Wednesday, September 29, 2010

S4C matters to me as well.

The Assembly Government Heritage Minister, Alun Ffred Jones is a decent enough fellow, but even these can irritate at times. And he's irritated me today. Or at least something he's said has irritated me. According to the BBC, it seems he has arranged a meeting with UK Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to discuss the future of S4C at the Ryder Cup. Nothing wrong with that. And Alun Ffred says "S4C is not merely a channel. It is part of a wider strategy involving the Welsh Language". Nothing wrong with that either. But he followed it up with "I'm not sure Mr Hunt understands that." I reckon that Mr Hunt understands this only too well. I think I understand it. The Wales Office team understand it, and there are other Welsh Conservative MPs who understand it as well. The future of S4C, including its funding is a devilishly difficult and complex issue to deal with. Neither Assembly Government Ministers or Plaid Cymru have a monopoly of concern for the channel's success. Irritating.

Now I don't know what is in Jeremy Hunt's mind, but we all know that he has been challenged by the Chancellor to consider how to accommodate significant cuts in public spending. I would be surprised if he is not having to look at every single budget head - such is the scale of the wreckage left by the last Government. Actually, even Alun Ffred is reported to have said that S4C is "not untouchable". Perhaps he'll be able to explain to Jeremy Hunt just what he meant by that. Could it be the basis for agreement?

Because I'm a PPS in the Wales Office, I have to be circumspect - but I can reasonably pose some simple obvious questions, such as;

Was it not reasonable to assume that S4C was content to accept a £2million cut in funding this year if its Chief Executive so informed Jeremy Hunt's Department, and what sort of an organisation is it that has its Chair and Chief Executive taking diametrically opposing views on such a crucial issue? Were they not talking to each other?

If The UK Government is forced, by the incompetence of its predecessors, into making cuts in spending across almost all fronts, including what impacts on vulnerable people who depend on Government support, should a broadcaster be regarded as being uniquely exempt?

Should a broadcasting channel, dependent on huge public support, just sack a Chief Executive, appoint a successor without any sort of advertising process, and treat its paymaster as being without any rights at all to an explanation? We all know what shareholders would have done!

And there's a whole lot of other questions as well. At present, all sorts of barely credible rumours are circulating about what is, and has been going on. I really care about S4C, and if its decided that the channel must take some of the spending reduction burden, I hope it can be done without causing structural damage to a star in the Welsh firmament. What I really dislike though, is listening to people like Alun Ffred assuming that he has a monopoly on this.

Nice One, Andrew.

Ever seen a politician caught lying, red handed, red faced and red haired. Just watch the always cheerful Hazel Blears caught 'bang to rights' here.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Lake Vyrnwy Estate sale.

When Severn Trent Water put the 23,000 acre Lake Vyrnwy Estate on the market a few weeks ago I thought, on balance, that it was a decision to welcome. Inevitably, there would be some nervousness about change. There could never be a guarantee that a more beneficial owner will turn up - particularly at a time when access to finance is not so easy. So its good news that at least one buyer, who seems entirely suitable has gone public about his desire to buy it. Its very good news that there is a serious bidder for the iconic site who has strong local roots.

But it would be wrong of me to try to give the impression that Mr Rhys Jones and his company, Celtic Property Development would be the best buyer. Cannot know that at this stage. A tendering process is still underway, and there may well be other very good bidders in the frame. But I had been a tiny bit concerned about this sale,(as had local people) and tonight I feel much more reassured about the future of this beautiful corner of Montgomeryshire.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Welcome to reality Ed Miliband.

Looking forward to 13th October. It will be Ed Miliband's first foray at PMQs. I expect him to do quite well. I've watched him perform at the Dispatch Box, and he comes across as a relaxed and personable speaker. He may even make Labour MPs feel better about themselves, though a majority of them voted for his brother - and Harriet Harmon was a surprisingly (to me anyway) good performer. The bar is higher than many think.

But none of this chamber stuff counts for much. Remember the way William Hague kicked lumps out of Tony Blair at PMQs. Zilch effect on the voters. No, what Ed Miliband has to do is come up with some credible policy - particularly in relation to dealing with the deficit. Only impression he's given so far is that he wants to reduce Government spending by even less than Labour committed to do had it won the Election. In fact, he's piled up more commitments to spend during the campaign that took the prize away from his brother, David. This 'fantasy economics' may play well in Labour Party meetings and the left wing press - and I can see him enjoying a bit of a honeymoon in the polls. As did Gordon Brown of course. But people are not daft. They can see that the Government that Ed Miliband was a leading member of has crashed the British economy, and loaded debts on our children that is utterly immoral. Liam Halligan came up with a great line in his column in the Telegraph today.

"This is perhaps the most systematic act on inter-generational theft the world has ever seen".

On 13th it will be a case of 'getting his eye in' but it will not be long before Ed Miliband will have to have an answer to the questions about what he would do to clear up the financial destruction that his party left behind for us to clear up.

Tale of 3 pairs of Osprey

Note from Spin Doctor Column in today's Wales on Sunday that two of the 'grandest' Assembly Members, "Lord President King Dafydd Elis Thomas and Professor Nicholas Bourne are at daggers drawn over an inaccurate press statement released by the latter's office. The subject was the 2010 presence in Wales of 'breeding' Ospreys (as opposed to 'nesting' Ospreys). It seems that the Professor had publicly welcomed the presence of this year's 'nesting' Ospreys on the Dyfi Estuary, describing them as 'breeding'. Reality was that the male had been a bit late arriving from Africa, and her 'mood for love' had passed - so the pair just put in a bit of nesting practice for next year. His Lordship, speaking from his eyrie in Eryri is said to be "fuming". The only 'breeding' pair in Wales this year is in his constituency, he "fumed" - near Porthmadog. This war of words will surely be on the agenda at next week's meeting of the Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust (of which I remain a trustee). We cannot have two of Wales' foremost peacocks squaring up to each other like this. And its not even the mating season!

I should add that his Lordship should not be so certain anyway. I recall the first season that Ospreys returned to Wales after a century's absence (or thereabouts) to nest at Porthmadog in 2005. The whole of Wales was held in thrall for weeks as these magnificent birds nested and bred, only for the chicks to perish in inclement weather - possibly combined with inexperienced parenting. While the whole of Wales was looking the other way, a second pair nested and bred successfully about a mile from where I live. The RSPB thought it was some great secret, and that no-one knew. But of course all the locals knew. Its not really possible to miss an Osprey in flight.

So there you have it. In Professor Bourne's patch we have a pair who are 'all talk and no action'; In His Lordship's patch we have a pair who demand the undivided attention of the nation; And in my patch we have a pair who, with no fuss and bother, just did the business and flew away.

Friday, September 24, 2010

No 'voice' for the patient.

I suppose its a bit like speaking in a House of Commons debate. Delivering a carefully crafted argument, disagreeing with policy, only to sit down realising that not a word of the unanswerable case you've just made has been listened to. Except that today I was speaking as a 'patient' rather than a politician.

Regular readers will know (correction - the whole bl**** world knows) that I have a condition known as atrial fibrillation. Its fairly common and nothing to get excited about. Just an irregular heartbeat, which needs a bit of shock treatment to put things back into rhythm. Met my consultant on Wed., and plan to get it done next week. Not saying when - or there'll be a bl**** BBC OBU in the hospital car park. All of this is by way of background.

This morning I had a letter instructing me to attend a pre-operation check over at the hospital early Monday morning. I've important meetings on Monday morning. So I telephoned to ask if this was really necessary - since I saw my consultant for half an hour two days ago. I asked why. Answer came there that my blood pressure needed to be checked and my details taken. I replied that I'd just had my blood pressure (which was now rising) had just been checked, all my details recorded and an ECG carried out for good measure.

Now the nurse's voice was extremely pleasant - the degree of depth and authority that I find attractive, but it might as well have been the Speaking Clock. She was answering to a template that did not have a box marked "Patient's Voice". I was not a 'human' but a 'unit' whose words were not to even be registered. Case of "be there at 9.00). It was the same when I was in hospital when this little problem was first discovered 12 weeks ago. For three days my 'Patient's Voice' was dismissed. Didn't realise to begin with, because these template users have become very skilled. Until I managed to speak with my consultant I was just a 'unit', without the capacity to form words of any value. I only discovered the truth, when I heard the same 'template' being used on the non person in the next bed. He had more about him than I did and discharged himself.

Two points of note. Firstly, I will have to cancel my morning meetings. But if I happened to be a low wage earner without my own transport, I'd be losing at least half a day's pay and use up a days wages to pay for transport - sacrifices that would happily be made for a solid reason. But this is totally without purpose. And secondly, this pointless bureaucratic box ticking is probably taking place thousands of times every day, raiding the health service of manpower which could be used for constuctive purpose. And when it involves affairs of the heart, the process generates its own business. I might just raise the issue of the ignored 'Patient's Voice' on the floor of the House of Commons.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Cambrian News 150 years old today.

I first encountered The Cambrian News over 20 years ago. It served a huge area of rural Wales, centred on Aberystwyth. The newspaper was launched at Bala as the Meirionydd Herald in 1860, and adopted its current name four years later. You can work out that 2010 is the occasion of its 150th birthday, and there was a 'grand bash' at the Parc Hotel. When I first knew the Cambrian News, it was owned by the Read family, the editor was Roy Hancock, and the young journalist I worked with was named Bev. Today its owned by the Tindle Newspapers. Roy Hancock was a guest and Beverly Thomas is the impressive Managing Editor and a "Pearl beyond price" according to the company's boss, who was the star turn today.

And what a star Sir Ray Tindle is. Ferreting around on the Internet, I note that he is 84 years old, and remains the driving force behind the huge company which he chairs. It was a last minute decision on my part to go to today's party, but I'm really glad I did - just to meet Sir Ray, who stuck me as one of the most inspirational people I have ever met. And charm personified.

First thing to strike you is that he has no voice box, having lost it to cancer a few years ago - no more than a minor inconvenience. Sir Ray delivered an amusingly confident and engaging speech, about 15 minutes long that held us all enthralled. Unusually we saw the proprietor of a newspaper (a minor part of the huge group) basking in the adulation of the workers. Today's event was a birthday celebration for a successful local weekly. For me it was the chance to meet a very special man.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Time to call in the team to sort me out.

This is a post for my constituents - but I suppose it could be a similar story for other MPs. Four months ago, I was elected a Member of Parliament - enough time to allow for a bit of reflection. I decided after being elected (some might say surprisingly) to just keep my head down and work quietly and solidly while I got a grip on the job - reckoning that was the 'sensible' way to go over the first few months. Then I would launch out a bit after the summer recess (actually I began getting more involved during the last two weeks before recess). I thought it had gone fairly well.

And then I was made PPS to the Secretary of State for Wales. A complete rethink needed. Fortunately its forced me to face up to the failings. Things could not carry on as they were - with me trying to do far too much myself, and struggling to keep up with constituency contacts. I must use the talents of the good people who work for me.

Problem number one was that too many cooks were involved in my diary - so from now on Pam is in charge. If you want me to do anything (and I want to) Pam must say its OK - 01938552315. I never want to be double booked again, or forget an appointment again.

Problem number two was the huge pile of paperwork on my desks - at home, at Westminster and in the Welshpool Office. And the hundreds of emails stacking up in my inboxes. So, we're having the most almighty sort out. By the time we return to Westminster on 11th October, the team will have dealt with everything. Its a shock to me to be tidy and organised, but its got to be done. Probably a bigger shock to Phill in my London Office who has coped with me for 8 of the last 11 years. After 11th October, I have no intention of apologising to anyone for being slow 'getting back to them'. There will be no need. This blog is going to suffer until my desks and inboxes are clear. So its goodbye for the time being.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Commitment to our partners.

I'm rather pleased that the Liberal Democrat Conference has gone well. So far anyway - though it will be interesting to see how the Business Secretary's comments on 'capitalism' tomorrow go down. I read a fair bit of Nick Clegg's speech, and thought it pretty well judged. I find him to be a courageous politician. He's taken a mighty risk with his own future and his party's, for the sake of stable government. He deserves support from his own side. But then I'm usually quite impressed with the Deputy Prime Minister's performances in the House of Commons. I think I've commented before that he reminds me of Brian Close facing up to Michael Holding when I was a teenager. Just taking everything thrown at him, and still standing defiantly at the end, covered in bruises, but still standing.

Sometimes my friends find my support for the Lib Dem leader to be a bit odd, bearing in mind that his party has always been my political opponent at a local level. I just think 'a deal is a deal', and we signed up to a coalition agreement with the Lib Dems. If Simon Hughes can stand before the Lib Dem conference today, and state that he's a "rock sold supporter of the Coalition", I reckon I can write the same on my blog. Won't stop me doing everything I can to help the outstanding young politician, Russell George defeat the Lib Dems to become Assembly Member for Montgomeryshire next May.

March 3rd Referendum?

It looks as if its going to be March 3rd. The media is reporting with some certainty that the referendum on National Assembly for Wales powers will be upon us 23 weeks on Thursday. I really do hope that we see a grown up debate, and that the result reflects popular opinion based on a rational view of what's involved. Must admit that its an 'election' that I expect to enjoy more than any other - ever. Just started reading the Government of Wales Act 2006 in preparation.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A not 'nobbled' PPS.

Returning to one of this blog's 'hobby horses' today - primary law making powers for the National Assembly. Unless some unexpected gremlin appears, we all expect a Wales-wide referendum to be held in March to decide whether the power to make new measures (laws) in all those policy areas currently devolved should be transferred from Westminster to Cardiff Bay. Regular readers will know that I have supported this development since 19th September, 1997. Oddly, some people are assuming that I'm going to change my opinion because I've become a PPS in the Wales Office. Needless to say, these people made their assumptions without consulting me.

Nothing has changed. Whenever I've been asked, (over a long period) I've said (emphatically) that I have no intention of joining any formal campaign. I even refused to sign a letter instigated by Cymru Yfori last year (even though I agreed with much of its content). I believe that I can have more influence speaking to sceptical audiences around Wales, outlining what is involved. I could never do that as part of any formal Yes campaign. A few months ago I arranged a few meetings around Montgomeryshire, hoping to generate interest in this issue. They were a flop, only reaching double figures once. I gave up on the idea, but following the Electoral Commission's assessment that people simply have no idea what this issue is all about, I've decided to have another crack at it in the New Year.

No reason why being a PPS should change this at all. The Secretary of State and the Minister in the Wales Office are taking a 'neutral' position, which is absolutely fine. My position can hardly be 'neutral' because I've been so public about my support for transferring power to the Assembly over 13 years. I reckon that my strategy of 'spreading understanding' of what's involved will fit in rather well with my position in the Wales ministerial team. And if you believe that greater understanding leads logically to greater support for the Yes vote (as it did with the Jones-Parry Report) I assert that these accusations of being 'nobbled' do not stand up to examination.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Hope Community Church.

Before I switched to the back row, I played my rugby as a flying winger (actually more of a brutal charger) - and won Shrewsbury RUFC's cup for most tries in a season twice. But no matter how spectacular the try, I never celebrated - just jogged back quietly to my kick-of position. Took the same approach when I was elected an MP in a pretty spectacular result last May. Banned all ostentatious celebration. Never liked putting my inner feelings on show. I knew that my opponent and his supporters were distraught, and I wanted to show people how to win with dignity. Not sure it worked. Everyone just thought I was suffering from shock!! Anyway, its this sort of 'reserve' that makes worship at the Hope Community Church 'not for me'. And I'm too old to change now. Which is a pity, because it is such a hugely successful church which attracts hundreds of worshipers - and I've greatly enjoyed the two occasions that I've been to services there.

This morning, it was the Cllr. Joy Jones, the Mayor of Newtown's Civic Service. Must have been over 300 there. The first thing that struck me was the precision. The service started at 10.30 - on the dot. And the technology worked perfectly. Wouldn't have mattered if I'd forgotten my glasses because the words were up there on three big screens - working better than any autocue I've ever used. How does the Hope Church do it, when every conference I've ever been to has problems. The service began with 'How Great Thou Art', my absolute favorite hymn - though I usually sing it at funerals.

Really enjoyed the Message (sermon) by Pastor Alan Hewitt. Began by condemning (bit strong perhaps) 'aggressive secularism'. I absolutely agree. The airwaves over the last few days have been invaded by voices not content to live happily in their own atheism (to which I have no objection) but want to force it on everyone else. These 'voices' must be very disappointed that the Pope's visit went off so brilliantly - as did Joy's Civic Service in the Hope Community Church. Alan also brought Robert Owen into his 'message'. I applaud this as well. Robert Owen was one of the greatest social reformers that the world has ever known - and he lived the early part of his life in Newtown. I really should have included him in my Maiden Speech, particularly since the Scots are trying to claim some ownership rights over him. And Alan lauded Bishop William Morgan, who has become more of a Montgomeryshire man since the Tanat Valley was transferred to my constituency. He spent much of his life translating the Bible into Welsh, so that the people of Wales could read it.

And then the strangest of things happened. The whole event had been a bit odd, in that the entire congregation seemed to appreciate the work that elected people do. Anyone elected knows that criticism (often aggressive) usually goes with the job. Anyway, Pastor Alan Hewitt called me up to the front and prayed for me - so that I could make good decisions, and serve the people well. Tony Blair had the hand of history on his shoulder. Well I had the hand of Alan Hewitt on mine. For someone who finds ostentation a bit unnatural, it was quite an experience. All in all, today was rather a special day.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Carwyn Jones shows signs of active movement.

Pleased to see that Carwyn Jones, First Minister of the National Assembly for Wales began making the case for a Yes vote in the Assembly powers referendum, which we expect sometime in March. And about time too. He's put his name to an article in today's Western Mail (which strangely, I cannot find online). I don't think much of the article, but I do applaud his having written it. At long last he seems to be realising that being First Minister is more than sitting in a swanky office. It involves leadership.

He starts off by telling us that the referendum is nothing to do with tax raising powers. No-one I know thought it was (even if Holtham and others have done their best to muddy the waters about this). If the First Minister bangs on about it, people will think it does involve tax raising powers. Then we have the rather bizarre comment that the referendum is not about creating a Cardiff Bay elite. What on earth is that about. Absolutely no-one thought that - at least until they read today's words from the First Minister.

Carwyn then makes two highly dubious assertions (in my opinion anyway). Firstly he claims that granting tax raising powers will save some £2million. Perhaps no-one has told him how much it costs to train, employ and provide support for drafting lawyers etc.. And secondly, that there will not be more than 60 AMs. Well not immediately I grant him, but in the medium term? Some things I reckon are too uncertain to believe, and the punters are not going to believe them either.

But the worst part is when he begins waffling on about what the referendum is about. I just can't bring myself to repeat it all. It's so childish and confusing. Its quite simple really. A Yes vote is about creating a stable and understandable constitution where full law making powers in all currently devolved policy areas are transferred to the National Assembly 'all in one go', rather than 'bit by bit' as happens under existing legislation. A No vote is about leaving the current process in place. That seems clear enough to me.

Final point that bothered me about this article was Carwyn's casual (but deliberate)reference to organ donation. The Assembly coalition government has decided to seek the power to move from the opt-in position (which currently applies across the UK) to the opt-out position that he and his Government would like to introduce in Wales. Now Carwyn knows very well that this request is highly unlikely to complete its legal transfer process before the referendum in March, and he also knows that a Yes vote would transfer the power in any case. Looks as if he might have in mind using the plight of those in need of an organ transplant organs as pawns in the political process. Lets hope I'm wrong about this.

But having written all that has gone before, I have to admit that I'm pleased there seems to be signs of life in the First Minister's den. Hope he keeps it up.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Trident Replacement Programme.

Never really been that engaged with the debate about the UK's independent nuclear deterrent. Always tended to be 'in favour' of it because I don't think it wise to disarm unilaterally. A big majority on MPs share this opinion. But over the last year or so I've been lobbied umpteen times by people who believe we shouldn't replace our current nuclear defence system which is based on Trident ballistic missiles launched from Vanguard submarines, one of which is always 'at the ready' - and never been lobbied by anyone in favour.

Yesterday, I sat in on a 5 hour debate on defence policy, inspired by the new back bench committee. The debate became dominated by 'Trident' replacement policy. I was there on behalf of the Wales Office to hear any contributions from Welsh MPs or that referred to matters affecting Wales. Reason for all this Trident turbulence was that the BBC had reported earlier in the day that the replacement programme could be delayed by 5 years as a cost-cutting measure. As I listened to the Minister for the Armed Forces, Nick Harvey speaking, it became clear that the report was total tosh (which is not to say that it hadn't been leaked of course!).

The actual position is that the last Government decided to commission a Trident replacement programme, which is going ahead as planned. There has been no change. No proposals to reverse this decision. The date on which the 'point of no return' will be reached, when the final, final, final green light is given is late 2014/early 2015. It seems that the Coalition Government has decided to review the expenditure profile of the programme, which is sensible, but which may delay things by a few months (or may not). Nick Harvey could not have been more explicit. Still, I should be grateful to the BBC for running big with such a total b****** story because the ensuing outrage from some of my colleagues enabled me to acquire a reasonable knowledge about a subject that I should have known a lot more about.

Whether the Coalition Government should be going ahead with this programme is, of course, a seperate debate altogether, and one which may well draw some comment. My aim in this post has been to spread a bit of fact about where we are.

Lord Richard Livsey

Sad to learn that Lord Richard Livsey has died. Like most people who knew Richard, I liked him. He was a very good friend to Mid Wales in particular, to agriculture and to the cause of devolution. We were political opponents throughout the time I knew him, though never directly. Hadn't seen him to talk to since he and I became political 'colleagues' last May. Always thought he had a wonderful feel for his constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire.

Funniest story I remember involving Richard (for we should always look for a sliver of humour in sad situations) concerned Paddy Ashdown, his then party leader. We met outside Charing Cross Station, and he was looking utterly crestfallen. I asked him what could possibly be the cause of such a 'hang dog' expression. (Richard was tall and had a 'longish' face which lent itself to a 'hang dog' look). "Devastating news. Tomorrow is going to be an awful day for us. The Sun is going to expose Paddy as an adulterer. Its going to destroy the Liberal Democrat vote". This was the night before the unforgettable 'Paddy Pantsdown' headline. I told him that his leader was such a sanctimonious 'know all' that such news would probably boost the Lib Dem vote. Turned out that I was more right than I thought. PP never looked back in the popularity stakes after that. I don't think Richard believed me at the time - but when I saw him a day or two later, he was back to his more jovial self.

Anyway, he was one of the really 'good guys' who cared about Brecon and Radnorshire. And I feel sad that a good friend of mine has died.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Its enough to make me really ill!

I'm feeling a bit under the weather. Was perfectly OK until the Welsh media started reporting earlier this week that I was on death's doorstep. I'd been rather looking forwards to a bit of positive coverage following my 'elevation' to the position of PPS (though I daresay it would probably have referred to being 'nobbled', 'silenced', etc.). But this bit of rather good news was ignored - and an old story about a fairly minor heart problem was rehashed in a quite bizarre way. Over the last two days I've had 'get well' cards and sweet messages by the dozen. Its absolutely bl***** ridiculous.

Now, lets get this straight. Along with thousands of others I discovered a few weeks ago that I had an irregular heart beat. Perhaps I've always had it. Anyway my GP got a bit excited about this, thinking it was rather more serious, and dispatched me to hospital for three days. That caused me so much agitation that it really did put my health under threat. Anyway, it was diagnosed as 'Atrial Fibrilation' which I concede does sound bad, but all that is needed is a shot of electricity to put it right. Tony Blair had the same thing. Hope it doesn't change me into a warmongerer as well!. Probably get the job done between meetings later this month. And anyway I told everyone what had happened weeks ago. Announced it in the House of Commons for G*** sake. And just because I become a PPS, the media decide to run it as if its a b***** news story. I really must calm down about this. Its not good for the heart.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Up the 'greasy pole' we go.

Sir Humphrey Appleby; "Well, briefly Sir, I am the Permanent Under Secretary of State, known as the Permanent Secretary. Woolley here is your Principal Private Secretary. I, too have a Principal Private Secretary who is Principal Private Secretary to the Permanent Secretary. Directly responsible to me are 10 Deputy Secretaries and 87 Under Secretaries and 219 Assistant Secretaries. Directly responsible to the Principal Private Secretary are plain Private Secretaries, and the Prime Minister will be appointing two Parliamentary Under Secretaries and you will be appointing your own Parliamentary Private Secretary."

When James Hacker asked whether any of them could type, Sir Humphrey replied "None of us can type, Mrs Mackay types. She is the secretary."

Reason this 'gem' came to mind (or rather to that of No 1 son, Edward who sent it to me today) was that this week I became a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Welsh Office. I don't think this makes me a part of 'the Government', but it does make me a part of 'the Ministerial team'. I also believe that its often interpreted as the "first rung on the greasy pole" - as John Prescott might say. Anyway, you know what I mean. Now I'm not the sort to get carried away by this sort of thing, but I do think this is rather pleasing.

OK you cynics. I know what you think - and it surely does mean the sacrifice of a degree of freedom. I can't vote against the Government (already told the Chief Whip I wouldn't - so no burden there) and it probably means a certain trimming of opinion at the edges. I see it as a trade of some 'independence' (inevitable) for some 'influence' (hopeful). And after all, its for 'influence' that many of us enter the black world of politics. Or is this the triumph of hope over realism?

Don't know precisely what this new job entails - except that by convention I do not sign EDMs, or be a member of a select Committee. But its bound to give me a role in delivering the referendum on Assembly law making powers programmed for next March. Despite my resolution on entering national politics that I would not be influenced by any desire for 'advancement' or 'preferment', I do feel rather honoured and uplifted.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

The dastardly red tops.

Was absent from the House of Commons today (for entirely unalarming personal reasons). So missed the 'high temperature outrage' which led to agreement that the Standards and Privileges Committee should hold an inquiry into 'phone hacking' by the media. All I've actually seen was Tom Harris and Kelvin Mackenzie sparring on Newsnight. I really dislike the smugly arrogant cockiness of Mackenzie, but he was making some reasonable points. Personally, I find it difficult to generate great excitement over this issue. OK, so I don't think journalists should be 'phone hacking', or breaking the law, and if they are caught, should pay the price. And I would have voted in favour of the inquiry. But the outrage is being overdone. I have not met a single person (outside 'the bubble') who cares.

Anyway, I just do not think people believe what they read, or at least they take it with a huge handful of salt. And I speak as one who knows what its like to be on the wrong end of a media witch hunt. I've read stuff in newspapers about myself (all inspired by politicians, which it usually is) which was deliberately aimed at giving an entirely misleading opinion of me. At the time, I maintained a cheerful 'facade', but decades later, I'm willing to admit that it brought me to a pretty low ebb. I decided not to bother defending myself, knowing that as a former quango chairman, I would not be believed. I just said nothing, preferring to not read newspapers, or watch and listen to news programmes. And do you know what? A few months later, everyone had moved on. I was the only person still festering over it. Mind you, there are one or two who will never be forgiven.

But back to today's sputtering 'outrage'. I reckon that most people outside the political village will not give a monkey's. The media is not as powerful as it thinks. It's only power is rooted in, and fed by the attention we give it. I enjoy reading newspapers, and Dan Brown books - and attach about the same degree of credence to both. Its like the BBC maintaining that it's politically balanced. Personally, I think that the BBC is well left of centre. But I know that, allow for it, and still love it anyway. This inquiry will produce a lot of heat and noise, will excite the village people, and in the longer term will make very little difference.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Toil and trouble ahead.

The Second Reading of the 'Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill' takes place tomorrow - a people-friendly title or what? This is the Bill which enables a referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote system for general elections, reduces the number of MPs to 600, and equalises constituency populations at around 67,000 each. There will be several days of more detailed consideration at the Committee Stage in October, the whole House sitting as the Committee. I hope to speak tomorrow, and spend as much time as possible participating in the Committee consideration next month. Its highly unlikely that I'll vote against the Bill, but I'm not going to remain silent about the serious concerns that I have. I suppose I flagged up my discontent in July when I signed an Early Day Motion condemning the decision to hold the Alternative Vote referendum on May 5th 2011. I think I was the only Welsh MP on the Government side to do so.

Firstly, we need to establish one absolute 'given'. There must be a referendum on adopting the Alternative Vote system of election. It was part of the Coalition 'agreement' with the Liberal Democrats - and a deal is a deal. And I must admit I didn't think that it was that big a deal. AV is not as revolutionary, or threatening as some of my colleagues fear. I would probably have voted against any change, but I wasn't that fussed. But since it's proposed that the referendum is to be held on the same day as the Welsh General Election, my "gentle" opposition has been transformed into "unrestrained ferocious antipathy". I hope I have the chance to explain my anger to the Deputy Prime Minister tomorrow. I now want the decision to choose May 5th 2011 to be the death knell for this Bill as it stands. I feel the spirit of Glyndwr rising in my soul.

I must also admit great concern about the equalisation of constituency populations. It sounds easy at first and casual hearing, but when I began trying to work out how it would work in practice, my concern was first awakened, and then just grew - and is still growing. I really do wonder what the House of Lords are going to do with a Bill that drives a coach and horses through every constituency in Britain (except a couple in Scotland) and leaves no-one in Britain knowing the boundaries of their own constituency - all history and tradition tossed into the bin like so much discarded chip paper. I can see one very big rumpus brewing over this.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Job for Monday

This story being reported by the BBC is irresistible. For years I've suspected that BT, a near private sector monopoly is ripping off its customers, and potential customers. I've asked my office to speak with the good people of Erbistock to research how much truth there is in the report. If it's for real, I will be following up. Any comments that add to my knowledge on this subject will be appreciated.

Western Mail's Desperation.

Front page of today's Western Mail. Major scoop by Tomos Livingstone. Big headlines screaming out "Hague wrong to lift lid on his private life". "B******" thought I. What influential personage has stepped into this debate now. A foreign leader perhaps - Obama or Sarcozy or Merkle or Van Rumpy? A leading British politician perhaps - cabinet member or royal family or former party leader? No it was no other than Mrs Sally Bercow, wife of the Speaker, and wannabe Labour politician. Wow.

Now I daresay Tomos was under pressure to come up with something to give the story 'legs' for another day. But surly he could have come up with something better than this. Mrs Jones from Merthyr perhaps, or Mrs Williams from Bala or Mrs Griffiths from Llandudno. They would all carry more significance. It was a front page article of less significance than anything I've seen for a long time. Irrelevant desperation is what comes to mind.

UPDATE - and I see that the Telgraph has done the same thing. Perhaps its only me who thinks this is utterly pathetic.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Devolution of Broadcasting!!

Now perhaps they can see why I didn't initially seek membership of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee when I was elected an MP on May 7th. Well actually, it was more that I sought membership of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee instead - because I thought it would be more significant for Wales. Was much criticised for this at the time. I also knew I would not be elected to the Committee of my first choice, and that I'd probably end up on the Welsh Affairs Committee anyway - which is exactly what happened. An explosion of democracy in the House of Commons has meant that all select committee members are now voted in by other MPs, and they tend not to vote for other MPs that they do not know. This system pigeon holes Welsh MPs into Welsh-specific activity.

Anyway, lets look at what is turning out to be specifically important for Wales. It looks as if the future and funding of S4C will be as big an issue for debate as any. And today the Western Mail has gone big on the future of ITV Wales. Martin Shipton has been writing about Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, "signalling his intention to allow ITV Wales to ditch its commitment to regional news". The Welsh Affairs Select Committee is going to look at tolls on the Severn Bridge.

Must admit I would be concerned if the BBC had a monopoly on Welsh regional news, and its a debate I'd like to be involved with. Like Jeremy Hunt, I know its going to be difficult in 2014 to load costly obligations onto ITV Wales, and at the same time expect the channel to be competitive. What I'd like to see is ITV Wales finding a way of making 'news' less costly and more attractive. This seems to be what Archie Norman and Adam Crozier are planning to do. They are men with a good record of achievement and I wish them well.

Personally, I'm becoming more attracted with each passing day to the idea of devolving broadcasting to the National Assembly for Wales. Whenever I hear an Assembly based politician moaning about how the Westminster based Government is 'underfunding' S4C, or not properly restricting the commercial capacity of ITV Wales, I have this urge to say "Do it yourselves then". I suspect that broadcasters in Wales are getting very twitchy that this is what might just happen.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Question.

Those who demanded that the referendum on whether law making powers should be granted to the National Assembly for Wales in all devolved policy areas should be held next month must be feeling a bit chastened today. The most significant person in this category is the First Minister, Carwyn Jones. I would have liked the referendum to be held in October myself, but realised many months ago that this would not be possible. Its beginning to look as if it will be a tight squeeze to hold it in March - and if March is missed, who knows when!

The issue is 'The Question'. Today, the Electoral Commission has informed us that the question suggested by the Secretary of State for Wales is not acceptable. Must admit I've never been sure that there is such a thing as a question which would ensure that voters would be clear about what they were voting for. I'm no longer even sure it matters that much. I fully expect the 'No' and 'Yes' campaigns to ignore the question anyway. It will be 'Yes' because Wales deserves the same as Scotland - even though what's offered will be no such thing. And the 'No' campaign will be about a 'stepping stone to independence' even though that's no such thing either.

Truth is that we are in a right pickle. There's a commitment by the Assembly Coalition Government that there must be a referendum by May 5th, and a determination by Cheryl Gillan that she will deliver what has been demanded. I should add here that I think she 'splayed a 'blinder' over this. So it seems that we are going to have a referendum in March even though many voters will not understand what they are voting for.

Could be that I will have to change my own plans, reverting to the same stance I took before the referendum on 18th September, 1997, when to some extent I set aside my opinion (I was in the No camp) and held public meetings around Montgomeryshire to outline the issues at stake. I had intended to campaign for a 'Yes' vote in March, and I will make it clear that's what I want to see, but it may be that explaining what its all about will be more important. The timetable is rushing towards us. Will have to make a decision about this before Xmas.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Welshpool Kidney Dialysis Unit

For many years I've been interested in the provision of a kidney dialysis unit in the grounds of Welshpool Hospital. Its been one of those 'three steps forward;two steps back' sort of projects. It's an issue that this blog occasionally visits and updates readers on.

There was a meeting of what is called 'The Stakeholder Group' (OK, I know this is depressingly officialese) when I was away in the 'Sunshine State'. So I arranged a conference call with Chrissie Hayes (Powys tLHB) and Nick Wilson (Wales Renal Network) this morning to brief myself on the latest position. And I want to share all that is 'public' with my readers. And should begin by declaring my optimism that we could be entering the home straight.

The final business case has been prepared and submitted to the Welsh Assembly Government. There's been a question and answer exchange and its optimistically anticipated that Edwina Hart, the responsible Assembly Government Minister (who has shown a genuine commitment to renal disease sufferers during her 'rule') will approve the unit and associated expenditure later in September. Its 'game point' and the ball is in Edwina's court, and we're waiting for her to smash away the winner. I'll crack open a bottle when this battle is won - and kiss the Minister if she's anywhere near! Actually, she's an old friend, so I'd 'mwah' her anyway. Hopefully the unit should be in operation around the end of the year. I'm so looking forward to dropping the word 'hopefully'.

Initially the provision would be a demountable (temporary) building with 8 dialysis machines located on the grassed area to the left as driving up to the hospital car park. The better site, attached to and below the hospital cannot be used because its needed to construct a permanent dialysis unit - for which the process of procurement will begin as soon as the dialysis service begins. And when the permanent building is up, the machines will be moved across and the demountable demounted. And a grand party will be held by all. At least, that's what should happen.