Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Yo Ho Ho

Best to eat before going to one of Peter Hain's Christmas parties if this parliamentary answer is any guide:

MR ROGER WILLIAMS (BRECON AND RADNORSHIRE): To ask the Secretary of State for Wales, how many Christmas parties his Department plans to host in 2009; what has been budgeted for each such reception; what estimate he has made of the proportion of (a) lamb, (b) beef, (c) chicken, (d) pork, (e) turkey, (f) other meats, (g) vegetables, (h) fruit and (i) alcohol to be served at each such function which is produced in the UK; and if he will make a statement.

MR HAIN: I plan to host a Christmas reception in London and another in Cardiff this year. We will not be serving food, only snacks and drinks will be provided. I would estimate the cost of each reception to be around £250, although the final amount will not be known until after the events are held.

Roger Williams is not one of those MPs who looks short of a good meal, but it looks like he'll be going hungry on this occasion.

For Wales, see Scotland?

Welsh First Minister Rhodri Morgan once spoke of the pre-devolution perception that there was a "willingness to blame others" in Wales, a perception that may now be less common.

But so long as the Welsh Assembly Government's purse strings are pulled elsewhere, there is always a pantomime villain (Westminster/London) to blame for any cuts a devolved government introduces.

The Scots in the UK Government seem to have cottoned on to this, probably due to the experience of having a nationalist government in Edinburgh.

So today, the Scottish Secretary in Gordon Brown's Government unveiled plans to make the Scottish Parliament responsible for raising more of the taxpayers' money it spends.

The idea is to introduce greater accountability. The Conservatives support the idea, although they say they will unveil their own plans after the General Election (if they win it).

For Scotland, see Wales? There is support in some unexpected quarters for the Assembly to acquire tax-raising powers.

If the Tories in power at UK level, and the Labour/Plaid Assembly Government chooses to blame David Cameron's government for future cuts, expect to see that support for financial powers grow further.

Mind you, there would have to be a(nother?) referendum first before Wales acquired financial powers (Scotland got them in the 1997 vote) And you can't have a referendum without setting up a committee first. I wonder what Sir Emyr Jones Parry is doing with himself these days.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Banking on LCOs

Too much excitement can be bad for you, so let's talk about LCOs. Wales's former First Secretary has given his views on Legislative Competence Orders here.

Old news to readers of Mr Michael's Penarth Times column, I grant you, but interesting nevertheless - who are these Ministers who "spent far too long deliberating over Ann's proposals instead of getting on with it"? Time for the Penarth Times to name and shame.

The LCO Parliament has spent more time debating than any other is the one to give the Assembly the power to legislate over the Welsh language. You can read it here if you don't have a copy handy or have yet to learn it off by heart.

One or two MPs were intrigued by the reference to organisations "engaged in central banking" assuming it to be a reference to the original proposal to include the Bank of England - the only central bank operating in the UK - in the mix.

This puzzled one or two MPs on the Select Commitee for Welsh Affairs who wondered what it could mean.

Bilingual banknotes, perhaps? The MPs wrote to the Secretary of State for Wales. Peter Hain has now told them: "I do not believe the Assembly will be able to legislate on the issue of Welsh banknotes."

A less than emphatic denial, perhaps, but there (probably) goes any plan Cardiff Ministers may have for their own quantitative easing or to put an image of Owain Glyndwr on one side of a tenner note.


Gordon Brown and David Cameron were not the only politicians to get themselves photographed in the Field of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey, although other politicians managed to get snapped without so much fuss.

Conwy Labour MP Betty Williams was photographed as she planted a cross in memory of the citizens of Conwy who lost their lives in conflicts.

She told her own website: "It was a privilege once more, and for my final time as MP for Conwy, to be able to plant a cross in the Field of Remembrance in the grounds of Westminster Abbey today as an act of remembrance for citizens of Conwy constituency who gave their lives to secure our freedom."

An Abbey spokesman told me: "We don't have a problem with that but if high-profile politicians come we would like a bit of notice".

Monday, 23 November 2009

£800 to be Peter's friend

How much would you pay to have dinner with the Welsh Liberal Democrats? Did I hear fifty quid at the back?

If you have nine mates, why not make a night of it and claim the discounted rate of £450 for a table for 10?

Or if you're feeling really flush, two grand will allow you to sponsor the conference dinner as the Welsh Lib Dems gather in Swansea next February.
"Sponsorship includes:

Space to display promotional material (banners, pop-ups, leaflets etc).

10 minutes to address everyone present with a speech.

A thank you from the appropriate party spokesperson for your organisation.

2 tickets to the Conference Dinner on the top table.

2 Observer Passes to Conference.

A full page black & white advert in the Conference Guide.

Your organisation’s logo printed on menus and tickets.

An invitation to the Conference Dinner with your organisation’s logo sent to all party members. We can include an advert for your organisation as well if you wish.

Or, for £1,500 you can sponsor a reception that takes place during the Wales vs England Six Nations match.

At half time, you'll be allowed to make a speech to delegates who will have switched off from the game to want to focus on your policy area.

The Lib Dems promise: "We will supply the first drink for the guests."

Or for a more modest £800 you can sponsor a reception hosted by Peter Black AM. You too could have Peter as a guest at your party for just £800 - are they selling his company too cheap?

You can find out more here.

Many thanks to the Elgan Morgan of the Welsh Lib Dems conference committee for sending me the link to their conference opportunities.

Referendums make you happy

Referendums make you happy. Yes, they really do. This point may not have appeared in last week's report by the All Wales Convention report but it comes from a very reputable source.

The economist Richard Layard reports in his brilliant book Happiness - Lessons from a New Science how citizens are more content where they have a regular say on policy decisions.

This is based on what he calls the "remarkable results" from a study of democracy in Switzerland. "In every Swiss canton (or region) policies are often decided by referendum," he reports. "But in some cantons citizens have more rights to demand referendums than others.

"It turns out that people are much happier where they have more rights to referendums. If we compare those cantons where these rights are the most extensive with those where they are the least extensive, the difference in happiness is as great as if they had double the income."

So what's it to be? Double your money or another referendum? Perhaps these conclusions could be tested by a controlled experiment giving more referendum opportunities in either North or South Wales, and offering cash to citizens in the rest of the country.

We could set up a new committee - call it the Half Wales Convention - to investigate who emerges the happier.

Legal eagles

If you're one of those people who sees law-making powers for devolved assemblies as a virility symbol, or one of those politicians who believes that any problem can be cured by legislation, you may want to look away now.

On The Buses with Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher once reportedly said: "A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure."

As someone well over the age of 26, I find myself a failure several times a week. But perhaps I am not alone.

The bus complaint form for Transport for London suggests the vehicles should now be reconsidered an upmarket form of transport.

Besides the conventional Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms, the form allows you to describe youself as, among others, Prof, Sir, Air Cdr, Dame, Cardinal, Baron, Sheikh, Sqn Ldr, Viscount, Viscountess, Imam and Marquess.

There is even a distinction between Baroness and Rt Hon Baroness to appease privy councillors.

It gets better. You can complain as a Prince, Princess, Laird, Dowager Lady, Mayor, Pastor, Rt Revd, Ambassador, Duke, Earl and HRH.

So the day your bus is too full to stop at your stop because it's carrying Prince Charles, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Duke of Westminster, Dame Kelly Holmes, Viscount Tenby, Sheikh Mansour and Baroness Thatcher herself is the day you will know she was wrong.

Friday, 20 November 2009

The first XI

I do enjoy these surveys of politicians by politicians. The joys of percentages mean small numbers of people can appear as hugely significant masses of opinion.

So Edwina Hart is the "top performer" chosen by 25 per cent of the 30 people sampled by the pollsters (I make that eight).

Lower down the popularity chain, Nick Bourne, Ieuan Wyn Jones and Jocelyn Davies have the support of four per cent - if my maths is correct that means two AMs each rated them.

The consolation for Professor Bourne, Mr Jones and Ms Davies is that they are twice as popular as Nick Ramsay and Jenny Randerson, who were named by two per cent of those asked - I make that one AM each.

The consolation for Mr Ramsay and Mrs Randerson is that still makes them more popular than 49 other AMs, who didn't make the IPSOS-Mori first eleven.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

History denied

I could see the hand of history coming over the horizon. The Welsh Health Minister - and Labour leadership contender - Edwina Hart was due to make her long-awaited debut before a committee of MPs at Westminster next Thursday.

Alas, this historic event has been cancelled as, according to a spokeswoman, the chairman of the select committee on Welsh Affairs decided this was not a suitable date, denying MPs a first chance to grill Ms Hart during her 10 years as a Minister.

She had been asked to appear before, some years ago but was apparently reluctant, leading to First Minister Rhodri Morgan stepping in to answer questions on her brief.

Of course, the committee could use its powers to summon witnesses to invite Ms H to Westminster but that is thought unlikely. With the result of the leadership election due within two weeks, this is an encounter that may never happen.

Guto and Madge

One of my Facebook friends put it this way: "In all the excitement about the All Wales Convention I'd almost forgotten about the Queen's Speech."

Not everyone covering politics fell victim to the same amnesia, but those who live on the political treadmill can occasionally miss the odd gem that fails to make the news bulletins.

So I've only just caught up with mixed news for my former BBC colleague Guto Harri, now chief spin doctor for Mayor of London Boris Johnson. As compensation for missing out on the Western Mail's list of 50 sexiest men in Wales, Guto has retained his position in the Evening Standard's list of London's 1000 most influential people.

The Standard says Guto is "Well-liked by his staff due to his ability to sweet-talk and get in a round of drinks, but not afraid to admonish anyone failing to toe the party line. Thought to have turned to Boris after a failed attempt to land the spin doctor job at Number 10. Must tread careful line in tense dealings with Cameroons."

The citation may not win top marks for 100 per cent accuracy, but in Guto's job it's probably better to be on it than off it.

The Mayor's office is also setting new standards for transparency for devolved governments with its register of gifts and hospitality. You can read where Guto has been breaking bread, and with whom, here, along with a list of others whose entertainment he has enjoyed in the line of duty.

Funny that, I never had him down as a Madonna fan.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

"The public are serenely indifferent"

Danny Finkelstein of  The Times offers this splendid wake-up call for all us hacks who occasionally assume that the voters take in any of what we report. The "fog" of confusion isn't confined to Wales and may be bigger than you might think, with the public "serenely indifferent" to much political activity.

Perhaps I should switch to blogging about sport or soaps, as I guess more voters are interested in Rafael Benitez or Roy Cropper's fate than today's developments at Westminster.

The politicians do their best to engage our attention. Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative parliamentary candidate on my adopted manor held a public meeting this week.

He advertised it by hanging green balloons outside the local church hall. My daughter is convinced they are there to mark her third birthday, still one month away. I will let her enjoy her serene indifference to the political process a little longer.

By royal appointment

"My Government will continue to devolve more powers to Wales". Gosh, that was quick. Sir Emyr Jones Parry only published his report at midnight. Fewer than 12 hours later, Her Majesty appears to have announced its delivery.

Well, perhaps not. Before the street bunting goes up amid referendum fever across the land, what the Queen was referring to was the way in which the current system operates, with powers in 45 different areas devolved to the Welsh Assembly during the last three years.

"The Assembly is getting the powers it needs for the people of Wales," says the Wales Office.


History In Our Time

It is indeed an historic day, a landmark moment in time that will be remembered by generations to come.

In future, people will turn to each other and instantly recall exactly where they were when they heard the news - that Peter Hain was "unavailable for comment".

The media-friendly Welsh Secretary has declined an opportunity to appear live on Wales's most-watched news programme, lest he be diverted from a discussion of the Queen's Speech by a cheeky question or two on his views on when there should be a referendum on the National Assembly's law-making powers.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Vote blue, go green?

Meet Greg. He's the man who could decide the fate of thousands of jobs on Anglesey and Wales's energy supply.

Greg (Clark) is the shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. Within months, if the polls are right, he will be in charge of Britain's energy policy (well, most of Britain, and most energy policy anyway).

For all the talk of fast-tracking nuclear power planning decisions, by the time of the next election it's unlikely that a planning application to build a new reactor (or two) near the existing ones at Wylfa will have been submitted.

So any application could land on Greg's desk, as the Conservatives have said Labour's Infrastructure Planning Commission is not democratically accountable.

So what will he do? The Conservatives, for whom nuclear power was "a last resort" back in 2006, now see it as a vital part of Britain's energy mix. They wish this week's decision had been made earlier.

So will Wylfa get the same priority as it has under Ed Miliband? Will the Conservatives press ahead with a new plant there?

Forgive all the questions; I put a few of them to Greg's shadow cabinet colleague, Cheryl Gillan, this afternoon.

She devoted her contributions to Welsh Questions in the Commons to highlighting Labour's "mixed signals" over nuclear power - although the opposition comes in the main from politicians would would not have the final say on the issue.

I asked whether a Conservative government would press ahead with Wylfa Will a Conservative government press ahead with Wylfa. "I hope so" was the response.

Perhaps it is the effect of 12 and a half years in opposition that has left the Conservatives so focused on attacking the Government that is has lost sight of the imminence of the general election.

So we don't know for sure whether the Conservatives would carry forward Labour's energy plans, or, for that matter, press ahead with plans to locate the defence training centre at St Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan.

The Conservatives questioned the Government's prison-building plans in the Commons today. So would a Tory government build a prison in the north?

I suppose it's asking too much this close to the election to enquire after a Tory government's plans for the Barnett formula and a bank holiday on St David's Day.

Speaking of which, I wandered along to the unveiling of Plaid Cymru's alternative Queen's Speech this lunchtime. The traditional St David's Day (Bank Holiday) Bill was missing.

I'll leave you to decide whether this is a "snub to Wales" or "a slap in the face".

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

She shoots, she scores

As a parliamentary correspondent, I'm sometimes asked: "David, what do MPs do all day now that many day-to-day decisions are taken in Cardiff Bay not Westminster?"

Of course, MPs do still find time to debate issues such as nuclear power, the economy and foreign affairs. Many of them were so busy last week that they could not find the time to discuss proposed reforms to their expenses regime.

More evidence of what some of them get up to can be found on the Commons order paper. The re-naming of St James' Park (the one in Newcastle, not the one near Parliament) has been condemned by 22 MPs in a Commons motion.

Among the signatories is the Labour MP for Conwy, Betty Williams, who also found time in her busy schedule to sign another motion praising the decision to televise the England versus Australia Rugby League match.

She has also registered her approval for another motion praising Blackpool Football Club's "It's a Goal" initiative.

As the sports broadcasting legend Alan Partridge would say, "Back of the net!"

Friday, 6 November 2009

Letting the people decide

Bit of a headache for Welsh political hacks this one. We're now going to have to think of another question to ask David Cameron's people in Wales now he is confirming that a Conservative government would not block a request from the Welsh Assembly to hold a referendum on its powers.*

When Cheryl Gillan told us at the Tory conference in Manchester "we will let the people decide" she really did mean what we thought she said. As Secretary of State for Wales, she would avoid the trap of rejecting a request for a vote - the trap of an unpopular Conservative government fuelling demands for more freedom from Westminster.

There are still questions for Ms Gillan to answer. We still don't know which way she would vote in any referendum but that in one sense is academic as she wouldn't have a vote - unless Lord Garel-Jones's idea of enfranchising the expats takes off. (Perhaps my own ballot paper is in the post)

So insoluble are Tory divisions on the subject that the party's MPs would be given a free vote on the issue, a licence to campaign on either side of the argument. It could be the sort of campaign that pitches the party's MPs against the party's AMs, undermining Cheryl Gillan's plans to create harmony between Cardiff Bay and Westminster.

So now everyone is committed to letting the people decide, why wait for a change of government? Sir Emyr Jones Parry's report later this month is expected to fuel enthusiasm for a referendum among those keen for the Assembly to acquire full law-making powers and consign LCOs to the Welsh political archive.

The worrying thing for enthusiasts is that the strongest shout for a referendum (I paraphrase but "bring it on now" was the tone) I've heard this week came from the Conservative MP for Monmouth, David Davies. He may be a former Assembly Member, but there's no mystery about which way he would vote - or his motive for calling an early poll.

*If there are any other Welsh questions you'd like Team Cameron to be asked, do let us know. Would the Tories go ahead with the defence training college at St Athan springs to mind. Would a Cameron government committed to making devolution work really have a Secretary of State based in Buckinghamshire?

I'd hate to have to fall back on whether Prime Minister Cameron would implement Tory AMs' demands for St David's Day to be made a public holiday.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Voting early and often

One of the affiliated groups taking part in the Welsh Labour leadership election has more than ten times as many votes as members.

The Co-operative Party has "somewhere under 1,000" members in Wales, but will have 10,000 votes in the electoral college that will choose Rhodri Morgan's successor.

Co-op deputy general secretary Karen Wilkie said: "In terms of the Labour Party, the Co-operative Party has always affiliated on behalf of the wider co-operative movement; our voting strength reflects this rather than our actual number of party activists."

Labour - whose 11,000 Welsh members have one third of the votes - said organisations decide the numbers to affiliate and their voting strength is decided accordingly.
Voting will take longer for some than others. By my reckoning, the former First Secretary, Alun Michael, has at least five votes - as an MP, a party member, a member of the Co-op party, the GMB union and the Fabian Society.


Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's Plaid Cymru's parliamentary leader.

Elfyn Llwyd reveals to readers of Total Politics magazine that the literary character he would most like to be is: "Superman - for obvious reasons."

So if you spot the Meirionnydd Nant Conwy flying through the air with his underpants over his trousers you'll know this is a dream come true.

It will at least make up for his disappointment at the magazine's (snub to Wales?)  failure to include him in its list of top 10 politicians with facial hair.

David Lloyd George is the sole Welsh representative in a top 10 that includes Bob Ainsworth, Ken Livingstone and Peter Mandelson.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Wedding hitch

My suspicions proved correct and yesterday's newspaper headlines were premature. Parliament may need to change the law before Chris Bryant can celebrate his civil partnership in the House of Commons.

As things stand, the Commons is not licensed for civil weddings or partnerships. If it were to obtain a licence, as the law stands, then the venue would have to be available to ordinary members of the public for a certain time. (The Prince Charles/Windsor Castle problem)

The Speaker is keen on opening up his State Rooms for ceremonies for MPs but is not convinced Parliament should go into the mass wedding and civil partnership business.

So it will be up to Parliament to decide whether or not to change the law to allow private ceremonies in the same way only parliamentarians and senior officers can tie the knot in the Chapel of St Mary's Undercroft.

Either way, Chris Bryant and his partner might be advised to sound out an alternative venue or two if they hope to marry next March.

Monday, 2 November 2009

A not so fresh start

You have to sympathise with political parties. There's only so many slogans in the political lexicon, most of them promising to put Britain first, take it forward, win, or be positive. Strangely, slogans promising to put Britain last, take it backwards, lose or be negative have yet to catch on.

Even so, why have the Lib Dems ended up with one pioneered during William Hague's (admittedly successful) Tory leadership campaign of 1997?

Having stolen William Hague's campaign slogan, can it be long before Nick Clegg changes his headgear?

Derry Irvine spills the beans

One of the annual rituals of Cabinet reshuffle speculation is the reporting by newspapers of plans to scrap the Wales Office and other territorial departments and create a Ministry of the Nations.

One day it may come true and, as Lee Waters points out, it very nearly did six years ago during perhaps the most botched reshuffle of Tony Blair's decade in power.

You can read Lord Irvine's evidence in full here. The Wales Office - and its Secretary of State - survived to fight another day. Given David Cameron's commitment to cutting the cost of government, it will be interesting to see how long, if he wins power, he retains a full-time Secretary of State.

Wedding Bells

Is Parliament about to host its first civil partnership ceremony? Readers of today's Independent may have rushed out to buy a hat in anticipation of Chris Bryant's nuptials.

Congratulations are due to the Rhondda MP and his partner Jared Cranney. Mr Bryant told the paper: "Jared and I are engaged and we hope to have a civil partnership – or a marriage is what it feels like – in March of next year. "We'd like to do it in Parliament if possible."

I checked with the Speaker's office to see how far he had gone down the road of obtaining a licence to hold civil ceremonies in his official residence.

"It is something the Speaker is keen on," confirmed a spokeswoman. "Discussions are under way."

Obtaining a licence for a traditional wedding is not always straightforward. You may recall how the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles had to switch their venue from Windsor Castle to the local Guildhall.

The reason? Any licence for the castle would allow the public to marry there for at least three years.

There's no news yet on whether Mr Bercow would be happy to open up Speaker's House to punters although it could prove a nice little earner to defer the cost of MPs' expenses and would certainly cement his reputation as a modernising Speaker.

Should a Westminster wedding prove problematic, Chris and Jared could marry closer to home. Several Rhondda venues now host civil partnerships and with a March date in mind guests could fit in some pre-election canvassing after the ceremony.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Referendum fever hits non-chattering classes

I am recovering from the shock of being described by Tomos Livingstone as a member of the chattering classes.

The shock is so great I shall probably take a few hours out of the fascinating constitutional debate over the future of the Welsh Assembly.

I realise I may be in a minority here - the latest poll on the subject suggests the turnout in the referendum Peter Hain doesn't want anytime soon could be between 79 and 94 per cent. Don't all rush at once now.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Family-friendly values

"Making your spouse your secretary is the best way to avoid the disruption and heartache of making your secretary your spouse."

That advice, from the Newport West Labour MP Paul Flynn, has been taken by more than a few MPs.
It's estimated that around 200 employ relatives, be they spouses, nieces, or parents.

Fourteen of the 40 Welsh MPs currently employ staff who are related to them and will presumably be caught in the new rules proposed by Sir Christopher Kelly. You can read the full list here.

Plaid Cymru's three MPs do not feature on the list. As their parliamentary leader, Elfyn Llwyd, puts it: "We have had a policy that we have never employed members of our families."

That policy, he says, is party-wide, dates from 1993, and applies also to members of the Welsh Assembly.
That may be news to two of the party's Assembly Members, Mohammad Asghar and Jocelyn Davies, the latter a deputy Housing Minister in Cardiff.

According to the latest register of AMs' interests, each of them employs their spouses part-time in constituency offices.

Perhaps they were unaware of established party rules. Either way, they are likely to be the last Plaid Cymru politicians to keep it in the family. The party has accepted unanimously new rules that AMs "should not henceforward make any new appointments of family members."

Plaid women

What have the Welsh Conservatives and Plaid Cymru got in common?

Neither has ever sent a woman to Westminster. The Tories hope to change that next year but for Plaid Cymru it may be more of a challenge.

The party's shortlist for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr contains four would-be candidates linked by one thing - their gender.

Little wonder then that Plaid Cymru's parliamentary leader says it's "a huge embarrassment" the party has never had a woman MP.

Elfyn Llwyd said Plaid's failure to get a woman elected to Westminster was "very unfortunate" and something needed to be done about it.
The Meirionnydd Nant Conwy MP said the shortlist was a local matter and he did not know why no woman had made the final four in the race to succeed Adam Price.

But he added: "it is a huge embarrassment we have never had a woman MP. It is very unfortunate; we need to do something about it."

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Prison break?

Is North Wales the only part of Europe that wants both a nuclear power station and a prison in its own back yard?

Just a random thought (from a lobby colleague) as MPs discussed the prospect of a prison being built in the region with the Secretary of State for Wales.

Peter Hain previewed an announcement from the Prisons Minister, Maria Eagle, although he appears far more enthusiastic about a prison west of Offa's Dyke than his ministerial colleague. Ms Eagle pulled the plug on a proposed prison at Caernarfon earlier this year after the site was deemed unsuitable.

Mr Hain told the Welsh Affairs select committee he is still "very keen" to ensure that North Wales gets a prison and previewed a statement from the Minister published shortly after the committee finished.

"She will announce that there is an intention to look specifically for a new site in North Wales. It could be in Caernarfon, it could be in Anglesey, it could be anywhere else where the local county council and other representatives come up with a credible site.

"I do want to see it in North Wales if we possibly can and I've made it absolutely clear to the Minister herself."

A press release from Ms Eagle stopped short of committing to a prison in Wales: "The National Offender Management Service, which runs prisons in England and Wales for the Ministry of Justice, will look across the country for sites to serve areas with greatest demand for prison places. The search will be focused on London, the North West, North Wales, and West Yorkshire."

The proposed jails would be for up to 1,500 prisoners - one local MP estimates only 600 places are needed in North Wales.

Ms Eagle said: "Finding the most appropriate place for a new prison is of paramount importance. They should be located in those areas where there is the greatest need, areas where the greater number of prisoners come from.

"This will allow us to keep prisoners closer to their home areas and will help ensure that important family and other links can be maintained, which help prisoner rehabilitation."

Earlier this month, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice, Sir Suma Chakrabarti, questioned by the former Welsh Secretary Alun Michael, said: "Actually, I think there are plans to start the site search again in North Wales, and I think we are committed to that working with the Welsh Assembly Government and the Wales Office here. So there is no move away from that; that is still the plan."

That may still be the plan but anyone who has read Maria Eagle's carefully-worded statement - and Peter Hain's own comments - will appreciate that there is a subtle but huge difference between a prison in North Wales and a prison for North Wales.

Either way, the issue is unlikely to be resolved definitively before the general election that has to be held by next June.

"I had to wait 10 years too"

Given the Prime Minister's current unpopularity, you might think Carwyn Jones is taking a risk by including the above photograph in a leaflet being sent to party members ahead of the Welsh Labour leadership election.

The photograph, snapped on Welsh night at Labour's conference in Brighton, was taken before Rhodri Morgan announced his retirement plans so any suggestion, counter-productive or not, that the PM was endorsing the Welsh Counsel General is wide of the mark.

Apparently, via what looks like an unusual handshake, Mr Brown was actually thanking Mr Jones for all the hard work he'd done in Wales. Alternatively, the Prime Minister may have been empathising on what it's like to wait in the wings for years before acquiring a top job at a politically inopportune moment.

Alternative caption suggestions welcome.

Another historic first

I can feel the hand of history on my keyboard. Having tweeted the Welsh Grand Committee to the satisfaction of almost a handful of readers, I'm now ready to have a go at Parliament's Select Committee on Welsh Affairs.

The committee is taking evidence from Secretary of State Peter Hain from 11am this morning and you can follow my tweets here.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Lembit Opik doesn't exist

Lembit Opik doesn't exist. No, really. The Montgomeryshire MP, former leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats and celebrity magazine regular has disappeared from an internet search tool on the parliamentary website.

The Montgomeryshire MP's name does not appear on the alphabetical "search by Member" page on the online version of Hansard
It means the nation is denied the chance to click on his written and spoken contributions to parliamentary debates.

The man himself told PA News: "I'm both appalled and amazed by this and will bring it to the attention of the House authorities.

"I would look to raise it in the Commons as a point of order but presumably that will be pretty difficult if I don't exist."

Mr Opik believes the umlaut over the first letter of his surname - which I can't find on my keyboard - may be to blame.

Alternatively, perhaps he really doesn't exist and the last 12 years have been a mass hallucination for the residents of Montgomeryshire and readers of Hello! magazine.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Peter Hain, Father of LCOs

As anticipation mounts before the publication of the All Wales Convention's report into the National Assembly's powers, one of those politcians involved in the debate has tried to cool the excitement.

Peter Hain, whose agreement would be required before a powers referendum could be held, has again made it clear he doesn't expect to agree to one before the general election due before next June.

The Welsh Secretary's main opposition to the idea of an early vote appears tactical - he thinks it would be lost.
"I said when taking the 2006 Bill through that I didn't foresee circumstances in which a referendum was desirable or likely in the first Assembly term {in which the new arrangements operate}. That is still my default position.

"I am not going to be dogmatic or rigid about it but I can't really see any circumstance in which you could win a referendum.
"People may want a referendum, there may be some other imperative but I want to win it. I want to be part of a winning campaign. I just don't see circumstances in which we could win it before 2011 or on the same day as the Assembly elections in May 2011."

The All Wales Convention, chaired by Sir Emyr Jones Parry, is due to present its findings on the debate on November 18. This presents something of a diary clash for newshounds but perhaps Her Majesty would be kind enough to move the pre-arranged State Opening of Parliament.

Mr Hain told a Wales Office briefing this morning that he was pleased with the current legislative system - involved Legislative Competence Orders - as it was his invention. "LCOs......this was my baby."

Thereby a new role in Welsh politics was created. We already have "the architect of devolution" - now we have "the father of LCOs." Don't blame me if it doesn't catch on.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Biscuitgate: New Labour split

I'm grateful to my BBC colleague Martha Kearney for putting Welsh Secretary Peter Hain on the spot on the big issue of the week.

Gordon Brown may have sidestepped a grilling on his preferred biscuit, but Mr Hain could not escape the Westminster studio while a guest on The World At One today.

Mind you, he did seem in two minds. His favourite biscuit? "Mine's an oatcake."

He then added: "I quite like Ryvita too".

These politicians, they want to have their biscuit and eat it.

Labour: Owen refuses to hang Flynn out to dry

Some people mistakenly think MPs are too grand for the little things in life - such as holding an umbrella to save a colleague from a drenching.

Ynys Mon MP Albert Owen dispels the myth to allow Paul Flynn to hold forth for the cameras on the subject of Carwyn Jones's Welsh leadership bid.

I suspect the cameraman - from RhonddaTV? - may have filmed this as rather more of a close-up than I managed.

The occasion was a photocall opposite the Houses of Parliament to show support among MPs for the Carwyn Jones bid.

He's claiming the public support of 14 of the 29 Welsh Labour MPs, each of whom has a vote equivalent to around half a per cent of the electoral college.

Blaenau Gwent to Bracknell

Phillip Lee may have lost his deposit in Blaenau Gwent but the Home Counties doctor looks as if he'll become the second loser from the 2005 general election there to end up in Parliament.

Maggie Jones, who lost the seat for Labour after being chosen from an all-women shortlist, is already here, sitting as Baroness Jones of Whitchurch.

Dr Lee looks to be heading for the green rather than red benches as he's been chosen to replace Andrew MacKay as the Conservative candidate in Bracknell, Berkshire. Mr MacKay is standing down after one or two awkward questions were raised about his use of the expenses regime.

Phillip Lee may have polled only 816 votes during his foray into Welsh politics but he was rather more visible than some Conservative candidates who have fought and lost in the Valleys.

During the campaign, David Blunkett dropped in on Tredegar, to support Maggie Jones, only to find himself greeted by a surprising number of Tory activists and placards, orchestrated by Dr Lee in an event that scored high marks for mischief and cheek.

Playing the "my great-grandfather was a coal miner in Gorseinon" card for all it is worth he did succeed in winding up a few Labour activists already wound up by the split over all-women shortlists.

The voters themselves didn't thank him for it, but he got noticed in Tory circles and made it onto David Cameron's A-list of priority candidates even if it took him three years to get selected for a safe seat.

Gender apart, is the sort of candidate the Tories have been looking for as they try to persuade voters that the party has changed - someone who works in public services, is relatively young and gives the impression of being human.

A glance at his website reveals a fully paid-up Cameroon, right down to the smooth PR choice of photographs with or without tie.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Legg letters latest (sort of)

This won't come as news to those of you who've already had your weekly dose of Dragon's Eye, but some don't catch the programme until BBC Parliament airs it on Sunday and others record it to watch at their leisure. (Spoiler alert as they say on movie previews)

A gold star to my colleague Bethan James who succeeded where I - and a Plaid Cymru spin doctor - failed in getting to the bottom of the tensions between  members of the joint Plaid/SNP parliamentary party at Westminster.

The SNP, you will recall, announced that they would publish their letters from Sir Thomas Legg, while Plaid were rather less keen to open their envelopes for the media.

The Plaid Cymru parliamentary leader, Elfyn Llwyd, has now explained all to Bethan: "Curiously, they [the SNP] did this without discussing it with us and had we known beforehand we would have considered doing it but frankly these are enquiries at this stage and people may think there is no smoke without fire but that is not right.

"Several of the enquiries I know from speaking to Members of Parliament are incorrect."

The Meirionnydd Nant Conwy MP himself is prepared to pay back a few hundred pounds as he is not going to query Sir Thomas's questions about his own expenses.

He''ll be among a few dozen MPs who arrive for the state opening of Parliament on November 18 with one eye on matters along the M4 as Sir Emyr Jones Parry has chosen that date to present his report on the Welsh Assembly's powers.

With the next parliamentary session due to be curtailed by the general election, it may be touch and go which is delivered first - Gordon Brown's legislative programme or the proposed referendum to increase the Assembly's powers.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The Ayes Have It

Well, that's it then. The Ayes have it. MPs on the Welsh Grand Committee (those who turned up) agreed unanimously that their committee had considered the report of another committee.

You can read my running commentary on Twitter. Thanks to those of you who stayed with me during four hours of debate.

I'm now going back to the day job - which today included Afghanistan, MPs' expenses, and Prime Minister's Question Time.

Oh, and if you're still waiting to find out whether the Plaid MPs will respond to the challenge set down by their SNP parliamentary partners - and publish their Legg letters - then you are not alone. Lucky I'm not one of those conspiracy theorist hacks who assumes silence means something to hide!

Grand Tweeting

The atmosphere is tense. The sense of anticipation is palpable throughout Westminster. Forget MPs' expenses, history will be made today when the Welsh Grand Committee devotes its attentions to an LCO for the first time.

More specifically, the 40 MPs from Wales and the co-opted shadow Welsh Secretary will be debating the "9th Report from the Welsh Affairs Committee, Proposed National Assembly for Wales (Legislative Competence) (Welsh Language) Order 2009, HC 348, and its implications for Wales."

The Welsh Grand is the Marmite of parliamentary committees. One Plaid Cymru AM has described today's session as "pointless" and called for it to be scrapped, although I would be surprised if her party's MPs stayed away from the debate.

To reflect this historic development, I shall be tweeting throughout the committee meeting - another historic first. Apologies to Facebook friends and fellow Twitter users who may not share my fascination with Legislative Competence Orders but as the Welsh Grand has never been tweeted before I thought it worth experimenting with this new-fangled technology.

The meeting is due to start at 9.25am and you can follow it here.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Rising to the challenge?

Plaid Cymru and the SNP have always argued that their joint parliamentary group at Westminster helps them punch above their weight.

So when Plaid called for Tony Blair to be impeached, the SNP piled in, and when the SNP reported the Blair Government to the police for allegedly selling peerages Plaid wrote to Plod too.

But the Celtic alliance does not appear to be working on today's big issue - MPs' expenses.

The SNP were swiftly out of the blocks, promising to publish their letters from Sir Thomas Legg and challenging other parties to do the same. "There should be complete openness and transparency," said the SNP MP John Mason.

Plaid were rather more cautious, their three MPs spending several hours discussing what to do. Eventually, a statement arrived summarising their Legg letters.

Apparently Sir Thomas has asked them to provide more information on mortgage payments. There have also been individual requests about claims for "maintenance work, council tax and water rates, ground rent, buildings insurance and the purchase of an item of white goods."

Many MPs across all parties have received similar letters asking for information. Sir Thomas has not as yet advised any Plaid MP to repay any money, although they will if he does.

But will they, in the interests of "complete openness and transparency" rise to the challenge set by their Westminster group partners?

They're going to get back to me on that one.

8 days is a long time in politics

Is it really all of eight days since George Osborne reminded the Conservative conference: "This June we told the truth and said publicly that whoever won the election would have to cut government spending"?

Yes, eight days on, a news release arrives in the inbox from the Welsh Conservatives. Headlined "WORST EVER SETTLEMENT FOR COUNCILS" it criticises the Welsh Assembly Government's local government budget.

“This increase marks a record low with regards to local government settlements in Wales," says Tory Assembly Member Darren Millar. “This is going to put even more stress on the already strained budgets of councils throughout the country."

This year's settlement may or may not be "the worst ever". Does anyone really think that if George Osborne is Chancellor 12 months hence - and has held his promised summer emergency Budget - the Welsh Assembly Government will have more cash to splash on councils? Or that local government in England will be spared Tory cuts?

The devolution settlement means WAG has no responsibility for raising its own funds - giving opposition parties equal freedom to criticise Ministers who fail to cough up the cash whatever their colleagues in Westminster say.

You can see why Unionist parties in Scotland - and figures close to Gordon Brown such as Ed Balls - believe political spending should be accompanied by some responsibility for raising the cash involved.

Twitter ye not

Is this the week we should feel sorry for MPs? Er, possibly not, although lots of them are feeling very sorry for themselves. You can see their point, even if you don't share it.

Sir Thomas Legg's retrospective rules on what was reasonable for MPs to claim for gardening and cleaning have understandably annoyed those who thought they led squeaky clean lives and had all their expenses agreed by the Commons authorities.

Even Gordon Brown's greatest enemies would struggle to argue that he went into politics for financial or even horticultural reasons but the Prime Minister now faces a bill of £12,415.10 for over-claiming on cleaning and gardening.

As you might expect, we started ringing round Welsh MPs yesterday to see if they had received their Legg letters - and what they said. Even hard-bitten hacks felt a bit sheepish ringing some of the more notable "saints" on the backbenches to ask whether they'd been accused of fiddling their expenses.

With all this focus on MPs' allowances, other stories may not have received the coverage they otherwise would have. But you can read here about David Blunkett's plan to donate his brain to dementia research (after he dies) and Chris Bryant's Twitter reshuffle.

Just as many politicians donate their papers to the Welsh Political Archive at the National Library, so I trust that the new Europe Minister's tweets will find a permanent if virtual home for future historians.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

She's not John Redwood

Among all the embarrassing things that could happen to you at a party conference, it probably ranks alongside turning up in the same outfit as a Lib Dem activist.

The Tories are playing my record collection (as I still call it) to party members here. The Style Council, Snow Patrol......I'm a bit worried they'll start playing The Smiths next. Either I've got older or the Conservative taste in music has got younger; probably a bit of both.

I've spent the last 24 hours trying to discover the political views of the woman likely to become Secretary of State for Wales if David Cameron wins the general election.

The Tory leader admits his party is still divided over devolution. We know its leader in Cardiff Bay, Nick Bourne, thinks the Welsh Assembly should have full law-making powers. After almost five years in the job, no-one knows Cheryl Gillan's views on the subject.

The Tories have promised to reveal their party policy before the general election but are waiting for the All-Wales Convention to report on the prospects for a referendum. (Most activists here are keener on a referendum on Europe but that's another story).

If a Conservative Government did agree to a referendum on Assembly powers, a risky strategy in itself, then Tory MPs would be given a free vote which could see senior politicians from the governing party campaigning against each other.

Cheryl Gillan's views on this remain a mystery, although she did let slip a secret or two during a visit to a stall promoting Welsh produce in the conference: "My husband's a faggots and peas man".

Ms Gillan would be the first woman Secretary of State Wales has seen. She'd be the sixth from an English constituency, an experience that has previously ended in tears for the Tories.

The Gillan response? "I'm not John Redwood".

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Same old Tories

Lyndon Jones has never been so popular. The president of the Welsh Conservatives has this week received a request from The Observer for a comment and been praised for a speech he made to English Tory activists.

Mr Jones was too modest to accept either the invitation to comment or the unsolicited praise, both of which were intended for another robust Tory figure, party chairman Eric Pickles.

I have yet to see a photograph of the two of them in the same place, so perhaps they are one and the same person.

Alternatively, Mr Jones could secure lucrative employment as Mr Pickles' stunt double.

Mr Pickles has the slightly more substantial figure so there is another theory that they are both from the same series of  Russian-style Tory dolls. Lift the lid on "Uncle Eric" and out pops Lyndon.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Cameron: Let's not have an argument

The Welsh Conservatives' "reception" (nothing so common as "Welsh Night") is a curious fixture on the conference fringe.

Guests could be forgiven they are arriving at a rather posh wedding, such is the line-up of hosts that needs to be negotiated before the room can be entered.

Tonight's reception committee included Cheryl Gillan, Nick Bourne, Catrin Edwards and Lyndon Jones, all working to make David Cameron feel truly welcome.

The Tory leader was unusually open about his party's policy differences in a speech delivered only after the room had been swept for TV cameras and a Radio Wales presenter had been ejected.

"Let's have a frank point here," he said. "We don't all agree about the future of devolution but let's not have an argument about it. - we want devolution to work, we will be practical about it."

So a pretty frank admission that the Tories are split on the question of whether the Welsh Assembly should acquire more powers. And an implicit admission that the differences are unlikely to be resolved soon - not that anyone here was holding their breath for a definitive policy statement this week.

Careless talk costs votes?

It wouldn't be a party conference without questions being asked about the defence training academy proposed for St Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan.

Around 5,000 jobs are due to be created by the project to centralise training at one base in the largest private finance initative seen.

Unless of course an incoming Conservative Government pulls the plug on it. So, David Cameron, you're the PM. What would you do?

"Everyone wants to see it happen, wants it to go ahead. Clearly we need to have a strategic defence review. Everything has to be looked at in a strategic defence review. We are going to hold one."
So no commitment then? "Everyone is committed to this, wants it to go ahead but we have a strategic defence review as well."
So we asked the Shadow Defence Secretary Liam Fox. He told Good Evening Wales: "We are in favour of it in principle. We will look how quickly a project like that could happen when we undertake our strategic defence review."
The consortium behind the project, Metrix, is sponsoring the Welsh reception on the conference fringe tonight.

Perhaps the odd glass of sherry will loosen tongues.

Harvey Nicks, the Professor, and Incapacity Benefit

The Harvey Nicks cocktail bar in the conference centre is doing a roaring trade. Perhaps the warnings about complacency have yet to filter through to the massed Tories here. Alan Duncan has apparently been spotted drinking something fizzy.

But enough frivolity. Just occasionally we cover stories that actually affect the lives of our audience. David Cameron's plan to make everyone on Incapacity Benefit take medical tests to prove they really are too sick to work could have a big impact in former industrial areas of south Wales.

No fewer than one in ten of the Welsh workforce - 188,000 people - claim IB and its ESA successor.

In Merthyr, one in six people of working age are on the benefit. The Tories say many of them (400,000 out of the UK's 2.6m) could be in work.

If David Cameron wins power next year, those who are judged fit to work will be expected to look for a job, or have their benefit cut from the £89 a week on IB to the £64 a week job seeker's allowance.

Mr Cameron argues that many on the benefit want to work - although the success of his idea may depend on there being jobs to do in deprived areas.

Nick Bourne, the Tories' leader in the Welsh Assembly, went on Radio Wales to defend the policy. He told Good Evening Wales the numbers claiming the benefit had "swollen" each year under Labour - words such as "remorselessly" appeared  alongside "year on year" during the interview.

He may be right. He is a professor, after all. But the official figures here and contempotary ones confirmed by the DWP today suggest numbers have gone down, albeit slightly, under Labour.

Snubbed again?

Time to press the F5 button for those with "snub to Wales" stored on their computer keyboard?

David Cameron told BBC Scotland he'd visit Edinburgh during his first week as Prime Minister.

So, I asked him, would we see PM Cameron in Cardiff in week one?

"I can't set out my diary in advance but be in no doubt; I visit Wales regularly, I take my responsibilities in Wales extraordinary seriously, it is something I will want to do."

"I regularly visit Wales and I want devolution to work. I want there to be a good relationship between the First Minister of Wales and the Assembly and the UK Parliament.

"I would make myself available to answer questions in the Welsh Assembly. I think Welsh Assembly Ministers should be able to come to Westminster and answer questions and vice versa."

I can think of at least one Assembly Government Minister who wouldn't think that was a great idea.

Mr Cameron also spoke of his idea for a "Council of the Nations" involving the PM and the FMs from Cardiff, Edinburgh and Northern Ireland.

The annual meeting would discuss "issues about how we keep the family of the UK together."

I can think of at least one First Minister, and three deputies, from the extended family who wouldn't be too keen on that agenda.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Not at this stage, no

 it's Sunday, it must be Manchester. Greetings from what is now known as Manchester Central, the exhibition centre formerly known as G-Mex, home to the Conservatives for a week.

This lot could be in power in a few months, but don't hold your breath waiting for Welsh policy announcements. "Not at this stage, no" was Cheryl Gillan's response to a suggestion that the Tories might choose the conference to unveil Welsh manifesto ideas. She would, understandably, prefer to announce policies in Wales.

As she spoke to the Welsh media (well, three of us), David Cameron was giving an interview to BBC Scotland in which he promised to set up "a council of the nations" to improve relations between Westminster and devolved governments.

The idea appeared to catch the Welsh leadership on the hop, although its theme - better co-operation - is one we'll be hearing a lot about, in the absence of policies, at a Welsh fringe meeting tomorrow.

So lots more meetings between politicians, a veritable mall of talking shops. If your pulse is racing at the prospect, do let me know.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Who cares?

I could spend the rest of the week trying to find out which bits of Gordon Brown's speech apply to Wales, which are England only, and which have already been announced and probably won't happen anyway.

Life is too short so I'll just look at one area for the moment - free personal care. This is what Gordon Brown said: "And so we will say in Labour's manifesto that social care for all is not a distant dream, that to provide security for pensioners for generations to come - we will bring together the National Health Service and local care provision into a new National Care Service."

"And we can start straight away......and so for those with the highest needs we will now offer in their own homes free personal care."

Synidau has looked into how this might work in some detail.

Good news? That may depend on where you live. Peter Hain told Wales Today viewers that the National Care Service would be UK-wide. So that means, one day, more cash to do similar things in Wales.

What about the PM's promise to "start straight away?" This promise will apparently be paid for in part by cutting lower-priority areas of the existing (English) Department of Health budget. So if the Assembly Government hopes for a swift windfall from the plan, Ministers in Cardiff shouldn't hold their breath.

And the "National Care Service" itself depends on Labour winning the next election, which, shall we say, does not exactly look like a racing cert.

Not a dossier

"It is not a dossier." At least that's what Chris Bryant told me when I asked about his publication today of a document on the Tories and Wales.

The said document predicts that the Conservatives would slash around £2.5bn off public spending in Wales.

The Tories say that's news to them, as they appear reluctant to confirm any concrete proposals.

Labour come up with the £2.5bn figure by assuming the Conservatives would cut 10 per cent of the £25.3bn the Treasury says is spent in Wales each year.

The non-dossier predicts that if the Tories win the general election, the minimum wage would be frozen and the winter fuel payment and tax credits would be abolished.

Scare-mongering, say the Conservatives although they won't say how much they would spend in Wales if they won the election.

Struggling to get detailed answers on the non-dossier I switched to the philosophical question of the week: Is Chris Bryant a mushy peas or guacamole man?

"It depends whether I'm having fish and chips or potato wedges," explained the Rhondda MP.
"But I am the Minister for Latin America".

The "new Labour for Britain" logo on the back page of his non-dossier puts him firmly in the guacamole camp.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Another twit out there

I've been wondering whether to join Twitter or not. Apparently, 40 per cent of the messages posted on the site are pointless drivel, so I should be able to help drive it towards parity.

I'm not yet convinced there's a huge market out there for regular reports on the minutiae of my life (6.30am David is on Radio Wales/changing his son's nappy/going for a run) but I'm prepared to risk even greater anonymity.

Once I get posting, I'll be on, if I can get the hang of tweeting.

Guacamole days

We used to use labels such as left-wing or right-wing as political short-hand. Then there was New Labour and Old Labour. These sophisticated days distinctions are more subtle - guacamole versus mushy peas.

Of the candidates to succeed Rhodri Morgan, Huw Lewis tells us he's "a little bit more of a tapas man". We were hoping to ask Carwyn Jones this most profound of questions but alas he was not available for interview.

You can find more here.

And no, I won't be claiming the chips on expenses.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Staying neutral

Wherever two or three Welsh Labour politicians are gathered in the hotel bars or on the conference fringe, the talk turns to.....LCOs and the Barnett Formula.

Well, possibly. At Welsh Night, two of the would-be candidates to succeed Rhodri Morgan pressed the flesh with fervour as their supporters span lines to passing hacks.

Carwyn Jones exchanged warm greetings with Gordon Brown (who hasn't a vote) while filmed by another AM from the Jones camp.

Others are trying to stay out of the fray. Peter Hain told me on The Politics Show Wales: "I'm not backing anybody. As secretary of state for Wales I am staying entirely neutral on this, as you'd expect."

Ditto, his deputy Wayne David. There's no law that says Ministers have to stay neutral - and indeed they didn't in the past, Mr Hain backing Ron Davies and Alun Michael against Rhodri Morgan. Perhaps it's the bruises of past battles that explain why studied neutrality is the stance of choice this time.

Mr Hain's neutrality didn't stop him questioning the sustainability of the Welsh Assembly Government's policy of free hospital parking.

Just as well, perhaps, that Health Minister and potential candidate Edwina Hart doesn't appear to have made it to the Sussex coast.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Another PR triumph

Who said Labour were obsessed with spin and image? Tonight, the party banned television cameras from a Welsh Night reception here in Brighton.

So viewers won't get to see Gordon Brown's tribute to the retiring Rhodri Morgan, or hear his campaigning message delivered to delegates.

The decision to ban the cameras incensed AMs, MPs and Ministers present at the bash, never mind those of us who depend on pictures to tell news stories.

Gordon Brown is the first Labour leader to ban cameras from the event. It's not as if he turned up, told a few blue jokes and drank 17 cans of Tennant's Extra before being grilled on his latest NHS prescription.

So why the ban? He warned delegates "we are up against the media" which may explain the camera shyness.

Otherwise, he was relaxed, fluent and cheerful, doing a passable impression of a human being. What a shame you won't get to see that for yourselves.

Greetings from Brighton

Another Sunday by the seaside. The circus has moved on, from Bournemouth to Brighton, for another of those crucial make-or-break, to borrow a cliche or two, political conferences.

This time the talk is of leadership, of this being possibly the last conference for someone who's been at the top for years.

But enough about Gordon Brown, apparently this could be Rhodri Morgan's farewell conference too.

As late as this morning, colleagues were in the dark about Mr Morgan's retirement plans. He had apparently considered making his announcement to delegates here but then thought an English gathering might not be the best venue.

It has been just like old times here in Brighton. Peter Hain has been impossible to avoid on air or in print.

He found time to offer advice via the Sunday Times to the Prime Minister: "He should have a chance to allow himself to sleep more and take a break a bit more."

When you get that sort of advice from a famously workaholic Cabinet Minister, not averse to e-mailing staff before the rest of us get up, it really is time to slow down.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Lib Dem scrappage scheme latest

This is Vince Cable's answer to a question about the proposed St Athan defence academy project, as broadcast this morning:

"No scrapping at all. I don't know how much you've read what I've said. But I was simply reporting evaluations by other people that there were questions about how important it was. I didn't actually refer to it being scrapped at all.......certainly didn't talk at all about cutting or culling that's been attributed to me, but we've got to have a critical review of these things. of course the government hasnt delivered this project as it happens I mean there's question marks with that."

And this is what he said a week ago were among his main proposals for economic recovery:

"Reducing the amount of waste in the defence procurement process, including scrapping the Eurofighter and Tranche 3 (£5 billion over 6 years), the A400M (total cost £22 billion), Nimrod MRA4, the Defence Training Review contract (£13 billion over 25 years) and
the Trident submarine successor (£70 billion over 25 years)."

The halo slips again?

Vince Cable, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, Treasury spokesman and sage of Twickenham, joined us for the Good Morning Wales outside broadcast from Bournemouth today.

As you might expect, Bethan Rhys Roberts asked him about the proposed defence training academy at St Athan, which featured in his "recovery plan for the UK" published last week.

"I didn't actually refer to it being scrapped at all," said Dr Cable.

Really? This is what the pamphlet says the main proposals are:

"Reducing the amount of waste in the defence procurement process, including scrapping the Eurofighter and Tranche 3 (£5 billion over 6 years), the A400M (total cost £22 billion), Nimrod MRA4, the Defence Training Review contract (£13 billion over 25 years) and the Trident submarine successor (£70 billion over 25 years)."

Is it just me, or has Dr Cable's halo slipped again? It's all a bit shocking. They'll be telling us Father Christmas doesn't exist next.

Monday, 21 September 2009


Is Vince Cable's halo slipping again? The Lib Dems' national treasure's proposed levy on expensive homes appears to be unravelling.

Dr Cable's team say the charge - applied on the value of homes above £1m - is a UK-wide tax.

Oh not it's not say his friends in the Welsh Liberal Democrats. They say the Assembly Government - and the Scottish Parliament - would be able to opt out of a levy, the proceeds of which would raise tax thresholds across the UK, lifting the poorest out of income tax altogether.

Property tends to be cheaper in Wales, with fewer £1m-plus houses, so it's questionable how much the levy would raise.

The tax would apparently be based on land registry values - i.e. sales. So if you bought your home for £60,000 forty years ago and it's now worth £2m you wouldn't pay the levy.

It would also be temporary and apply only until a local income tax is introduced.

The charge has been described as a "mansion tax" although constituents of some Lib Dem MPs in south-west London could re-brand it as a "terrace tax".

Could this possibly be less a policy and another one of Dr Cable's famous "first, rough attempts"?

Presumably not, as the "framework of principles" underlying all Lib Dem tax policy includes "simplicity - tax policies should be clear to taxpayers and new policy should aim to eliminate complexity in existing legislation."

That's all clear then.

Money saving offer

Ed Balls's suggestion that £2bn could be cut off the schools budget in England is not an entirely academic debate for those interested in Welsh politics.

Students of the Barnett formula will already have worked out that this would leave the Welsh Assembly Government with around £100m less to spend.

It's a sign of how quickly the economic crisis has changed the political debate that a Labour Minister has been able to float the idea without howls of outrage (beyond the teaching unions).

If the idea had come from, say, the Conservatives, even in dire economic times, politicians in Cardiff Bay would be sticking pins in their John Redwood effigy dolls.

Hold the front page

Hold the front page. Well, the Western Mail did. Its front page marks the remarkable news that the Lib Dems will enter the next election campaign with at least one policy unchanged from the last.

The party wants to scrap the Welsh Secretary's role in the UK Cabinet, merging it into a new Department of the Nations and Regions.

This is part of an attempt to cut public spending by cutting the cost of government, even if the party's leader in Wales could not say, on the Politics Show yesterday, how much would be saved by the move.

Today, the Tory-bashing mood in Bournemouth continues, with Vincent Cable attacking George Osborne and his party.

Saint Vince, as he is known among the Lib Dems, will say of the Tories: "They pose as tough guys cutting spending sooner and deeper than anyone else" before accusing them of "political cynicism".

The Lib Dems, of course, would never join the rush to pose as tough guys cutting spending. Dr Cable's idea last week for saving £13bn from the defence budget - scrapping the training academy scheduled for St Athan - is now "under review" according to Nick Clegg.

There's euphemistic talk of "robust discussions" between Lib Dems in Wales and Westminster after the storm generated by the idea, although Dr Cable appeared to defend it on the BBC News Channel at the weekend.

Kirsty Williams, kept in the dark by her colleagues, says communication will improve: "We're simply not going to put up with it any more."

That's Vince told, then.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Fashion victim and cake

Greetings from Bournemouth, where the fine weather and free cake on offer at the Liberal Democrat conference is almost enough to leave me in a sunny mood at the start of the (UK) conference season.

The cake marks a return to the cheesy stunts and photo-opportunities enjoyed by Lib Dems in years gone by.

A party worker donned a Gordon Brown mask to deliver the said cake to the party's leader in Wales, Kirsty Williams.

She was kind enough to give me the first slice, even if it was smaller than you might expect. The point the Lib Dems were making is that Wales gets a smaller slice than it should when it comes to public spending.

I took the opportunity to canvass English Lib Dem activists to see whether they'd fancy giving up some cash from their constituncies to spend on public services in Wales.

And, well-meaning souls that they are, most agreed, including a man from Harrow who argued that London already subsidises the rest of the UK to the tune of £11bn a year so a few more million wouldn't make much difference.

On a fashion note, a colleague noted that Ms Williams was wearing a dress identical to that worn during her role as presenter of the Welsh Mastermind.

If I ever turn up at a Lib Dem conference and discover I share a wardrobe item with Peter Black you have permission to shoot me before I reach for the revolver myself.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Public service blogging

Consensus politics lives, up to a point. Labour, Plaid Cymru and SNP politicians emerged from today's Joint Ministerial Committee at Westminster to declare unity on the issue of the day - public spending.

Their cause - endorsed by the arrival of Gordon Brown towards the end of the meeting - was the need to keep spending high until the recession is over, a policy that isolates the Conservatives.

There were limits to the consensus. The Labour/Plaid Cymru coalition that runs the Welsh Assembly Government want an advance on their budget for 2011/2012 so they can carry on spending next April for the 2010/2011 financial year.

Will they get it? Welsh Secretary Peter Hain pointed out that "you can't keep bringing forward capital spending because it's within a fixed envelope over a period of years" although UK Ministers will consider the request. Ministers hope that economic recovery will be underway before next April, removing the need for a continued fiscal stimulus.

Plaid were also happy to get agreement for Ministers and officials to consider independent arbitration in deciding levels of public spending in Wales. At the moment the Treasury decides how the Barnett formula works and whether Wales gets a slice of extra spending in England, e.g. on the London Olympics.

Peter Hain offered limited hope to his nationalist partners/foes: "You cannot in the end settle issues of spending and finance and the distribution in our case between England and Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland by some independent court. You need to find a way of resolving disputes but in the end it'll come down to politics and what the public support and don't support."

The flippin' obvious

A gold star to Tomos Livingstone for revealing the truth about joined up opposition within the Liberal Democrats.

As one Welsh party official put it in an email to party HQ/federal colleagues at Westminster/their London masters* (*delete according to taste), "We had no idea this saving would be identified and are now dealing with media 'did you knows?' - it's flippin' obvious we didn't....the longer we leave it the more apparent the disconnect."

Enough of this, I've got a story to do that involves the Barnett formula and ministerial committees. Have all my Christmases really come early?

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Cutting it fine

The Lib Dems are not the only party looking at defence cuts.

The Telegraph reports that the shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, has a range of military projects in his sights, among them the A400M airlifter, the wings for which would be made at Broughton, that favoured photo-opportunity for every politician heading to North-East Wales.

The A400M is another of the projects Vince Cable would scrap, according to his "first, rough attempt".

Facing facts or facing both ways?

More news from the Welsh Lib Dems here. The man who describes himself as the Liberal Democrat Shadow Secretary of State for Wales says it's time to face facts over spending.

Roger Williams says: "All politicians must face up to the fact that we will need to cut spending to reduce the deficit, and they need to start outlining what they would cut, rather than making tokenistic gestures, or avoiding the issue altogether.

"While Brown and Cameron are playing hide and seek over cuts, Vince Cable has outlined a set of serious proposals that would make a major impact on reducing our levels of debt. This is by no means the full list of what needs to be done, and more hard choices will have to be made in the run-up to the general election, but this is an important first step."

An important first step or a "rough, first attempt"? With the Lib Dems, you don't need to choose.

The Things They Say

Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams on the proposed military training academy at St Athan:

"It is hard to underestimate the economic impact this will have if St Athan's bid is successful. It is a huge investment in Wales and the people of Wales, and my congratulations go to all those who have worked on the bid, who have been vigorously promoting the advantages of a South Wales location and the useful experience of the local workforce.

"There have been a number of job losses and closure threats at St Athan over the past few years, but this contract should now bring some stability to the workers and to local people. It is a vote of confidence not just in St Athan, but in the whole of Wales - a recognition that we are a location with expertise, a country with ability, a place to do business."

That was Kirsty Williams speaking on January 17, 2007. Or perhaps that was just a "first, rough attempt".

Sandals in the wind

The Lib Dems appear to have got their sandals in a twist after I highlighted a policy proposal put forward by their Treasury spokesman and deputy leader - an idea that would save billions but could also mean thousands of expected jobs would never be created.

The party has put Dr Cable's idea on its website but has now added the disclaimer: "Please note: this is not official Liberal Democrat policy and examples are illustrative and represent only a first, rough attempt."

It's just coincidence that the St Athan proposal appears in the same sentence as the plan to scrap Trident, which was party policy the last time I looked.

Perhaps by "first, rough attempt" (an interesting concept for someone who would be Chancellor to publish) they simply mean an embarrassing cock-up.

Lib Dem Axe-Man

No-one can accuse the Lib Dems of refusing to use the c-word. Their Treasury guru, Vince Cable, is publishing today a list of where the axe would fall should they win power.

His chums in the Welsh Lib Dems may or may not be thrilled to learn that Dr Cable would scrap the defence training review contract, estimated to be worth £13bn, a project that would see a defence training academcy set up in St Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan.

Dr C argues that this is believed to be a "highly expensive" option and would therefore scrap the contract.

No news yet on what the Welsh Lib Dems, who previously supported the project, think of plans to scrap one of the largest investments Wales has seen along with the prospect of several thousand jobs.

UPDATE: The Welsh Lib Dems, who appear to have been caught on the hop by their economic expert, say his views - which they circulated - are not party policy although they do indicate "the direction of travel" (their ghastly phrase, not mine) of the cuts required.

Clearly, only irresponsible hacks could confuse the views of someone who describes himself as the "Liberal Democrat shadow Chancellor" and is deputy leader of his party with party policy.

St Vince's spin doctors deny that he's calling for it to be scrapped. I must have been confused by this excerpt from his pamphlet: "The main proposals are.......Reducing the amount of waste in the defence procurement process, including scrapping........the Defence Training Review contract (£13bn over 25 years)".

As he puts it himself: "The time for generalities is over".

Monday, 14 September 2009

Accountable to parents?

Devolution may mean different policies for different parts of Britain but UK-wide political parties tend to apply similar principles everywhere.

Well, they do sometimes. Was the scrapping of tests for primary school pupils in Wales (and replacement by internal teacher assessment) an example of "Welsh solutions for Welsh problems" or bad news for parents?

Here's Lord Mandelson's take on the issue, in an English context:"The test for political parties over the next few years is whether they can make the tough decisions that protect the frontline. It's clear from our plans to create real rights and guarantees in the NHS that we will do this. Why are the Tories so unwilling?Why do they want to scrap even the most basic guarantees?

"That is the question they must answer if anyone is to believe they are serious about protecting frontline services.In schools, the same principle is being applied where the Tories are proposing to drop the SATS test in the last year of primary school. Accountability to parents is to be sacrificed in favour of the producer interest. It’s part of the same unspoken pact."

Leaving aside advice on accountability from the unelected House of Lords, that may be a line to remember the next time Gordon Brown's cabinet drops by west of Offa's Dyke.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Back to school

A slightly worrying pledge from the Conservatives to make the local school on my adopted manor "one of the best secondary's in the country".

Hopefully, the school in question will one day be good enough to teach its pupils about apostrophes and plurals.

UPDATE: Zac Goldsmith, for it is he, tells me with a generosity of spirit not always found in politics: "Thank you for pointing this out. As an editor for more than 10 years, I ought to have avoided this one...!"

Thursday, 3 September 2009

The first snub of September?

It's that time of year again. A hefty document lands on the doormat to quel that almost tangible sense of anticipation.

But enough about the new Argos catalogue, the equally lengthy agenda for the Liberal Democrat conference has also arrived amid no less excitement.

Students of Welsh politics who plough through A fresh start for Britain - Choosing a different, better future, will be quick to spot one of those "snubs to Wales" that punctuate the political landscape.

This is, says Nick Clegg, "one of our most important conferences ever". But there is no space on the conference platform for the new leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, Kirsty Williams.

There is a speaking slot for her Scottish counterpart, Tavish Scott MSP, but Ms Williams is likely to be seen but not heard in the conference hall.

Party officials deny that this is response to the Lib Dems' 5th place in the European elections in Wales and say Ms W had a starring role at their spring gathering even if that was largely ignored by a weary media suffering from conference fatigue.

UPDATE: The Lib Dems now say their Welsh leader will be "summating" a debate on devolution on the Sunday morning, and will therefore be heard as well as seen in the conference hall even if she is denied a keynote platform role.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Street wise

Cardiff already has a Lloyd George Avenue and a James Callaghan Square. Future generations will doubtless be able to stroll along Rhodri Morgan Boulevard or Ieuan Wyn Jones Crescent.

A colleague reports that the "One Wales Agreement" coalition deal between Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru has already been marked in the United States.

Perhaps it's time to commemorate the agreement closer to home. Coalition Close, anyone?