Tuesday, 27 July 2010

We're all off on a summer holiday

Parliament rises for its summer break today. The Welsh Assembly members are well into their holidays by now. Although if you mention that they’re on their holidays you tend to get short shift. No holiday for them, but a summer of political events and campaigning. If they are to be believed they never relax and take time to think or reflex they are always ‘doing.’

Be aware the ‘doing’ involves you. Not an agricultural show, eisteddfod, summer fete or even a market is out of bounds to them. There are few places that you can safely be out of the reach of politicians.

No, they seem to be omnipresent. Ever ready to ingratiate themselves to you, to meet, speak but seldom listen. If they listened more and spoke less they might start to get things right.

But if politicians can’t reflex, political journalists can. They could look back and see what an interesting few months it has been.

One Prime Minister sent back to serve his Scottish constituents as a back bencher. A new Prime Minister now governing, all be it, courtesy of a party whose ordinary members are spitting blood, at such an appointment.

But looking back is mere history. There is more fun to be had by looking into the crystal ball. So what of the future?

Even Gypsy Rose Hughes can predict that Labour will have a son of a Marxist as its next leader. The ball hazily shows Milliband the elder wondering why he has to have such an ambitious younger brother. It raises sibling rivalry to another plain. Although the Dave is still the front runner, the Ed could still over take on second preference votes.

Whilst looking at Labour our own dear First Minister is doing his own little tour of Wales to talk to people about their public services. Presumably, he will then be enlightened as which cuts he can impose with the least damage. A futile exercise me thinks, for after the Autumn Spending Review next year’s block grant to the Assembly will cut services to the quick. The best he can hope is to persuade the Welsh that ‘its not me, gov’ and make sure that the Westminster government takes the rap. The polls are beginning to show that this is fertile territory to campaign on and his party might have a good outcome in the 2011 elections.

Things may not be so certain for his coalition partners. If they are to make any real gains these will have to be at Labour’s expense. With Labour likely to be in the ascendant there is little hope of this happening. They have been treading political water for a while now and there is little sign that this is likely to change.

The Conservatives are still relatively popular at the moment. Clearly, the country is inhabited by masochists. The early cuts and the budget have not dented their support, whether this remains so after the Autumn when the effects of the budget slows down growth and pushes us towards another recession, remains to be seen. But the electoral system of the Welsh Assembly will unlikely dent their numbers, perversely they may even gain a seat or two in constituencies that they won in the general election.

The big losers are likely to be the Liberal Democrats. Many who felt clever at the time voting tactically to keep the Tories out. They  are now repenting  their choice. No, its likely that the Assembly elections will see the equivalent of ‘massacre of the innocents.’ Or in the Liberal Democrats case the not so innocent.

Ah, before all this there is the little matter of the referendum on more powers. Welsh Assembly politicians of all parties will be singing from the same hymn sheet in the ‘yes’ camp. The same harmony from Westminster is highly unlikely.

But before all that, my bucket and spade awaits. Have a good summer, dear reader.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Badgers and Ministers.

Badgers are dominating discussion at the Royal Welsh. Not in their own right but as a consequence of the reprieve they have received courtesy of the Courts from the Welsh Assembly's attempts to cull them in North Pembrokeshire. So they survive, but should those who have failed to dispatch them also keep their jobs.
It does come down to the individual ministerial responsibility. In other words should they take the rap for the clear failure of their advisors.
I'm not sure whether there are badgers on the farm at Crichel Down, but it became one of the most famous farms in British constitutional history. Why? Because civil servants handled the landowner unfairly. So much so, that the Minister of Agriculture at the time, Sir Thomas Dugdale was forced to resign. 
He took full responsibility to 'Parliament for any mistakes and inefficiency of officials in my Department, just as, when my officials bring off any successes on my behalf, I take full credit for them.' Thus the benchmark for ministerial responsibility for the Westminster government was laid down.
Of course, there have being many resignations of ministers from the UK government, since Sir Thomas Dugdaleon.
There have been no resignations in Wales.
Not one minister in Wales has felt it necessary to drop on their swords because of  mistakes by their department. Naturally enough many have taken the credit for any successes.
But last week saw some calling for the resignation of Elin Jones, the Rural Affairs minister because of the very dramatic and public failure of  her policy of culling badgers to prevent the spread of bovine TB. This week she has the unenviable task of explaining WAGs future intentions to the farming community at the Royal Welsh.
But is she the guilty party in all of this. If heads should roll should it be hers? It would be most unfair if the Minister was to go, for she was not the cullpable minister. No, the blame lay elsewhere. After all her policy was clear and unambiguous, she wanted measures in place to stop the spread of the disease. It was then left to the civil servants to draw up the orders to implement the policy. For this they would have to take legal advice.
In the debate on the Minister's statement last week it was established that the legal advice was provided internally by the WAG itself. And who was responsibly for such advice, the Counsel General. And who was the Counsel General at the time, a certain Carwyn Jones.
Now that really puts the cat amongst the pigeons or more appropiately amongst the badgers!

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

New programe for Assembly

A Queens speech it ain't. The Welsh Assembly Government's last legislative programme before next year's elections has just been announced and it is a very modest programme indeed. With three measures [that is equivalent of laws that the Assembly can now enact without any further reference to Westminster] and one Legislative Competence Order [LCO] which Parliament in Westminster must agree so that the Assembly can pass measures in the given area.
The reason for such a modest programme is not difficult to work out. Referendum. All parties are going to be spending most of their energy between now and next March on winning a yes vote. Such a positive vote would end the humiliating practice of Westminster deciding the Assemblies law making programme.
But it also demonstrates that the green - red coalition is now coming towards the end of its agreed programme. Both are now starting to disengage from the coalition.
So all the bright ideas will be kept for their manifestos. These goodies will be used to get us to vote for them.
Just for the record the new programme is as follows.
Safety of Learner Travel Measure – this Measure will improve the quality of contracted school transport and ensure that standards are sufficiently high for the public, and especially parents, to have confidence in the contracted learner transport their children use.

Housing Measure – this will enable local authorities to apply to Welsh Ministers to suspend the Right to Buy in areas of housing pressure. It will also provide Welsh Ministers with a broad range of intervention powers to strengthen the regulation of Registered Social Housing providers.
Education Measure – this will include provisions to improve school governance which in turn will raise education standards. It will further and deepen collaboration amongst schools and other educational providers and provide enabling powers for Welsh Ministers in relation to the federation of governing bodies of smaller schools.
The Organ Donation LCO – We have held a number of public debates on the issue of organ donation underpinned by a formal consultation in May 2009 on ‘Options for changes to the organ donation system in Wales’. The majority of responses we received supported a change to the soft opt-out system. We now intend taking this issue forward by seeking the necessary powers to be able to implement a Welsh system of organ donation that best meets the needs and wishes of Welsh people.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Bloodletting - kill or cure?

Bloodletting was once the treatment for hysteria, heart disease and just about every other malady, The theory behind the practice changed often over time, but the practice itself remained much the same -- with doctors often bleeding patients until they were weak, pale and, sometimes, unconscious. 
Doctors routinely bled patients in efforts to prevent sickness brought on by excess food, weather changes and wounds. So this conventional wisdom lasted centuries. No one seemed to notice that the patients were dying in their droves, it must have been the malady not the cure that caused the deaths
As in medicine so in economics it would seem. The draconian cuts we are about to undergo would seem to be ideologically driven rather than necessary. 
Most would agree that some cutbacks were necessary to reassure the panicky European markets. But the strategy adopted by the coalition government cuts to much to soon. Why? So that we have a budget surplus by 2015. 
A somewhat pointless exercise. If it kills those roots of recovery.
What the present policies achieve are our public services downsized to levels that inflict real pain to the consumers of the services and with a real prospect that the fiscal belt tightening will contribute to years of stagnation.
There is no denying the fact that the public accounts plunged deeply into the red because of the global recession. But the country has been bullied to believe that we were on the verge of disaster. Despite the government leading us to believe that the Greek tragedy would befall us. 
However, Britain was not in the same position as Greece. Recovery would have eventually wiped out much of the debt. Alaister Darling’s stiff but less damaging cuts would have done the rest. 
Yes, there would have been a deficit of 1.6 of GDP. But are cuts in departmental spending of between 25% and 40% over the next four years worth it to simply convert that deficit to a surplus of 0.3 per cent. Is it worth it at the cost of new schools and other worthwhile and necessary capital expenditure and the the loss of half a million public sector jobs?
Bleeding at this level is not justified by any economic theory. Most economists and even Vince Cable before he became a Minister, have argued for delaying the most severe cuts until a more robust economy recovery.
All the government’s hope rest on the shaky assumption that as government money dwindles from the economy the private sector will step in and replace it. Its unlikely that private investors will take the plunge if they see only hard times ahead for the economy.
In Wales, with our high dependency on the public sector, this policy will have a disproportionate negative effect. Our economic life blood will drain away and our economy could crash because of the medicine.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The excitement of 'decoupling'

There are always vogue words. It's difficult to have a conversation with a person of a certain generation without 'cool' acting as a stop or exclamation mark. Just as every dog has its day so also certain words.A word who's day has come, 'decoupling'. Now I grant you it won't have the same reach as 'cool' but it will certainly be on the lips of Welsh politicians and their camp followers.
No, its not going to be used in a sexual context or even to talk about the break up of a coalition government.
Its the term that will be used to say simply that constituency boundaries for National Assembly elections should be different to those for the Westminster parliament.
Now the reason that this is likely to come up is simple, the Westminster government want to cut down on the number of MPs. They are proposing six hundred. At the same time they want each Member to be elected in a constituency with a similar number of electors. So new boundaries will have to be drawn for Westminster constituencies. Wales is currently over represented so under these new rules there will be about ten less of them sent to represent us to Westminster.
Now the problem is that the National Assemble elects forty of its sixty members on similar constituency boundaries. So without some changes the total number of Assembly members would also be reduced by   ten.
Most commentators agree that  even  with their current workload the Assembly would struggle with only fifty members. Should they get full law making powers then it would be difficult or even impossible to make the system work
Hence the word 'decoupling' - a different system  and boundaries for Assembly elections to that of Westminster.
Nothing will excite politicians more than the prospect of decoupling in the next few years. The Assembly responsible for deciding its own electoral system, I can just see them salivating now.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Wales short changed

"There is no reason to believe that replacing Barnett with a needs-based system should be costly in aggregate for the UK Government. In fact, the reverse is likely to be true. Reform would therefore be completely consistent with the UK Government’s focus on deficit reduction." so says David Miles a member of the Holtham Commission.
If this is true and all the evidence points to it being so, then the decision to postpone consideration and reform of the Barnett formula would seem to be perverse and illogical. Then why the delay? Well there could be two reasons. The first and perhaps the most likely that in the haste to put together the coalition agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats it was easier to kick the whole issue to touch than to give it proper consideration.
But another  reason to postpone consideration of the issue has more to do with political expediency. Its easier to upset the Scots than the Welsh.. What Holtham makes clear is that our northern Celtic friends have done quite nicely out of Barnett.
To change to a fairer more rational policy would see our Scottish cousins loose a shed load of cash.
Now to do this before elections to the Scottish Parliament would make the Westminster governing parties even more unpopular over the border. Both could lose what little support they have in elections for the Scottish Parliament that take place next year.
So despite the well argued case that Holtham puts forward  his report will gather dust for a while yet.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Change to voting system.

Unless Cheryl Gillan agrees to a postponement* the next elections for the National Assembly will take place on 5 May 2011. But now Nick Clegg has suggested this very same day as decision time on the voting system for Westminster. Yes, we'll all be given a choice, stick with the current system  of voting in our MPs or change and adopt the Alternative Voting [AV] system.
If his other plans come to pass  we'll see a reduction in the actual number of Members of Parliament elected by fifty. Resulting in a House of Commons with 600 MPs.   If the planned referendum on the voting system comes about and a new fixed Parliament is agreed then the 600 will be returned in May 2015. A popular move, perhaps, less politicians is always an appealing prospect.
But should the referendum on the voting system for Westminster take place on the day that the Welsh general election takes place? There is a compelling reason for rejecting such an idea. Why? If Nick Clegg gets his other proposals through then new constituency boundaries will have to be drawn up for Westminster elections. These would have a knock on effect on the Assembly. Why, there would be different constituency boundaries in Wales for Westminster elections because there would be less Welsh MPs.
Sticking with the same boundaries as Westminster  would  reduce the numbers of Assembly Member selected on the constituency role. Resulting in less Assembly Members overall. Of course, the numbers elected on the regional lists could be increased if it was decided to stick with the current 60  AMs.
But if the Welsh Assembly becomes a proper legislative body with the powers to enact its own laws without Westminster interference might there not be a case for increasing its numbers slightly to deal with the enhanced work load.
Perhaps, then a new voting system might be appropriate. What could that be? Well, the Richard Commission recommended  the Single Transferable Vote [STV]. So why not put that to the people of Wales on the same day as their own elections. The Liberal Democrats could hardly object because that used to be their preferred option before they went into government in Westminster.
So the message to Mr Clegg,should be, 'keep your AV referendum for another day.'

* see last weeks blog 'All good things are worth a wait.'