acts of the Assembly under Part 4 of the Government of Wales Act 2006

A sceptic might think that this complex situation has been created to make the rather simpler idea of a law-making Welsh parliament irresistible.

Now, where did I leave those tights?

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Better late than never?

You and I may live in a 21st century electronic 24:7 media culture where news breaks around the clock.

Others pursue the news agenda at a more sedate pace. A mere two weeks after they returned to this country from a top-secret trip to China, MPs on the Welsh affairs committee have, wait for it, put out a press release.

Here's the top line: "The Welsh Affairs Committee has visited China as part of its inquiry into globalisation and its impact on Wales. Members visited Shanghai and the Special Economic Zone of Xiamen in the southern province of Fujian."

Well, hold the front page. What the press release doesn't say is that the MPs were rather restricted in what they could see by the Chinese Government.

Chairman of the Committee Dr Hywel Francis MP said: “The most striking part of our visit to China was becoming aware of the current scale and pace of change. We also saw many examples of a workforce that is increasingly skilled, flexible, adaptable and hard-working.

"The importance attached to universities and skills was impressive. We witnessed a great respect for learning and saw how ‘Confucius Institutes’ are now being established worldwide in favoured overseas universities, including Cardiff. Consolidating existing links and establishing new ones between Welsh and Chinese universities is vital to ensure that education remains the key to harnessing globalisation.”

I know of no Welsh media outlet that works on fortnightly deadlines, but I guess the committee will be chuffed that at least this is one outlet that used the press release.

I'm looking forward to receiving a Christmas card from the committee - probably around the middle of January.

Don't all rush at once

It was, said the (UK) Government, as "another innovative step forward in engaging the public and Parliament in the development of future Government policy".

Peter Hain said: "I now want to ensure that the people of Wales can have a full and active role in the development of the UK Government’s policy programme, which is still hugely significant in Wales and will impact on most aspects of Welsh life."

Voters were invited to contact the Wales Office by e-mail or letter.

So how many responses did the Wales Office get to its appeal for the people of Wales to play a full and active role?

Er, 18.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Too many MPs?

The Justice committee's inquiry into devolution has been told that Wales has too many MPs and is over-represented at Westminster.

Robert Hazell, head of the devolution unit at University College, London, said:"Wales should have the same electoral quota as the rest of the UK"

There are currently 40 Welsh MPs - he says they should be cut to 33. Which seven would you get rid of?

Tory chain gang caption competition

Peter Hain can relax, for once. This week's photograph features prominent Tories Cheryl Gillan and Nick Bourne digging for victory/digging themselves into a hole/modelling the latest Guantanamo chic look. You decide.

Not a lot of people know that

The Ministry of Defence employs 171 Welsh speakers, according to Defence Minister Bob Ainsworth.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Not very grand

Devastating news for political anoraks: this week's meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee, that megastore of talking shops, has been cancelled.

Slightly better news for political anoraks: there's a bit of a row about who is to blame.

[Welsh Secretary] Peter Hain's Wales Office told me [Shadow Welsh Secretary] Cheryl Gillan asked for it to be cancelled.

The Conservatives say the Government called it off after discovering Mr Hain, who is also Work and Pensions Secretary, was double-booked. Ms Gillan is furious at the suggestion she was behind the cancellation.

Mr Hain's office insist that they were told by the Tories that they would vote against the decision to meet to discuss both the Queen's Speech and the Pre-Budget report. They had demanded two separate meetings to discuss both events.

The Wales Office is now looking to schedule a Welsh Grand in December, long enough after both events for no-one to care.

Some must have prizes

Most politicians are selfless altruistic souls who wouldn't dream of grabbing any glory for their deeds or demanding recognition, let alone publicity, for their work.

So it often falls upon others, sometimes the media, to reward these efforts with appropriate deference.

Yes, the annual AM.PM awards are almost upon us. The winners will be announced live on the BBC programme of that name on December 5.

These are the categories:

Politician of the Year;
Newcomer of the Year;
Communicator of the Year;
Campaigner of the Year;
Most Outspoken.

A panel of experts, made up of pundits from the programme, will decide the winners. You may well have your own idea of deserving recipients for these awards. I'd love to hear them.

Thursday, 8 November 2007


Another story about money. Rumblings about the new £10,000 communications allowance continue.

There seems to be a lot of confusion about the rules. Plaid Cymru are still fighting complaints about the use of the taxpayer-funded allowance to pay for newspaper adverts during the Welsh Assembly election campaign.

Cardiff North MP Julie Morgan says the leaflets ConservativeHome highlighted were cleared by the Commons fees office. They may refer to the new Prime Minister and her support for his deputy Harriet Harman, she says, but those are matters of fact.

The creation of the allowance was controversial in itself - the arguments clearly won't go away.

Hey big spender?

There's a bit of a row, as you might expect, over the increase in the Wales Office budget - at a time when other government departments are told to tighten their belts on administration costs.

The Wales Office (the Whitehall department that represents Welsh interests at Westminster) will see its budget rise from £4.68 m to £8.44m next year, although the figures are disputed by the department itself.

I've just interviewed Peter Hain's deputy, Huw Irranca-Davies, who explained that when you include LCOs, front-loading, framework powers, revenue spending and exclude capital spending, it's nowhere near as big as 80 per cent - although the jargon did leave me struggling by the end of that answer.

The £4m increase is a drop in the ocean of an overall Welsh budget of £14bn but that won't stop opposition parties highlighting the scale of the rise.

Oh, and here's a photograph of the Secretary of State for Wales (he's on the left), showing how the countryside is still open. Peter Hain may have an Aga, but his wellies are definitely not green.

That question again

Some interesting thoughts from Peter Riddell in the Times on how to answer the West Lothian question (if I may be permitted to use the words "interesting" and "West Lothian question" in the same sentence).

He says the idea is to give devolved governments a bigger role in raising their own budgets. That would also help tackle the point made by Stephen Crabb recently that the current system fuels a culture in which there is an inbuilt incentive to demand higher public spending.

Peter's article is another reminder that the pressure for a review of the way Wales is funded is not only coming from west of Offa's Dyke. Arguments about public spending in Scotland may be driving the debate but Wales will be caught in the slipstream.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Happy (half) hour

This may come as a blessed relief or a shocking attempt to dodge political accountability, depending on your point of view. Some may even describe it as a slap in the face or snub to Wales. Take your pick.

The monthly parliamentary feast that is Questions to the Secretary of State for Wales will no longer take place every four weeks.

Instead, Secretary of State Peter Hain and his deputy Huw Irranca-Davies will be put on the spot every fifth week.

The idea is to make some of the larger Whitehall departments more accountable. The Wales Office has a small (although rising by 80 per cent next year) budget, relatively few staff and even fewer executive responsibilities. So MPs often ask Ministers to account for the actions of other Ministers, in Cardiff or in Westminster.

The Wales Office has also missed out on one of the reforms to Question Time introduced in the new session of Parliament. Those Ministers held accountable for 40 minutes or more at the despatch box can be questioned on topical issues.

Welsh Questions last but 30 minutes so MPs will need to use their ingenuity to devise questions with a more topical relevance.

Mission Accomplished!

It's amazing how frequently the most public words of politicians come back to haunt them.

So begins the blurb on a new book by Matthew Parris and Phil Mason - Mission Accomplished!

Its (involuntary) contributors include Idi Amin, Margaret Thatcher, Leon Trotsky and (frequently) George Bush.

Here's a couple of Welsh examples.

Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells: "If Prime Minister Sharon had lived....he is dead, isn't he? No? It's an easy mistake to make".

Indeed. And here's David Lloyd George. "I have never doubted the fundamental greatness of Herr Hitler".

That's one inscription you won't find on the new Lloyd George statue in Parliament Square.

The West Amersham Question

It doesn't feel like Wednesday. There's no prime minister's question time, which may disappoint David Cameron more than Gordon Brown after yesterday's exchanges.

MPs are instead embarking on several days' debate on the Queen's Speech. Well, some of them are - there are no Commons votes until next week so some will be catching up with their constituents.

Cheryl Gillan invited the Welsh media to her loft-style office in Portcullis House for her regular weekly briefing over coffee and biscuits.

She wouldn't be drawn on Stephen Crabb's views on devolution - pity that. Discovering Ms Gillan's inner thoughts on devolution is like getting blood from a stone. We never had that problem with Bill Wiggin!

She did suggest one potential problem with plans to raise the education leaving age to 18 in England, a question that emerged after she was having her hair done in a salon with a 17-year-old work experience person.

What happens if someone of the same age in Wales moves to England (perhaps her own constituency of Chesham and Amersham) a year after leaving school? Would they be prosecuted or forced back to school?

The most probable answer is that the 17-year-old's work would include a large enough element of training to qualify as education, training or an apprenticeship - but an interesting question nevertheless.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Tights and toll roads

Not wearing tights or medals, I do feel slightly under-dressed at state occasions such as the opening of Parliament.

There are no surprises among the Bills read by the Queen in a speech that was the shortest since Labour came to power, but do read on.....

The major flashpoints are likely to occur over anti-terror laws, where the Government wants to allow the police to continue to question suspects who've already been charged - and to give police the power to detain suspects for longer before charging them.

Welsh angle? Most of the Bills apply to Wales, in varying degrees. Three of them will allow the Welsh Assembly to draft laws in areas of education, planning and local transport.

The latter may be the most interesting - it would give the Assembly Government the power to charge motorists for using the new M4 relief road and trunk roads.

A G please, Carol

I have to admit the footage of Gordon Brown's contribution to the 25th anniversary of Countdown had passed me by. And I thought celebrity politics died with his predecessor.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Spot the athlete

Perhaps if I started wearing shades and nodding my head......

Perhaps not. What a great run at the weekend (I mean Paula in the New York Marathon not me in the Wimbledon Common Time Trial, obviously).