Thursday, 25 March 2010

Cuts: Labour MPs forced to share vocabularies

The Conservatives aren't the only ones singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to their Budget message.

Labour MPs have had another case of great minds thinking rather alike.

Here is Aberavon MP Hywel Francis's take on what Alistair Darling had to say yesterday: "I welcome this Budget as it secures the recovery – rather than putting it at risk. It builds a future based on growth and jobs – rather than leaving people to a decade of austerity."

Martyn Jones from Clwyd South had this to say: "This Budget secures the recovery rather than putting it at risk.

"It builds a future based on growth and jobs rather than leaving people to a decade of austerity."

Perhaps the Chancellor's new-found efficiency savings have already been implemented, forcing Labour backbenchers to share vocabularies.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Budget Day, the Tory way

Here's a rough timeline of Conservative activity on Budget Day at Westminster.

Early afternoon (via @paulwaugh) Tory whips text to MPs says: "This is an empty Budget, which proves Labour has run out of ideas".

Mid afternoon: Tory MP declines interview because they've been told not to comment before official briefing.

4.54pm: Conservative Campaign Headquarters e-mail journalists: "An empty Budget: the day Labour were found out."

"The only new policies were ones stolen from the Conservatives – like the stamp duty cut and new university places. It was the day Labour were found out.

"Britain can see that only the Conservatives have the energy, leadership and ideas to get Britain working."

4.59pm:  Press release arrives from Cheryl Gillan: “This really was the day when Labour was found out. It is clear now that only Conservatives have the energy and drive to get Wales and Britain back on track.”
If demonstrating old New Labour-style on-message commitment wins votes then the Tories must be feeling optimistic.

Plaid MPs: why we cross picket lines

A Plaid Cymru spokeswoman e-mails to explain why the party's MPs will be crossing picket lines today:

"Plaid's AMs have supported the right of the PCS union to withdraw labour during this dispute by not crossing their picket lines. Plaid is urging the Westminster government to return to negotiations with the union immediately and the Assembly group will be writing to the Gordon Brown's government to impress on them the need to do so.

"It is also inconceivable that Members of Parliament representing Plaid Cymru should not attend the budget debate today.

“It was a tough decision between supporting the strikers and the importance of the up and coming budget on public sector workers given the agenda of the two main parties in Westminster.

"There is a difference between this and the meaningless attempts by opposition parties in Cardiff Bay to score petty political points during such a worrying time for so many public sector workers.

“Their actions show how little they care for the people affected by the Westminster government's plans to cut redundancy payments."

MPs cross where AMs fear to tread

"It is something ingrained in party thinking. We do not cross a picket line."

The words of Welsh Labour leader Carwyn Jones, quoted in today's Western Mail. They may create some difficulty for his Labour colleagues in Westminster, where pickets are out in force on Budget Day.

Chancellor Alistair Darling will have to cross a picket line to deliver his own Budget - and presumably run the risk of being called a scab by his party's leader in Wales.

In Cardiff Bay, Labour and Plaid Cymru AMs are staying away from the Welsh Assembly chamber.

Plaid Cymru say their AMs have supported the right of the PCS union to withdraw labour in this dispute.

Plaid's three MPs may also support union's right to withdraw labour during this dispute, but, according to a spokeswoman, they will be present in the Commons for the Budget statement.

No news yet on what Plaid AMs make of their colleagues' decision.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

So how was it for me?

The last time I went to Cardiff Crown Court I was a young reporter on the Western Mail with pretty good shorthand.

Today, almost a quarter of a century later, and with slightly less perfect Teeline, I was back: this time not as a reporter but as the son of a victim of crime.

Two things I learned today: the acoustics aren't so great in the public seats and you don't get to see the defendant's face during sentencing.

Sean White was smirking as he arrived at court and appeared to be smirking as he was taken down.

Perhaps he was born smirking, or he thought he got off lightly with a two-year sentence, the second out on licence.

The sentence would have been longer but the prosecution were unable to prove that White profited by more than the £2,000 he claimed. It was also reduced by one third for his guilty plea.

It was surreal to emerge from the court building and be faced by TV and still cameras and several hacks waiting to talk to my sister and me, an inside-out view of my daily existence.

All, from Real Radio to Wales News, asked me the how-do-you-feel question about the sentence.

I'm not unhappy with it. I'm not convinced keeping him banged up for longer would help the greater good. I'd rather see him doing some tough but useful community work, provided the judicial experience is enough to stop him doing something similar to someone else's mother.

On the other hand, perhaps he was smirking because he is genuinely terrified of the guys behind this and thinks he'll be safer inside.

For me, this not about revenge; it's not about the money. It's about how an evil bunch of greedy parasites tormented a dying elderly widow in her own home.

What pleased me most about the process was the way the judge, Paul Thomas QC, understood the impact of the crime on my mother and our family and the way he reflected that in the way he spoke to White.

The other question I've been asked today is: how did it happen?

That's a question, in the absence of my mother, none of us can fully answer. She was so ashamed at having been conned that she chose to suffer in silence with devastating consequences for her health.

We're not exactly the Waltons but throughout this she carried on as a Mum and devoted Granny with absolutely no hint of the inner mental torment she must have felt.

I thought our discovery of the scam would help give her peace of mind in her final weeks.

I was wrong. The shame she felt made things worse and she never came to terms with her fatal illness despite the brilliance of the staff at the Marie Curie Holme Tower hospice in Penarth.

I've been really touched by how many people have been in touch today and have shared or re-tweeted the story. The messages have helped restore my fractured faith in the fundamental decency of most people.

 I even had an e-mail from someone who was in Sunday School with my late father in Ammanford 70 years ago. Thank you all. Carry on re-tweeting.

It's not an obvious story to share, and re-living events today has been draining. I would rather not have had to bare my soul across the media but only by spreading the news can we alert people to the way some evil lowlifes target the old and vulnerable.

I have been asked the "closure" question a few times today. Part of me hates these psychobabble terms, but I understand what this one means. The main villains behind what the judge called this wicked enterprise are still out there so "closure" is some way off.

But as a family we can move on, to borrow another phrase from the world of psychobabble. We have to move on.

Back to the day job. Can I interest you in a fascinating item on the Barnett formula....?

The caring estate agent

This is where Sean White was arrested, on September 16 last year - outside Seraph Estates, an estate agency in Crwys Road, Cardiff, where he was sales manager.

He was later charged with two counts of money laundering. And back at work the next day.

Sean White continued to work at Seraph Estates for almost four months after his arrest.

In early January, he made a first appearance at Cardiff Crown Court. Intrigued by his continued employment, I telephoned his office to ask to speak to him, to be told: "It's his day off.".

"Er, can I speak to his boss please?" I spoke to Seraph's proprietor, Douglas Haig, who told me he was shocked to hear his sales manager had been charged with such serious offences. He said he was not aware Sean White had been arrested at his office. He suspended White (innocent until he pleaded guilty) the next day.

The police tell me Mr Haig was aware of his employee's arrest - Mr Haig says he was not. White only joined the staff of Seraph Estates months after the crime for which he was jailed today. There is no suggestion Douglas Haig knew what Sean White had been up to.

Indeed, Mr Haig trusted White so much he loaned him £20,000 - and is presumably still waiting for his money. He may have a long wait.

Readers of the South Wales Echo will have learned recently how Mr Haig is a man on a mission to rid landlords of their image as crooks. He just had the misfortune to employ a crook as his own sales manager.

Mr Haig told me: "I attend PACT [Police and Communities Together] meetings and give up a lot of my time doing things that other estate agents do not do because I believe we all have a responsibility for our environment. I'm not a crook and work hard to make Cardiff a better place."

Fair enough. He also told me: "We have been hit very badly by having to adapt to losing a sales person."

I have patiently explained to Mr Haig that we've been hit very badly by having to adapt to losing a mother and grandmother but then you would hope the man on the mission could have figured that out all by himself.

Seraph Estates are currently looking for a new sales negotiator.  The job description demands "out of the box ideas" - although hopefully Sean White won't be allowed out of his box to apply.

A life's savings gone: how?

They are the most jaw-dropping, eye-popping bank statements I have ever seen.

The pattern of spending resembles that of a Premier League footballer rather than an elderly widow. Has my mother suddenly swapped "tinsel and turkey" breaks in Falmouth for nights out at Bouji's?

These are cash withdrawals she made from branches of NatWest:

Penarth Branch:

6 May 2008 - £6,000,
22 July 2008 - £4,500,
29 July 2008 - £4,500,
19 Aug 2008 - £4,000,
5 Nov 2008 - £18,000,
14 Jan 2009 - £6,000,
31 March 2009 - £5,000,
16 April 2009 - £5,000,
5 May 2009 - £7,000.

Barry Town Hall:

29 July 2008 - £2,000,
20 Aug 2008 - £4,000,
11 Nov 2008 - £6,000,
21 Jan 2009 - £13,000,
26 March 2009 - £5,000,
1 May 2009 - £10,000,
5 May 2009 - £10,000,
4 June 2009 - £5,000,
10 June 2009 - £5,000.

Cardiff University Hospital branch:

19 Aug 2009 - £6,500

She also made two electronic transfers totalling £115,000, from her NatWest account to Sean White, who was jailed today.

How could it happen? It's a question I've been asked today by others, and one I've been asking myself for six months.

My mother had banked with NatWest and its predecessors for 61 years and was a customer of its Private Banking service - NatWest managed her life savings. She was a former bank employee and an RBS pensioner thanks to my late father's work there. His father worked for a NatWest predecessor. So discovering her spending habits was something of a shock to say the least.

As any son would, I contacted her bank as soon as I found the paper trail that led to today's case. I was told: "Unless Mrs Cornock told us she was the victim of fraud, there was nothing we could do."

NatWest told me that, like other banks, have a strict duty of confidentiality to other customers and could not have alerted family members to the pattern of withdrawals.

I questioned why a widow pensioner was given her first overdraft - of £5,000 - at the age of 76. NatWest said the overdraft facility was standard and it wrote to her - in July 2009 - to reduce the limit.

The bank promised to investigate my concerns last September. My mother had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer and I hoped to secure some peace of mind for her in her last months.

After six weeks, having heard little I asked the bank if contacting the press office would produce a quicker response. I was told: "No newspaper would be interested".

Journalists love a challenge, so I contacted the Observer and the Daily Mirror in the hope of getting some answers while my mother was still alive. It appears my news judgement is sounder than some who work in banking.

I questioned why the bank did not raise concerns over the sums involved, as they added up to more than the value of my mother's home. The bank told me that "no bank is able to know all these details for all its customers". My mother's home was insured by.....NatWest.

NatWest say their investigations revealed that counter staff carried out the checks required of any vulnerable customer withdrawing huge sums of money. Indeed, one staff member at Penarth went outside the branch with my mother to check she was not being followed.

The two payments to Sean White passed "due diligence" checks by the bank, which said it accepted my mother's assurances that they were to open a bond at HSBC (despite the cash going straight into White's account) and that they were to an accountant. (NatWest's personal tax service completed her tax returns each year - if she had an accountant, it was them).

Sadly, my mother died last November before NatWest completed their investigations.

NatWest have consistently denied any liability, but have (verbally) offered us £60,000 as a "goodwill gesture" which we have told them we are minded to accept as a way of moving on from this trauma that does not involve enriching lawyers.

As a BBC correspondent I strive to be fair and impartial in accordance with our Values. As a son writing a personal blog I am doing the same although you may not be surprised to learn that I have recently changed the banking habits of a lifetime.

Estate agent jailed over my Mum's life savings

This is Cardiff estate agent Sean White, as he would like his friends to see him, on a popular social networking site.

Facebook may be the only way his friends can see him in the near future, as he is now beginning a short term in what he would doubtless describe as a deceptively spacious prison cell.

White, of 18, Glenroy Street, Roath, Cardiff, is paying the penalty for laundering £115,000 from an old lady's life savings. His victim was Anne Cornock, a 76-year-old widow from the Vale of Glamorgan.

My mother did not live to see Sean White face justice. She died last November from cancer, her last months destroyed by the way Sean White and his mates conned her out of her life savings.

In all, she lost £272,300 in a scam linked to a new drive on her modest bungalow in Sully, near Penarth. Unknown to her family, who discovered the scam by accident while she was in hospital, she was conned and threatened for more than a year, too ashamed and frightened to call the police or tell anyone.

Today, at Cardiff Crown Court, Sean White was sentenced to two years - a year in jail, a year on licence -after pleading guilty to two counts of money laundering £115,000.

Judge Paul Thomas QC told White: "You were a vital component in this wicked enterprise. Without thoroughly dishonourable people like you, these men who exploited Mrs Cornock could not have profited so easily."

White committed the crimes while proprietor of his own business - Masons Homes (Rumney) Ltd. At the time of his arrest - and for three months afterwards - White was sales manager of Seraph Estates in Cardiff. The judge told him he would "never again be employed in a position of trust - and deservedly so".

White's defence was that he did not know where the money that ended up in his bank account came from, even though my mother's name clearly showed on online bank statements. White swiftly emptied the account; the money is long gone.

He told the police that he only knew those he passed the money to by nicknames. Would you lend your bank account details to someone you hardly knew? Me neither.

If you were a gang intent on fleecing an old lady for her life savings would you entrust £115,000 of your ill-gotten gains to someone you barely knew? I don't think so.

Besides the £115,000 sent by electronic transfer, my mother handed over a total of more than £150,000 in cash in payments to these thugs who regularly called at her home. The cash withdrawals from branches of NatWest in Penarth and Barry - £18,000 here, £7,000 there, and so on over a period of months, stopped only when she was admitted to hospital last September. She never came home.

My mother was a sensible, cautious woman who was prudent before Gordon Brown learned to spell the word.

She was a private person and was deeply ashamed of being conned in this way. She would not have appreciated this blog post or wanted others to know what she went through. It is very painful for me to have to re-live the events of last year. But if my Mum could fall for it, then so could yours.

Sean White, who has shown zero remorse, is behind bars but the villains who used his bank account are still out there, free to target other vulnerable old people.
Today, at  Cardiff Crown Court, I listened as White's barrister told Cardiff Crown Court how he'd played only a minor part in what the lawyer admitted was the systematic swindling of an old lady.
We heard about White's relationship problems, his child, his business failure, his own housing difficulties. There was just one word missing from the plea of mitigation.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Think Plaid. Think London?

There's new evidence that a catch-all "London" has replaced "slap in the face" and "snub to Wales" as Plaid Cymru's campaign slogan of choice.

A press release from Hywel Williams MP uses the L-word no fewer than seven times, more often than the word "Wales".

Google "Plaid Cymru" and "London" and you get far more suggestions than you would googling "slap in the face" or "snub to Wales". They really are so last decade.

The strategy appears to be to try to convince voters that everything done at Westminster is purely for the good of rich people in the UK capital, a nationalist version of class war.

The Hywel Williams press release is peppered with references to "Labour in London", "cuts imposed on the Welsh Government by London" and "bosses in London".

Another press release from the party, announcing their line-up of candidates, arrived this afternoon with no fewer than five L-words in its three paragraphs.

Plaid's honorary president, Dafydd Wigley, once upset a few people by referring to "gin-soaked Surrey" (to compare, replace Surrey with any Welsh location and stand by your inbox). Plaid Cymru insist they are not anti-English - "some of my best friends are English" as Elfyn Llwyd told the BBC News Channel recently.

To demonstrate the L-word strategy is not an anti-English pitch, Hywel Williams highlights another area of the UK where public spending is higher than Plaid would apparently like.

"Public spending in England and Scotland outstripped Wales during the ‘good times’ while, under the Barnett Formula, Wales loses out on hundreds of millions of pounds a year."

Scottish public spending outstripping Wales? The SNP, who form part of a single parliamentary party at Westminster, will be thrilled with this contribution to their combined negotiating strength should there be a hung Parliament.

Time's Up

I could feel the wings of history on my tweets. The last Welsh Question Time at Westminster before the general election featured farewell appearances from MPs on both sides of the chamber.

If it was to be Peter Hain's last Question Time appearance as Secretary of State then he could not have wished for some softer questions to smooth him on his way.

Tom Watson kicked off with a penetrating "Can my right honourable friend assure me that he has no plans to axe or cut tax credits?" which prompted Peter Hain to claim there is a Tory "sword of Damocles" hanging over tax credits.

Sian James put him on the spot with her follow-up: "Can the Minister tell me how many families in total have benefited through the policies of this Government on this important issue?"

Mr Hain looked pleased although hardly surprised to be asked a question that allowed him to claim that the Conservatives would axe free school breakfasts.

Betty Williams wanted to know whether he agreed with her constituents that "the tax credit system is certainly not a gimmick?" Tough one, that.

Tory Peter Bone, late of Islwyn but now of Wellingborough, wanted to know how many constituents Mr Hain had had in tears in his office because of the tax credit system.

Mr Hain told him there were people in his constituency office in tears about the threat to their tax credits, although the sight of people in Neath weeping over an opposition party's manifesto is as yet uncorroborated.

There was barely a dry eye in the House as Ministers paid tribute to three Labour MPs taking part in their last Question Time - Betty Williams, Martyn Jones and Don Touhig.

Plaid Cymru's Adam Price bowed out with: "Why is it right for an ENGLISH Minister to sit as judge and jury on the question of bilingual juries?"

The shadow Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan accused Peter Hain of delaying preparations for a referendum on Welsh Assembly powers until it could be taken by an in-coming Conservative government?

It may be a rare example of an in-coming Minister hoping that Labour will take a decision before it arrives in office, allowing Cheryl Gillan to remain on the fence ("neutral") on an issue that divides her party more than most.

Peter Hain told MPs: "This is a matter for consideration after the general election. All the parties agree with that."

And that was more or less that. Historic or otherwise, it was probably an accurate rehearsal of the campaign to come.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

London calling

As any pantomime-goer will tell you, the streets of London are paved with gold.

Some politicians will tell you that gold grows on trees across the English capital and is then handed on a plate to millionaire City bankers thanks to the collusion of London politicians in London-based parties, such as those well-known cockneys Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling.

A press release from Plaid Cymru MP Hywel Williams on the 2012 Olympics arrives today: "London politicians have admitted that it is a scam to use public money to regenerate one of Europe's richest cities."

He may have a point about Olympics spending not benefitting Wales, but is London really one of Europe's richest cities? It certainly contains some of Europe's richest people, but unemployment here is higher than in Wales (9.1 per cent compared to 8.6 per cent) and no fewer than 41 per cent of London's children are growing up in poverty after the UK capital's huge housing costs are considered.

The average price of a London property - £427,987 - may be more than twice as great as that of its Welsh equivalent - £161,576 - but Londoners still have to find a way to pay for their homes.

London's Evening Standard newspaper has just devoted a full week to an in-depth examination of the issue of poverty on its doorstep in a city home to some of the greatest inequalities you will find anywhere.

Incidentally, if, as Sir Jon Shortridge suggests, Wales is poor because it has been governed from England for too long, how do we explain economic fortunes in the poorest London boroughs?

London Mayor Boris Johnson gave a subdued (for him) interview to Dragon's Eye last week, warning against cutting spending in London, but it was enough to spark criticism from Plaid Cymru AM Chris Franks:

"These comments by Boris Johnson show that the Tories simply don’t care that Wales is being severely underfunded. They have consistently refused to say what they would do about our dire funding situation, and now it turns out they want to give more money to the richest region of England."

"London" is an easy label to prefix to any press release that aims to stoke up resentment among Welsh voters, particularly when included alongside "bankers" and other pantomime villains. It has subtly begun to replace "snub" and "slap in the face" in party propaganda.
Perhaps it's a delayed response to the former London Mayor Ken Livingstone's view of another major project (of questionable benefit to Wales): "We need Crossrail to keep London's economy ticking over so that we can continue to pay for the Scottish to live the lifestyle to which they are accustomed."
Statistics on London poverty may bore the pants off you if you live in Wales - probably if you live in London too - but they illustrate just how difficult it will be to reform the way the public spending cake is divided up.
David Cameron has been hinting of changes to the Barnett formula, which decides 53 per cent of public spending in Wales, for some time but always stops shy of promising action.
Two years ago, he told The Herald, Glasgow the formula was coming to the end of its days but he was wary of stoking an English grievance about it: "I want this to happen in a consensual, sensible, non-inflammatory way and that's why I've been so reticent about it."
For all the hints of commissions to look at it under a Tory government, he warned in last Friday's Western Mail that there was no pot of gold that would follow the scrapping of the formula.
Tweaking the formula to benefit Wales could deliver political benefits at relatively little financial cost for a Conservative UK government.  The Tories could bite the bullet and cut Scottish spending disproportionately as soon as they take office, although that would not sit well with being a "party of the Union".
Lord Barnett is a sprightly 86. I wouldn't bet against him out-living his formula.

Biteback bitten by unusual suspect?

Have I made Lord Ashcroft even richer?

This disturbing thought has cost me some sleep since I attended a book launch for Paul Flynn's memoirs, held in the Thatcher Room in Portcullis House.

The Unusual Suspect is published by Biteback Publishing, in which the billionaire deputy Tory chairman has a 25 per cent share.

One consolation, if I have added to his fortune by buying a copy, is that given his promise to give up his "non-dom" status, he will at least pay tax on the profits.

Paul Flynn himself is not not allowing his choice of publisher to influence his views. There is one less than flattering reference to "possibly illegal" donations from Lord Ashcroft in the book. (It was written before the donations were cleared by the Electoral Commission).

There is also this reference to the Ashcroft affair and the Public Administration Select Committee from the Flynn blog: "Why was Ashcroft rejected twice for a peerage? What did Hague promise in order to get minds changed? It is rare for anyone to reject a summons to appear before a Select Committee. Lord Ashcroft has an invitation in the post.

"David Cameron has not buried this ugly episode. The full truth has not yet been prised out of them. So far it's the misty truth, he half-truth and none of the whole truth."

The book launch itself was a jolly affair, despite the clash with a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

On first inspection, The Unusual Suspect is a good read too, despite a couple of potentially embarrassing references to me within its pages.

The book gives an interesting insight into the way political parties sometimes stitch up safe seats for favoured candidates, a manoeuvre that has sometimes involved a peerage for MPs who agree to retire at the last minute.

The Westminster rumour mill this time is that peerages are only guaranteed for those MPs who step down after the election has been called - a timetable that would allow Labour's national executive to select constituency candidates.

Flynn has just turned 75 but you will have a long wait to see Lord Flynn of Newport. He says he's "more angry and enthusiastic" than ever before and is standing in the election.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

If you can't stand the heat....

One of the many joys of multi-channel television is that you are never too far away from a showing of the cult food show, Come Dine With Me.

For those of you who may have missed it, the programme involves four or five amateur chefs competing against each other hosting a dinner party for the other contestants. Each competitor then rates the host's performance with the winner winning a £1,000 cash prize.

Having made several celebrity programmes, for charidee, the programme's makers have been trying to put together a political version.

Sadly, one of their potential cast has declined the invitation. CDWM viewers will be deprived of Peter Hain's culinary skills, not to mention a glimpse into what is already quite a well-known kitchen.

Aides decided the Welsh Secretary was too busy to clear his diary for the week, denying us a glimpse of Hain cuisine (101 ways with Ryvita?).

Older viewers will remember the Neath MP's interview with Aga Magazsine: "At first I was a bit sceptical about the Aga.

"I thought it was a great big lump. But now I actually think it's fantastic. We found food cooked on the electric cooker tasted very second class."

There's no news yet on whether other politicians are prepared to risk getting their fingers burnt.

Although the political version would have been for charidee, the e-mail to potential participants apparently mentioned a fee of £3,000 per amateur chef. Worth keeping an eye on the Commons Register of Members' Interests to see how takes up the invitation.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Five facts from the Welsh Tory conference

1. Party members gave a standing ovation to a video - before it started. I think they were expecting DC in person.

2. The Tories would rename the Wales Office the Welsh Office - back to the future and a spending commitment unless they keep the existing signs on Gwydyr House.

3. David Cameron's hailed a war on waste as the party's European group offered all free mints, chocolate and writing pads bearing the Tory logo.

4. Welsh Tory MEP Kay Swinburne is the Queen of Hearts in a pack of cards featuring Euro-MPs - another freebie on offer.

5. The big question for the media - are chairmen Eric Pickles and Lyndon Jones twins or Russian dolls? Open up Eric and find Lyndon inside. Eric says they are the Mitchell brothers of British politics - which makes Cheryl Gillan Peggy Mitchell.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Reluctant MPs offered escape route

MPs who don't turn up for committee meetings could get the boot under plans endorsed by several select committee chairs.

Hywel Francis, who chairs the Welsh affairs committee, has put his name to a move that would allow chairs to dump members who turn up for fewer than 60 per cent of meetings.

Should this be implemented, fewer than half of the current Welsh affairs membership would survive. David Davies, Nia Griffith, Sian James, Martyn Jones, Albert Owen and Mark Pritchard would be made to walk the plank.

Some of these already sit on more than one committee and might welcome a discharge.

The new barely quorate committee would comprise Hywel Francis, Mark Williams, David Jones, Hywel Williams and Alun Michael.

Of course, any mass cull would possibly be followed by a stampede of MPs eager to join the main committee for holding Welsh Ministers to account here.

Or maybe not. Dr Francis tells me: "Many people are reluctant members. Parties put people on to make up the numbers."

The issue is being discussed by the liaison committee, made up of committee chairs.

Sean White: estate agent & money launderer

You may or may not have read today's Daily Mirror. I will blog properly about this estate agent after sentencing but I hope the case highlights the need for vulnerable people to take care when faced with shysters engaged in doorstep crime and their accomplices. There are some evil people out there.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Gordon Brown celebrates St David's Day

How are you celebrating St David's Day?

The House of Lords has been debating whether March 1 should become a public holiday.

Government spokesman Lord Davies of Oldham, who himself has Welsh roots, deflected calls for a day off on St David's Day:

"The decision is quite clear. The Scots decided they would opt for St Andrew's Day, the Welsh Assembly Government has not made as yet a bid in the present programme for a public holiday for St David's Day. Of course, if such a bid comes forward, we will consider it."

Labour activist Sally Bercow (Mrs Speaker) likes the idea of a day off, but Labour have argued that an extra bank holiday would cost industry dear. It is, as I understand it, still official policy for their coalition partners in Cardiff Bay, Plaid Cymru. Conservatives in the Welsh Assembly present it as party policy between elections but it seldom reaches the status of a manifesto commitment.

Gordon Brown has his own take on what we get up to on St David's Day: "I know that today, from Bangor to Builth Wells and beyond, you will be celebrating your nation and its achievements in many ways - by attending Eisteddfods, dressing your children in national costume or by taking part in parades."

We must look forward to the Prime Minister's take on St Andrew's Day, should he still be in Downing Street by then. In the meantime, I must dash - got to rush home and dress the kids in national costume before the eisteddfod starts.

No spitting please

Handy advice from the Welsh Assembly Government's new welcome pack for newcomers to Wales: "Do not throw litter on the floor, or spit on the floor in public places, if you need to sneeze or blow your nose you should use a tissue."

The Welsh, of course, never, ever throw litter on the floor, even outside a 24-hour McDonald's in Swansea:

The Assembly Government also advises:

"British / Welsh people are generally reserved and well mannered. Neighbours great each other politely saying 'Good Morning / Good Afternoon' or 'Bore Da / Prynhawn Da' in Welsh, and often shake hands. In the UK, people say 'please', 'thank you' and 'excuse me' when in public places, or when receiving or paying for a service."

Boris flies the flag

London Mayor Boris Johnson is flying the dragon from City Hall in London today. He's also due to make the toast to the Welsh in London Dewi Sant at a reception in the Guildhall later.

Rumour has it he may be using some of the Welsh he picked up during his unsuccessful campaign in Clwyd South in 1997. Given that as he put it, he fought Clwyd South and Clwyd South fought back, his vocabulary this evening should be interesting.

We were poor.....but happy

It was interesting to learn from the front page of today's Western Mail that the Welsh Assembly Government is considering measuring the happiness of the nation.

The idea of general well-being rather than pure economic growth as a policy goal has become increasingly fashionable in recent years.

This is partly because although western societies are materially far richer than we were 50 years ago, we are no happier. Indeed, stress and mental illness have often increased.

David Cameron was very keen on the idea, until the global economic crisis intervened to suggest even in the West we no longer live in a post-material world. The Welsh Conservatives have yet to claim credit for converting the Labour/Plaid Assembly Government into Cameroons.

GWB rather than GDP or GVA has obvious attractions to Welsh politicians, whose stated aims to narrow the economic gap with England have, to put it politely, yet to deliver.

Some of the most fascinating political books I've read during the last year have been written on this very subject. I'd recommend (Lord) Richard Layard's Happiness: Lessons from a New Science and Affluenza by Oliver James.

Layard argues that happiness should be a central policy goal and presents evidence that less unequal societies are not just fairer but happier. He calls for redistribution from rich to poor through higher taxes - "We can now show scientifically that an extra pound is worth more in happiness to a poor person than to someone who is richer."

Oliver James attributes the "affluenza" virus - effectively status anxiety - to an obsession with wealth that has left more of us unhappy. He suggests new policy goals, including one or two radical policies designed to get politicians thinking differently.

One of his ideas is that would-be MPs should spend some time looking after children aged under three before going into Parliament.

I'd be very happy to volunteer my two-year-old son for this novel experiment, although I'd probably prime him with a couple of verbal hand grenades to keep the politicians on their toes.

"I want to live in a posh house"

Commons Speaker John Bercow took delivery of some St David's Day daffodils from the children of Ysgol Gymraeg Llundain this morning.

Mr Speaker introduced himself to the children with an informal "hello, I'm John" before taking them on a tour of Speaker's House.

He told BBC Wales he would be wearing a daffodil in the Speaker's chair in the Commons this afternoon - after reading a lesson at the traditional St David's Day service in the chapel in the Commons crypt.

One of the schoolboys was impressed but a tad cheesed off to discover that the three young Bercow children live in Speaker's House. He told his classmates: "It's not fair - I want to live in a posh house".