Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Government produces its annual report

“This report is the most comprehensive record of Welsh Government progress ever produced and sets out clearly what actions we are taking to deliver on our promises.

“My government is committed to being open and transparent. By publishing for the first time the progress we have made across all areas we can be judged by our record and our ability to deliver on our commitments. This report provides the hard evidence we need to help make a difference to the people of Wales.” So said our First Minister when launching his annual report.
“Comprehensive” well it’s certainly long and contains lots and lots of statistics. But it takes an anorak to work through them all 
What is clear if you delve behind the figures is that Wales is under performing when it comes to the economy. And it doesn’t all come down to the Westminster government. If that was the case all the devolved countries would be in the same boat, they’re not.
Now the government can rightly point out that it could do more with more powers. It wants borrowing powers. With such powers a programme of infrastructure work could be embarked on.  And as Northern Ireland and Scotland are able to borrow it does seem unfair that Wales doesn’t have the same powers.
It is a fact that Wales is underfunded - that’s the infamous Barnett formula to you and me. Yes, Wales could do with the extra cash. But it’s a bit rich that the Welsh Government is complaining about the lack of action by the coalition government in Westminster when the last Labour government did absolutely nothing about it and even now the shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls does not regard it as important. 
On four important indicators, gross disposable household income (GDHI), income, and gross value added (GVA) and employment rate Wales is failing.
On GDHI the gap between Wales and England is a massive 14 per cent there is even a 10 per cent gap between Wales and Scotland. GDHI is important  as it can be seen as the amount of money people have available to spend - or save. Clearly Welsh people have less to spend than those in England and Scotland. Less to spend means less going into Welsh businesses  and of course less people in work.
And the affect of this can be seen in both GVA  and employment. GVA measures the value of all goods and services that are produced. It is the main indicator of economic performance.  If the average for the UK is a 100, Wales of all the four countries in the UK is bottom of the league with 74. England is on102, Scotland 99 and even Northern Ireland produce more than us with 76. If this was a school Wales would have to wear the dunce’s hat.  
No production means no jobs and then high unemployment.That’s why  employment rates in Wales have lagged behind those of the UK average. 
So whats to be done?
Well, if you listen to government they’ve been hyperactive. 
A £40 million Wales SME Investment Fund to provide loans for small businesses to help them expand. A  £75 million Jobs Growth Wales pilot to create 4000 opportunities annually for 16 – 24 year olds.  A Wales Infrastructure Investment Plan outlining how more than £3.5 billion will be spent on capital projects ranging from hospitals to schools to roads.  Support to 4000 individuals between April 2011 and March 2012 through our Business Start Up Service resulting in the creation of 660 enterprises and 1752 jobs. Five Enterprise Zones operational across Wales and a further two announced.An 80% success rate in the number of apprentices who complete each step of their training with companies compared to 54% five years ago.  And it goes on. 
But by the facts they’ll be judged. 
Valuable though these schemes are one gets the feeling they’ve been drawn up like a sticking plaster to stop a major hemorrhage. Well meaning but ineffective. 
Government should concentrate on just two factors. The first is to dramatically improve the transport infrastructure. The transport network is more akin to that of a third world country than a modern European country. 
Secondly, the First Minister should up the ante in education. 
An international study, which aimed at evaluating education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students in participating countries. The Welsh results were significantly lower than the OECD average and the other UK nations and ranked 38th compared to other participant countries. For us to succeed economically an educated work force is necessary. 
Politics is about choice. With public expenditure cuts there is less money to spread around so choices have to be made. Let them back priorities that help make Wales more prosperous.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Cheryl consults

So Cheryl Gillan is proposing to change the electoral system for future Assembly elections. Her suggestions are that there should be 30 constituency seats and 30 elected in the regions. At the moment there are 40 constituency and 20 regional Assembly Members. 
What Mrs Gillian wants is Assembly constituencies to mirror those of Westminster. Her view is that the poor voter could not cope with living in different constituencies to vote for the two different democratic bodies. 
In order to stem the criticism that Westminster is changing a system that effects the Welsh Assembly they have made the proposals in the form of  Green paper. Thus allowing all those confused voters to write in with their views. As if.
And whose decision will it be in the end? Well, Mrs Gillan’s, of course.
Not  only is she asking about the constituencies but she’s also posing other questions.  
Now do you want the length of an Assembly term to be extended permanently to five years. It has been extended to five years next time round to prevent the election falling on the same day as the general election, then it will revert back to the original four year cycle. 
Another vexed issue to be consulted on is should all candidates be allowed to stand both in constituencies and on regional lists. Vexed because it agitates politicians, most others just shrug their shoulders and say so what.
If you’re a political anorak you’ll remember that at first, Assembly candidates could put there names forward for both a constituency and a region. If they were elected for a constituency they would come off the regional list. 
Labour were very unhappy with this ‘cos they were winning constituencies and often a political opponent would be elected on the regional vote and open an office in the same constituency and use it as a base to win support.
Peter Hain when Secretary of State axed the system.  At the time the Conservatives said that they would reintroduce it when back in power.  So now it’s in the Green Paper.
Finally, it will consider whether AMs should be barred from also sitting as MPs and members of the House of the Lords. At present, this would only affect one AM – former Presiding Officer Lord Elis-Thomas. 
The change would act as a real disincentive for Westminster politicians deciding on a career in Wales if the effect of them seeking a seat in the Assembly was a Westminster by-election. 
When Rhodri Morgan, Ron Davies, Ieuan Wyn Jones and Dafydd Wigley decided to become Assembly Members, they held on to their Westminster seats until the next general election. Then stood down. Under this proposal they would all have had to stand down as did Cynog Dafis, resign their seats and cause an immediate by-election. 
Party whips would be most unhappy if this were to happen. You can imagine the arm twisting to prevent MPs making the move.
The green paper misses a trick in not addressing the issue recently raised by Rosemary Butler, Presiding Officer of the the Assembly about increasing the size of the Assembly to that of eighty members.  
A number suggested not only by her but also by Lord Richard in his forensic analysis on the needs of the Assembly. Eighty, according to him is the number required of Assembly Members to do the job “proper”. Passing laws, committees that really scrutinise and hold real inquiries and sufficient backbenchers to hold the government properly to account. But that’s bye the bye.
Perhaps, a more fundamental question needs addressing. Should it be Westminster’s business at all. Yes, they have the legal powers but should they not pass these to the Assembly. 
Surely how the people of Wales elect their own Assembly should be decided in Wales. Appropriately by the Assembly. Westminster politicians should keep their collective noses out.
 After all two referendums have shown that the people of Wales more and more want decisions relating to Wales to be made in Wales. 

Friday, 25 May 2012

Take to the streets

In Barcelona on Tuesday an estimated 20,000 young people took to the streets. The complaint - cuts to education. 

They attached the blame to austerity measures forced on them by the EC. More specifically they blame Angela Merkel. All their woes they blame on an outsider.
Now here in Wales the cause of much unhappiness stems from a decision taken in June 2010, to be specific from George Osborne’s first budget. At the time he had a strategy. 
The strategy? To cut the public sector dramatically and reduce the country’s debt. But not to worry the private sector would step in and as the  song goes “none would be a penny the worst.” 

Oh yes, this activity would be based on the economy growing by 2.3% in 2011. And then the throttle would really be down for growth of 2.8% in 2012.
But woe upon woe, the economy didn’t share our dear chancellor’s optimism. The consensus is now of growth of about 0.5% in the economy. Even this look’s optimistic. Yesterday figures show that the economy contracted again. Yes, shrank by 0.3%.
The reasons as to why could  fill an economic text book. But put simply and biblically, successive UK governments have been like the five unwise virgins and not made adequate provision for the future. 
An over dependent on the financial sector. Manufacturing and production have been allowed to shrink to almost nothing.  The country’s skill base is low and to top it all proper investment in infrastructure has been extremely limited. 

If the economy was a family, social workers would describe it as dysfunctional.
And the medicine? George’s answer, bleed the patient more. Wrong choice, Mr Osborne.
To squeeze incomes so that consumers can’t spend is wrong on so many levels. But on the simplest of levels no spending means companies won’t invest. Despite many sitting on large cash balances they’re not going to do anything unless there is hope of growth. 
So what’s to be done. The agenda should be the same as that demanded by the young of Barcelona. Stop the cuts. Invest in education and skills and much higher investment in infrastructure. Bring hope back.
It’s an agenda for Wales, the UK and Europe as a whole. Mrs Merkel and Mr Cameron had better take their blinkers off and embrace a proper plan for growth.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Change your ways

There were two first’s today. Francois Hollande was sworn in as president of France, and Plaid Cymru’s new leader, Leanne Wood took her first press conference since becoming leader.
The similarities don’t end there. Both called today for an end to austerity. Both called for economic growth. 
Mr Hollande called for "a compromise" over the German-led focus on austerity as the way out of the eurozone crisis. Ms Wood called for all the “progressives” to get together to press for a growth programme.
A similarity of approach, but one has the power that comes with office to make the difference. 

The other one can try to mobilise the "left." Conferences, taking to the streets? The how is a bit vague. 
In his first presidential speech, Mr Hollande said he wished to deliver a "message of confidence".
The new president summarised the problems facing France as "huge debt, weak growth, reduced competitiveness, and a Europe that is struggling to emerge from a crisis".
Well, if that is how he sees the problems facing France the same analysis could be applied to the UK writ large. 
The economy in the UK has flat lined for some time. Consequently unemployment is disturbingly high in the UK has a whole and in Wales in particular. 
The divide as to how the two government’s intend to tackle the problems is wider than the channel that separates the two states. 
Whilst Mr Hollande said he wanted other European leaders to sign a pact that "ties the necessary reduction of deficit to the indispensable stimulation of the economy".
This side of the channel it’s still business as usual. The Queen’s speech summarised economic policy as still being to give priority to ‘deficit reduction.’ In other words more austerity.
So not only do we continue with a policy that is hitting the poor hard but also the middle classes or as young Ed Miliband  describes them “the squeezed middle.” Sounds a bit like my waist line.
The austerity itself has kept the economy depressed and the lack of tax revenue has meant that the approach has not even reduced the deficit. So on all fronts our dear Chancellor has failed.
And as his party’s strategist he hasn’t even read the runes rightly. His budget giving a bung to the rich at a time even when shareholders are revolting against obscene high pay packages was widely seen to have been a major mistake. Indeed the whole budget was seen to have backfired. 
The voters response was a very large raspberry in the form of the local election results. This mainly underlines a similar message to that seen throughout Europe that voters will punish all regimes who’s economic strategy is “austerity.” Indeed in the last year austerity programmes have done for eight leader in Europe. 
So beware Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg. The latest opinion polls predict a similar fate here. 
The latest You Gov Poll for Sun indicate Labour 45% Con 31% UKIP 8% Lib Dem 7%. and a similar pattern in the Ipsos Mori/Standard Lab 43% Con 33% Lib Dem 9%
This will be the last blog for a while whilst I’m off for a week’s holiday. A much needed boost to the Spanish economy.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Let me build a barrage

So Peter Hain is taking himself to the back benches to build himself a barrage. 
The 62-year-old Neath MP’s standing down 
as current shadow Welsh secretary to concentrate all his energy on trying to get a Severn barrage built. 

But Hain being Hain says he’s open to offers should young Ed Miliband become Prime Minister.  

That’s good of him, eh.
Labour have a list of bright young things waiting in the wings to take centre stage, but one questions why any of them should be queuing up for such a non-job.
Even before devolution Wales hardly got much of a look in Westminster. Now it’s not even worthy of Westminster’s glance. 
Power has moved to Cardiff Bay. It’s Carwyn Jones that runs the Welsh roost. God knows what the Secretary of State for Wales does to fill her days, and even less so what the Shadow is expected to shadow.
As we say in the valleys “what’s it for?” 
At best it can only be seen as a stepping stone for a job with something  of an humph about it. But the danger for any ambitious politician is that they get stuck in the job, much as Peter Hain to his own despair found himself. 
Whilst holding the post the temptation is always for the Labour shadow not so much to hold the Secretary of State to account but to interfere with what Labour is doing in the Bay. After all the devil makes work for idle hands.
Mr Cameron, once the Scottish question is settled, will surely scrap the post. 

If Scotland remains in the Union then a ministry for all the devolved nations will be established. If Scotland outs itself, well who knows what new arrangements will be made for the remaining rump.  But you can bet your bottom dollar there won’t be a Welsh Secretary. 
So as Peter Hain says goodbye to the front benches it won’t be long before Wales says goodbye to the Welsh Office itself. 

Thursday, 10 May 2012

What next for censured AM

Yesterday my attention was on the Queens speech, so the little local difficulty of the AM for Llanelli took second place in my list of priorities. 
My view on the matter was documented in the blog that followed the first news of Mr Davies’s big night out. http://ogarethhughes.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/night-on-town.html 

But to update readers, here's the latest. Yesterday the Standards committee produced their report on the matter. It will be debated in Assembly's main session next Wednesday. 
After complaints from the St David’s Hotel to the Clerk of the National Assembly asked the independent Commissioner for Standards, Gerard Elias QC to investigate and report back to the committee on Standards of Conduct.
Just to recap these are the facts that Elias reported to the committee.
  • On 16 April 2012, as one of twelve bookings requested bythe AM‟s office to the MBST, accommodation was arranged for the nights of Monday 23 & Tuesday 24 April 2012 at the St David‟s Hotel, Cardiff Bay.  No issue is raised as to the propriety of such booking.
  • The AM duly checked in to the hotel on 23 April shortlyafter 7.00 p.m. and was given room 408.  He subsequently left the hotel later that evening. 
  • The AM returned to the hotel at about 4.45am on 24 April with a female and both went to room 408.  At this time the AM was adversely affected by alcohol.
  • Shortly thereafter both the female and the AM contacted hotel reception requesting that 2 bottles of wine be sent to the room. After some discussion, this was done - the AM authorised his credit card to be debited.
  • Thereafter, between 05.30 and 08.30am the hotel reception received a number of complaints from adjoining rooms of the noise emanating from room 408 and from its balcony, which included loud shouting and swearing.
  • Telephone calls to room 408 and face to face visits by hotel staff seeking to get the AM and his companion to reduce the noise and consequent disturbance to other hotel occupants were met with abuse and threats, particularly from the female, and an  indication from the AM that he did not intend to pay the bill.
  • The AM booked out of the hotel at about 12 noon while the female made foul mouthed detrimental comments about the hotel from the first floor landing. This was witnessed by the numerous hotel guests then present in the lobby. 
  • The AM left the hotel alone.

Keith Davies accepted the facts and apologised for his behaviour on the night concerned and wrote a letter of apology to the hotel. He also picked up the bill for his stay at the hotel.
To cut a long story short the report went to the committee who unanimously recommend that the Member should be “censured.” 

So there you have it a slap over the wrists and end of story. Or is it?
The report poses a challenge to the Labour Party itself. The ball is now very much in their court.  Did the AMs behaviour bring the party into disrepute? And if so what is the party going to do about it? 

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Queen visits her palace in Westminster

So another Queens speech is delivered and our parliamentarians are told how they will busy themselves in the months to come. 
But what both Clegg and Cameron want to convince us all of “it’s the economy, stupid.”
Yes, the duet says, important though the law making programme is, their main emphasis and priority still remains the economy. 
Indeed so desperate are they to convince us that this is their highest priorities that they issued a joint statement saying "The primary task of the Government remains ensuring that we deal with the deficit and stretch every sinew to return growth to the economy, providing jobs and opportunities to hard-working people across Britain who want to get on."
Despite the gloss, no new initiative to generate growth was forthcoming. It’s more of the same. Cuts and no stimulus for growth.
The photo opportunity they held yesterday in a tractor factory, the last tractor production line left in the UK incidentally, was interesting not so much in its setting but in the language that was used. It was not an “austerity” programme it was all about “efficiency.” 
But one man’s efficiency becomes another man austerity, PM.
So no change on the economy, so what can we expect.
Well, it looks as if Clegg gets his way on the reform of the House of Lords. But with Conservative back benchers getting stroppy on the matter it may not be a done deal and it is unlikely to get a smooth passage. It could be the issue that tears the coalition apart.
Reform of pensions and break up the banks to prevent a repeat of the financial crash also feature. 
Last year’s Vickers report on the banks will be implemented so that the services provided by the High street bank to the public will be ring fenced from the bank’s more risky “casino” investment activities.
The pension reforms will see changes to the Public Service pensions. A bit of a thorny subject for the government who are already facing a series of strikes with public sector unions. Expect more of the same. 
That’s not all, they’re raising retirement age for all to 67. So all over the age of 52 now will have longer to work. Provided they’re in a job, of course.
The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill overhauling employment tribunals and cutting inspections on businesses. The government see it as another attempt to cut back on “red tape” on business. Methinks that the unions will see it differently.
The Crime and Courts Bill, which amongst other things introduced an offense of drug-driving and modernised the court system and the process for appointing judges in England and Wales. So don’t take that spiff before you drive.
Another area that should get us all excited are the plans to increase surveillance of internet traffic. Beware what you say in your e-mails in future because someone will be reading it. 
The official name for this charter for snooping is the Communications Data Bill, which could allow security agencies to access details of the time and origin of messages but not their content. “Not the content”, hmmm.
A Defamation Bill offers new protections for freedom of speech in England and Wales and a Justice and Security Bill will allow courts to hear evidence from security and intelligence agencies behind closed doors.
An Energy Bill will reform the electricity market across the UK to enable large-scale investment in low-carbon generation capacity, while a draft Water Bill aims to improve competitiveness and efficiency of the industry in England and Wales.
The other bills will mainly apply to England only.
All in all, plenty for coalition MPs to fall out over. 

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Labour do well.

Young Ed has a spring in his steps since last Thursday. Even the failure to win the mayoral contest in London is seen as Ken Livingston’s fault rather than that of the Labour party itself. 
The percentage for each party based on all the seats contested was Labour 38% Conservative 31% LD 16% Others 15%. Not as big as some mid term swings in the past but enough to keep Ed’s critics in the party at bay for a while yet. 
Clearly the result reflects the voters wish to punish the two parties of government than a positive vote for Labour. 
But that said a wins a win. There is now a bonus for Labour’s election machine with the acquisition of so many new councillors. They’re the foot troops for future campaigns. 
In Wales, Labour did particularly well. Their best results since 1996, regaining control of  many of their former strongholds in the valleys. More than making up for the seats that they lost in 2008. 
They gained control of half of the counties that were up for grabs. include  Blaenau Gwent, came back to the Labour fold having spent sometime with independents arising out of the fallout over the party introducing an all women’s shortlist for parliament against the wishes of many in the area. Bridgend, Caerphilly, Merthyr Tydfil, Newport and Swansea also saw Labour taking control.
But of course Cardiff was their biggest achievement. Many, including this commentator, expected them to be the biggest party but to win outright control having being the third party was certainly unexpected and a real achievement.
The Welsh Conservatives lost their majority in Monmouthshire and lost control of the Vale of Glamorgan, losing 61 seats overall. The Lib Dems lost 66 seats overall and their control of Cardiff, Swansea, Wrexham and Newport. Clearly, both were being punished by the electors for the actions of the Westminster government.
In mid term it is often the case that Westminster governments are punished in local elections so that explains the Liberal Democrat and Conservative losses. 
But what of Plaid Cymru? Thursday, must be seen as a miserably failure for them too. In Scotland, the SNP as well as Labour gained at the expense of the other parties. But not so in Wales
Plaid Cymru even failed to gain overall control of Gwynedd, one of its heartland areas. And lost 41 seats overall. They lost control of their one valley authority, Caerphilly. 
The party had flagged up in advance that these elections would prove difficult and that there should be no expectation that the election of a new leader would make a difference in these elections. But OK to gain ground might not be on the cards but to loose with a new leader, hmmm.
The new leader has been in post for six weeks and normally one would expect a honeymoon period with the voter. Indeed even some London papers have given Leanne Wood some sympathetic national coverage. Despite this it  had nought affect on this election. Not a bit of it. 
Much was made of her credentials as a politician from the Valleys in her campaign for the leadership of her party. These credentials have seemingly not had any resonance with the voters. Indeed they lost control of Caerphilly overwhelmingly to Labour. 
The party needs to think seriously whether it’s going. There is not much sign that the punters out there are ready to embrace a party that’s to the left of Labour. 

All in all the real winner last Thursday was the Apathy party. Two out every three voters couldn’t bring themselves to vote. This must be a cause of worry that so many see the democratic process as having no relevance to them. Despite times being hard turning ones back on the ballot box is certainly not the answer.