Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Housing Law's to stay with Westminster

It looks as if the second attempt at getting powers over housing legislation to the Welsh Assembly will again fail. In Westminster at the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, the three conservative members voted against the housing Legislative Competence Order[LCO]. Their reasons for voting against was that they did not wish to see the Assembly having the powers to legislate on the tenants  right to buy, second homes and any legislation on travellers and gypsys. They were clearly of the view that 'Westminster knows best' on these issues. A source of comfort to the Westminster Labour Housing  Minister.
Nothing new there you might add. For the three Welsh Conservative MPs have never made any great secret of their antipathy to devolution and have little interest in seeing the Assembly gaining additional powers.
What has caused no end of puzzlement to commentators in the Aseembly is the attitude of Conservative Assembly members.  After first seeming to support the LCO Tory AMs are about to vote against it. Why?
Again they declare it is on the vexxed issue of the right to buy. Despite most housing organistations wanting to see the LCOs passed and those exercising the right to buy having now declined to a mere trickle.   Despite the Deputy Minister Jocelyn Davies saying that she needs the powers to be innovative in flexible tenure type schemes, schemes that in the past the Conservatives have urged on successive Housing Ministers.They are still persisting in their opposition.
The about turn seems strange when one considers the Welsh Conservatives' support for the referendum that would allow laws to be passed in fields such as housing without Westminster interference.
Is the right to buy simply a fig leaf to cover their embarrassment at the stance of their Westminster colleagues? For if Conservative AMs had stuck to their initial views of supporting the principle of the LCO then Mr Cameron would have had the dilemma of supporting either his fellow Conservatives in the Assembly or those in Parliament in the 'wash-up' process. The device that allows legislation to go through with cross party support when a general election is imminent..
Have the Conservatives in the Assembly resolved the dilemma be ditching their recently found principles that laws on Wales should be made in Wales for the mere expedient of not challenging their own leader to back them?

Monday, 22 February 2010

Golwg COLUMN: Ideology of prejudice

There is no doubt about it, one of the least attractive traits in all of us is our prejudice. Unfortunately, we all have prejudice. And one of the dark arts of politics is to recognize this and use it for a purpose.
What purpose? Well in a democracy to win elections. The reason why politicians appeal to our baser instincts is to win power.
One of the tools in the armoury is the opinion poll. The usual method is to ask 'Which of these two or three issues, if at all, is important to you in deciding how you'll vote in the general election?'
Then a number of topics are provided randomly to the person questioned. Topics like, health, immigration, unemployment, crime, taxation etc. From the replies a picture is formed of the views of the electorate.
On such foundations manifestos are written and policies devised.
One of the topics that is near the top of the list of concerns of electors is immigration. And just as night follows day, the parties compete to device more and more extreme policies to reflect the prejudice.
Its not the province of anyone party, they are all up to it.
In the past the Conservative party tended to follow a socially conservative agenda. That is  why eventually even one of their own MPs came to describe them as the 'nasty party.'
But as all parties are trying to attract the 'swing' vote the political agenda tends to become more and more alike in all parties.
Ideology is cast aside. They are all pragmatists now. Its the winning that's  important. To gain that prize you have to show that you've listened to those swing voters. Electors that are likely to put their cross in favour of the party that best reflects their prejudices.
Benefits is one of those subjects that reflects lots of peoples prejudices.
Just as the poor have always been with us, so has the prejudice against them.
In Wales in the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, to even mention the workhouse was a way to cause real fear amongst the population. Unfortunately, that prejudice is still with us. It is now directed at those that are dependent on state benefits. 'They are all cheats!'
Their are enough voters with this opinion. And if their is such an opinion, it's not to long that the politicians see an advantage in hitching their wagon to the viewpoint.
And this is what's under consideration by the government at the moment. Target those on benefits.
And their cunning little plan? To encourage us to snitch on them for a share of the spoils that are saved.
We'll move from being an open society to a narrow one, where we all suspect our neighbours. Creating a system that is associated with a totalitarian society rather than a democracy. Will we be a part of the British Stasi?
No, this is what happens when politics follows, rather than leads. A better way is needed, lets hope that  ideals return to our politics.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Golwg COLUMN: The reason for a referendum

Law making is not child's play. It's a complex and should be a thorough process. As ignorance of the law is not a defence in the courts. There is, therefore, a responsibility on our legislators to be both thorough and open when legislating. Well, that's the principle. Certainly no one can suggest that the current system of legislating in Wales is hasty. Not by a long way.
There's no simplicity about it. Currently there is no right to legislate without the principle being discussed not only in the national Assembly but also in the Palace of Westminster in both the House of Lords and the House of Commons. That is before any measure[law] is proposed.
Not only is the process complicated but allows plenty of scope for mischief. And that's exactly what has happened to the housing LCO.
The Welsh Assembly Government has sought the power to legislate in this field for almost four years. The Welsh Select Committee rejected the first attempt and WAG had to re-start the process with a redrafted LCO.
Now the second attempt has run into difficulties. The three Conservative members on the Welsh Affairs committee voted against giving the Welsh Assembly the right to legislate in this field. Their objection was ideological. They were opposed to giving powers to the Assembly over three area. Firstly, the wanted to stop the Assembly interfering in anyway with the tenants right to buy social housing. Secondly, preventing any law making that effects the issue of Gypsy and Traveller sites. And finally, preventing the Assembly taking any measures to tax second and holiday homes.
Its easy to see why the 'old' Conservative party would object to these ideas. But wasn't David Cameron's project to change and modernise his party from the old Unionism to embrace devolution? How then are the Conservatives in Westminster allowed to undermine the Conservatives in the Assembly who supported the LCO?
As we are nearing the General election this LCO if it's to move ahead will be part of the 'washing up' process. This is the process of ensuring that legislation is passed before Parliament closes shop for the election, but there has to be a consensus between the Parties in Westminster on all the legislation passed in this way. Time will tell whether Cameron will back his colleagues in Westminster or the Assembly on this issue. I'll put money that Westminster will  be the winner.
All this goes to show that the current system does not work. We have to change things if we are to have a law making system that ordinary people understand. That is why there is a need for a referendum.
If something does not work it has to be repaired as soon as possible. Welsh law is to important to leave to the petty little games of Westminster.
Since writing this piece for Golwg, I gather that the Dept. Of Communities and Local Government which has responsibility for housing matters in England are not unhappy with the role the three Tories have played in sabotaging this LCO. If true, it underlines the case for Welsh legislation to be made in Wales and underlines again the importance of an early referendum.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Golwg COLUMN: The price of politics

The cost of maintaining a political party is expensive. History shows that the price has often got  parties into difficulties.
The only Welsh speaking Prime Minister from Wales, David Lloyd George had some notoriety in this context. He had a fresh plan to raise money for his political fund. His cunning plan? Selling honours.
Selling honours to raise money for a party was not a new scheme. But Lloyd George changed the practice into an industry. He used a dubious ex-actor by the name of Maundy Gregory to set up an office near Parliament to drum up customers. There was a price list. A knighthood was available for £10000 a baronetcy at £30000,  elevation to the House of Lords £50000.
Inevitably, the scandal became public knowledge and there was then a parliamentary debate. In his contribution to that debate in the House of Commons,  Lloyd George said that 'that the practice was despicable,'. But privately he was of the opinion that selling honours was one of the cleanest ways of raising money for a political party.
As a response to the crisis a Royal Commission was established and as a consequence a law was passed to make the practice illegal.
But as one avenue of fund raising closes  another becomes the vogue.  Now its 'the gift' that is important. Currently, the Conservatives are under scrutiny because of the money that Michael Ashcroft, Lord Ashcroft, has given to the party.
The Election Commission are looking into one of Lord Ashcroft's companies who have given £3 million to the Conservative Party. To be within the law a company needs to be trading mostly in the United Kingdom to give to a British political party. The allegation is that most of the income of the company in question comes from the Belize. There is a ban on overseas donations and you can't use a British company as a front. We must await the verdict of the inquiry to see whether the donation is allowable.
Meanwhile, the Wales  Labour Party are in the spotlight for their fund raising activities. David Pickering, the Chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union,  issued an invitation to a private fund raising dinner for the Labour Party with the First Minister and the Secretary of State for Wales present. Nothing wrong with that you say. But he got into difficulty because he used  WRU resources to organize the event. He has subsequently apologized for this gaff.
But is that the end of the story? No, not at all.
It's not Pickering's mistake that's the issue but the price of the dinner - £1000. I guess that not many ordinary Labour Party members would be prepared to pay £1000 for the dubious honour of sitting down to dinner with Peter Hain and Carwyn Jones. No, the only people prepared to fork out such a large sum are representatives  of the business world. Why? Influence.
Is a £1000 the price for our Ministers' ears?
No, we need to completely change the way we fund political parties. Unfortunately, the only way forward is to use public money to underwrite them. Of course, this will be expensive. But who ever said democracy was cheap.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Pay back time for MPs

Sir Thomas Clegg presented his final account to MPs today with 364 of them having to pay back more than a million pounds.
This report further undermines the reputation of MPs and parliament itself with Sir Thomas accusing MPs of influencing the Fees office and creating a 'culture of deference.'
Welsh MPs were amongst those that have had to pay back money. Over half of them had put in wrong expense claims to the Fees office.
Of the 40 MPs representing Welsh seats 27 had to pay money back. The total paid back was £62530.81p with nearly £5100 still outstanding. 
Although there are now new rules in place to prevent abuses in the future, they fall far short of the rules that the Welsh Assembly members operate under.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Golwg COLUMN: Closing their ears

'He doesn't listen.' How many times have these words been said about a pupil in a school annual report. Despite it being a few years ago now, I'm sure it was an apt summary of my school career in Friars  school, Bangor.
If this is true about some individuals, it's certainly true at times about the electorate. A time comes, and it comes to all parties at various times, when the electorate just switch off and refuse to listen.
Despite the best endeavors of the party concerned, the reasoning, the propaganda, the oratory are to no avail, they have little or no effect.
Why? A group 'psyche' takes over. The mind decides and the ears close. In such circumstances there is not a great deal a political party can  do to change things. They simply have to  accept their fate and wait patiently for the passage of time and the public memory to fade and then things might change.
Gordon Brown's government, I suspect, has arrived at this uncomfortable impasse. There is not a great deal that he, or his ministers, can say or do that will have an  influence on the voters.
The opinion polls have been consistent  for months  and they show a large gap between Labour and the Conservatives. Despite Brown being a workaholic, his efforts are of little consequence.
How did the  government reach such a state? When Brown got the keys to number ten, he had a honeymoon period. He wasted his opportunity. His spin doctors were told up the ante on an early general election, but like the old Duke of York, he went into retreat. He refused to leap and  thus created the impression of weakness. He lost his opportunity.
Then things went from bad to worse. The economic bubble burst. The banks got into difficulty and some faced bankruptcy. Ordinary people worried about losing their savings. In the situation the government had to throw public money to bail out the banks. So as night follows day, as  banks falter,  the real economy moves into recession.
In order to stop the economy  from turning recession into depression more public money was used  to solve the problem.
And the effect of it all? The country in massive debt and on the horizon major cuts. The future looks bleak.
And in these most difficult of economic times what do we discover? That our MPs have been  fiddling their  expense claims. Its little wonder that the public are turning their backs and scorning politics. And who gets the blame? The government , of course.
I will prophesy. That not only will the electorate shut their ears at the time of the election but a large proportion of them will refuse to turn out to vote, for any party.