Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Opening up on another Wales Bill.

Spoke in the debate on the 'Gracious Speech' for the first time today. Always enjoy the pomp and ceremony which accompanies the Opening of Parliament, especially the glorious sight, smell and sound of the magnificent horses which accompany Her Majesty as she arrives at the Palace of Westminster. But for several reasons, today was first time I've spoken in a Queen's Speech debate. I spoke about the Wales Bill we are expecting to be introduced over the next few weeks.

Though not knowing precisely what will be in the Bill, we can make a pretty good guess at it, because there was the 'Draft' Wales Bill' that ran out of steam during the last Parliament. We know the range of powers to be 'reserved' to Westminster will be much reduced from previous proposals. We also know that the 'Necessity tests', which caused so much concern, has been totally removed. So more chance of agreement. 

Today I spoke about vesting in the Welsh Government the responsibility to levy a significant proportion of Income Tax. For me this is fundamental. My strong views on this issue were developed when I served as Conservative Finance Spokesman in the National Assembly for Wales more than ten years ago. We used to have what was termed the annual budget process. But it was not a budget at all. It was no more than an annual spending plan. A budget involves consideration of both sides of the ledger  - how Govt money is raised as well as how it is spent.

The key line in my speech was "If devolution of Income Tax is not included in the Wales Bill, it deserves to fail. It deserves to be rejected. Without the inclusion of a responsibility placed on the Wales Government to levy a significant proportion of Income Tax, not one iota of extra power should be devolved"

Though some of most contentious proposals in the Draft Wales Bill have been removed, there remains potential areas for disagreement. How is the small but growing body of Welsh law to be formally considered? Do we need a separate Welsh Juridiction? Should Policing be devolved along with other emergency services such as ambulance and fire services? Should we consider devolution of broadcasting? Plenty of potential for disagreement.

Taking a Wales Bill through the House will not be easy. Big challenge for new Secretary of State for Wales, Alun Cairns. It will need a willingness to compromise on all sides, and a genuine desire to take devolution forwards. I hope I can play a part in that.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Powys Councillors versus Llanfyllin High School.

I think I take a fundamentally different attitude to the management of schools from my Council here in Powys. Not claiming to be right, but it's what fits my political philosophy. I believe in allowing schools, (governors, teachers and parents) to have a major influence on how schools are managed. And I like to see schools competing for pupils - driving up standards while doing so. It's clear Powys Cllrs take a very different view. Powys high schools will jolly well do as they are told, and pupils will jolly well go to the school Cllrs have decided they should go to. And to hell with any impact on children or parents or schools. At least that's how it seems to me.

Let's look at the background to the growing rumpus about the freedom of Llanfyllin High School to set aside part of it's 'delegated budget' to help with transport costs of pupils from outside the area deemed by Cllrs to be the School's catchment. For many years, the Governors have allocated part of the school budget towards easing the transport costs of these pupils (many from over the nearby border with England). The School claim this has resulted in significant savings to the Council. As student numbers rise, the cost per pupil falls. If the 'outside of catchment' students went to other schools (in England) the Powys funding formula would mean a lot of extra money having to be diverted to the School. Also, the extra sixth form pupils from England enable a broader range of classes (which benefit other Powys Schools under collaborative arrangement). Cllrs have decided that no money should be spent on transport, which will make it impossible for many students to attend Llanfyllin. Or many existing students to stay. It will devastate the plans and lives of many families and students. 

Anyway, 5 yrs ago Powys Council decided that this transport subsidy must end, with I'm told no regard whatsoever for interests of students, parents or the School. Not sure this complies with the Welsh Gov't's 'Learner Travel Wales Measure'. Now that lawyers have been called in, the courts may well be asked to decide. Whatever, the School carried on subsidising transport (in the knowledge I'm told of certain leading Cllrs and officers). A few weeks ago, the Council Cabinet just decided to 'enforce, it's decision, causing massive upset to parents and students. There's even talk of Cllrs taking over the Schools 'delegated budget' - so I'm told. The effect on students, their families and the School itself seems to be secondary as far as some Powys Cabinet Members are concerned.

 Now I'm not sure where this is all going to end. It's clear that Llanfyllin High School is going to fight. Llanfyllin is overflowing with anger and resentment towards Powys Cllrs. I have great sympathy with the people of Llanfyllin over this. I wish them well in their fight with the dominating Council. David defeated Goliath once, and I hope the people of Llanfyllin can do the same. And we now find that at least one other high school has been doing exactly the same. And it's all been known to some leading Cllrs and officers all along. What on earth is going on? We are expecting an 'independent' report later this week into the affair. It should make very interesting reading.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Thinking Nuclear.

I suppose it's a bit sad really.  Saturday night in the bath, relaxing after couple of hours dividing grasses, and thinking about things nuclear. Not what I'd have been thinking about 50 yrs ago for sure. Only concession to debauchery today is to be drinking a nice dry white(or two) at the same time.! Anyway, thought it would be good to write a blog about current energy policy. Bit elementary, but hopefully strategic. Helps me put my thoughts in order for meetings this coming week.

The UK Gov't has to develop energy policy that's affordable (in the long term), gives us security of supply and meets our carbon reduction targets. Not everyone is fully signed up to the decarbonisation targets, but it is Govt policy, backed by vast majority of MPs. So it's going to happen, whether you like it or not. I receive a fair few emails which seem to think renewables is the complete answer. It's true that renewables are a key part of the future, but only a part. The key long term strategy is to expand  renewables (especially offshore wind and solar) but it needs further development of storage/battery technology to cope with inconsistent supply. But it's on it's way, and will be much more significant source of our energy by mid-century.

Crucial to security of supply is gas. Gas is also key to decarbonisation in the short/medium term, enabling a move away from coal. Over last year or two, crash in oil prices has slowed down gas supply developments, but it's on the way. Gas has a major role to play in UK energy supply for another 20 yrs plus. Biggest unknown is whether we have to import all this gas (sometimes from unstable overseas sources) or access shale gas from under our feet. We still don't know whether shale gas is viable in the UK. Maybe permission to frack for shale gas will be given in Yorkshire this coming week. It's still very controversial. Must admit I don't quite understand why. So much misinformation being spread and believed.  Anyway we will see what happens.

And then there's Nuclear.  Biggest focus in UK at present is on the EDF development at Hinckley Point, backed by Chinese finance. French Govt and UK Ministers seem very confident this will go ahead. I'm not so sure. Wouldn't surprise me at all if this massively expensive project bites the dust - no matter what French Ministers and EDF are currently saying. But I feel much more certain that the Nugen development at Moorside in Cumbria, and the Horizon development on Anglesey will go ahead. Both projects are progressing as planned under the radar, while the publicity spotlight is on Hinckley Point.

Alongside these developments, there is growing interest in the development (mostly in US) of Small Modular Reactors. Nothing been built anywhere in the world yet. But I sense it's going to be big - and soon. Energy and Climate Change Committee are off to California for a week to get a grip on what's happening in SMR and storage technology later this year, though my homebird tendency will mean I'll miss the trip. They'll tell me what they see.

And there's so much else as well. Tidal lagoons are under consideration, while Carbon Capture and Storage  is still being developed across the world, even if the UK has dropped back in the race to develop the technology. So much happening in the energy policy field. But at present the biggest deal is nuclear. That's why it's on my mind tonight. And I'm open to amending this post in response to persuasive comment.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Not Politics as we've known it.

I will be voting Leave on June 23rd. Thats not in doubt. But despite normally enjoying a good debate, I am so disillusioned by the tone of public discussion on this issue that I cannot summon up the will to become involved in it. In fact, I don't think I've ever heard such nonsense (both sides and bordering on the bizarre) spoken ever in my life. It's as if real argument, evidenced facts and logical debate have all been suspended. For example, we are expected to believe the Treasury know where the economy will be in 2030!! We are expected to believe a vote to Leave might lead to another World War!! We are expected to believe there will be another £350 million a week extra to spend on UK public services !! It's all nonsense.

Have to admit I did not welcome the In/Out referendum, announced in early 2013. During the period leading up to the announcement, I used to warn fellow Eurosceptics to "be careful what you vote for". I did want a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Or any other treaty change. Voters would have stood a chance of understanding the arguments. I did think, as in 1975, the result would be a Yes vote, leading to a massive 'green light ' to further integration. Not so sure about further integration now. Disillusionment in growing across the EU, will continue to grow, and will be causing real consternation amongst the integrationists. I've always thought that at some stage the massive EU bureaucracy will come tumbling down. It will be a very dangerous moment for the continent of Europe.

There are two reasons underpinning my vote to Leave, which can be loosely catagorised under the headings 'sovereignty' and 'democracy' - short-hand, but hopefully conveys my meaning. I know very well that neither of these are pure or simple concepts. Though I consider myself European, and support the idea of working closely as possible with fellow European states, I have never bought in to the idea of the UK being subsumed into an undemocratic bureaucracy. That's how I saw it in 1975, and it's how I see it now. I support the idea of people feeling they have influence on the decisions that impact on their lives. And that they know who they can eject from representing them at elections. The consequence of decision taking by the unelected in Brussels, and being represented by individuals they know very little about will lead to the growth of support for mavericks (sometimes benign, sometimes dangerous). 

This morning, I was asked by a particularly sharp and able political journalist about what I thought would be the result. My view has never varied from believing the voters will back Remain. Being a 'Leaver' is like being as Aston Villa supporter throughout the last season. They love the club and stay loyal but knew they were going down. But 'going down' is only short term. Villa will be back, and may well be irresistible in 2/3 yrs time. Voters tend to go for 'safety' in the ballot box, and tend towards the status quo. But I do not think it will be politics as we've known on June 24th. Too much water has flowed under the bridge, and inflicted a bit of damage to the foundations. 


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

First Day of Term in Cardiff Bay.

" Hey Neil, I've got a cracking idea".  "Ok, share it Mark". "Why don't you refer to Leanne and Kirsty as political concubines in the chamber today". "Great Plan Mark. You were wasted in Kent. And anyway Burnham just called Westminster an irrelevance. You're a natural for the Senedd". And the seven laughed and laughed uncontrollably. "And Neil, the bonus is they will completely ignore the Tory leader. What's his name again. And Kirsty won't be able to speak because she's not a party leader any more". And the plan worked like a dream. Seven AMs only, and yet media coverage to dream of. "And what is the Welsh for concubines anyway. How are Newyddion going to cover the big story of the day? The seven musketeers are probably still laughing now - perhaps over a pint at the Eli. Ok, Ok, so I made all this up. Or did I? Anyway, they would be in two groups in different hostelries!

I'm told new Presiding Officer, Elin Jones did well, letting proceedings become a bit rowdier. Nothing like as precious as her predecessors. I do miss it. I'm also told Leanne Wood put in a bravura performance, portraying herself as 'opposition'. Fools no-one of course. I do wonder whether it actually fools the Plaid 'tweeters ' who are so desperately trying to deny that Labour and Plaid are in a 'coalition in all but name'.

Also told Carwyn's master stroke is to do nothing for 100 days, so everyone can settle in. Please, no jokes about last 100 days!! Personally, I've no objection to any Government doing nothing too radical for 100 days. Spain had no Govt at all for six months and the economy has improved. But I suspect the pesky MPs other end of the M4 are going to spoil Carwyn's sabbatical. Queen's Speech today. There's going to be new Wales Bill to deal within a week or two. Perhaps he and Leanne better have another private little chat about sorting that out. Intrigued to know what Neil is going to have to say about it!

What to expect in the Queen's Speech

Best laid plans..... Newly pressed suit etc. for Queen's Speech Day. Special day in Parliamenary calendar. So much pomp and splendour. And stunningly beautiful horses. Anyway, left flat, looking dapper (for me that is) only to find no taxis at all. Had to run for it to BBC studio in Millbank to discuss the 'Speech' at 8.30. Now sweaty and ragged! Blogging because it's much more fun commenting before we know.

Biggest expectation for me is a Wales Bill. Pretty certain, and hopefully early in the Parliament. It will not be straightforward. There was much opposition to the Draft Wales Bill presented and 'paused' in last Parliament. It's going to take goodwill and a positive attitude by politicians of all parties to make it happen. Much messing about and the 'slot' in Parliamentary timetable will be gone. I can foresee some real problems about jurisdiction, policing etc. Absolutely key for me will be devolution of income tax powers. Welsh Govt must be financially accountable. Without that, I'd prefer to see the Bill fail.

No doubt, the Prime Minister will want to move away from the soul destroying distraction that is the EU Referendum to return to his agenda for 'social reform'. I expect bills on adoption, promoting life's chances of young people - schools, universities, apprentiships etc. Also expect some progressive proposals from Michael Gove on prison reform, where the new HMP Berwyn at Wrexham could play a part. Expect to hear "One Nation" mentioned a few times over next few days.

There will be lots more too. I'm expecting something on British Bill of Rights. Not looking forward to this. Manifesto commitment, but I've never been happy with it. And bound to be a bill on strengthening security.

And now what I'd like to see. First up after Wales Bill will be a Broadband Bill ensuring access for rural areas, and a Care Bill, focussing on 'end of life' care. Hopefully blog later today about how my hopes and pre-assessment works out! Now to try to tart myself up again for the arrival of our Queen. Don't want to let her down.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Doodling aimlessly about Welsh Politics.

There seems to be an impression amongst those who comment on Welsh political happenings this weekend that last week was a big week in Welsh Assembly politics. At one stage I was taken in myself. But the reality is that when the dust has settled, we can see that last week was entirely predictable. Nothing of any real significance happened. Almost case of "Move along; Nothing to see here!". A Plaid Cymru AM elected as Presiding Officer, Carwyn Jones and Labour to continue in power, and UKIP AMs scrapping amongst themselves and changing voting positions for no apparent logical reason. At least that how it looks to me. Let's consider.

Firstly Elin Jones as Presiding Officer. Excellent choice. Must admit I'd thought the Meirionydd Maciavelli would win (and he'd have been a good choice too). I did hear several other names mentioned, but they didn't go for it. I've always thought Welsh Conservative, Paul Davies would be good - calm, respected and experienced. And he would always have David Melding to offer him sage advice.

Secondly UKIP. Top marks for entertainment. Neil Hamilton snatching the Assembly leadership from Nathan Gill was a cracking story. Hope Nathan hadn't spent anything on name plates. And then Nigel Farage telling us that Neil is too "past it"  to be a leader. Ugh! He's only 67! Then voting for Leanne Wood to be First Minister and some changing their mind next day, making clear the fuss was no more than shenanigans. Bizarrely, the key issue for UKIP seems to be abolishment of Severn Bridge tolls, which is nothing to do with the Welsh Assembly. Whatever, the UKIP team took the publicity, which may well have been the objective! It does mean that Andrew RT is going to have to shout ever louder to be heard. Always remember Neil Hamilton is no mug and been around the houses.

What of Plaid Cymru. Throughout the election campaign, it looked obvious that Plaid were looking to join some 'working arrangement" with Labour. The more they denied it, the more obvious it became. Then last Wed, for a fleeting moment, I thought Plaid were serious about putting Labour into opposition, and assumimg power. You know, real power, power to run Wales. It would not have been easy, and I don't think it would have lasted the full five years. And it would have been a limited programme. Maybe it would not have worked. But I thought it was worth a go. It would have been great for Welsh politics. Anyway, the Plaid policy wonks didn't, and all they wanted to do was poke Labour in the eye, and then try to influence Labour's 'programme for Gov't'. Or pretend to be influencing it.

Not much to say about the Tories. They all voted against Labour last week (as opposed to voting for Plaid). I'd expect them to carry on doing so. In two weeks time, the events of last week will be no more than  quirky facts for Vaughan Roderick to file away in his encyclopaedic memory of useless facts about Welsh Politics.

Or will Welsh politics deliver a genuine surprise!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Uncertainty in Cardiff Bay

"Events dear boy, events" have been happening at the National Assembly for Wales down at Cardiff Bay today. Beautifully chaotic events, charged with possibilities and promise of exciting uncertain times ahead. Must admit I did not see it coming - which makes the chaos all the more interesting. Like a chinook rumbling up behind a high hedge and suddenly rising up to fill the horizon. As I sit at my keyboard, I have no idea where it's going to end. Are dreams of real change the triumph of hope over realism? "Time will tell" dear boy.

Let's start with the election of Plaid Cymru's Elin Jones as Presiding Officer. Elin is very sound, and knows Mid-Wales and understands rural. And she's a friend of mine. So that's good. Lord Elis Thomas, whom Elin defeated in the vote is also a good friend. He knows the job better than anyone, but I suppose he's already had a fair stint. I'd have liked to see David Melding as PO, but when he ruled himself out, Elin is a good alternative. And Ann Jones as her Deputy is OK. Though she won't have much time to follow Rhyl FC now!

But it was the vote for First Minister that really set the cat among the pigeons. More like set the lions among the wildebeest I'd say. Like most people I had assumed Labour's Carwyn Jones to be a shoe-in. Yes, thought there would be a Leanne Wood challenge to him, but I did not think it would be 29-29. Bet Elin panicked a bit. "What on earth do I do now"? The answer was "No idea" I suspect - except to suspend the sitting and come back next week to have another go. Bit of time to think. But there's no reason why it should be different next week. Plaid AMs are voting for their own, Tories and UKIP are voting to oust Labour. Unless illness, accident or fear of earthquakes intervenes the 29 anti-Carwyn votes will stand. The most enjoyable aspect of all this is that none of the ubiquitous experts, pundits, no-all's etc. had a clue until just before it all hit the fan.

Now, personally, I like Carwyn Jones, and most of the other Labour Assembly stalwarts. It's not personal. But I've always wanted to see Labour in opposition. So many voters in Wales assume Labour will always win.  It makes friends of mine oppose giving any power to the Welsh Govt because "it will always be Labour". If nothing else today's turbulence shows us that is not the case.

But where is all this going. In truth, I do not know. Tories and UKIP positions are easy to understand. They want Labour out. And I'm with them on that. The big question is "What do Plaid want"? If it's just to force Labour to offer them a good deal, I can understand that. That's what the Welsh commentariat (so blindsided by today) will be thinking. But what if Plaid mean it. What if they actually want to take power. The compromises involved deserve a bit of serious reflection.

Must admit I cannot see a Plaid/Tory/UKIP coalition working for 5 yrs. So best plan short term. It means Plaid would need to go for power with a very limited programme - looking for immediate wins. Plaid's immediate programme for Govt would have to be limited to what Tories and UKIP would support. And there is more than you would think. Perhaps a Wales Bill incorporating financial accountability. Perhaps even a changed PR system - one designed not to deliver the Labour one-party-state the current system was designed for. Perhaps a genuine policy for rural Wales. Perhaps a comprehensive North-South road improvement. Oh the possibilities are so exciting. But it will mean risk, ambition and leadership. Is it there? Is this dream I see before me real. Never felt more sorry to have lost my place as an Assembly Member than I do tonight.