Thursday, 28 February 2008

Happy St David's Day

Pupils from Ysgol Gymraeg Cwm Gwyddon and Ysgol Gymraeg Llundain rehearsing for the St David's Day service in the House of Commons.

They sang beautifully.

Spot the Plaid Cymru/Labour coalition in the back row.

Poll to poll

Pre-referendum polls are often treated cautiously by politicians who remember the results of surveys taken in early 1979 and summer 1997.

But regardless of their accuracy in predicting results they can give an indication of public awareness of political systems.

The latest poll for the BBC suggests that only 39 per cent know that the Welsh Assembly Government is run by a Plaid Cymru/Labour coalition.

They really should watch more BBC Wales news output, although this does remind us that voters do occasionally access news and information sourced from beyond Wales.

Doctors testing for sanity have occasionally asked patients to name political leaders. If this poll is accurate, let's hope medics west of Offa's Dyke wait before opting for a devolved version.

No more freebies?

Almost three hours in to the Welsh day debate (I've remained conscious throughout) and so far the most interesting contribution has come from an MP who recently left Government.

Peter Hain suggested the Welsh Assembly Government should perhaps use its budget to prioritise what he called "sharp" bits of public spending, such as skills and technology, rather than "soft" aspects such as free schemes.

He didn't mention some of the free schemes introduced by WAG - e.g. prescriptions, swimming and school breakfasts but you get an idea of where he's coming from.

The Neath MP, rarely perhaps for a Labour MP, acknowledged that the public sector in Wales is too high a proportion of our economy, and warned that the private sector had to grow dramatically if Wales is to narrow the wealth gap with the rest of Britain.

He said Wales needed to replace its "risk-averse, can't do culture" with a dynamic "can-do culture".

He added: "The culture of cautious conservatism that is so rife in Welsh public services, from the civil services to local councils, needs radical reform."

There's more on the Hain website and he's promising an online pamphlet on

The man who took Peter Hain's cabinet job, Paul Murphy, may have raised some chattering class eyebrows with a rather bold suggestion that despite the importance of constitutional matters the issues that matter to most voters are schools, hospitals, transport and jobs.

Some MPs believe that today's debate is a tokenistic anachronism, but it was mildly refreshing to watch Welsh issues, from the economy to public services, being debated without the disproportionate obsession with constitutional navel-gazing that can make even the eyes of even the most devoted political anorak glaze over.

Making peace

An update on today's St David's Day celebrations in the Commons.

Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy read the lesson at a service in the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft.

He read from Matthew 5: 1-12, and it was well worth checking against delivery.

For some reason, Mr Murphy omitted the sentence "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God".

An inadvertent slip or perhaps Mr Murphy is back on message now he's part of the Government that took the decision to invade Iraq.

The first daff

I've just spotted the first daffodil of spring in the House of Commons chamber.

It belongs to Harriet Harman, leader of the Commons and deputy Labour leader.

Ms Harman isn't known for her Welsh roots, although she did win the backing of Rhodri Morgan for her deputy leadership campaign.

Perhaps it's the fond memories of her campaigning trips to Wales that persuaded her to celebrate our national day.

Dydd Gwyl Dewi Hapus

St David's Day lasts a minimum of 48 hours at Westminster - and potentially up to a week.

It began last night with a Wales Office reception hosted by the new Secretary of State, Paul Murphy - and won't finish until the Plaid Cymru bash next Wednesday.

The Wales Office guest list was rather more celebrity-light than in recent years - I couldn't find anyone to tell me what tomorrow's weather would be like - but no less enjoyable for that.

The party was held on the eve of what Mr Murphy (and as a papal knight he should know) suggested was the feast day of St Llibio, a 6th century hermit from Anglesey. (Some say St Llibio's feast day is actually February 8).

The Welsh Secretary paid a generous tribute to his predecessor, Peter Hain, who was present, although the Neath MP currently has the air of a man having to spend too much time with his lawyers. A weekend trip to see Chelsea at Wembley didn't make 2008 any rosier.

Mr Hain will make his first Commons speech since his resignation today as Parliament celebrates St David's Day with its annual Welsh affairs debate.

Before that, there is a service in the Commons chapel, featuring choirs from Welsh language schools in London and Abercarn.

Daffodil sellers in Westminster are coining it in. Officials arrived in Paul Murphy's office yesterday morning to discover that the carefully-place bouquets had fallen off tables and window sills overnight - victims of the earthquake centred on Market Rasen, and proof perhaps that some natural phenomena don't respect devolved boundaries.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

MP on the run

Congratulations to David Davies MP (left), who won the MPs' Sport Relief mile at Westminster in the impressive time of 5 minutes 28 seconds.

The Monmouth Tory backbencher finished ahead of his rivals despite learning of the event only two days ago.
"It was good fun and it's all about raising money for a good cause," he told me.

"It will also convince some people that not all MPs spend their lunchtimes quaffing champagne and eating three-course meals."
Davies was in second place for most of the race but managed to overhaul the frontrunner to cross the line first in St James's Park.

The aim, he says, is to persuade others to take part in Sport Relief on Sunday, March 16.

Paul Murphy waltzes

Paul Murphy's Commons comeback turned into something of a love-in.

His first half-hour question time as Secretary of State for Wales was largely taken up with warm welcomes from colleagues and opponents - and his gratitude for their good wishes.

He told his Tory shadow, Cheryl Gillan: "I look forward this evening to waltzing with her to "Me and My Shadow" - a reference, I think, to the Wales Office St David's Day party in Gwydyr House this evening.

Mr Murphy did face one or two awkward questions about the relative performance of the NHS either side of the England/Wales border.

Some things, he believes, have got better since he was last in the job: "Differences between England and Wales are far less than they were in the past."

Security is really tight here, honest.....

Security at Westminster is regularly tightened. Armed police greet visitors and pass holders now have to use PINs to access doors inside Parliament.

So expect plenty of red faces among the authorities when they look up on the Commons roof and notice the arrival of several banner-displaying protesters against a third runway at Heathrow Airport.

As I write, the protesters from "Plane Stupid" are waving to the TV cameras from the roof of Parliament. At least one of them is wearing a stick-on Commons visitor pass. Oh, dear.

Knighthood to see you.....

Early day motions are parliamentary graffiti, a chance for MPs to sound off on the Commons order paper on the big issues of the day.

More than two dozen backbenchers, including Roger Williams and David Davies from Wales, have signed one of these motions today calling for Bruce Forsyth to be knighted.

(He is already a CBE, one step down, although that doesn't have the same cachet as Sir Brucie).

The man himself may wear a rather dodgy syrup, his jokes are older and cheesier than he is but you have to admit anyone who can entertain family audiences across generations probably deserves whatever gongs are going.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Three's a crowd

MPs on Parliament's Welsh affairs committee are continuing their inquiry into globalisation but apparently struggling to persuade committee members to show up for it.

The committee has 11 members, but its quorum is three - which is also the total of MPs present for today's session and other recent hearings.

The parliamentary diary is rather crowded at times but this attendance suggests that many members of the committee have other priorities when it comes to an inquiry first announced in November 2006 and now dragging into its second year.

On the Buses

Say what you like about Peter Hain, and his enemies have recently, but you can't knock his work as a constituency MP.

A year ago he was writing a 35,000 word tract on the future of democratic socialism in the hope that he'd become deputy leader of the Labour Party.

Today, he sent me a press release about the local bus service in Rhiwfawr.

"The people of Rhiwfawr are outraged by the collapse of their bus service and I can understand their anger," says the former Welsh Secretary.

"There are a number of elderly people living in the village who have no other means of getting around than to use the buses. The once frequent service has been reduced to villagers having to phone up for a bus and then waiting two hours for it to arrive."

The Neath MP is organising a meeting in the village to discuss the problem a week on Friday.

An example of how the mighty are fallen? Peter Hain's friends say he'd have been fighting this battle for his constituents even if he were still a Cabinet Minister.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Sponsored absence

I will sadly forego the pleasures of the Welsh Liberal Democrat conference in Llandudno this weekend, although colleagues will ensure it receives sparkling coverage on radio, TV and online.

I did offer to stay away if their AMs sponsored me for the London Marathon, although that failed to persuade anyone other than Peter Black (thank you, Peter) to cough up. (It's not too late for the rest of them to dig out their credit cards.........).

The Welsh Lib Dems are billing Nick Clegg's visit (10am, Saturday) as his first national conference speech as leader. His graveyard slot is explained by other engagements elsewhere later that day.

The conference does offer the chance for AMs to jockey for position ahead of the expected retirement of Mike German as Welsh party leader later this year.

I'll leave it to others to run through the list of runners and riders, although one
political insider got in touch to point out that one potential candidate has been stressing her experience in legal issues.

Indeed, Eleanor Burnham, for it is she, has mentioned her past life on the bench no fewer than seven times since her re-election last May.

The phrase "as a former magistrate" sprung from her lips on July 10, 2007 (twice), October 17, December 5 (twice), January 16 and January 30.

Evidence enough to overwhelm those sceptics who assumed her leadership pitch would be based on her role as a qualified aromatherapist.

The Pope, Paul Murphy & Ed Balls

The decor in the Wales Office has certainly changed since Peter Hain handed over to Paul Murphy.

There's a blank wall where the ANC poster once hung and no Nye Bevan statuette on the mantelpiece.

Instead, there's a gallery of photographs of the new incumbent with various famous faces - from Hillary Clinton to Pope John-Paul II, via Mo Mowlam and Bertie Ahern.

The man himself was keen to dampen expectations that the Prime Minister's support for the Scottish Constitutional Commission could lead to tax-raising powers being transferred to Cardiff Bay.

Mr Brown told the Politics Show Scotland: "There is an issue about the financial responsibility of an executive or an administration that has £30 billion to spend but doesn't have any responsibility for raising any pounds of that."

For Scotland, see Wales? The Assembly Government's budget is around half its Scottish equivalent but it lacks even the basic tax-varying powers held in Edinburgh.

Mr Murphy insists the significance of Mr Brown's comments is confined to Scotland.

But there is, or was, support in the Brown camp for the principle of the Welsh Assembly acquiring tax-raising powers.

The man tipped to succeed Alistair Darling as Chancellor at some time in the future, Ed Balls, revealed his own views in June 2005 when he was a humble backbencher.

He told the BBC: "Personally I'm in favour of more powers for the Welsh Assembly. If you are going to have an elected assembly, then it's important that you get the powers for it right... I think that should include tax-raising powers too.

"If you are going to have people elected and accountable it's important they have the power to make decisions for which they can then be accountable and if they get the decisions wrong they can be thrown out.

"But the worst thing is to have a talking shop which is simultaneously elected but doesn't have the power to make any decisions."

Something to ask Mr Balls about if and when he makes it to No 11 - some Ministers would like the Assembly Government to be able to reduce business taxes.

Mr Murphy says any proposal for tax-varying powers should await the verdict of the people in a referendum.

He says he's yet to be deluged by constituents demanding more taxes levied from Cardiff.

Peddling lines

I hesitate to write about the Barnett formula again - life's too short - but there's some excitement out there at another apparent snub to Wales.

The Western Mail reports how Wales has lost £8m in funding that should have come to Wales as a result of £140m in government funding given to Cycling England - "the national body which co-ordinates the development of cycling across England." .

"An open and shut case," says the sustainable transport charity Sustrans. "Cycling England is operating only in England." Sustrans say the Treasury classify Cycling England as a "UK spend", which ostensibly benefits the whole of the UK.

This is one of those stories that fuels outrage among those who believe civil servants in London spend their waking hours trying to find different ways of stealing cash from poor Welsh farmers to give it to well-heeled people in the south-east of England, where all the streets are paved with gold.

Except the UK Government says it isn't true. Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy says his office checked with the Department for Transport and discovered the money for Cycling England has come from its existing budget - a budget that has already had a spin-off for Wales.

The news release announcing the spend did claim that £110m of the £140m was "new" although that may mean new to the cycling budget rather than to the Department for Transport.

If the UK Government is right, perhaps the Barnett formula lobbyists should be asking the Welsh Assembly Government why it appears to have spent the money it received on something else?

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Talking shop

St David's Day will arrive early at Westminster this year. The Commons is staging its annual Welsh Day debate next Thursday, February 28.

It is almost as much of a tradition to hold the debate on a Thursday - allowing most MPs an early trip home - as it is to hold the debate itself.

In these post-devolution days it does seem a little anachronistic to have a token day where Parliament discusses Welsh affairs.

It is not as if MPs will decide anything: the debate is usually on the subject "that this house do now adjourn" and will not feature anything so vulgar as a vote.

I suspect that if Y Byd had not failed to get off the ground it would not be holding its front page, but I will watch the debate in the hope of being proved wrong.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Quote unquote

Media Wales, the company formerly known as WesternMailnEcho, is trying to create an inspirational environment in what it calls its "new build project".

The company's Simon Farrington takes up the story, in an e-mail: "As part of our new build project, the Premises Working Group is looking to incorporate a design on the glass that separates each open floor plan from the relaxation/food-drink areas.

Architect John Steele believes that using a design based on words would be the most effective way of giving emphasis to the plain glass.

And that's why we need your help. We are looking for the best motivational or inspirational quotes - either famous ones or new ones - that will send out a positive message about our company, both to staff and visitors alike."

I think this challenge should be widened beyond Media Wales staff - perhaps readers could e-mail their favourite warm words, be they from Martin Luther King or Martin Shipton.

This would, as the David Brents of management might put it, ensure the company is ahead of the curve as it seeks to aggregate the content, super-serve its audience and force the issue onto the crowbar.

Simon adds: "There will be prizes for those 'winning' selected quotes; either an exclusive all-expenses-paid guided tour of Cardiff Bus Station (for two), or a bottle of wine from my personal cellar (I'd go for the tour)."

Runners and riders

"Too posh, too Plaid, too anti-Plaid, too boring, and too clever by half". That's the analysis of Plaid Cymru MP Adam Price on internal Labour assessment of the candidates to succeed Rhodri Morgan as the party's leader in Wales.

You can probably put faces to the labels yourself.......

Mr Price also dashed any hope that the Assembly Government might follow the example of the self-styled Scottish Government on Berwick and annex somewhere east of Offa's Dyke.

Oswestry, he says, is safe in English hands.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Man in tights

Parliament is in recess for a week - and so am I, so blogging may be lighter than usual.

I'm spending the first Sunday of the recess in Redwood country - running the Wokingham half marathon.

It's part of my build-up to the London Marathon on April 13.

I'm running for NCH, the children's charity. You can find out why - and donate online at

It's 26 miles and 385 yards - rest assured I won't be doing the marathon in fancy dress or as the back end of a pantomime cow.

Many thanks to all of you who've sponsored me so far. You can see the latest total to the right.

Thursday, 7 February 2008


The House of Lords operated for centuries on the hereditary principle. Even so, I was slightly surprised to discover that the Lords gift shop sells baby romper suits.

The hereditary principle operates in a different way in the Commons - well, it does if your name is Derek Conway. There, romper suits would be less babywear, more trainee staff uniform.

This particular suit is currently being road-tested by the future Baroness Cornock of Sully. No complaints so far.....

He has seen the future....

Lembit Opik has moved one step closer to shedding his wacky image by urging the Government to bring forward a trial of personal transporters (left).

The Montgomeryshire MP says: "Against a background of an urgent need to cut carbon emissions, traffic gridlock and calls for 20mph default urban speed limits, it is easy to imagine Personal Transporters like the Segway being the low-emission transport choice for short urban journeys.

"To allow people to benefit from this environmentally friendly mode of transport, the Government must seriously consider Personal Transporters and at least enable meaningful and fair trials to take place.

"The beauty of the Personal Transporter is that it combines a personal transport step change with an environmental one. This makes Personal Transporters a true breakthrough in green convenience."

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Family news

David Cameron has decreed that all Conservative frontbenchers will declare whether they employ family members and how much they are paid.

The good news for Peter Hain's Mum is that she isn't the only octogenarian working for an MP.

Cheryl Gillan's 80-year-old husband, Jack Leeming - a former senior civil servant at Revenue and Customs and the Treasury - works for the Shadow Welsh Secretary in her constituency.

Having worked at the World Bank and as Director General of the British National Space Centre, he can boast a pedigree not found among that many parliamentary researchers.

"And yes, I do review him once a year," Ms Gillan told me. "If he didn't cut the mustard I'd ask him to look for alternative employment".

Buggers and AMs

There's lot of fuss among MPs at Westminster over the news that one of their number has been bugged by the police.

The Wilson doctrine forbids - or was thought to forbid - the covert recording of conversations involving MPs and peers, but that doctrine extends only to Members of the UK Parliament.

The doctrine is now more than 40 years old. SNP MP Pete Wishart checked out the consequences of this with the Justice Secretary Jack Straw.

"Can the Lord Chancellor confirm that Members of the Scottish Parliament and all the other devolved institutions are not covered by the Wilson doctrine?"

Jack Straw: "What the hon. Gentleman says is correct".

So MPs' conversations with their constituents are protected, whereas AMs are exempt from the Wilson doctrine and can be bugged.

You'd think there might be a big fuss about this as well.

A rye smile

Paul Flynn MP reports on Peter Hain's return to backbench life in the Commons dining room.

"A touching return of Peter Hain to backbench life in the Commons Dining Room this evening.
It’s rare for cabinet ministers to dine in the favourite haunt of backbenchers. It was good to see his table populated with fellow Welsh MPs.

"When the choice of bread was offered, Peter let slip that he was not used to the routine. He rejected the selected breads on offer and asked the waiter if he could have a Ryvita.

"The international waiter was non-plussed but did his best, ‘Is that a drink, Sir?’"

Monday, 4 February 2008

Great minds....

I know what you're all thinking: who's that with Betty Williams?
Apparently he's some chap called Monty Panesar, who plays cricket for England.

He was doubtless impressed to meet the Conwy MP, and the feeling was certainly mutual.

She said, “There are millions of people in the UK who are at risk of developing cardio vascular disease within the next ten years. Screening tests such as Lloydspharmacy’s Cholesterol and Heart Check are therefore increasingly important in identifying those most at risk; allowing them to minimise their chances of CVD by making lifestyle changes or, where necessary, seeking treatment at an early stage."

Mrs Williams's colleague Dawn Butler, Labour MP for Brent South was equally impressed:

“There are millions of people in the UK who are at risk of developing cardio vascular disease within the next ten years. Screening tests such as Lloydspharmacy’s Cholesterol and Heart Check are therefore increasingly important in identifying those most at risk; allowing them to minimise their chances of CVD by making lifestyle changes or, where necessary, seeking treatment at an early stage."

There's on-message and there's on-message, but isn't it slightly strange that two Labour MPs spontaneously offer the identical phrase - complete with gratuitous plug for a private company?
Charities appear to be equally successful at persuading MPs to sing from the same songsheet.

Here's Betty Williams on healthy living: “I’m really concerned that many people are not aware that changes to their diet and maintaining an active lifestyle could improve their health and reduce their risk of developing cancer."

Her concern is shared - word-for-word - by Labour colleague Tony Lloyd and the Conservative MP Andrew Selous.
Another case of great minds thinking alike, no doubt.

Donations that aren't dodgy

I've been lucky (?) enough to obtain a place in this year's London Marathon.

I'll be running the 26 miles and 385 yards on April 13 (9 weeks next Sunday) for NCH, the children's charity.

I'm normally sceptical about hacks who make fools of themselves for "char-i-dee" but fatherhood has changed my perspective on life in many ways.

NCH help some of the most vulnerable children in the UK. They make families happen for children who would otherwise be in care, helping to give them a better start in life.

I should, as they say, declare an interest. NCH played a key role in bringing our family together - that's one reason why I've chosen to run for them.

Before you rush to post your cheque, let me alert you to an easier way of giving - The site explains more about NCH and what they do.

You can also donate by cash or cheque - or even via a think tank of your choice. You can claim tax relief on donations - and you don't need to declare it in the register of interests.

All contributions, however small, gratefully received. It's a very good cause - and you get the bonus that I'll be gaining sore legs, blistered feet and aching muscles in the process.

The marathon may be two months away but please give now before you forget. It'll save you a knock on the door from my heavies in April. Remember, I know where you live....(well the IP address anyway).



Does he know something we don't?

One week as Minister for Digital Inclusion, and Paul Murphy has already overhauled the Wales Office website.

He doesn't seem to have got around to making the RSS feeds work properly, but that may be due to an antique version of internet explorer on BBC computers.

How long will the Minister for Digital Inclusion be based at Gwydyr House? Paul Murphy seems less than confident that the Welsh Secretary's job will survive the next ministerial reshuffle.

So is he a stopgap, pending the creation of a "department of the nations" covering Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland?

"I never see myself as a gap but I don't know how long the job here is going to be, whether in fact they'll reform the way in which the Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland Offices work and all the rest of it. All I have got to do is do the job to the best of my ability in the time that I am here and I am delighted to be here."

He may not know how long the Wales Office job is going to be, but there's a hint there that he does know something about Gordon Brown's future plans that we don't.

Friday, 1 February 2008

New Labour, New Murphy

Just when you thought politics could surprise you no more, an e-mail from the Wales Office drops into the inbox.

Not only is Paul Murphy, in his second incarnation as Secretary of State, expressing an interest in sport, he has also started issuing press releases featuring Welsh quotes.

Ok, so it's only "pob lwc bois!", a goodwill message ahead of tomorrow's match at Twickenham, but this is something of a breakthrough.

As Paul Flynn reports on his blog, "An MP once did a party charade in which he invited others to guess ‘Who am I?’ He then opened and closed his mouth like a goldfish, shifted from one foot to the other while gazing at the ceiling. The answer to this conundrum was ‘Paul Murphy, singing the Welsh National Anthem’."

The interest in sport is also something of a departure. Mr Murphy has previously been heard to enquire, during the middle of a heavily reported World Cup, why drivers in London had attached small English flags to their vehicles.