Monday, 30 June 2008

More well done than rare

Congratulations to Star magazine, who have obtained what they say is an "exclusive" and "rare" interview with Lembit Opik and Gabriela Irimia.

Exclusive, I can believe; rare is a debatable point, but don't let that put you off. Here are one or two hints of what readers can look forward to, courtesy of the magazine:

*EXCLUSIVE*: Lembit and Gabriela: "It's fair to say that cheeky-babies are on the cards!"
- In this week’s Star magazine a rare interview with MP Lembit Opik and his Cheeky Girl fiancĂ©e; the pair spill the beans on their engagement, and let slip that they plan to start a family before long.
- On their critics: "The people who criticise us are the people who have never met us... Our relationship was described as pantomime at the start; well we’re into our fifth season!”
- On family plans: Lembit - “I think it’s fair to say that cheeky-babies are on the cards.”; Gabriela - “Oh no, not another kid in the house!”

Watching the detectives

It's five months since Peter Hain resigned from Gordon Brown's Cabinet "to clear his name" over allegations that he failed to declare donations to his deputy leadership campaign.

Since then former aides to the former Welsh Secretary have been interviewed by detectives during a long-running inquiry. Today's Times reports that the Neath MP himself has now been questioned by police.

This would indictate the inquiry is nearing its end before the police pass on a file to the Crown Prosecution Service. Scotland Yard will not confirm or deny the report as they don't comment on continuing inquiries. They do say no arrests have been made.

Mr Hain has refused to comment on The Times report, which he believes contains several falsities. He remains thoroughly fed up with continuing media coverage of the affair, although a media-savvy operator like him should perhaps realise that an MP being interviewed by police remains a news story - as his old boss Tony Blair could confirm - rather than "media spin".

The Neath MP has overcome far tougher times than this, as a youth during the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and being falsely accused of stealing money from a bank as a young man in a plot to frame him. Yet friends have been surprised by the way the donations affair has darkened his outlook.

No-one who has worked Peter Hain believes he acted dishonestly and Mr Hain has admitted an "honest mistake" in failing to register more than £100,000 of donations to his deputy leadership campaign. He told a Channel 4 documentary that both he and Gordon Brown were astonished that a Labour Government passed a law that made the candidate personally accountable for legally registering donations.

Members of the Hain campaign believe others were directly responsible for registering donations. I reported in January how campaign manager Steve Morgan, who had claimed to bring order to chaos, had apparently failed to register a donation from himself.

Will Peter Hain be charged? No-one knows but these inquiries usually end with an announcement that it would not be in the public interest to prosecute.

It will do little to lighten his mood but the darkest hour is just before the dawn.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Ex-TV star snapped with mystery blond

Alternatively, my former BBC colleague turned mayoral spin doctor may have been doing his bit for the National Year of Reading by presenting his boss with one of his favourite books about Wales. Hopefully there's a picture of Clwyd South in it to remind Boris of what might have been....

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Dash to the polls

Labour and the Liberal Democrats may not be standing in the by-election caused by the resignation of David Davis but the former shadow Home Secretary won't be lonely.

No fewer than 26 candidates have signed up for the July 10th poll in Haltemprice and Howden, including Mad Cow-girl from the Official Monster Raving Loony Party, David Icke, and the former Vale of Glamorgan Tory MP Walter Sweeney.

It may not take long to count the votes on the night but it may take a while to read them out. With two dozen lost deposits expected at £500 a time, it should prove a nice little earner for the public purse.

In the spirit of public service blogging, I bring you the list in full:

Grace Christine Astley (Ind)
David Laurence Bishop (Church of the Militant Elvis Party)
Ronnie Carroll (Make Politicians History)
Mad Cow-Girl (The Official Monster Raving Loony Party)
David Craig (Ind)
Herbert Winford Crossman (Ind)
Tess Culnane (National Front Britain for the British)
Thomas Faithful Darwood (Ind)
David Michael Davis (The Conservative Party Candidate)
Tony Farnon (Ind)
Eamonn Fitzy Fitzpatrick (Ind)
Christopher Mark Foren (Ind)
Gemma Dawn Garrett (Miss Great Britain Party)
George Hargreaves (Christian party)
Hamish Howitt (Freedom 4 Choice)
David Icke (no description given)
John Nicholson (Ind)
Shan Oakes (Green Party)
David Pinder (The New Party)
Joanne Robinson (English Democrats - Putting England First)
Jill Saward (Ind)
Norman Scarth (Ind)
Walter Edward Sweeney (Ind)
Christopher John Talbot (Socialist Equality Party)
John Randale Upex (Ind)
Greg Wood (Ind)

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Committed committee

You can't get enough committees in my job. It's a relief to discover one that actually calls itself a committee, rather than convention/working party/task and finish group or any of the other synonyms offered by our elected representatives.

The Joint Ministerial Committee met today for the first time in six years and for the first time with nationalists from Wales and Scotland present.

The committee's been exhumed by Gordon Brown to bring the devolved governments together within a UK framework. It may have something to do with his attempts to highlight Britishness in the age of devolution.

The committee isn't a decision-taking body, in the words of its co-ordinator, Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy. He sees it as a consensus-seeking, and with that aim will play a role resolving disputes between administrations.

It also offers the chance for the devolved governments to gang up on the UK Government and there are already signs that this is happening. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are uniting to press for a greater share of extra cash being spent on the 2012 Olympics in London.

The committee spent two hours meeting in a windowless ministerial committee room in the Palace of Westminster. Lord Chancellor Jack Straw chaired the meeting - there are some jobs even Gordon Brown delegates.

Its members have agreed to rewrite the rulebook to reflect the changed political landscape across the UK. Devolved governments hope it will provide a forum for settling disputes over funding in a more sympathetic way than direct appeals to a Treasury with a vested interest in rejecting them.

Fans of committees will be pleased to know that the JMC may be expanding. The official statement afterwards says: "They agreed, therefore, to a meeting in the autumn, which, subject to further consideration, might be in a new format, JMC (Domestic), to be chaired by Paul
Murphy (carrying out his responsibility for JMC issues within the UK Government,
separate from his role as Secretary of State for Wales). Other ministers would
participate as appropriate. This meeting could consider a range of domestic
issues, paralleling the successful JMC(E) format, which deals with EU issues."

How to lose friends and influence people

Organisers of the open letter on windfarms from "50 people of influence in Wales" (their description) may need to redo their sums today.

Today's Western Mail reports, accurately, that Ffion Hague has asked for her name to be withdrawn from the list of signatories.

Somehow "49 people of influence in Wales" doesn't have quite the same clout despite the plethora of nobilities, celebrities and clerics involved.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Going green

As leaders of devolved governments prepare to meet at Westminster to discuss the energy crisis, the Evening Leader has a story on a new form of renewable energy, converting excrement to electricity. Eleanor Burnham may be disappointed to learn that the Leader has demoted her to "local MP".

Having waited six years since the last JMC, let's hope this one is more exciting than the last gathering.

The JMC, then dismissed as a talking shop despite its role in resolving disputes between administrations, was moribund until exhumed by Gordon Brown earlier this year.

An SNP-led self-styled Scottish Government is the likeliest source of any fireworks tomorrow.

Lords-in-waiting kept waiting

Lords-in-Waiting are technically members of the Royal Household, most of whom operate as government whips in the House of Lords.

Plaid Cymru have their own version of Lords-in-Waiting, the three party activists nominated for peerages after years of hand-wringing about whether Welsh nationalists should take their seats in the Upper House (alongside Lord Elis-Thomas of Nant Conwy).

It's five months since Dafydd Wigley, Eurfyl ap Gwilym and Janet Davies were put forward for peerages. They are still lords-in-waiting unable to sniff the ermine robes let alone try them on for size.

Plaid's parliamentary leader Elfyn Llwyd proposed the trio in a letter to the patronage secretary - the Government's chief whip, Geoff Hoon.

Several months on, it appears that the Lords Appointments Commission, which vets potential peers, has yet to consider their cases.

Could it be that Gordon Brown's Government is a little sensitive where peerages are concerned? You could understand why, after the furore over allegations that his predecessor's administration effectively sold honours. (All concerned denied wrongdoing, no charges were brought).

Detectives investigated the allegations after a complaint to Scotland Yard from a Scottish Nationalist MP. Elfyn Llwyd also wrote to the police.

Leading figures in Plaid appreciate the irony that the arrival of Lord Wigley and company in the upper chamber may have been delayed by a political row they helped generate.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Unlikely bloggers of our time - Llywydd Llwyd

Just as Andy Warhol prophesied that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes, so it appears that in the 21st centurey everyone will have a blog.

Croeso, welcome to the blogosphere, Elfyn Llwyd, a man whose IT skils have previously been limited to asking staff to print out the "web-blogs" of others, someone more familiar with pigeon post than e-mails.

Plaid's parliamentary leader has started blogging as part of his campaign for the party's presidency, currently held by Dafydd Iwan.

The president used to be Plaid's head honcho. That role is now performed by its leader in the Welsh Assembly, Ieuan Wyn Jones.

So what does the president do? A colleague compared it to the role of club captain at a football club. This is the official job description: "The president is the leader of the voluntary wing of the party. He/she coordinates the various officers of the party and is a bridge (Pont Elfyn?) between elected members and the party membership."

Although it's great to welcome a new blogger to this strange form of communication, some of us will be disappointed to see that the new blog doesn't have an Elfynometer on the side to indicate the current political temperature and whether it is safe to approach the author.

It's either a slap in the face or a snub to cheeky bloggers everywhere.....

Influencing people

Welsh First Minister Rhodri Morgan will today receive a letter signed by more than "50 people of influence in Wales", a description chosen by the Gwlad Alliance in whose name the letter has been sent.

These "50 people of influence in Wales" are protesting at what they see is the Welsh Assembly Government's determination to expand windpower.

"We believe," write the "50 people of influence in Wales", this policy is misguided and out of date and does not take into account the wishes of local people.

You are doubtless on tenterhooks, anxious to know who these "50 people of influence in Wales" are.

They include broadcaster Sian Lloyd, the Archbishop of Wales, Ffion Hague, The Marquess of Anglesey, The Rt Hon Lord Howe of Aberavon CH, QC, Lieutenant Colonel Sir Geoffrey Inkin OBE DL and Lady Inkin, and The Viscount Tenby.

It will be interesting to see whether this collection of celebrities and titles succeed in changing government policy.

Sceptics may doubt the power of open letters from public figures but it is fair to point out that some of the "50 people of influence" fighting to protect the Welsh landscape do actually live there.

"you know the candidate, um, in, in Wales"

Well, what's occurrin'? as David Cameron asked on his last visit to the Vale of Glamorgan.

Since then he's suspended as a candidate the man who stood alongside him during his visit, Welsh Assembly member Alun Cairns.

Mr Cairns upset the party machine - and more than a few others - by comparing Italians to "greasy wops" on a Radio Cymru programme.

Today, the Tory leader, questioned about the resignation of an aide to the London Mayor Boris Johnson, linked both cases even if he appeared to have difficulty remembering the name of his own candidate in the Vale.

"They do cause deep offence. That is why Boris has acted so swiftly and that's why I've always acted swiftly on these issues whether in the case of Patick Mercer {former Tory frontbencher} or, you know the candidate, um, in, in Wales or yesterday the candidate in Scotland."

Mr Cairns is suspended pending an inquiry by the Tory chairman, Caroline Spelman. Mr Cameron didn't pre-judge that inquiry but linking the Cairns case with James McGrath won't make Mr Cairns feel any better.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Women who know their place

It's 50 years since the creation of life peers, and the arrival of women in the House of Lords.

The photograph of "People's Peers" (Baroness Finlay of Llandaff is on the right) comes from an
exhibition to mark the anniversary. It was taken by Desiree Pfeiffer.

The creation of women peers was incredibly controversial at the time.

Lord Glasgow said during the debates: "This is the only place in the kingdom where men can meet without women. For Heaven's sake lets keep it like that!"

An earlier doomed attempt to enable women hereditary peers to take their seats in the Lords had been led by Viscountess Rhondda, the daughter of a former Liberal MP David Thomas, later the first Viscount Rhondda.

You can read more about the case here and more about the remarkable lady herself here.

Celts across the sea

I wrote on Monday about the implications of the Irish referendum vote for Wales. As EU leaders meet to discuss the fall-out, my BBC colleague Betsan Powys has returned to the theme in more depth.

It is difficult for the political establishment to win votes on anything at the moment but a referendum on full law-making powers for the Welsh Assembly in or before 2011 is an integral part of the Labour/Plaid Cymru coalition in Cardiff Bay.

People vote in referendums on various issues, not all of them linked to the subject of the vote. A plebiscite on law-making powers could offer the chance to kick the political establishment in uncertain economic times.

Plaid MP Adam Price has said that "parties have to stand by their agreements or continuing with a Coalition becomes impossible".

You wouldn't bet your house on the coalition partners winning a vote between now and 2011 (although a Tory Government elected at Westminster in 2010 might help).

Lawyers don't ask questions to which they don't already know the answer: would politicians really ask the voters if they thought they might get an answer they don't like?

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

News from the comfort zone

There are so many historic "firsts" in Welsh politics at times it's quite difficult for simple hacks like myself to keep up.

Today it was the turn of the Welsh Grand Committee to feel the hand of history on its shoulder.

This talking shop has been trying to make itself more relevant in the age of devolution. Today, for what I think is the first time, a Minister from a non-Welsh UK Government department came to speak to the committee.

Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks delivered a rather topical statement on energy needs, a day before he heads west to look at the site of the proposed Severn barrage.

Will the barrage ever be built? Preparatory work is going on at the moment to assess its environmental impact and cost.

Mr Wicks tried to re-assure sceptics that the project isn't a done deal - and that it could be ditched in a year if the case doesn't stack up.

"Our programme of work at the moment is to ensure that if in a year's time our initial assessments were showing that there was a big show-stopper, that this just wasn't on for environmental or economic reasons, we will stop it, we will stop it.

"We're are not saying we are going to do this and there's no doubt the environmental assessments need to be done very, very carefully and the issue of lagoons is being taken very very seriously."

Before the scheme's opponents get too excited, the Minister had some fierce words for the RSPB.

"I'm sometimes very sad when I heart that RSPB have already reacted against the Severn Barrage, as I have understood it, clearly not understanding that unless we are prepared to take some courageous action on climate change the devastation of species will be truly enormous.

"It is the duty of a sensible NGO (non-governmental organisation) supported by the public that occasionally they say yes to projects and not always seeking the comfort zone of saying no to a barrage, no to a windfarm, no to this, no to that.

"There needs to be a responsibility and a seriousness in all organisations, especially the environmental ones."

The RSPB has more than a million members. A brave choice of words, Minister, in the David Davis sense of bravery.

Freudian slip?

Re-assuring words from Gordon Brown during Question Time today: "It is totally untrue that we are trying to merge the English, British and French Navies."

I had no idea there was an English Navy, but with nationalists in government in Cardiff and Edinburgh perhaps the Prime Minister is ahead of the curve.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Opportunism knocks

Tory leader David Cameron is giving up his pay rise this year, following the example set by Gordon Brown and his Government.

Salary sacrifice is quite common in Welsh politics, where Assembly Members were recently offered inflation-busting rises.

Those AMs who declined the cash were accused of "the worst kind of political opportunism" by the Welsh Tory leader, Nick Bourne, who is paid around £90,000 a year as leader of the opposition in Cardiff Bay.

At least today's developments should give Messrs Bourne and Cameron something to talk about other than Alun Cairns's foreign policy when they next discuss political developments.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Looking west?

Welsh politicians often look to Ireland as an example of what a small country on the western edge of Europe can do to improve the lives of its people.

Phrases such as "Celtic Tiger" are likely to be restricted to the Irish economy after last week's vote on the Lisbon Treaty.

The "no" vote in a country widely seen to have benefited from EU membership may have been decided by many factors, not all of them connected to the treaty itself.

But the popular rejection of a campaign put forward by most of the political establishment may send a warning signal or two for those keen to push ahead with a referendum to give the Welsh Assembly full law-making powers.

Read All About It

There are grumbles aplenty among the chattering classes in Wales that the newspapers Welsh voters choose to read often given scant coverage to events in the National Assembly in Cardiff Bay.

Those grumbles may be a little quieter today, given Alun Cairns's breakthrough into what are known in Welsh media circles as London-based newspapers, journals whose editors have curiously suspected that news from the Welsh Assembly may not shift that many copies.

The News of the World, Sunday Mirror, Observer, Independent, People, Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph all reported Mr Cairns's fall from grace after his remarks about "greasy wops".

The Tory blogosphere remains so focused on David Davis it doesn't appear to have noticed that not only has Mr Cairns lost a couple of Assembly roles (arguably not that big news) but David Cameron and Caroline Spelman have also suspended him as a Tory candidate pending an investigation by Ms Spelman (who herself may be investigated over her expenses - it's confusing, but do keep up).

The ruthless move to suspend him does show how desperate the Tories are to avoid anything that could possibly de-rail their chances of an election victory.

If and when Mrs Spelman - and Tory bloggers - do look at the case they may consider that his punishment does seem quite severe for someone of previous good character.

Perhaps Mrs Spelman should visit some of the excellent Italian cafes in Mr Cairns's constituency to assess the offence caused by his comments?

Thursday, 12 June 2008


By way of respite from 42 days, missing secret documents, resigning shadow Home Secretaries, Mr and Mrs Rooney and all that I spent an hour or so plugging in to the Welsh Affairs Committee this morning.

MPs on the committee took evidence from First Minister Rhodri Morgan as part of their inquiry into cross-border services after devolution.

It was intriguing that the most hostile questioning came from Labour MPs Albert Owen and Martyn Jones; the gentlest came from the Plaid Cymru MP Hywel Williams, who bowled a several long hops to Mr Morgan on waiting times. (The Plaid/Labour coalition crosses borders where its reputation on public services is at stake)

Tory MP David Jones apologised before asking Mr Morgan whether his Health Minister had discussed with him a potential conflict of interest over the future of neurosurgery in south Wales.
Edwina Hart shelved plans to close a unit in Swansea used by her constituents - a unit she had campaigned to save before becoming Health Minister. Mr Jones argues that under the ministerial code she should have raised a potential conflict of interests.

The code says: "Where Ministers have to take decisions on their own portfolios which might have an impact on their own constituencies, they should, take particular care to avoid any possible conflict of interest.

"Where Ministers are uncertain about whether a conflict arises between their Ministerial and constituency capacity they should consult the First Minister. Where necessary Ministers should refer matters to the First Minister for determination."

So had Mrs Hart raised the issue with the First Minister? He says no. "I certainly don't recall one because I don't think there would have been one to have."

He added: "I don't think there is a potential conflict of interest."

Mr Jones had hoped to ask Mrs Hart in person, but she declined an invitation to appear before the committee, much to the annoyance of some of her Labour colleagues.

Postcard from Black Rod

Lt General Sir Michael Willcocks KCB, Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, will probably not be holidaying in Wales this year.

Sir Michael, the man in charge of security in the House of Lords, was rather dismissive of Wales's ability to attract tourists when he appeared before a Lords committee yesterday.

Black Rod was making the case for a special exclusion zone to be set up around Westminster. Parliament Square welcomes 34 million visitors a year, one million of whom visit Parliament itself.

Tory peer Lord Norton suggested that the number of visitors to the National Assembly for Wales was not that much lower.

Black Rod replied scornfully: "Thirty four million tourists as well? To Wales?!" [chuckle]

So why does Parliament merit special protection?

"It is a unique position, a very small area with literally millions of people onto which you then put the scale of demonstrations and I don't think any council building in the north of England has had half a million people marching past it for rural rights and things so I do think we are a very special a) position b) insititution and c) circumstances around us."

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Not a fortunate traveller

One of the frustrations of elected politics must be the rapid discovery that political power is limited.

Fortunately, that doesn't stop politicians at various levels from having a go, from doing their bit to change the world.

Broadcasting issues are decided at Westminster, but the Welsh Assembly has a broadcasting committee - the chairman of which doesn't believe broadcasting should be devolved to it any time soon.

Foreign affairs is usually the preserve of diplomats and nation states, but the Assembly's impartial presiding officer has made waves with his own distinctive contribution to the Middle East peace process.

The Welsh Liberal Democrat leader, Mike German, let it be known "I don't believe in silly boycotts". (All ideas for "sensible boycotts" (Geoffrey Boycott?) gratefully received).

One advantage of devolution for politicians is that there is always someone else to blame. When Welsh Labour loses elections, Tony Blair/Gordon Brown's Labour Party can take the rap.

The Labour/Plaid Cymru Welsh Assembly Government may have placed great store by tackling child poverty but when the number of poor children rises Plaid can blame the UK Government.

Benito Mussolini was credited (wrongly) with making the trains run on time. That's a harder task for today's politicians in the age of privatised trains.

If your train is late, you might contemplate approaching customer services. Unless you're an MP. Lembit Opik has tabled a couple of Commons motions highlighting delays on Virgin railways (at a cost to the public purse that could almost have paid for a day return to Bangor).

It must be something to do with Lib Dems and trains. My spies in Cardiff Bay alerted me to this exchange between Eleanor Burnham and Leader of the House Carwyn Jones.

Eleanor Burnham: "Considering that Network Rail, Arriva Trains Wales and the Deputy First Minister were parading around last week talking about improvements to the railway, I was very shocked to experience yet another disruption in Wrexham yesterday because of a points failure, or something similar, in this vulnerable infrastructure of ours on the train service between north and south.

"Those are two very important issues. Could we have a statement on them soon and certainly some improvements?"

Carwyn Jones: "You will forgive me, Eleanor, for saying that you are not a fortunate traveller. You have eloquently expressed your views on the railway service many times on the floor of the Assembly, we have heard about the tribulations that you have experienced when you have flown internally, and now we find that you are experiencing difficulties on the A55.

"I am sure that the Deputy First Minister will have heard what you have said and will be able to provide you with answers to your queries. Do remind me never to travel with you, if I can possibly avoid it." [Laughter.]

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Paupers and beauty queens

Today's statistics on poverty make grim reading. More children and pensioners are living in poverty - as defined by the UK Government - during 2006/7 than during the previous year.

It's the first time pensioner poverty has risen in the UK for almost a decade. The Government's aim of halving child poverty by 2010 is highly unlikely to be met.

By my reckoning, relative child poverty in Wales has increased slightly while pensioner poverty has slightly declined. Six thousand more Welsh children are living below the poverty line than one year earlier - one child in four.

Anyone who believes the streets of London are paved with gold stolen from devolved administrations may be slightly surprised to see that after housing costs four in ten children in London live in relative poverty - proportionately rather more than do in Wales.

Barnett formula fetishists will also have noticed this story in the Telegraph. The paper may have its own agenda but again demands for a review of the formula that decides much public spending in Wales and Scotland are coming from England.

Former Welsh Secretary John Redwood is quoted: "I think the Government is in trouble and it is getting a backlash in England about the assymetry of the devolution settlement."

I hear the English Democrats are hoping to field a candidate - amid the various beauty queens - in the Henley by-election to make similar points about the alleged unfairness to England of the settlement.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Votes and anniversaries

Another Monday, and the start of what may well turn out to be Gordon Brown's worst week since the last one.

The crunch vote is on Wednesday, although it feels as if we've already been covering this story for 42 days or more.

The shadow Home Secretary, David Davis told The Times: "Whips have been ringing up the left-wing members of the Labour Party and saying, ‘Vote against 42 days on Wednesday and you get David Miliband on Thursday'."

He doesn't report whether any wavering MPs responded: "Well, what's the downside?" although presumably the tactic wasn't used on the Blairite wing.

Gordon Brown has been so busy telephoning backbenchers he probably hasn't had time to plan his anniversary for June 27. Channel 4 are starting the commemorations tonight.

The Conservatives have thoughtfully called the Henley by-election for the previous day. The first anniversary is usually "paper", although not usually of the ballot variety.

The game of managing expectations is already underway, with various newspapers already reporting internal Labour thinking that may lose its deposit.

But what's £500 when you're £20m+ in debt?

Wednesday, 4 June 2008


I share this without comment. The Labour Party's spin doctor in Wales is going back to college to do a PhD - "examining the role of leadership in modern organisations."

Promoting Wales?

It's not everyone's idea of bedside reading, but in the line of duty I've been studying the Wales Office annual report.

It's a rather glossier document than it used to be. There are, as you might expect, plenty of photographs of Wales Office Ministers past and present.

What you might not expect are a number of photographs of backbench Labour MPs during ministerial visits to their constituencies. I spotted six backbenchers in the space of six pages of chapter 3 - entitled Promoting Wales . Betty Williams features twice.

The fact that these backbenchers all belong to the governing party is, I'm assured, a complete coincidence - as indeed is the absence of any photographs of MPs from other parties. The Wales Office says the idea that its Ministers only visit Labour-held seats is ridiculous.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Land of the Freebie revisited

Health Minister Ben Bradshaw provoked one of the liveliest spats between Ministers in Wales and England with his analysis of the NHS west of Offa's Dyke.

Today, he was put on the spot by MPs on Parliament's Welsh affairs committee. He was at pains not to comment on the running of the NHS in Wales. (His last intervention led to a protest from Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy to his own boss, Alan Johnson).

That said, he did defend the UK Government's decision, as he put it, to prioritise cutting waiting times rather than introduce free prescriptions (88 per cent of which are already free in England) or subsidise hospital car parking.

Differences in waiting times between England and Wales were, as he put it, "a consequence of devolution".

One statistic caught the eye. The Minister told the committee a hundred and nine patients in England were waiting more than 13 weeks for their first out-patient appointment. The Welsh equivalent is 25,042. A rough calculation suggests that if Wales had the same population as England, the figure would be around 425,000 compared to 109 in England.

He did acknowledge that waiting times had also been cut in Wales. Indeed, his tone was so diplomatic he may have been auditioning for the Foreign Office.

Chairman Hywel Francis thanked the Minister for his "frank" answers. Mr Bradshaw looked rather alarmed - "I hope I haven't been too frank".