Sunday, June 26, 2016

My View of Mr Johnson.

This is not a column declaring my support for any leadership bid that Boris Johnson may or may not launch this coming week. But it does reflect my considered view of the 'Blond One', which is generally positive. Some of my friends cannot fathom why I like Boris, and are challenging me to explain. So here goes. And don't complain because you asked!! 

I first met Boris Johnson in 1997, when he was a parliamentary candidate in Clwyd South. One quirky fact I sometimes use is that I represent a seat where Boris was once a candidate. In 1997 Dyffryn Tanat, (where Owain Glyndwr lived) and is now part of Montgomeryshire was part of Clwyd South in 1997! Anyway Boris came to speak in Welshpool and I was deputed to taxi him to Shrewsbury Station. At the function Boris was the 'act' we know. But once in the car he transformed. Serious; informed; knowledgable and as non-pompous as it's possible to be. I liked him.

I'd long been enthused by his writing for the Spectator, which I've read for over 40 yrs. Its anarchic, hugely creative and readable (like his book on Churchill). He's a man with great imagination. I thought his interest in politics was a great loss to journalism. Eventually he was elected, but (unwisely in my view) carried on as a journalist, writing for the Telegraph and becoming Editor of the Spectator - where sales increased to record levels. But alas his journalistic flourishes, (and pressure from tight deadlines) led to a gross mistake. Might have been acceptable to a journalist but not a Shadow Minister. Not his finest hour and bit of a setback.

Next big move was to take on Ken Livingstone to be Mayor of London, a strongly Labour city. Only Boris could have won it for the Tories. And he did it twice. No-one else could have done it. During his tenure, London flourished. He showed himself to be a leader. And he quickly emerged as a leader when he joined the Leave campaign. Seems to me he's a leader, and a winner.

Part of the Boris appeal has been his anarchic approach to interviews, and life in general. But in my view it's always been an act. It's just his way of connecting. And it works. He is just not like that in real life. He's calm and considered. Recently I've seen him described as right wing. That's like calling me right wing! Boris is progressive and actually a Europhile. It's just that he's no supporter of the EU. That how I'd like to be described.

I've always found him to be courteous - a character trait which served him well in TV Debates when he was subject to personal attacks. Kept his cool. I accept that there are many people who do not like the Boris style. That's ok. It's what may lead to failure to reach No 10. But I rather like him. But must repeat I need to see the field, and hear what they have to say, before declaring for any candidate to take over from the outstanding David Cameron in October.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Reflections on EU Referendum.

June 23rd 2016 will be etched forever into the history of Britain. The people decided in a referendum that they wished their Government to negotiate the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. So did the people of Wales. And so did the people of Powys. I was one of those voters, having been committed to leaving the EU since 1975. I have never signed up to the idea that Britain can be subsumed into an undemocratic bureaucracy. But I was still very surprised by the result, having been certain in my mind that the Remain side would win. 

I had hoped that David Cameron would continue as our Prime Minister for longer. He had already told us he would retire before the 2020 General Election. In reality this would have meant a new Conservative Party Leader being elected in 2018/19. The new leader will now be elected in October. On reflection, the Prime Minister is probably right to leave the hugely complex and difficult challenge of Britain's EU withdrawal to his successor. David Cameron has been an outstandingly good Prime Minister. I have been proud to know him, and to have worked with him. Despite being inexperienced  when he became Leader of the Conservative Party, he developed quickly into a hugely impressive leader and Prime Minister. I will certainly miss his reassuring and dominating presence. 

Inevitably there will be some turbulence. Not surprising after the warnings of Armageddon and catastrophe in 'Project Fear'. When financial markets opened on Friday morning, the FTSE 100 dropped around 8%. The BBC and financial whizz kids went into overdrive. And then the FTSE 100 went up again. "Oh dear, that wasn't in the script". 

Like everyone else, I am nervous, and a little fearful about the future. There is uncertainty, real tension, and threat of political turbulence as well as financial. I do not feel at all celebratory. So many friends and people I respect take a different view from me. However, this is not doubt about the wisdom of the brave wonderful liberating decision we took on the 23rd June. I do feel a sense of great pride in the British people who have voted for democracy. And proud of the voters of Wales and of Powys who also voted to leave the EU. Yet again the British people have showed the world how much they value democracy. Ironically, it has been a Conservative Govt which has given the British people the chance to vote it out of office in 2020 - which it may well do if Labour manage to replace Jeremy Corbyn with a credible leader.

I feel guilty not to have played any part in the actual campaigning. Initially I was opposed to the referendum being held in June, inevitably over-shadowing and influencing the Welsh General Election held in May. And by May I was so disillusioned by the utterly incredible claims of Project Fear, and the counter claims of the Leave campaign, that I could join in. So I just discussed the issue with those who asked my opinion.

I must include a comment about farming, particularly livestock farming. It was my main job for most of my life. There are two issues which are causing concern, a continuation of CAP subsidies and access to markets. I do not think either is a real problem. In our increasingly unstable world, no British Govt will sacrifice food security. If our European neighbours continue to subsidise farming, we will have to ensure that Britain remains competitive. And I think that market realities will dictate that we will be free to sell our produce in the EU. It would be an extraordinary act of self harm for the EU to put barriers in the way of trade. EU countries sell so much more to the UK than we do to them. 

There is so much else I could write about. I may edit later and add important bits I've left out. Not surprising. Last couple of days have been most astonishingly eventful of my 40 years in public affairs. Today, there is the weight of uncertainty, but tomorrow there will be the lightness and freedom that comes with casting off shackles of bureaucracy. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

My EU Referendum certainties.

I accept deciding which way to go in Thursday's EU Referendum is a very difficult decision for many people to take. There are no 'facts' to base a decision on. Just contested assertions. I can see that a good case can be made to Remain and a good case can be made to Leave. I've spoken to so many people who do not know what's for the best. I do not try to influence how they vote - except that by informing those who ask, that I will be voting ' Leave' may have some influence. It's an issue that is awash with uncertainty.

But not for me. It's not a difficult decision at all. I have always known that I would be for Leave. There has never been any doubt. I voted Out in 1975, and would always have voted Leave if asked the question. It's not based on the money the UK has to hand over to the EU. It's not because of immigration. Must admit I have found much of the Leave campaign dispiriting. But not nearly as dispiriting as the 'Remain' campaign which has left me shocked by it's distasteful tone. No, for me its simply that I never wanted Britain to be subsumed into an undemocratic bureaucracy. The only 'campaigning line' that has had any real resonance with my views has been "Take Back Control".

I have also not become over-excited about the referendum itself. Another certainty in my mind is that the British people will vote to Remain. I take not the slightest notice of the opinion polls. Whatever reasons are suggested for the vote to 'Remain' or 'Leave' will not shake my view that this referendum is too early. The British people are cautious and will vote to leave the EU only when the whole bureaucratic EU edifice is falling apart - which it will. And that's another of my 'certainties'. The EU will fall apart. I have told onstituents that the strongest reason for 'Remain' is that the UK will be a force for stability when the process of 'falling apart' takes place.

Lots of my friends will disagree with my logic. That's Ok with me. That is the one redeeming of this referendum. I have the freedom to vote and say what I want - even if I do feel a sense of disloyalty to David Camoron, for whom I have the highest possible regard, when I vote not as he wants me to. But in this area of confusion and uncertainty I am fortunate to have my own certainties to guide me.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Electric and Ultra Low-emission Vehicles.

My speech this week on Ultra Low Emissions Vehicles in a 30 minute debate I secured in House of Commons. Tidied it up a bit, and left out the interventions. It was a bit too long. Anyway here it is.
I beg to move,
I am not in any way a petrol-head—I am not even a car enthusiast. The drivers behind my seeking this debate were my interest in climate change and meeting the targets to reduce carbon emissions set in the 2008 Climate Change Act, and the safety and training within the motor industry in relation to ultra-low emission vehicles.
The transformation of the motor industry in the UK (and across the world) is happening much quicker than we might have anticipated a few years ago. Last year, there was a more than 50% increase in the number of pure electric vehicles (EVs) sold in Britain - and about a 40% increase in total sales of Ultra Low Emission Vehicles (ULEVs). We heard last week that by 2025 all new vehicles sold in Norway will be ULEVs. It is a change that will only accelerate. It is only five years since most motor companies decided to go down the ULEVs route. We know that Toyota started selling the Prius in the 1990s, but five years ago every car company in the world started to recognise that electric vehicles were going to be the future and decided to move quickly along the same road.
Additionally, we are seeing the development of driverless cars and trains. We are seeing a transformation in our transport systems of the the future. There are important associated issues. One being the massive investment needed in vehicle charging networks across the country—both electric charging points and hydrogen charging points. There must be huge investment. Raising awareness of issues associated with the expansion of ULEVs is my purpose today.
We need investment in training and developing technicians to support ULEVs. The main driver behind my initial interest in this subject was the climate change targets set in the 2008 Climate Change Act to meet the target of an 80% reduction in our 1990 carbon emissions by 2050. The stepping stones are the fourth and fifth carbon budget which currently look very challenging. We need transport to contribute to these. Power generation has made much good progress. Generally speaking, it will meet the targets set, but transport and heating simply have not moved as quickly as we would have wanted.
A new industry is developing. The motor industry is a big part of the British economy, and it will undergo major change over the next 20 years. My interest in climate change targets led me to accept an invitation to go to the BMW training centre at Reading to inform myself about this change. My visit was an eye-opener in several ways - and not just my drive in an i8, which I would recommend to anyone. It is a bit like being in a rocket—an amazing experience. The visit helped me to understand what is happening, particularly in the development and training of technicians.
The second eye-opener was the safety of working on electric cars. I had not realised that the batteries in electric cars are 600 V. Any mistake results in death or very serious injury. So training is crucial. Anyone who works on an electric car without experience and training puts themselves in great danger. Much work is needed to ensure that mechanics/technitions are properly trained. Of course, the main distributers already ensure that they have technitions who can work on such cars, but it will not be long before electric cars enter the second-hand car market and are taken to local garages and to people who do a bit of second-hand car repair. We have to do what we can to avoid accidents that will seriously damage the industry. Developing enough technicians is becoming increasingly difficult. The Institute of the Motor Industry tells me that its surveys show that more than 80% of small independent garages have huge difficulty recruiting technicians. I hope the Minister will comment on how we can increase the numbers, and the skills, of technicians available to work in this emerging industry across Britain?
We do not know exactly what the future of transport technology is. We should use the term “ultra-low emission vehicles,” rather than “electric vehicles,” because hydrogen fuel cell technology may well develop quicker. Things change incredibly quickly. It is only five years since the companies starting producing electric cars. In another five years, who knows? Hydrogen fuel cells might be the future, but that technology requires massive infrastructure investment, too. Unless people can charge their car at a reasonable distance from home, the industry will not take off. That is one of the issues the Government face. There has to be assessment of what the future will be, but ​having said that, we must be prepared for technology and invention taking us down a road that we had not wholly anticipated today.
There are three points that I wish to raise with the Government; I am keen to hear the Minister’s response to them. First, I am not a natural regulator, or a person who would naturally support new licensing regimes; I am naturally more inclined to the opposite. However, this is a massive industry - with massive opportunity. The IMI claims that by 2030 there will be a commercial and social benefit of £51 billion. I do not know how accurate that figure is, but clearly there is potentially a huge commercial benefit. There is potential for a huge export business. All those things will happen, but we must ensure the safety and availability of technicians. Developing that side of the industry is important. It is not just about having the ability to manufacture cars; we also need the technicians to support that industry, and at the moment we just do not have them. We have to develop a system to deal with the safety aspects, and probably to help the development of a professionalism in working with these low-emission vehicles. 
The Government may have to consider introducing a licensing system. One death working on an electric vehicle would be tragic any individual concerned and their family, but also tragic for an entire emerging industry. A report of a death from an electric car on the front page of the Daily Mail would inflict a massive blow on an industry that I believebwill be hugely important to the future economy of our country.
The second issue is whether the Government should financially support a training industry. Again, I am not a natural supporter of Government financial  intervention in commercial markets. However the Government already support the development of the electric car industry. We offer grant support for the purchase of new vehicles, to reduce the purchase price and to help develop the industry, so I do not see any reason why we ought not to consider supporting the training infrastructure that is absolutely vital if the industry is to develop successfully. That is another issue that I would quite like to hear the Minister comment on.
The third issue is about the IMI. I have been very grateful for its advice and support; it makes very strong arguments on this issue, which have have informed some of the comments that I have said this morning. I hope that the Minister would consider meeting the IMI to talk through the points that it makes very powerfully and persuasively. In my view, such a meeting would be very helpful, and I hope that the Minister is willing to agree to such a meeting.

We are developing a completely new technology. The aim is ​lower emissions. We are striving to reach vital decarbonisation targets.  Unless we achieve success in decarbonisation of transport, industry will not deliver what we need. However, I do believe that this is the route that we will go down. Practically, this is what is going to happen, and we need to take commercial advantage of the opportunity.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Wales Bill racing on.

The paint was hardly dry on the Queen's Speech which outlined the Gov't's programme for the new session, when the Wales Bill was published. Second Reading, where MPs debate the general principles behind the Bill was held Tuesday this week. Passed without a division. Welsh Secretary of State, Alun Cairns will have been very pleased. The Bill will now go into committee, where it will be considered line-by-line. Because it's a 'constitutional' bill, the committee will be the whole House of Commons. I believe two days have been allocated, one of which will he held before the summer recess. This is breakneck speed.

The Wales Bill is wide-ranging. But in my view, there are two proposals that stand out as particularly significant. Firstly, the Welsh Assembly will in future function on the basis of 'Reserved Powers' as opposed to the current 'Conferred Powers' system. This means that all powers are devolved to Wales except those on a list of powers 'reserved' to Westminster - rather than only those powers 'conferred' by the UK Govt. Sounds boringly technical I know, but it is very significant. No-one seemed to disagree - except Plaid Cymru MPs, who unsurprisingly want all powers devolved. There will inevitably be debate and disagreement about precisely what powers should be 'reserved'. But hopefully there should be less dispute and confusion over what a Welsh Govt can do (and can't do) in future.

Second big change is that the responsibility to levy a significant proportion of Income Tax will be devolved. I'm assuming it will about 50% of Income Tax. Which means that half of our Income Tax liability will be set by the Welsh Gov't (at present 10p for standard rate payers), while the other half ( (10p) will be levied by Westminster Govt. Both Gov't's will be free to vary it's rate up - both up and down. Some Conservatives are unhappy with this, but I've supported this principle for years. It's the only way to make the Welsh Govt financially accountable. At elections, voters need to study both sides of the ledger - what manifestos say about raising money as well as spending it. When I first advocated this change, very few agreed. Yesterday Second Reading passed without a division.

The most controversial aspect was the dropping of any commitment to a referendum. Most of us have had enough of those. And anyway, I suspect it would not be winnable because the referendum campaign would be focused on Labour wanting to increase our taxes. We have not yet reached the position where voters can conceive of any party but Labour leading a Welsh Govt. Personally I've never believed that and see the argument as self-fulfilling pessimism. 

Several other important changes as well. Welsh AMs will be able to run elections, change voting systems and increase number of AMs. Labour MPs seemed quite exercised that the right to introduce compulsory voting was to be devolved. And formally change the Assembly into a Parliament. 

There may be a bit of turbulence about whether Wales should have it's own separate jurisdiction. It's unchallengeable that Wales is developing it's own body of distinct Welsh Law. But it's minuscule. Don't think the UK Govt will back a separate jurisdiction at present. May be a barny about that.

My view is it's an important bill, and I support it, even if it formalised devolution over energy projects up to 350MWs. This was effectively devolved already, when the Welsh Labour Govt, quite disgracefully in my view, stripped councils of the power to decide wind farm planning applications on March 1st this year. Luckily for Montgomeryshire, the landscape philistines in Cardiff Bay have no power over subsidy regimes. Someday I hope a Welsh Conservative Govt will return this power to local people, as it is in England. 

Anyway, it's onwards to the consideration of the details of the Wales Bill in committee.

Friday, June 10, 2016

I will not be threatened.

As regular visitors to my blog will know, I will be voting Leave on June 23rd. They will also know that I would prefer not to have been asked. Not yet.  I've always thought that the undemocratic bureaucracy that is the EU is doomed to collapse eventually, but I would have preferred any referendum about British withdrawal to be held when a Leave vote was near certain to win.

I write this as news reaches us that an opinion poll tonight puts Leave 10pts ahead. I simply do not believe it. When it was announced that we would have a referendum in 2016, I thought the Remain side would win by 5-10% - and I've not changed my mind. As we close in on the 23rd June, voters will move to what they believe to be the 'status quo' - the less risky option. It may be disappointing to me, but that's how I think it will pan out.

But the Remain side is doing it's best to lose. A few weeks/months ago, before I declared my intention to vote Leave, I was quite relaxed about it. Could see good reasons to Remain and good reasons to Leave. Deciding factor for me was a longstanding belief (41yrs) that I do not want to see Britain subsumed into an undemocratic bureaucracy. I simply did not have that feeling of 'We must win' in my heart. So many good friends and admired political colleagues were for Remain. In particular, David Cameron, who I greatly admire. It did not seem a big deal.

But the tone of the debate has changed things. Juncker calling us quitters really fired me up. Who was he to call us quitters. Telling me I was happy to trash the economy, put our security on the line, even unleash world-wide conflict made me cross too. I don't believe a word of it. And telling me that the EU would buy Welsh Lamb. Never heard such 'cobblers' in my life. It's all come over as threatening me. I have never responded well to threats. My stubborn contrary streak has been ignited. I've supported Leave since 1975 - in a fairly relaxed sort of way. Now I really want to Leave.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Backing S4C

Defending the interests of S4C is one of those issues needing consistent vigilance and persistence in the House of Commons. Cannot afford to miss any chance to declare how much it matters. Noticed yesterday that Labour was using it's 'opposition day' slot for a debate criticising the Gov't's White Paper on BBC Charter Renewal. I thought I'd appear in the chamber and make an intervention. Very few there. Labour had called the debate (using up this high profile slot) and then they didn't turn up!! Anyway, I asked Speaker if I could be a late entry into the debate, a request grateful accepted.

It was an odd choice of debate, based on criticisism of a White Paper outlining Govt approach to charter renewal, which most people accept as favourable to the BBC. Even the BBC are supportive. Of course there are anti-Government lobbyists arranging petitions etc? but with scant justification. They are already active on social network. I received hundreds before the White Paper was even published, attacking what was in it- before anyone had seen it. Ludicrously, the Speaker even allowed an Urgent Question in Parliament on the White Paper the day before it was published. It's an old trick to guess what Govt is going to do, demand that this be done and then claim credit for forcing the Gov't's hand. Anyway, I thought Labour MPs struggled to generate much disagreement. It all looked rather contrived, especially with almost no Labour MPs there!

I made only one substantive point. About S4C - so important to Welsh culture and Welsh Language. During the last Parliament, funding of S4C was switched from DCMS (the Govt) to the BBC (licence fee). Today it's where 90% of S4C's funding comes from. Separately, Govt has agreed to conduct an Independent Review of S4C - but this won't take place until BBC Charter Renewal is complete. My concern (and S4C's) is that the new agreed Charter may have a constraining impact on the independence of the Independent Review. My speech was not a complaint as such. It was raising an important aspect of Charter Review discussions at an early stage. I don't want S4C being forgotten about.