Tuesday, December 06, 2016

More on Tidal Lagoons

Another good 90 minute debate at Westminster today about the much discussed Swansea Tidal Lagoon. The debate was led by Stephen Crabb, Conservative MP for Presceli Pembrokeshire, who was supported by almost all opposition parties in the House of Commons. It was a very one-sided debate. The cost hardly mentioned. I'd like to have spoken in the debate myself, but because of my close working relationship with Welsh Office ministers felt it unwise to do so. But on my blog, A View from Rural Wales, I reckon I can get away with it. If I choose my words carefully, I don't seem to land myself in any trouble. And anyway, despite being entirely positive about the proposal, I fear my contribution would have seemed negative - much like that of the only Conservative backbencher to speak, Antoinette Sandbach. Same goes for Minister, Jesse Norman who was responding on behalf of the Govt.
Everyone wants to see the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon going ahead. It's an exciting new technology. The proposal itself is comparative.y small, but can be looked at as a pilot for much bigger schemes around the coast of Britain. Like everyone else, I hope we can find a way of using tidal energy to produce power, and Swansea Bay could be the key.
But it cannot be at any price. Govts cannot do that, and the current Govt has commissioned a report on the potential of UK tidal power from former respected DECC minister, Charles Hendry. None of us have seen this report yet. Despite rumours circulating around Westminster, I have no idea what this report says. The report is into tidal power, rather than just the Swansea Bay project. It will inform Govt's thinking. But as Antoinette and Jesse Norman both said today, (and I would have said if I'd spoken) it has to be financially viable. It falls to Government to always balance benefits against cost, and make a decision based on value for money. Not much consideration of this aspect of the proposal. It's what will matter to the Chancellor and the Prime Minister though. I'm looking forward to knowing what is decided - in due course.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

My personal Brexit wish list.

Hard to make much sense of some of the reporting about the UK leaving the EU. Most of it seems to be a mixture of untruths and make believe. I suppose there's so much media space to be filled, they have to write something. Anyway, just thought I'd add my personal perspective - what I want to see the eventual exit deal deliver.
Now I've no real idea what constitutes a Hard Brexit, a Soft Brexit or a Grey Brexit. No idea where on this spectrum (if it is a spectrum) I stand. Perhaps the reason I'm writing this quick blog post is that it will enable others to tell me where I stand !! Mostly, I think the media coverage is gibberish.
But should begin by setting out the fundamental position. The UK will be leaving the EU, and I would anticipate all involved in this divorce will want as amicable a settlement as possible in the interests of all parties. There are many who voted Remain still doing what they can to frustrate the voice of the people, as expressed in the referendum - while pretending they are not. Luckily we have a Prime Minister made of stern stuff, who is not going to be bullied and browbeaten by these anti-democrats.
Now to the detail of where negotiation may lead. And it's all guesswork of course. Until Article 50 is invoked in late March, we will know little to nothing about any negotiations. But we do have opinions as individuals, which informed how we voted on June 23rd. And I'm sharing mine.
There seem to be four main concerns that influenced our decisions about which way to vote. Only two of them really mattered to me, with one of those being 'the reason' I would always have voted Leave - leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Without this, Britain is not really an independent country at all. Judges might sometimes make us cross, but I can live with that if they are British judges. Dealing with this unacceptable position (to me anyway) seems to feature in everything I hear and read about the Govt's position. Good. Everything else I am more relaxed about. But I am also enthusiastic about the UK being able to trade with any other country or region in the world. I can see that this is a complex and contentious area for debate. But it is important if the UK is to be a genuinely 'independent' state. And it makes good economic sense anyway.
The other two policy areas much discussed and that personally, I am not so fussed about - are immigration and financial contributions to the EU Budget - though I do accept these were probably the two reasons which Leave voters were most exercised about on June 23rd. On both areas, I thought our Foreign Secretary reflected my opinions on Marr this morning. Immigration is important to the UK, but it's currently at too high a level to be sustainable over the long term. The UK Govt should have control over this. But we must not become anti immigration and insular. And there's no reason why the UK should not continue to pay into the EU for something that is important to the UK, on the basis of value for money - a deal not a membership fee.
Not sure whether any of this would be controversial if Liam Fox, David Davis or our Foreign Secretary were to say it. It's not if I say it and it's just what I, a back bench Tory MP thinks. It's what I thought when I voted Leave. But I've no idea what sort of Brexit it is.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Brexit must now prevail.

Having quite a bit of correspondence at present. wanting to debate the wisdom of the UK leaving the EU. I don't think I'm going to join in. That debate took place before June 23rd, and the voters of Britain, (of Wales and of Powys) decided on Leave. So happens I'd not been involved in that debate. I refused point blank to comment at all until May 6th as my personal protest that this referendum seriously disrupted the Welsh General Election. Remember having some stick about this on a Welsh Language TV panel programme, Pawb a'i Farn, who felt I should declare earlier. I stood my ground though. And by Welsh Election Day, May 7th I was so disgusted by both the Remain and Leave campaigns that I decided not to become involved in the debate at all. I did however make public that I intended to vote Leave - mainly because I do not want the UK to be subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. I voted Out in 1975 as well. I did not try to persuade anyone to follow. I would have preferred to keep my opinion to myself, but as an MP, accepted that it was difficult to do that. But I did decide I had as much right as anyone else to have an opinion. Had a few offensive emails/letters at the time, which I declined to engage with. The key point is that we had the debate, a long heated debate, and we decided to Leave.

But many do not accept the vote. They still hope to reverses it. No chance. The media coverage of likely impact of Brexit, following this week's Autumn Statement is as much utter rubbish as I've ever read in my life.  Truth is the Office of Budget Responsibility, who produced some guesswork figures, has no more idea of what's going to happen to the UK economy than the average cuddly toy. All the prediction of Armageddon following the vote itself proved to be hopelessly pessimistic and wrong. Even the IFS, which I normally think of as sound, is making ridiculous statements based on guessses. None of them know. It's those who voted Remain trying to justify the position they took. Fortunately we have a Prime Minister who is not going to be bullied or diverted from her mission to ensure the UK leaves the EU. The BBC can dig out one 'expert' or opinionated obscure EU personage every night (and it will) but it won't make any difference. What the BBC doesn't seem to grasp is that all this propaganda simply strengthens the voice of Leave.

Today we had Tony Blair, Sir John Major, Nick Clegg and a Maltese MEP being given big coverage - all ironically actually reinforcing the case for Leave. I'm a typical example of a Brit. While I was not  supportive of the idea of a referendum and would have readily accepted a Remain result, I'm becoming an ever more determined Leave champion. To back off now would cause great harm to British democracy and make the next election a total lottery. I have not the slightest doubt that Article 50 will be invoked in March and the UK will leave the EU in 2019. Again ironically, all those still refusing to accept the referendum result make it more difficult for the UK to negotiate the best possible deal.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Wales Bill reaching the End Game.

Seems as if the Wales Bill has been winding its way through the fog and dust of Westminster's legislative processes for an age. It all started when Stephen Crabb was Secretary of State for Wales. He invited representatives of all political parties (under chairmanship of much respected Paul Silk) to suggest a new stable permanent settlement for how a devolved Wales should be governed - when Welsh MPs would no longer have to debate how Wales should be governed! Stephen introduced a draft Wales Bill which was not well received. So it's been much altered to meet some objections under the guiding hand of new Secretary of State, Alun Cairns, and Ministers Guto Bebb and Lord Nick Bourne - an impressive team I enjoy working closely with.

The House of Commons has enthusiastically backed this Wales Bill through all Parliamentary stages, and it has now progressed through the House of Lords to 'Report stage', having just completed passage through 'Committee Stage'. Three more crucial steps to go. On December 14th and on another day in early January, their Lordships will consider the Wales Bill at 'Report Stage'. There could be a bit of dispute between the Houses if anyone tries to play 'silly b*****s with it, but it's a mighty risk to the entire future of the Bill. Any delay and timetable issues may sink the Bill completely, especially if we have an 'urgent' Article 50 Bill tabled in January, following a Supreme Court judgement against the Gov't. That would dominate all else. After that, it's a matter for Assembly Members. No more complaining. It's their call. In mid January, After Report Stage it will become a matter for Assembly Members , who will be asked to approve a Legislative Consent Motion, which informs the watching world that they support the Wales Bill. If they don't support the LCM, the Bill will be become a deceased Wales Bill. Up to AMs to decide. If they do approve the LCM, their Lordships will move quickly to Third Reading and then it's Royal Assent. Could be all done in February. The only big question left then is "what will Welsh MPs do with no Wales Bill to squabble about - until the next one comes along that is!!

The Style of Philip Hammond

I approve big-time - approve of Philip Hammond that is. We have a Chancellor who looks and acts like a Chancellor, an accountant. From my viewpoint on the world, from high up a rural Wales mountain, that is the highest of compliments. No politic manouvering. No histrionics. Just a sound cautious calculation  of risk and balanced response. In fact it was pretty much what we expected. I'm very grateful not to be a financial journalist. They will be running around in circles like frustrated greyhounds, not having any rabbits to chase. This is what budgets and autumn statements should be like.

While we know that the post EU referendum predictions of gloom simply did not happen (I thought they wouldn't). Quite the opposite in fact. But most of us accept we are in a period of uncertainty. Let's make the heroic assumption that the Office of Budget Responsibility have got it somewhere near right. There is likely to be a higher deficit and growth uncertainty over next couple of years than we had been told to expect pre June 23rd if we had voted Remain. So the Chancellor is right to borrow a bit more to invest over this period - what he calls headroom. Chancellor has changed his predeccessor's deficit elimination plan in this Parliament, replacing it with a balanced budget "as soon as possible". I think we knew this already. Seems to me the spending relaxation is limited and well directed.

Of course no chance to look through detail yet. And I like to read the weekend assessment before settling on a firm opinion. But extra money for housing must be a big plus. We need more places for people to live. Lots more. And I'm really pleased to see the agent fees on renting property being reined in - even if it is only in England. Hope Wales follows suit.

Chancellor is right to see productivity as the UK's biggest challenge. Since 2010, we have gone big on reducing unemployment (with astonishing success) but one price we've paid is lower productivity. We must hope investment is aimed at tackling low productivity. Bigger challenge than unemployment now.

Steady as she goes in Wales as well. Welsh word for rabbit is cyningod (please correct spelling!). Fair bit of extra money flowing down the Barnett interconnector from infrastructure spending in England. Good to see reference to Swansea and North Wales. Some are moaning no reference to tidal lagoons. Of course there aren't. We still don't know if they are financially viable. Desperately hope they are, but everything must have a price.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Should we increase number of AMs to 80.

Watched Welsh Sunday Politics today. Sensible comments from the two sensible Assembly Members in the studio, one Labour and one UKIP. Neither convinced that an increase in AMs is needed, but both open to a discussion about it, which is approximate to what I think. I thought UKIP's Mark Reckless was particularly sensible. While realising there may be little support for an increase, they were both clearly impressed by the force of argument put forward by Elin Jones, the Presiding Officer, who supports more AMs. Plaid Cymru would have been a real force if she had been chosen leader. I too  consider her to always worth listening to. 

I've phrased the the 'question for discussion' on an increase in number of AMs from 60 to 80, because the new debating chamber was built to allow for easy expansion to accommodate 80?  Others will advocate a greater increase. I just can't see that idea flying. Some will advocate no increase. Expect the usual trick of presenting options, with the favoured one being 80, in the middle! What the public think is another matter altogether.

Key to this issue will be The Wales Bill which gives the power to decide number of AMs to a new Welsh Parliament. I can comment as a mere observer from the sidelines. It will have nothing to do with MPs at all. Anyway, we will be debating the position soon after the Wales Bill has secured Royal Assent next spring.

I do not see any logic in considering numbers in one tier of Govt to justify numbers in another. They stand on their own. I accept others will not see it in the same way. Firstly, at the next general election we expect to see a reduction in Welsh MPs from 40 to 29 (though I don't yet rule out 33 if number of MPs is not reduced). And of course we expect to see the disappearance of Members of the European Parliament altogether by 2019. The biggest anomaly of course is the massive increase we have seen in the unelected House of Lords. The blame for this unjustifiable position deserves its own post.

 In the context of all this, consideration of number of AMs is entirely logical. My guess, and it's no more than that, I think AMs will move quickly on acquiring the power to increase their number to 80. Which will lead to a debate about how to do that!

Friday, November 18, 2016

Is it wise to cut MPs to 600?

Not in Westminster today. Pleased about that. I would have been seriously torn when the division bell rang. Don't want to excite the whips, so I cannot write that I'd have voted with Labour. PPSs can't do that sort of thing. Labour were supporting a Private Members Bill at Second Reading which would scrap the impending cut in numbers of MPs from 650 to 600. However I do think it's ok to ask readers of my 'thinking aloud' blog to make their own judgement.

First the case for the reduction. It was a manifesto commitment in 2010 (both Conservative and Lib Dems, who wanted to cut much further - to 500). It was approved in an Act of Parliament in 2011, taken through the House by the then Lib Dem Leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. And it may be that the public would quite like to reduce the number of MPs, who are not the most popular creatures on our planet.

Now for the other side. The disruption it will cause will be huge, especially when implemented alongside equalisation of constituency populations. It will save some money, but nothing like as much as the extra than is being spent on appointed new peers to the unelected house. There will also be a big reduction (and saving) by the abolition of UK MEPs. The cost of democracy is already coming down. It will lead to even greater domination of the House of Commons by the 'Government' in that since the number of ministers is not being cut, the significance of backbenchers will be greatly reduced. After today's debate and big support for the Labour supported Private Members Bill, they may be some questioning about whether the hassle is worth it.

Now equalising the size of constituency populations is much more justified. As it currently stands, the boundaries are very unfair to the Conservative Party. Over the last 20 yrs. huge numbers of people have moved out of inner city seats (which tend to vote Labour) into leafy suburbs (which tend to vote Conservative. There is no credible case to resist 'equalisation'. But I do want to throw in two further points of relevance here.

Firstly, the tolerance allowed to Boundary Commissioners to allow for factors like history, geography, culture etc.. At present the 'tolerance' is just 5%, which gives Commissioners almost no leeway at all. If it were to be 10%, the degree of disruption would be much reduced. The Commissioners would have a proper job to do. And secondly Wales. For many years Wales has been over-represented - by quite a lot. Historically, this imbalance was considered necessary as a measure of 'fairness' to a small nation. But with a Welsh Parliament, this simply can no longer be justified. Anyway, enough from me. Hopefully left you a few bones to chew on.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The way things are in a Perfect World

News reaches me at the Westminster end of the M4 that all political parties in the National Assembly for Wales want to scrap the Severn Bridge tolls. Not reduce them, but scrap them completely. Now wouldn't that be nice. I can imagine it would be a very popular policy. So would scrapping Income Tax, Stamp Duty, Council Tax and planning fees etc. etc.. Seems to me that this is one of those 'fantasy world' policies that grow on the magic money tree. 

I'd thought we were already moving to a good place on Severn Bridge tolls. The Secretary of State for Wales has talked about halving the tolls, which I'd thought would a great boost to the Wales economy. Instead we now have what looks to me to be a hopelessly unrealistic proposal, which has little chance of becoming reality. And in any case, the Severn Bridge tolls are not devolved, so this motion debated in the National Assembly, to which all Assembly Members have signed up, is not within the Assembly's powers to deliver on. 

I see that one of Labour's AMs, Lee Waters has taken a different approach. He wants to retain tolls, at perhaps half what they are now, to fund other transport solutions for South East Wales. Must admit that I agree with him. Might not agree on precisely where the money would go, but tight in principle. Sensible AM is Lee Waters. And there we have the Wales Bill in a nutshell. It's the reason I have been so determined to see a proportion of income tax devolved to the Welsh Government. Any policy based only on the 'benefit' with no consideration for where the money is coming from is not real politics. It's more gesture politics, concerned with how reports will appear in the headlines. Hopefully, the Wales Bill will deliver harder edged debate, based on benefit balanced with cost.