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.