Sunday, October 31, 2010

March 3rd is almost upon us.

Like Matt Withers in today's Wales on Sunday, I'm surprised by the absence of any urgency or build up to the referendum on Assembly powers. The people of Wales will be going to the polls on March 3rd, just 8 weeks after we resurface following Christmas and the New Year. There remains a bit of formality with the orders, but the legalities will be wrapped up by the Privy Council before Christmas.

Long-standing visitors to this blog will know that I was very firmly in the Yes camp. Now I haven't changed my opinion, but my status as a member of the Wales Office ministerial team mean that I am now officially 'neutral'. And I'm quite comfortable with this, because much the biggest job will be persuading people to take a bit of interest in it, and turn out to vote. Wonder whether I'll receive any invitations to speak during the build up, or whether I'll be sidelined because of this 'neutrality'. At the least I will arrange a series of public meetings in Montgomeryshire. Public meetings organisers do so like to create a confrontation atmosphere, which demands that there be argument, even if much of it may not be relevant to the question on the ballot paper. The TV studio usually sheds more heat than light.

The big question is 'Which way will it go?'. If there's a low turn out, the result could be a close call. As Matt rather unkindly suggested, the four party leaders in the National Assembly holding hands in front of the Sennedd, calling for a Yes vote, might have the opposite effect. Remember the first Lisbon Treaty referendum in Ireland. I can honestly say that not a single Montgomeryshire voter has raised this issue with me over the last two or three years.

Ffion and Darragh

Little Ffion and Baby Darragh quite often worm their way into this blog, and here are the two of them in their Halloween outfits. I should inform the rare visitor to this site that they are our (only) two grandchildren. Ffi lives in Cork, but is moving back to Montgomeryshire when she reaches school age. She comes to stay with us every month, and I still think of Ed, Karen and her as being from Montgomeryshire.
And here's Dracula, preparing his teeth before supper. He was just so funny tearing around the house on all fours, cloak billowing out behind.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Noises off, as Cameron fights the UK corner.

Was walking up Broad Street in Weslhpool this morning when I met an old friend, who immediately began berating David Cameron in terms that Simon Heffer would be proud of. Mind you, he was my Ukip opponent at the last election! I didn't enter into a debate there and then - it could have turned a bit heated. He really is a good friend, and I managed to move the conversation on to the sale of the Lake Vyrnwy Estate, about which he also has strong views. But it did cause me to take a coffee at Coco's and contemplate the EU budget issue.

I wanted a freeze. Everyone I've talked to wanted a freeze. Absolutely no-one seems willing to argue for an increase, 2.9%. 6.0% or 0.1%. David Cameron wanted a freeze. So why do I reckon that our Prime Minister got a good deal? I'll tell you why, in grown up language. I'm a fairly typical businessman. Throughout my business life as a livestock farmer, I have been negotiating deals - buying rams, breeding ewes, heifers, stores, bulls, machinery, feedingstuffs etc. I've been selling fat lambs, finished cattle, yearling speckled faced, etc.. I don't think I've ever bought or sold anything at the opening bid. By the measures adopted by the Prime Minister's critics, every deal I've ever done has been a failure'. If I ever return to run my business, remind me never to ask Heffer to negotiate for me. I'd be 'bust' in short order. Or buy a watch in Hong Kong. Better off ask one of my own heifers to negotiate.

Lets consider what some of these critics really want. They want the UK to withdraw from the EU. They want our Prime Minister to behave in a way that makes the EU unworkable. They want to bring down the Liberal Democrat-Conservative Coalition. All of these are perfectly honourable objectives, but they are neither Conservative policy nor my policy. I state again that I would have liked an EU budget freeze, but such a deal was not on the table. David Cameron probably got the best deal there was (No way I can know that - and neither can anyone else) and he secured a lot of agreement on some fairly sceptical rhetoric. Let my fellow Conservatives turn their fire on the Labour Party, which reneged on its promise to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, and now stand on the touchlines, doing policy somersaults, watching people who should know better making some damn stupid comments.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Getting our Priorities Wrong.

Been an MP for almost six months. The most contentious issue by a country mile has been the proposal to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 - combined with equalisation in the number of electors in each constituency (to within a 5% tolerance). And nowhere in the UK has the anger been more fierce than in Wales where extrapolation of the the maths leads to a decrease from 40 to 30 Welsh MPs. I'm not going into the 'ins and outs' of the Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill, but there are some interesting little bonfires burning alongside the main conflagration.

Firstly, there has been the incredible waste of Parliamentary time during the Committee stage of consideration of the Bill, which lasted for 5 days. Seemed to me that Labour wanted to be able to say there was no time to consider Welsh clauses, so they filibustered for hours on end to ensure this absence of time became a reality. Welsh Labour MP, Chris Bryant must have spoken for over 3 hours. Some might think this very 'clever'. I think it is very childish indeed, and makes a fool of our democratic processes. Be interesting to know how much this silly exercise has cost.

Secondly there has been an ongoing campaign by Labour MPs demanding a meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee to consider the Bill's impact on Wales. It's the Secretary of State's call, and she has said No - because there has been plenty of time for debate during Committee stage, which Labour, led by the afore-mentioned impressively garrulous Welsh Labour MP rendered large parts of as pointless. Latest chapter in this ongoing saga is that a Labour MP has secured a 90 minute debate in Westminster Hall on Tuesday, where the same arguments are going to be recycled - like a bottle of cheap wine at a coffee morning raffle. I will be there, but because I'm a PPS will not be able to speak. Don't like this at all. Its a convention that makes no sense to me. It will not be a debate for anyone seeking innovative thinking.

And thirdly there's the rebirth of some moribund long-forgotten body called the Welsh Parliamentary Party. It seems that Labour MPs have not taken well to opposition. So they are going to recreate something where they can play out being the Government again. I'm told there's a meeting of this body on Wednesday - the first since way back in the last century. I'm toying with the idea of going - but maybe not. Will have heard it all in Westminster Hall on Tuesday. I suppose I shouldn't be mean spirited about it, and hope that have a jolly nice evening.

I wonder if all the people we represent in Parliament are as exercised as MPs are about there being 50 less of us after the next election. Somehow I think I know the answer to that.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Where's the beef in the S4C dispute

The National Assembly Government's Heritage Minister, Alun Ffred Jones is a reasonable man. Always thought so. So I'm interested in what he's been saying about the new funding deal for S4C. And I don't mean the ritual Tory-knocking stuff that is required of every Plaid Cymru spokesperson. Need to look behind that.

Most outrage seems to be aimed at the lack of consultation with the S4C Board about the role of BBC funding of the Welsh Language channel. Its a fair point to make, but I'd like to make two what I'll refer to as 'observations'. Firstly, according to people 'in the know' like Tomos Livingstone of the Western Mail, the decision came 'out of the blue' , and at the last minute. I certainly didn't know - and why should I have known? Suggests that there might not have been time for consultation before the CSR was signed off. And secondly, there would inevitably have been concern about confidentiality - since previous discussions at private meetings between the Culture Secretary and Plaid Cymru seemed to have become public within minutes. Alun Ffred thinks it was wrong to conclude the funding agreement in what he describes as 'a couple of days'. Perhaps he should spare a thought for the alternative, which is what I and others had been working at for days. Some, who do not have a political axe to grind, take a more circumspect view of things.

Alun Fred seems to have one major concern - the editorial independence of S4C. Well I agree with him. I don't want to see the BBC being in a position to dominate S4C either. No-one does. (Which is why I had some concerns about the joint arrangements that the two channels were already developing.) I hope we can satisfy this concern through legislation. Seems to me that if you strip out the politics, there is not much difference of opinion between us. Not sure which of us should be the most worried about this.

Friday, October 22, 2010

S4C - looking back in anger, or not?

Been involved in lots of discussion about the future funding of S4C over the last few days. Better be careful what I post, because the S4C board tell us they are going to law over something or other to do with this issue - (wonder where the money's coming from to pay the costs?). Best begin with a personal recap. I had thought it reasonable that S4C should face some reduction in public funding. after all, the most vulnerable people in our society were having to make a contribution to clearing up the financial problems facing our country. It inevitably follows that I supported the Government's decision to cut the link between S4C funding and the rate of inflation. This had to be done. I know that several people disagreed, demanding that S4C be treated the same as the BBC, thus suffering no cut at all. I suppose their position is a bit 'stuffed' now that the BBC is facing a rather large cut itself! Interestingly, the Chairman of the BBC has welcomed the 6 year licence fee agreement as very good news. Its clearly a better 6 year deal than he had expected.

But back to the S4C issue. I cannot disclose private conversations, but I've been very surprised by the number of people who have told me that the CSR deal is a good one for S4C, and the exchequer, (and even the BBC). In today's Western Mail, Euryn Ogwen has gone public and said that the new arrangements should allow the channel to prosper. These comments don't quite fit in with the orchestrated 'outrage' we have seen from some quarters.

In assessing my 'take' on the proposed changes, its useful to consider what I actually wanted two weeks ago. I wanted S4C to continue as an 'independent' Welsh Language channel, funded sufficiently well to provide quality output. I had already been told that a lot of work was going on to merge the 'back office' work or S4C and the BBC, and knew there would have to be some form of protocol to protect S4C from domination by its 'leviathonic' partner. When I try to take an impassioned view of this highly-charged issue, I'm not sure that I didn't get all that I wanted. The only with a genuine grouse that has real credibility is the BBC, though even here, it seems that the outcome is better than the bosses were expecting. And Rupert Murdoch thinks the Beeb have got away far too lightly. I wonder what the people of Wales think?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The 'Davies' Doctine.

Over the last few weeks the UK Coalition Government has announced several measures to reduce the debts and deficit left by the last Labour Government. On Wednesday, this coming week, we are expecting to hear several more announcements of even greater reductions. This creates difficulties for all of us who are representatives of the Liberal Democrat-Conservative Government. Its likely that many of our constituents will disagree with some of the proposals. We may even disagree with some ourselves. So how should we react? I've read that the leader of the Conservative Group in the National Assembly for Wales, has developed his own 'Bourne Doctrine' to guide the group's approach to proposed spending cuts - supporting some and criticising others.

Lets consider a few examples, which seem to be attracting publicity. Firstly, there's a proposal not to proceed with the Severn Barrage. Must admit that I've never been convinced this was a sensible idea. It carried a high environmental cost, and would tie up too much WAG investment in the SE corner. Always thought it was a diversionary tactic by the last Government anyway - giving the impression it was doing something, to avoid facing up to the inevitable nuclear power decision that was needed. Rather than weep about this, we should be celebrating the decision to go ahead with Wylfa B, which will provide a massive economic boost to the poorest part of Wales. No problems with reaction here.

But what about S4C, where there seems to be an expectation of some reduction in Government support. First aim was to ensure it remained as a free standing independent Welsh Language Channel. Secondly, I hope that there is recognition of S4C's special place in Wales by restricting any reduction in spending to less than other reductions across the DCMS budget. Anything else will leave me disappointed.

And so on we go. I hope for electrification of the rail service into Wales. I hope that the promised investment at St Athan is confirmed. I hope there is some financial support for private sector expansion in areas where benefit dependency is reduced, which may well be greater in Wales than most other areas. All of these things I would like - as every other MP would like different spending commitments in their areas. But all of our likes cannot be met - not if we are to bring order to the financial chaos left by Labour.

People who have played team sports know that the team only succeeds if every member plays their part, even when the going turns rough. No going walkabout if losing by thirty points at half-time. No opting out of catching a poor 'hospital pass'. You have to take one for the team. And no claiming joy in every victory, while dumping blame for every defeat on others. I've had my say on what I think George Osborne should do. I hope he delivers what I want. But if he can't deliver all of it, I'll still stand by the team. What's most important is that the Chancellor stands firm, putting the UK economy back on its feet, and clearing up the mess that the last lot left behind. As a member of the coalition team, I reckon I owe it my loyalty. Its an approach you might even call a doctrine.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Colostomy Association

Was late arriving at the Colostomy Association's 'Open Day' today. It was held in the Conference Centre at the Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon, off the M40, and it took a bit longer than I anticipated. Its 112 miles away. Lucky for me that I was late. The organisers had to move my slot from immediately after lunch until last slot of the day. Meant I heard presentations of 'My Story' from Duncan and Vanessa Denvir. One of the pluses of involvement in campaigns and charities to do with various 'illness and diseases' is that I get to meet the most amazing people.

The C A has been going as a self-funding charity for 5 years now. I went to its first birthday party in Reading and did the cake and ribbon cutting honours. Pleased to be invited back today. Great audience of around 200, who all stayed until the end. In a week or two's time I'll be winding up at a Conservative Policy Forum, where I expect a fair proportion of the audience to have sloped off home by the time I'm on.

Wonder how many other MPs are ostomates. Must be one or two. Probably a few in their Lordship's House. As well as the 5th anniversary of the birth of the C A, its the 8th birthday of my own diagnosis of colorectal cancer. Been able to put the trauma completely behind me. Vanessa was telling us today of her appearance on Channel 4's 'Embarrassing bodies'. Coincidentally, I've just had an invitation to appear as a male model in a fashion show - which I cannot accept because its on a Thursday night, and I may be 'whipped' to be at Westminster. It takes over 4 hours to reach home. Anyway, this blog wishes a Happy Birthday to Sue, Earnie and all the good people at the Colostomy Association.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Glyn Davies meets Glyn Davies while Wynford looked down on us.

Today was the occasion of the relaunching/reopening/resomething of the memorial to Wynford Vaughan-Thomas on the high slopes of Moel Fadian, above Llyn Clywedog in Montgomeryshire. It was an informal do. My dear friend, Lord Hooson was with us. He knew Wynford pretty well. Also with us was 89 year old Glyn Davies of Baschurch in Shropshire, formerly of Dolgellau. He drove the great Welsh war correspondent around Anzio, in Italy during the war. I can only say that we hit it off really well, and I'm now able to claim, in all modesty, that I think Glyn Davies is a great man!

Reason we had to recommission this memorial was that vandals had defaced the original. Campaign for Protection of Rural Wales had arranged the work, and taken advantage of the generosity of individual CPRW members, Powys County Council and O2. The memorial is located at Wynford Vaughan-Thomas' favorite place in all the world, looking down on the mountains of Wales which he so loved. As do I. I also had in common with the great man, service as President of the CPRW, though my term was cut shorter than his by my election as an MP.

If you want to learn more about the magic of Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, why he was so loved by the people of Wales, and of the place where Glyn Davies met Glyn Davies today why not listen to this podcast. To me, its no more than just my voice, but people tell me its quite an emotional story to listen to. Somewhere its also available in the Welsh Language, another love which all three of us shared.

S4C's future

Hand wringing idealists have always been loved more than hard headed realists. Sadly, I've always been one of the latter - though hopefully, I've learned to understand (and even empathise) with the former. Never has the difference between these two characteristics been more obvious than in current attitudes towards the future funding of S4C. In the end, its the latter who actually deliver, even if destined to remain unloved. Lets consider where we are.

The UK economy is in a very bad place. Government is spending around £500 million more every day than it has coming in. Before the election campaign, the main plank of my campaign, and other Conservatives was that this destruction of our children's legacy has to end. Since then, its become clear that the finances are even worse than anyone thought. On 20th October, all the signs are that public spending is going to see reductions, the like of which will not ever have been seen before. This post is about where S4C fit into all this.

I have no idea of what discussions about this issue has taken place (except those I've been involved in, and those that have been 'leaked' to the media) but I have assumed that Jeremy Hunt's culture budget will take a big hit. The Secretary of State must be facing impossible choices. As of yesterday, he had not 'settled' with the Treasury. Now, this is where my 'hard-nosed realism' comes in. Much as I would like it to be the case, I cannot reasonably call for S4C to continue enjoying inflation-protected increases while every other budget suffers large reductions, (made even larger by the protected status of S4C). My view is that such a scenario is unrealistic. Seems to me that a 'realistic' ambition is to minimise any decrease in S4C's funding that there might be.

All that happened yesterday was that the UK Government announced that S4C will continue as an independent Welsh language channel, but that the current legal 'link' of S4C's budget to an annual inflation increase should end. I have not yet spoken to anyone who disagrees with this, (except representatives of the channel). What I want is a recognition of the importance of S4C to Wales by securing a lesser reduction in the channel's budget than the Culture Secretary's other budget heads. No idea whether this will happen. Will be listening to the Chancellor's speech on Wed, though the detail of the culture budget may not be available until later. There is a lot more I'd like to say, particularly about the relationship-destroying selective leaking of private discussions. Thank goodness for my 'hard headed realism', which informs me that I should write no more.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Miliband does OK.

Had to be in the Chamber today, to watch Ed Miliband's debut. Couldn't understand why so many people thought he would be a flop. I didn't. To me, he's always seemed a good performer (in a sixth form debater sort of way). He's sharp and personable, and I've warned that we must take him seriously. Mind you, if he can't make his mark in the current climate, he's a banana.

This is the image that came to my mind. A young Pakistani bowler, unknown and untested, opening the bowling against David Gower at his sublime peak, on a wicked pitch under heavy cloud - ball moving both ways and lifting. The first few overs are interesting to watch - before David gradually gets his eye in, taking control. The question, as it was on the day that 'the Unions' awarded him the captaincy, is whether he just flatters to deceive, or turns out to be a Wacqar Younis or an Imran Khan. Though I cannot claim to be an impartial observer, it was great to see a decent contest. the young newcomer did OK. I will not be missing PMQs for the next few weeks.

What also struck me is the degree of disconnect between 'cause' and 'blame' in modern politics. Labour completely wreck the economy, leading to the people putting a replacement Government in place to clear up the mess - reducing public expenditure and in doing so, providing ammunition for Labour to fire at us. Its brass neck of a very high order. And how the culprits cheered. No good moan aboput it. That's politics. Price of being in Government I suppose - being on the receiving end of gunfire. So happens that today, I feel that, along with others, I made a real difference. Makes it all worthwhile.

Monday, October 11, 2010

News 24 Paper Review.

Just returned from BBC Television Centre. First time I've been into BBC HQ for 25 years. Last time it was as a guest of Martyn Lewis, when I actually sat alongside him as he fronted the 9.00 News. This time I was reviewing tomorrow's newspapers on News 24. Didn't see anyone famous around looking, well, famous as they do - probably because I was on at 11.20.

My top issue was the speculation about Lord Browne's report on university tuition fees, which we're expecting tomorrow. It seems to be accepted that he's going to recommend that the cap on tuition fees be lifted in England, and assumed that this will lead to a substantial increase in fees. I couldn't comment on this in any definite way, because I've not seen the report. What I'm almost more interested in is how the Coalition partners manage an issue where there seems to be genuine policy disagreement. Before the General Election the Liberal Democrats were strongly opposed to allowing tuition fees to be raised. Clearly, the financial 'black hole' facing the Coalition Government is even worse than expected, and we are having to make reductions way beyond what any of us expected, or like - but its still a difficult issue for Nick Clegg's party. It seems that a simple 'graduate tax' has already been abandoned. The debate will be about whether some form of 'progressive' element can be incorporated (such as differential interest rates on outstanding loans), to satisfy Lib Dem Ministers. Whatever, I reckon this coming week will feature much discussion about the Browne Report, and the Government's response to it - and we'll learn a bit about the Coalition.

Second article I chose was the Indy story about the 33 Chilean miners, who have been trapped 700 metres below ground for 66 days. The international story that is going to dominate the coming weeks will be the hauling of these men up through a narrow pipe, from their dungeon deep down in the bowels of the earth up to the surface. They are going to become 33 world-wide celebrities. There could be 33 books and 33 films, and 333 TV shows about them. Each of these men could become even bigger celebrities than Lembit Opik - and never have to work again. Until now this amazing story has been one of tension and fear. Today's article in the Independent is one of red-nosed joy and celebrity. A sign of things to come.

I also chose the Mail story about the collapse of the Iraqi trial. What a tragedy this is for the families of the six young men who were killed seven years ago by a murderous mob of human animals. It must be very difficult to accept that no-one will be held accountable for their brutal deaths. The BBC's Chris asked me whether there was a case for not recognising Iraq's right to conduct such trials. I understand why he asks this, and a lot of other people will do so. My response was that we must continue to help Iraq establish its own system of justice, difficult as that process will inevitably be.

And I did manage to get in a mention of Dai Greene, who today won Wales' first gold at the Commonwealth Games. Well done Dai. What an amazing year he's had. Really enjoyed the programme. I can see why Iain Dale enjoys doing this sort of thing. Hope I'm asked again.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Our Garden this weekend.

The most colourful plant in the garden at present is this Cotoneaster. We have grown a few different varieties over the years, but never one that puts on such a show. And so far the birds have shunned the berries.
Rudbekias are just about the best herbaceous border plant that flower from summer right through into November. They do not shine in a drought, but this year they've been and remain magnificent.
The grasses border is now into its third year, and at its best. Probably be a need to do some thinning out next spring. will probably need a bit of help. Time is in short supply since last May.
Some of our Acers are offering glorious colour, especially the yellow leaved varieties. These two, which have been planted close together in the Celtic Garden are even more striking in the flesh.
This is a rare bamboo that we paid quite a bit for. For two years I thought we had been done, but this year its showing some real promise. Its supposed to grow quickly to about 10 metres in width. Its been planted with roads around it to control spread. Lovely leaves.
This shows what can be done with Eucalyptus. This was a 60' tall tree, until we had it sawn down because it was taking the light. They just grow back up from the base. Its also what happens if they blow down, which they often do. There is a case for cutting them to the ground every year. The young growth is more attractive, and easier to look at than at the top of a huge tree.

The Fuchsia Rockery

Latest addition to the garden is the fuchsia rockery. It was planted up last summer and is already putting on a decent display. By next summer it will be in full pomp, and I reckon will be one of our best features. Its also 'the view from the boathouse'. Behind is the grasses border that we planted up two years ago - now at its best.
We like hares - and since there are not many running around the fields (at least compared with when I was a young man out with a gun) we have planted one or two metal replacements here and there. They add a bit of interest.
And a couple of white doves as well.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Are Welsh (and Scottish) Cabinet (and Shadow Cabinet) members becoming a rarer species.

Was genuinely surprised that Labour MPs did not elect a single Welsh MP to their Shadow Cabinet this week. Labour's constitution required 19 Labour MPs to be elected. Lets set aside that this is a daft way to choose a shadow cabinet (and a Ryder Cup team) - though luckily for him, Ed Miliband has more personal 'picks' than Monty, which has enabled him to be surrounded by a team he has some chance of working with. But for this system of 'picks', Labour would have been in the position of having a Secretary of State for Wales not representing a Welsh seat. Personally, I don't see much wrong with this - but Labour have made such an almighty 'song and dance' about it over the last 20 years. What matters is that the position is filled by the best person for the job. Having been born in Wales, or representing a Welsh seat are two of the qualifying criteria. Was particularly surprised that Peter Hain came in 21st though. This was a humiliation, and I daresay I could indulge in mockery - but I'm more interested in why it happened. The question I find myself asking is whether the existence of the National Assembly for Wales was a factor.

The role of Welsh Secretary can basically be divided into two areas of work. Firstly There's the obvious role of representing Wales in the Cabinet (or shadow cabinet), dealing with Welsh issues. But there is also another wider role as a Cabinet member, delivering services in England, which are devolved to Wales. This applies to any Welsh MP who is elected to Cabinet (or Shadow Cabinet). What I'm wondering is whether English MPs (in this instance Labour MPs) now feel a reluctance to have non-English MPs involved in the UK wide role. Opinions welcome.

Friday, October 08, 2010

BBC cuts S4C budget by 20%.

On the face of things, it does look as if BBC Wales have really put the boot into S4C today. Can't say much because when I played rugby, I believed that "kicking 'em when they are down" was much the best policy! While the boffins at S4C, and people like me who care deeply about the channel, have been trying to limit what we fear as imminent reductions in UK Government support, along comes the Beeb and tells us that its support for S4C is to be cut by 20% over the next three years - from £23.5 million this year to £19.5 million in 2013. Bit like the patient anticipating leg amputation next week, having a finger cut off today!

Like many others, I was disappointed to hear this news - but not surprised. The BBC is currently under great financial pressure, (as it should be) and it's contribution to S4C has increased rapidly over recent years. In truth, we knew that something like this was coming. What's happened today, is that the BBC have decided to go public - for two main reasons. Or so it seems to me. Firstly it was important to get the BBC's 'cut' in before the UK Government's possible cut later this month. Back to the perception of 'kicking a man when he's down'! Today, it looks like a manageable little kick. After 20th October, it could look more like a seriously big kick. And secondly, it could be helpful to S4C in its negotiations with Jeremy Hunt's department, in that the Welsh Language channel can pray in aid an already cut budget.

Over the last few weeks, we have read much about the £100 million which S4C receives annually from the Treasury. There has been very little discussion about the £23.5 million it receives from the TV licence payer (via the BBC). The total is a truly massive amount of money. The BBC's 'defence' is that it has less money available. It must cut 20% of the money it spends on Welsh Language programme production. Its inevitable to balance the books. There is no alternative. I wonder if we are going to see the same response to this decision as we would see to a similar decision, were it to taken by DCMS in two weeks time - and taken for exactly the same reason? Somehow I very much doubt it. The Welsh establishment will not want to kick its own.

Thank you Ms Birbalsingh.

I could be skirting with trouble with this post but, in my opinion, the most important speech at the Conservative Party Conference was made by Katharine Birbalsingh, a deputy headteacher from Camberwell. She connected with something that has been bothering me big-time for weeks - since I fell into conversation with a seemingly very competent young teacher who had moved from working in Wales to working in England (for family reasons). The response by her school to Ms Birbalsingh's speech is what prevents me from naming names here. But the story is quite terrifying.

In the Welsh school there was discipline, and my 'mole teacher' (this is what we've come to - terrified of Stasi-style management) loved her work, felt valued and positive about her contribution to developing the young people in her care. In her new school she has found total chaos. She is a child minder, rather than a teacher. She cares, but no-one else cares. People who started on their careers as dedicated teachers have been reduced to despair by the school's teaching environment. Several hundred uneducated, illiterate youngsters are released into society every year, devoid of structure, discipline and hope in their lives - feral in their attitude to life. Its a recipe for social disintegration. And nobody cares.

During the early months of the Coalition Government, there has been a lot of debate about changes in how we educate our children. The educational establishment has fought any prospect of change as a tigress defends her cubs. Because none of it has applied to Wales, I have not become hugely engaged with this debate. I only became stirred after speaking to someone at the sharp end of what politically correct claptrap has done to parts of England's education system. The young teacher I spoke to will look elsewhere for a more satisfying job. But the seeds of despair will continue to be sown until school's which perpetrate bad, vary bad education are reformed or closed down.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Cock-a-Doodle done for.

Fear not. We can all rest in our beds knowing that our intrepid council officials have the power to follow the example of Waverney District Council in Suffolk, who sent out a marksman in the dead of night, armed with a shotgun, to carry out their instructions. These brave man set aside any care for his own safety as he crept up on his 'target' - sleeping cockerels which had dared to crow within the council official's jurisdiction. He duly executed them. Surely that must qualify for some sort of commendation.

Mind you, this decisive action has probably cost the taxpayer a few thousand. For months council officials have been climbing trees in darkness, wielding nets and dog loop leads (whatever they are) to catch these Kellogg-eating villains for re-housing. I suppose they could be classed as 'illegal immigrants'. Anyway, despite their best efforts, three remained free in nature. Nothing else for it. They had them shot. Mr Andrew Reynolds, the Council's principle environmental officer said that the cockerels had been abandoned illegally and complaints "had left us with little option but to intervene for the benefit of the health of the community". Isn't it wonderfully reassuring that our local government is in such safe hands.

I live in the countryside. When we moved to Cil Farm, my good friend and neighbour, Stuart owned a cockerel which though he was Pavarotti. Sometimes I threatened to shoot that, but never would have done. Like manure smells, and cattle bawling, its what happens in the countryside. We live with it. If you don't like it, go live in a town and enjoy the traffic and street lights. So happens, two constituent came into my office yesterday, seeking advice after receiving a 'Noise Abatement Order' from Powys County Council demanding that their cockerels be silenced within 21 days. They love their cockerels and have given them pet names. There will now be appeals to the magistrates courts and law suits issued - all at great expense. Solicitors are already involved. I read a letter from a Powys planning officer to another constituent yesterday which stated that the legal costs of dealing with a minor planning issue would result in a bill of at least £500 to the applicant. Sometimes I think that the world has gone completely 'bonkers'. I hope Powys CC's officers don't decide to follow the example of Waverney.

Mrs Robinson stands tall in a world of appeasers.

This blog pays tribute to Mrs Lisa Robinson of Ystrad Mynach. She is the lady who stood her ground in front of a train until the police had been called to deal with abusive football fans. What a magnificent star. I would have been well angered if I'd been on the train, but there's a limit. Too often, offensive behaviour of this sort on trains is allowed to pass. The train operators should chuck them off, and let them walk home. At the very least Cardiff City should ban these unpleasant so-called fans from future matches. Good on you, Mrs Robinson.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Being Neutral.

You can bank on the BBC's David Cornock to ask the awkward question. I suppose that's why the BBC are so proud to retain his services. Don't know why but I quite like him, despite everything. I look on the Western Mail's Martin Shipton as a good friend as well. It must be that I find the awkward squad more interesting.

Anyway after today's Welsh 'fringe' at Birmingham, I agreed to an interview. And what does he do? He asks for my reaction to the Secretary of State for Wales' announcement that, as a PPS I would now be 'neutral' on whether I support law making powers for the National Assembly for Wales in the March 3rd referendum. Must admit I'd missed this snippet during the hour-long Iain Dale comfy chair platform chat with Cheryl Gillan and Nick Bourne, so felt a bit less than my normal assured self in responding. I suppose it does depend on what you mean by 'neutral'.

Lets look at the history. Until September 1997 I'd been opposed to establishing the National Assembly for Wales at all. But the Welsh people ignored my advice and voted 'Yes'. So, since the circumstances had changed, my opinion of the way forward changed. I took the view that the Assembly would now be a permanent feature of our democracy, and that the only route to a stable UK constitution was to grant the Assembly full powers over devolved policy areas. This blog has very 'un-neutrally' sought to campaign for a 'Yes' vote throughout its existence. So what now. This is what David Cornock wanted me to tell him - and the following is is what I told him.

Not a problem. I don't think anyone is going to think I'm actually 'neutral' because of what is on the record. And in any case, I decided years ago that I would not participate in any campaigning. I refused to sign a very good letter prepared by Cymru Yfori last year launching the 'Yes' campaign - despite agreeing with its content. I'd also already decided to throw myself into trying to spread an understanding of what's at stake in the referendum. And since its my belief that greater understanding leads to greater likelihood of support, I can just about get away with describing myself as 'neutral' - or allow others to do so truthfully. I know this reads a bit 'thin', and I'm not at all sure that David cannot edit this unfavourably. But it seems logical and reasonable to me.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Druids taking the stage.

Strange images float into the human mind, creating fear and pleasure. When I was young, I thought of druids (always men) as persons who cast off white cloaks to dance naked at midnight, sacrificing virgins to the gods on a stone alter amongst trees with massive trunks. And then my good friend, Hedd Bleddyn became top druid in Powys, and my mind simply refuses to accept him into this image, no matter how hard I try. Apart from anything else, I've never seen him dance. Anyway, druids are on my mind tonight for two separate reasons.

Firstly, today's Telegraph (and BBC) report that Druidry has just been recognised as an official religion. The Druid Network has won charitable status, which means grants and tax breaks. The Charity Commission has accepted that Druids worship nature, in particular the sun and the earth, but also believe in the spirits of places such as mountains and rivers as well as 'divine guides' such as Brighid and Bran. Don't really think Hedd fits into this image either, though a few of us do worship the mountains I suppose. Anyway I wondered whether we can recruit the druids to oppose wind farms! A few ritual sacrifices amongst the turbines above Llandinam should do the trick.

Second reason druids are on my mind is that this afternoon I attended the official proclamation of the 2011 Powys Eisteddfod at Penybontfawr in the Tanat Valley. There were dozens of druids there, wearing gold, white, blue and green gowns. The eisteddfod is to be held next July at nearby Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant. Llanrhaeadr is best known for the waterfalls, Pistyll Rhaeadr, and as the place where Bishop William Morgan published the first Welsh Language version of the Holy Bible in 1588, which meant that the people of Wales,who at that time spoke only Welsh could read it. He'd moved to Llanrhaeadr in 1878, from Welshpool where he had arrived in 1575. And Owain Glyndwr was born close by as well, and I can well imagine him as a swashbuckling druid. If I could come back as another, it would be as Owain - and I wouldn't have turned back at Worcester. And the 'Queen of the Harp', Nansi Richards was born in Penybontfawr. We marched in a place today upon which she could have gazed from the sitting room in which she sat until her death in 1979. Put next July in your diary.