Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Wales in London

Could Wales be a winner in tomorrow's election for London Mayor? It's estimated that more than 70,000 Welsh people live in the UK capital and Wales in London wrote to the four main candidates asking for their views on transport, trade and Welsh issues.

You can see a full list of the mayoral candidates on the BBC website. Under Welsh issues, Wales in London asked these detailed questions:

a) Will the Mayor support a Welsh Week, centred on St David’s Day, as part of that programme?

(b) Will the Mayor give support to organisations which seek to preserve Welsh cultural heritage in London - such as the Welsh School [Ysgol Gymraeg Llundain] and the proposal to place a monument on Primrose Hill to mark the beginning of the Gorsedd of the Bards of the Isles of Britain and Iolo Morganwg?

Twenty four hours before polling day there's been no response from Sian Berry of the Greens or Boris Johnson. Ms Berry's first name may hint at Welsh ancestry while Mr Johnson was once related by marriage to Owain Glyndwr and did fight Clwyd West during the 1997 general election (Clwyd West won).

He did speak to a Wales in London gathering recently so may be forgiven for not responding directly to the questions.

There were detailed replies from Ken Livingstone and the Lib Dem Brian Paddick. You can see them here.

Brian Paddick: "I would be happy to talk with the Wales in London Association about how we could work together on promoting a Welsh week and preserve the Welsh cultural heritage in London."

Ken Livingstone's response was rather lengthier: "I would be very happy to work with Welsh organisations and other Welsh interest groups in the capital to develop an appropriate celebration of Welsh culture in London.

"Another way that we have promoted the different cultures that go to make up our great city is through Visit London - our tourism agency for London. They have produced a series of on-line guides - a guide to Jewish London, African London, Irish London and so on. A guide to Welsh London would be a very appropriate addition to this if you could help us with finding the content.
This would also be a way to promote organisations like the Welsh school and others that seem to promote and preserve Welsh heritage.

"Finally, on the monument on Primrose Hill, in principle I am keen to see all ways of marking the history of the city, the contribution it has made to different cultures, and the contribution they have brought to it. The proliferation of civic style statues is something I would like to see us move beyond - although they clearly have their place - and to bring more imagination and creativity to bear in the monuments or memorials that we put up. But I am sure that a monument to the Bards would give great scope for this!"

If the winning candidates delivers that pledge, he might yet end up being offered a white robe of his own....

Monday, 28 April 2008

On the right track?

Fans of coalition government will be thrilled to see that Labour MPs and AMs are now sending out publicity photos of themselves alongside a wall plaque commemorating the efforts of the Plaid Cymru leader.
The plaque unveiled by Ieuan Wyn Jones (whose job title takes up three lines of wall space) commemorates the launch of the first direct train from Wrexham to London.
Mr Lucas (centre) was a passenger on board the train and turned up in good time for Defence Questions in the Commons this afternoon.

Friends, Romans, Lib Dems......

Thursday, 24 April 2008


There's more to politics than conflict and U-turns. While Gordon Brown tried to face down a revolt over tax rates, MPs on the Welsh Affairs Select Committee at Westminster have been making headlines beyond these shores on a fact-finding mission.

The committee have been visiting Spain as part of its inquiry into globalisation. It's a tough job, but.....

U-turn if you want to

You wait 10 months for a U-turn and then two come along at once.

Gordon Brown won't enjoy today's newspaper headlines, although the Government's change of heart will help many, if not all, of those who lost out from his last Budget as Chancellor.

The U-turn by the Welsh Assembly Government should mean NHS staff in Wales enjoy the same legal protection offered to their English counterparts.

One month ago, WAG insisted the new powers weren't needed in Wales. They're not saying that today.

The U-turn followed the outcry from Labour MPs and a Lords rebellion led by the cross-bench peer Baroness Finlay of Llandaff.

All sides are now being magnanimous in defeat/victory. WAG said in a terse statement: "The Minister met recently with Baroness Finlay to discuss this issue. A Government amendment will be put down, which would extend these powers to Wales."

The deal was brokered by Secretary of State Paul Murphy and First Minister Welsh Rhodri Morgan.

An e-mail from the Wales Office sent to Baroness Finlay was more conciliatory:

"The Government aim to table the amendment later this week for Third Reading. The Government amendment will give the Assembly Ministers the option to request the powers laid out in this Bill at anytime in the future, if they determine there is a need for this legislation, they can request for it to be given to them via an Affirmative Order (delegated legislation), as is the case for Northern Ireland in the aforementioned Bill".

Will they request that hitherto "unnecessary" option? Don't bet against it.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Rickshaw for Flynn!

Some people think MPs are ferried around in limousines at taxpayers' expense.

Paul Flynn, MP for Newport West, offers contrary evidence. He returned to the Commons last night in a rickshaw.

This is how he tells the story on his blog: "Stranded in the rain last night, without a taxi in sight and then blessed relief trundled along in the shape of Polish muscle power.

"I hailed it nd I glided majestically across Westminster Bridge in a rickshaw expertly pedalled by a Polish basetball player. It was a first for the police on carriage gates. They applauded as I trundled through. Getting across the security glass-well was tricky.

"The rickshaw has a small wheelbase. Having successfully manoeuvred that it was a dawdle to take me a foot away from my car parked at palace court. This was a far better pollution-free service than the taxi. The £5 cost was the same with the added satisfaction on contribution to the Polish economy."

Let's hope he kept the receipt.

Lords a leaping

I'm off to the House of Lords later today to see what's widely expected to be something of a Government U-turn.

Ministers are expected to signal that plans to offer NHS workers extra protection from violence and abuse may be extended to Wales after all.

This follows the outcry prompted by the Welsh Assembly Government's request to opt out of part of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill.

Ministers are expected to table an amendment to their own Bill later this week that could see NHS staff in Wales offered the same protection as their English counterparts.

Happy St George's Day

No prizes for guessing the identity of the well-known Scot who is flying the flag of St George above his official residence today.

Some of his fellow Scots could be forgiven for thinking Gordon Brown is taking this Britishness thing too far.....

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

At odds with romance

Those cynics at William Hill are offering punters the chance to bet on Lembit Opik's marriage prospects.

Lembit and Gabi are presumably on their way to their local bookies to put the housekeeping on their nuptual longevity - William Hill are offering 50/1 that the couple make it to their golden wedding anniversary (Lembit would only be 93 then).

Spokesman Rupert Adams said: "We offered 5/1 that Lembit would get married when he first started dating Gabriela and are hoping to win back some of our loses with these bets."

These are the odds on offer:

4/1 Fail to make it to church
6/1 Marriage to last less than 1 year
25/1 Silver 25 years
50/1 Gold 50 years

Long live the age of romance.

The joys of opposition

An intriguing press release arrives from the Welsh Conservatives, headed: "HIGHER EDUCATION FUNDING GAP IS UNACCEPTABLE".

Any link between this funding gap between Wales and England and Conservative opposition to tuition fees (in Wales, not in England) is purely coincidental.

The next Mrs Opik

Hang around long enough and you'll see everything, so they say. Stay in political journalism long enough and you'll get to cover most stories twice.

So congratulations to Lib Dem MP Lembit Opik, who has announced his engagement to Cheeky Girl Gabriela Irimia (she's the one on Lembit's left).

The engagment was announced, as is traditional in these circumstances, in Hello! magazine

Lembit proposed beside the Trevi Fountain in Rome last week, and the happy couple plan to marry either next year or the year after.

I know readers of this blog will want to know about the rock - apparently it's a Tiffany white platinum diamond from Selfridges.

Hello! say Gabi is dreaming of a "lavish white wedding in a castle".

She told the magazine: "We'd gone to the Trevi Fountain that afternoon and each made a wish
we kept a secret.

"After a romantic dinner in the evening, Lembit got a taxi to take us back to
the fountain, saying he wanted me to see it lit up. There he started talking
about our future together, took a gorgeous little box from his pocket, got down
on one knee and made his proposal.

"When I said 'yes' he started to cry. Tears of joy poured out of his eyes. I
couldn't cry, I was so happy that I just kept smiling and laughing."

Lembit added: "We were euphoric afterwards, walking around the city and then
sipping champagne and chatting away in our hotel suite until the early hours. I
couldn't ask for things to go better than they did."

Monday, 21 April 2008

Good to be back?

A break from Westminster appears to have done little to improve the mood of some Labour MPs.

Two weeks spent with constituents cross and puzzled by a Labour Government's decision to put up the tax bills of low-paid people has left many backbenchers rather agitated ahead of local elections next week.

The Chancellor, Alistair Darling, is refusing to re-write the Budget, but is sending signals ahead of next Monday's crunch vote that the Government will do more for the poor.

Will that be enough? One well-placed Government source suggests the issue will be "quietly defused" with the promise of future help.

He may be right. Rebellion leader Frank Field is often seen as a maverick around whom rebels beyond the usual suspects are unlikely to coalesce.

But damage has been done. The Government may win the vote but there's no disguising the unhappiness among many Labour MPs less than a year into Gordon Brown's premiership.

1650 update: Yvette Cooper has opened the debate on the Budget with a less than convincing defence of the changes. Her main argument is that the losers this year are better off than they were under the Tories 11 years ago.

She promised that the Chancellor would return to the issue in future pre-Budget Reports and Budgets. Her colleagues sitting behind her looked less than comfortable.

Would-be Labour rebels may take a little more persuading between now and next Monday.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Marathon update - life begins at 44

The results are in: I finished 2,763rd among the 34,000+ finishers, in a time of 3:17:36 . I came 579th among fortysomething men but was beaten by Scooby Doo.

More importantly, NCH, the children's charity, will be able to bank more than £4,000 after giftaid, thanks to the generosity of my sponsors.

It was a fantastic experience. In the first mile, a priest stepped out of his church to spray holy water in the direction of the runners. That sort of spirit continued along the route, with noisy crowds several deep lining the final, painful miles.

I've lived in London almost 20 years and it's not the friendliest city on the planet. But marathon Sunday is the one day in the year when Londoners of all colours and backgrounds talk to - and cheer for - strangers. It kept me going.

The marathon is a unique event. In what other sport can middle-aged plodders take part alongside the world's finest? It really is the taking part that counts, especially for the thousands of us who stand no chance of winning.

I was beaten by Elvis, and several men in tiger print loin cloths. I fear Borat in his mankini may have arrived at the finishing line ahead of me, but it was an incredibly uplifting day.

A word for my sponsors. Politicians and their staff often enjoy a reputation somewhere between that of estate agents and journalists. They are often badgered for cash by good causes. Many are already committed to their own charities, but still gave willingly to mine - in some cases without being asked.

Five of the Liberal Democrat members of the Welsh Assembly coughed up, as did three of the party's four Welsh MPs (there are absolutely no prizes......).

I'm no Lord Levy. Fund-raising, even for a good cause, is not a pleasant experience, although you do learn a lot about human nature when you ask people for money. Getting cash out of some highly-paid executives proved harder than running the race.

I'm still trying to work out whether rich people are rich because they're tight-fisted, or tight-fisted because they're rich and want to hang on to the cash.

But the generosity of sponsors, and the total raised, far exceeded expecations. If you didn't get around to sponsoring me, you'll be delighted to know there's still time - see the link on the right.

Forgive the self-indulgence in a blog that is normally about other people. Normal service will be resumed once Parliament returns on April 21.

I'm off to negotiate the stairs.....I may be some time.

Monday, 7 April 2008

The Welsh are winning

I was lucky enough, thanks to snow in Zurich Airport (it's a long story) to get a Wembley ticket yesterday.

Inevitably, many people with any connection with the city are now emerging out of the woodwork as lifelong Bluebirds.

Living in London, I can't claim to be a Ninian Park regular (although I was in my youth and saw my first game there in 1972) but the ticket found a good home.

It was an incredible day, one few people expect to see in their lifetime. It ended with Robbie Fowler showering Neil Kinnock in champagne - for once, he said, he was happy to be a champagne socialist.

In the final, City will be up against possibly the goalkeeper of the season in the Premier League.

But David James, once known as Calamity, is overdue a cock-up. He could be this year's Dan Lewis, the Arsenal keeper who let the ball squirm under his body to give Fred Keenor's men the cup.

Football has a global reach beyond any other sport. Holding major games in Cardiff helped sell the city's attractions in a big way - I once watched live games via South African TV while on holiday in Mauritius.

People across the world will soon learn that the city not only has a fine football stadium - it also has a mult-national team to go with it.

It's been an incredible year for Welsh sport, and it's not over yet, although I wish all discussion of eligibility for Europe could be postponed until after the final. It's tempting fate too much....

Hopefully the year of Welsh sporting success will continue in this Sunday's London Marathon, although I suspect that may be tempting fate too.

I hope to finish in a respectable time and to raise a few grand for a good cause - NCH, the children's charity.

I'm really grateful to those of you who have already sponsored me - your generosity has been amazing. You can see how much I've raised by glancing to the right.

For those who've struggled to locate your credit card before now, the good news is that you can still sponsor me online - and find out more about why I'm running for NCH. Just go to

With Parliament in recess and the marathon looming, I'll be resting, or "tapering" as athletes say, for the rest of the week - followed by a few days' recovery.

I'll be back when MPs return on April 21, although you may yet get an update on matters non-political between now and then.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

"Fly Bluebirds, Fly"

I interviewed Neil Kinnock today on the big issue of the week: Cardiff City's visit to Wembley for the FA Cup semi-final.

His prediction? A 3-1 win for Dave Jones's team.

His message? "Fly Bluebirds, Fly".

The former Labour leader, his tickets having safely arrived this morning, politely deflected my killer question. No, he hasn't got a spare ticket.

The Daily Lembit

Lembit Opik has a particularly low opinion of the media he appears in so often.

This was his take on Nick Clegg's admission (claim?) that he's had no more than around 30 sexual partners:"So as far as I'm concerned, I haven't got any choice, you people always talk about my private life, so Nick Clegg is the kind of guy who says, 'Look, this is my life, this is what I think, and this is my politics.'"

No-one can accuse Lembit of failing to practise what he preaches on media standards. This is his latest entry in the Register of Members' Interests: "Journalism for the Daily Sport. (Up to £5,000)"

Last man sitting

From right to left:
Ian Paisley (on his way in May); Peter Hain (gone in January); Tony Blair (out last June); Bertie Ahern (going in May).
Perhaps Martin McGuinness would be kind enough to turn out the lights once his colleagues have left the stage.....

MPs fight back

A parliamentary motion tabled by MPs and published today:

Mr Peter Kilfoyle
Peter Bottomley
Bob Russell
Mr Ronnie Campbell
* 4
That this House notes recent media commentary on the rolling programme of maintenance involving the Speaker's rooms; notes that £8.2 million has been spent on the renovation of the Press Gallery; also notes that the media pays nothing for the use of the premises, nor for London telephone calls; is bemused that 10 male members of the lobby have a car parking pass for the Palace of Westminster; is conscious of the annual subsidy to the Press Bar of £210,000; and therefore calls upon members of the Press Gallery to apply to themselves the same standards that they would demand of others.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Pot black meets Welsh Questions

As a special treat for all, Prime Minister's Question Time is preceded this week by half an hour's worth of questions to the Secretary of State for Wales.

Paul Murphy and his deputy Huw Irranca-Davies have few executive responsibilities, but found themselves put on the spot today as proxy representatives of the Labour/Plaid Cymru Welsh Assembly Government.

Tory David Jones wondered why from this month Welsh patients are expected to wait a combined total of 44 weeks, compared to 18 in England.

Labour MPs pitched in to make the point that patients from North Wales should continue to have access to NHS hospitals in north-west England despite moves to treat more Welsh patients within Wales. (A committee of Welsh MPs returned from hospitals on Merseyside this week raving about the facilities).

Plaid Cymru's Hywel Williams found himself defending the Labour-led Assembly Government, arguing that those arguing for stronger links with England have yet to come to terms with devolution.

Question Time was certainly livelier than usual, but anyone watching on television may have spotted Labour backbencher Stephen Pound playing a mock game of snooker using a crutch borrowed from his colleague Paul Flynn.

Not a Brown-noser

Gordon Brown's appearance before Labour MPs this week didn't go quite as well as planned.

A couple of senior backbenchers questioned the PM on this week's changes in income tax.

Nia Griffith, who as a parliamentary aide is a junior member of the Government, warned that the abolition of the 10p in the pound tax rate would affect the less well-off among her Llanelli constituents.

The encounter came during a private meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party on Monday night.

At least Mr Brown is spared a public inquisition by MPs this week. He's at a NATO summit in Romania, so Harriet Harman is standing in for him.

I'll let you know if she wears the stab vest that is apparently de rigeur in her Peckham constituency.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

BBC blogging

The BBC has updated its blogging guidelines. This isn't a BBC blog, as you may have noticed, but I obviously try to adhere to the corporation's guidelines. Do let me know if I fall foul of them.

Family news

From today MPs are being given the chance to declare whether they employ any members of their family at taxpayers' expense.

Shadow Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan is one of those who will be contacting her party's chief whip to register employment of her husband, Jack Leeming.

Newspapers will doubtless point out that Mr Leeming is 80 years old but having been branded "ageist" for enquiring about his employment I won't mention his age.

Ms Gillan argues that he does far more hours than he is contracted to work and his performance is reviewed regularly.

Registration of employed relatives will be compulsory from the autumn, but is currently voluntary.

The news bulletins will be otherwise undisturbed by today's briefing from the Welsh Tories at Westminster.

Attempts to elicit Ms Gillan's views on controversial topics, from First Great Western trains to a Conservative review of devolution, yielded few results.

Indeed, the Shadow Welsh Secretary says she may not even make a submission to her own party's review of devolution in Wales.