Monday, January 31, 2011

The Disappointing GDP Figures.

Much the most important item of news last week was the announcement that the UK's GDP fell by 0.5% over the last three months of 2010. This was both surprising and disappointing. The Chancellor believes GDP fell into negative territory as a consequence of the wintry weather throughout December - but George Osborne acknowledges that GDP would have been 'flattish' even if the sun had shone. What has instigated this blog post is some of the utterly ridiculous commentary that has followed this disappointing announcement.

Firstly, some people who should know better are claiming that Coalition Government 'cuts' are the cause. Well the problem with this is that there have not been any cuts. For sure, there's been plenty of discussion about 'cuts'. But during the last three months of 2010, public spending rose substantially on the previous year. Public spending increases are like a very big 'tanker' - very difficult to stop and turn around when steaming ahead at full throttle. If public spending really does equal economic growth, the UK economy would have been flying. The painful (to come) reality is that it absolutely doesn't - not while there's a huge structural deficit issue anyway.

And then we've had the barely credible comments from the Shadow Chancellor today. He's dismissed the public policy statements of the Governor of the Bank of England as being not what he actually believes. This is tantamount to accusing Mervyn King not telling the British public the truth. I wonder if anyone believed his nonsensical comment. Its also now become clear that the Labour opposition intend to claim that the difficulties facing our public finances are nothing whatsoever to do with the previous Government. Can't we have the more sensible and credible Alistair Darling back!

Its only one set of figures so we cannot take it as a trend. But since private sector growth is fundamental to the Government's economic strategy, its inevitable that there will be calls on the Chancellor to look seriously at reducing the costs and regulations which hold business back when he finalises his budget next month. And there will also be more calls on the banks to lend the money needed for the private sector to be able to compete for infrastructure projects. Its going to be an interesting budget.

Friday, January 28, 2011

England's Public Forest Estate.

Now I have to admit that my Coalition Government's proposal to transfer from public ownership the Public Forest Estate in England was (how shall I put this) not my favourite policy, when I first considered it. And I've received a mighty stack of letters and cards opposing any change in the current arrangements. This has instigated me to look a bit more carefully than I might otherwise have done at what is actually proposed.

First point to make is that about 82% of England's forest area is already privately owned, and as far as I know has not attracted accusations of being vandalised by private ownership. In fact it cannot be so vandalised because it's subject to Forestry Commission regulation. This will continue. Most of the woods and forest that I love and walk in have always been privately owned.

Another point worth making is that its only the parts of Forestry Commission land that are currently managed commercially will be transferred to commercial operators, and by long term lease as an additional safeguard to ensure that the public can continue to enjoy any benefit that currently exists.

Next point is that what are termed 'heritage forests' (Forest of Dean or the New Forest for example) will be transferred (ownership or some form of management) to new or existing charitable organisations, creating opportunities for community or civil society groups to buy or lease forests they wish to manage. It will be interesting what responses emerge in the consultation process.

It is proposed that the Forestry Commission will continue to play an important role through its regulatory, grant-giving, research and expert advisory roles. What it will no longer be doing is regulating an industry where it is itself the largest player.

Now none of this cuts any ice at all with Peter Oborne in today's Telegraph. It may well not cut any ice with the 100 plus people who have written to me objecting - though before they could have seen the Coalition Government's proposals, which were published on Thursday. I've not written this post to be a defence of the Coalition Government's proposals, but to try to ensure the debate is based on what the Coalition Government, rather than what its thought that it proposes. Even though this does not impact on my constituency of Montgomeryshire, I may well want to contribute if and when this issue is debated on the floor of the House of Commons.

Inappropriate Jokes

Telegraph reports today that Business Secretary, Vince Cable is in trouble for making a 'questionable ' joke about bankers. Its alleged he asked guests at a Westminster lunch what the difference was between the bodies of a banker and a cat found on the motorway. He then (allegedly) provided the answer to this poser - "There were skid marks around the cat". I've heard this 'joke' several times before, and in many different forms. Its just the banker's turn.

Another 'joke' I've heard about bankers, which I must admit I did use myself at a West Wales Banker's Dinner many years ago, was about the terrible tragedy when a bus full of bankers left the road and drove over a 100 ft high cliff. Punch line - "There was one empty seat". This joke used to be used against lawyers, but they seem to have moved up the pecking order, and are now above politicians and journalists - who would be competing for last place if it wasn't for bankers.

Another lawyer joke (which cannot really be adapted for bankers) is about a group of friends out sea fishing in a boat when the engine failed - with a shoal of hungry sharks between the boat and the shore. They were all saved because the lawyer was able to swim ashore for help. Sharks never eat their own.

Anyway it seems that one banker is reported to have taken exception to the Business Secretary's attempt at jocularity. Perhaps he lost his sense of humour at the same time as he lost our money. Vince Cable is lucky that he doesn't write a blog.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Six Nations Squad

Warren Gatland has picked a Six Nations Squad pretty well much as expected. The disaster area is the front row, where skipper Mathew Rees will be supported by two props who are just not good enough to cope at this level. I do hope I'm proved wrong. But I have this image of a penalty try, and one of our props sitting in the bin. Losing Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones was a massive blow to Wales. But this loss will dictate how Wales play the game, which may well allow things to turn out OK. First shoots of optimism creeping in! The ball will have to be moved out of the scrum, and to the backs as fast as possible.

Decent strength in the second row. Alun Wyn Jones and Bradley Davies, with Ryan Jones on the bench is as good as it gets. We must hope that we can at least win a fair share of line-out ball. And the back row looks big and strong as well, if a little inexperienced. Gatland will probably start with Warburton, Thomas and Lydiate, who will need to win their fair share of loose ball. Bold move to leave out the magnificent Martyn Williams, but time for the final curtain has been reached. Half backs, Phillips and Jones will have to focus on getting the ball out to the backs, where Wales look strong. Gatland will start with Hook, Roberts, Shane Williams, Leigh Halfpenny and Lee Byrne. Plenty of potential for fireworks and magic there.

Now that I've written this post, I'm beginning to feel a bit less pessimistic. By week Friday, I'll be expecting nothing less than victory.

Impact Plants in January

Walked around the garden with my camera today - first time this year. Looking for plants that have impact on a cold day in January. First up is not a great photo. Would be much better if the sun was out. This 20 ft high Hammamelis provides the year's first burst of colour - and its in front of the sitting room window.
Some of the bamboos we've planted over the years are beginning to reach a size where they begin to look impressive. This variety is only about four feet tall, but spreads very quickly - which is why we grow it amongst grass, where the mulcher keeps it within bounds.
And here's another bamboo that really does look rather splendid. Its approaching 20 feet in height, and is very neat. I like it, though Mrs D does not share my enthusiasm.
And finally, no collection of impact specimens in our garden in winter can be complete without the Acer griseum. Its one of my favorite trees. We have planted a few of them, but this is the best. No-one walks past it without commenting. Its not just the peeling bark. Its such a rich colour as well.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Let battle commence - with no taxpayer's money.

Was surprised by yesterday's decision by the organisation, True Wales, not to seek designation as the 'lead campaign' for a No vote at the Assembly Powers referendum on March 3rd.. In one sense it makes no practical difference, because I would not have been at all surprised if a bid to be the lead campaign had been refused by the Electoral Commission. The only bid to be lead campaign has been made by Alwyn ap Huw, my blogging colleague who goes under the name of Miserable Old Fart - and he supports a No because not enough powers are being considered for transfer.

Now what to make of this. I cannot see why it should 'throw referendum plans into confusion' which has been a common public response, from some quarters at least. Personally, I think the outcome is what many people expected, if arrived at by an unexpected route - there will not be publicly funded campaigns on either side. Both sides will have to depend on self generated income, and not on taxpayer funded campaigns. Almost everyone I've spoken to about this issue today is rather in favour of this. I've only heard or read of one person who sees it as a "sad day for politics" - but that did produce this lead story for BBC Wales.

Personally I like the idea that both sides of the argument will be deprived of public funds to finance their campaigns. What we want is the genuine opinion of Welsh people, not some sort of X Factor competition based on TV adverts and glossy literature. And we can all feel a bit better in that a lot of public money will now be available to spend on public services.

Attended a 'party' lunch in Montgomeryshire today, where the speaker was Conservative Assembly Member, Andrew RT Davies, who was asked for his advice about which way to vote. He supports a Yes vote - and used the standard line about the Assembly needing 'the tools to do the job'. In typical Andrew style he said "You wouldn't send a man to dig a hole without a shovel." That's as good a way of putting it as I've heard.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Debate on the Barnett Formula.

This morning, the Barnett Formula was the subject of an hour and a half's debate in Westminster Hall. I'd wanted to speak myself, but unfortunately was just not well enough to attend. Cannot shake off a bug, which includes a throat 'tickle' that stops me sleeping - and a soreness which stops me eating. The Christmas fat is falling off. But back to something more interesting - the Barnett Formula, the system by which the treasury distributes public money to the four nations which make up the UK.

The debate was secured by Andrew Selous MP, a very 'English' Englishman, and a really good man. We're used to dissatisfaction with the Barnett formula being voiced by Welsh politicians, claiming Wales to be unfairly penalised when the Treasury spending cake is being carved up. What we had today was an Engish politician pointing out that both Wales and England are penalised when this cake is divided - and that Scotland is allowed to eat too big a slice. And Andrew was being realistic about what can be achieved. We all accept that Barnett is a fairly ridiculous formula, which no longer has any credible base. We also know that it will be very difficult to come up with an acceptable successor - and that the Coalition Government will be reluctant to venture in this hornet's nest until there's some order to our public finances. So he limited himself to suggesting a start to the research work, ensuring its availability when its needed. Pragmatic and focused on delivery.

I began by referring to Andrew's 'Englishness' - for a reason. Ex-Eton, military, city and Conservative Christian fellowship. Presses all the buttons. But wait a sec.. Today, he was talking about 'need' and 'fairness' in the distribution of public money across the UK - which could benefit England and Wales, while reducing the money going to Scotland. The research would inform about the best way to change the system - in the interests of England and Wales. I know andrew and you could not meet a 'fairer' man. But this does not quite fit the normal media template in Wales. So how does BBC Wales Online report the debate. Under the headline "Devolved public spending formula 'not fair to England'. Now that's better. Fits the old template much more comfortably.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

What the H*** happened?

I've only been knocked out properly once. Went to tackle a big second row moving at speed. I was coming from the side and managed to get my head in front of his legs rather than behind, and was hit on my temple by his knee. When I eventually came around, surrounded by worried faces, my first words were "What the h*** happened". I felt a bit like that this week, in response to the media coverage of the 'presumed consent' issue - though I thought my discussion on Post Cynta with Dr Dai Lloyd was fine. Anyway, here's the view from where I stand.

I've known for probably a couple of years that Health Minister, Edwina Hart was minded to ask Westminster for the power to introduce 'presumed consent' in Wales, by means of a Legislative Competence Order (LCO). At present, organs can be removed from a dead body only if their former owner has given express permission for that to happen. The Assembly Government wants to introduce a system where the organs can be taken unless there is on record an express refusal to allow it. When the request for this power transfer finally came, two thoughts came to mind. Firsly, that it was late in the term of the current administration in Cardiff Bay to intoduce a complex measure before the Assembly election, and secondly that it might turn out not to be straightforward.

Fast forward to this week. The Secretary of State cleared the order (I think that's the terminology) and passed it on to others which have to be consulted - the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, and the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve. The latter sees problems with the LCO, which interest me. Personally, I've felt deeply divided within myself about this issue. I have very good friends who are passionate about changing the law, and I would like so much to share their passion - but I don't. And its for the same reason as Dominic Grieve. Personally, I'm concerned that some of my fellow citizens would have their organs removed even though they would not want it to be so - simply because they could not be ar*** to fill in a form. The Attorney General has concerns about human rights and personal liberty - which is much the same thing. What will happen in the end I do not know, but the opinion of the Governmnet's leading legal adviser cannot be simply ignored in any civilised country.

We've already seen some (including senior people who really should know better) suggesting that a Yes vote on March 3rd would change this position. It would not. This issue has nothing whatsoever to do with the 'powers' referendum. Its about whether the pwer falls within one of the devolved 'fields' of responsibility. The Attorney General may well take the view that the human rights and personal liberties involved here are not devolved. Oh what a dilemma. Luckily, I cannot see how I can be called upon to vote on this.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

When is Blue Purple and Purple Blue?

Called in at a late Christmas lunch today held by the Montgomeryshire branch of the Multiple Sclerosis Society. I chose to wear a purple party hat, in recognition of my recent bracketing, along with others, as a "purple plotter". The purple comes from a mix of blue, yellow and a dash of red. I had made remarks on this blog which acknowledged that I, personally did not rule out some continuation of an arrangement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats leading up to, and beyond the next General Election. The MP who coined this phrase (I think) was my good friend and colleague, Mark Pritchard MP. I was very surprised to be so described. What I'd said had seemed to me to be no more than common sense. If we try and cast our minds forward four years, and assuming every Coalition objective has gone as planned, we ought not to rule out some sort of arrangement between the two parties into the future. OK, so its unlikely, but why rule it out now. Tim Montgomerie appeared on Radio Wales to discuss it with me. I was rather pleased with my new colouring.

And then, as flicking around my favourite blogs tonight, I come across this from no other than the same Mark Pritchard. Its not exactly the same as I said, but the principle is the same. Next Christmas Party I go to, I'll feel confident enough to wear a blue party hat!

James Edward Jarvis 1946 - 2011

Jim Jarvis was buried today in Welshpool, after a funeral service in St Mary's Church. He was 64 years old when he died, and through recent years had been a renal dialyser at Shrewsbury and Telford. Hadn't stopped him working. He ran the local taxi firm, Yelocabs. All of his life he had loved driving, amongst many other things. He was one of Welshpool's great characters.

I'd known him, but not well, for decades - since he worked for G F Potter, a great local entrepreneur. Had got to know him better recently through my involvement with the campaign to bring a renal dialysis unit to Welshpool. Ironically, Jim died less than a week before the buildings in which the dialysis service is going to be established, arrived at Welshpool Hospital. He would have liked to have seen that.

The family asked me to make a 'tribute' to Jim during the funeral service. I have a strong voice, which was lower than usual because of a brute of a cold that is upon me. I have no trouble reaching the back of the church. Debbie sang beautifully. She has often served me a coffee at the Old Station, or Coco's. I had no idea that she has the voice of an angel. I finished my 'tribute' with "If there's a taxi in heaven, it will not be long until Jim is driving it. Sad occassion, but I saw a knowing smile or two."

Friday, January 14, 2011

Dr Geraint Davies - A Good Man Retired.

Perhaps he preferred to slip away quietly into the night, without anyone noticing. I feel much the same when I want to, or am invited to, 'move on'. But I've never had much luck. My 'moving on' has usually been played out against the backdrop of the sound of kerfuffle. I do not think there is any reason for kerfuffle to accompany the retirement of the Assembly Government's head man in Mid Wales, Dr Geraint Davies, who called it a day on December 31st. First I knew of it was today, when my office rang to try to arrange another of my 'exchange of information' chats at his office in Ladywell House. He was a really good man, and extremely helpful to me. Its fair to say that we trusted each other. I did think of saying nothing at all about Geraint's retirement, but there is no way that was going to happen. So I decided to blog somthing nice.

First met Geraint when he was a relatively junior officer at the Development Board for Rural Wales. Along with the DBRW for which he worked, he was swallowed up by the Welsh Development Agency - which was in turn incorporated into the Assembly Government in what I've always thought of as 'Rhodri's Revenge'. Anyway, it was obvious from early on that Geraint was destined for the top - a point at which he duly arrived. I'm never sure he took to becoming a 'civil servant'. Many others who had worked so dynamically in the DBRW and the WDA felt the same. 'Rhodri's Revenge' did visit the most appalling damage on rural Wales. It was a desperately sad day for the economy of my home area, and despite his undoubted popularity, it was a legacy left by Rhodri Morgan that was as bad as the legacy of Dr Geraint Davies is good.

New Powys Council Cabinet.

Powys County Council has announced the names that the newly elected Leader has chosen to serve in his Cabinet. It will be made up of 10 Cllrs. 3 of whom will be from the North (Montgomeryshire), and 7 from the South (B&R). Michael Jones has chosen only Lib Dems and Powys Inds, which is much as expected. I do not know how many of them speak Welsh. The new Cabinet will take over their duties on May 12th.

The full list, is;

Michael Jones - Leader.

Tony Thomas - Resources, Workforce and Housing.

Les Davies - Children and Partnerships.

Kath Roberts-Jones - Corporate Governance and assets.

Rosemarie Harris - Social Services, Care and Health.

Ken Harris - Waste, Climate Change and Welsh Language.

Leisure and Learning - Stephen Hayes.

Regeneration and Culture - Wyn Jones.

Liam Fitzpatrick - Change, Communication and Performance.

Geraint Hopkins - Environment and Regulation.

The only new name here is Kath Roberts-Jones, Cllr. for Kerry. Leaving the power table (currently named the Executive Board will be Montg. Inds, David Jones and Graham Brown, and Conservatives Russell George and Gareth Ratcliffe, both of whom are candidates in the National Assembly elections to be held on May 5th. Gary Price, who has also left, following his selection as Plaid Cymru'd candidate will be replaced for the next three months by Viola Evans.

I suppose there will have to be a Shadow Cabinet appointed in the new arrangements. And I'm not sure what's going to happen to all the Committee Chairmanships. The most interesting aspect of all to me will be the 'scrutiny' arrangements. No political system can be deemed properly democratic (in the modern sense) without strong 'scrutiny' committees, something I would expect the Assembly Government to take a view on.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Growing the powers of the National Assembly

Six-o-clock and just about wrapping things up in the Westminster office before tackling the four hour journey home to Montgomeryshire. Been an interesting day, with much discussion about the the powers of the National Assembly for Wales. It began at 07.00 this morning on Radio Cymru's Post Cynta programme. I'd agreed to discuss the transfer to the National Assembly for Wales of the power to change the law on human organ donation. The Assembly Government wants to introduce a system where the organ's in everyone's dead body are considered available for removal for the benefit of someone who needs a transplant, unless specifically stated otherwise - a change from an 'opt-in system' to an 'opt-out system'(or presumed consent). There's been a bit of a kerfuffle because the Attorney General has expressed concern that this power may not be a devolved issue. I think I was supposed to be entering into a bit of 'argy-bargy' with my old friend, Dr Dai Lloyd AM - something I was not inclined to do. I preferred to be all 'sweetness and reason'. Whatever you think of the Attorney General's concerns, they have made me realise that even if we transfer all law making powers to the Assembly in devolved policy areas through a Yes vote on March 3rd, there will continue to be potential conflict about what is and is not actually devolved.

There will also have to be continuing discussion between MPs and AMs about the granting of new powers to the National Assembly by 'framework powers'. This is where new powers are granted as a result of inclusion in new legislation being created at Westminster. Today it was three issues which form part of the 'Localism Bill'. Not sure how seriously the Assembly Minister, Carl Sergeant takes this process. To begin with, we were mightily impressed with the team of officials who had joined him on his trip to London. He strode into Committee Room 8 with 7 (Yes 7) officials trooping in behind. To begin with I thought he must have had his own personal hair stylist, photographer and fitness trainer with him. Carl explained that he needed a cross-cutting team (not cost-cutting) with him. Whatever, it was nice to see a few old Assembly friendly faces. Funny old meeting though. wasn't much to talk to all these officials about. Carl hadn't given much thought to what he would like to do with these new powers. The full team of 8 is on its way back to Wales as I type - and I'm off to join them.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Conservatives and Lib Dems in 2015.

Occasionally, I say something that seems to me so blindingly obvious that I cannot fully understand when someone takes exception to it. But that's what seems to have happened in respect of an opinion I've expressed about the future relationship between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. I was invited to discuss this issue with Tim Mongomerie on Radio Wales' Sunday Supplement this morning. Unfortunately we didn't have enough time to develop our thoughts. So I'll do it now.

Firstly, the background. At last May's General Election, the Conservative Party won more seats than any other, but not an overall majority. As soon as the votes were counted, I assumed that David Cameron would become Prime Minister. Initially, I thought he would lead a 'minority' government. When it became clear that the Lib Dems wanted the full works, I was thrilled to bits. We were heading into exciting, uncharted waters, a great time to be an MP. I accepted that the only way for such a coalition to have any chance of working was for both parties to enter into a 'marriage-like' commitment to each other. And that's how I see it. I look on the 3 Welsh Lib Dem MPs (for my main interest is Wales) as close and trusted colleagues.

So how has it turned out. I judge the Coalition to be working at least as well as we could have expected. I hope it continues to do so. It's important to the national interest. It's been particularly tough for the Lib Dems, but they have shown an impressive determination to 'get real' about 'governmnet'. They deserve and receive my respect.

Where do we go from here. Now, I have no idea what will happen as we approach the end of this Parliament in 2015. No-one knows with any certainty. An interesting topic of discussion (and its not much more than that) is what will happen in 4 years time. Let's assume that all has gone well, the economic mess left by Labour has been cleared up - and some progress has been made on low pay, poverty, fairness, UK sovereignty, crime, localism, civil liberty and environmental sustainability. There may even be scope for tax reductions as we go into the next General Election. How do we manage the process of ending the Coalition to fight the General Election. There will surely not be much scope for criticising each other's record in government, and limited scope for distinctiveness in how we go forward, because we will have taken so many decisions covering part of the next Parliament. I would hope that every Conservative and Lib Dem can envisage this level of success.

Now to where I seem to be thinking controversially. I can see that any sort of 'coupon' election is highly unlikely. But I can envisage a position where there will be 'tactical voting' amongst party supporters. I can envisage supporters switching to the coalition party with the best chance of winning. I can envisage those with responsibility for preparing the manifestos of both parties trying to ensure that there are not too many 'red lines' included - making negotiating a second coalition easier. This seems to be common sense to me. In the 8 months since I've been elected, I've learned that it is unwise to rule anything out. This is one reason why I feel so fortunate to be an MP at this time.

Kidney Dialysis Unit arrives

This may look like an ugly utilitarian prefabricated building of no architectural worth - and I suppose it is. But I think its one of the most beautiful structures that I have ever seen. Its the temporary demountable kidney dialysis unit which was delivered to Welshpool's Victoria Memorial Hospital over the weekend. For such a long time the good people of Montgomeryshire have waited. It will be located in the Hospital car park, which was once the site of the maternity unit at which I was born. I understand that it should be in operation in less than two months time. Poignantly, next weekend, I will be reading at the funeral service of one of those who would probably have been a regular user. Now we have to push on with the permanent unit which it's hoped will be opened in 2012.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

The Oldham East and Saddleworth By-election.

I've been a tad uncertain about the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election since Phil Woolas was deselected (or whatever) last year. The reason for this is my experience of the Winchester by-election in 1997. At the General Election of that year, Lib Dem newcomer, Mark Oaten beat the incumbent Conservative, Gerry Malone by just two votes. Malone successfully challenged the result, and a by-election was called. Oaten's majority went up from 2 to 21,556. He won an astonishing 65% of the vote. I'd spent a day campaigning in Winchester, in the pouring rain. Met Robin Page for a chat on the street, he also being a candidate. Its the only time I've ever been there. I met no-one who did not think the Conservatives were anything but 'poor losers'. Never been much of a fan of re-running elections since.

I haven't been able to campaign in Oldham and Saddleworth, but I'm told that we have a very good candidate, and that we are hopeful of performing well on Thursday. However, Conservativehome have published results of two opinion polls tonight which are not encouraging. Both predict a comfortable victory for the Labour candidate, with the Lib Dems in a poor second, and us in third place. If anyone asks me to comment on these polls tomorrow, I'll have to resort to the line about the only poll that matters being the one on polling day - which as it happens is true. In the meantime, its best of luck to Kashif Ali.

The price of Wales' Tuition Fees policy.

Let's get one thing straight before I type another word. I have no criticism of the policy adopted by the National Assembly Government towards the funding of post 18 education. None at all. It's very different from the policy adopted by the UK Government in respect of England. That's devolution in action. But what has surprised me is that there has been almost no conjecture about what the consequences might be of the 'Welsh' policy. If it was possible to do what the Assembly Government has done, without any consequences whatsoever, it would be hard to justify anything different.

Anyway, my ear and attention has been alerted to today's news that the board of Uwic has voted to close six of its courses, make 35 staff redundant, and reduce student numbers. Is there any connection I ponder. The reporting of this has referred to similar pressures on universities across Britain but there was one aspect of the BBC report that particularly interested me. It was a quote from Professor Deian Hopkin, a much respected former vice-chancellor of two universities. He is quoted as saying "They (the Assembly Government) are now saying that they've (the universities) got to try to adjust the whole package to suit a very important financial provision they've made for students". Now, what can that mean? Bearing in mind the huge public interest there has been in the differing approaches towards paying for Further Education in the different parts of the UK, I anticipate that there will be more interest in the differing consequences over the period leading up to the Assembly election - if there are any consequences that is.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Using Children.

One difference between my campaign and the incumbent Montgomeryshire MP's campaign at the last General Election was the use of what I'll call 'innocent parties' in our promotion material. I always asked permission before I used photographs of non party members. It was sometimes frustrating to leave out a really good photograph, because someone involved did not give permission for it to be used. I refused to use them even when there was no response to a request for permission. This was certainly not the case with my Liberal Democrat opponent, who actually used a photograph of me in his election literature which included me in it. One Conservative supporter of mine, aged just 17, took great exception to his enforced participation in Lib Dem promotions.

This policy can never be absolutely pure. I recall agreeing to use one photograph of myself and a supporter, with a crown of hundreds as background. And when David Cameron's 'battlebus' was in Newtown, much of the media coverage included hundreds of schoolchildren, as well as passing pedestrians. Despite this, I think we know when we are using non-combatants without their express permission. And I didn't do it - because I thought it might cause resentment.

Reason I raise this issue is that Martin Shipton reports in today's Western Mail that the headteacher and chair of governors of Barry Island Primary School are the subject of a complaint by Ukip for using children in the Yes for Wales referendum campaign. I must admit that I thought it strange that a primary school was being used quite so blatantly. But the key line in Martin's report is a quote from the Wales secretary of the headteacher's union claiming that "the parents of all the children were happy for them to participate". If it's true that all the children's parents agreed, there seems to me to be no problem whatsoever. The conclusion of the Vale of Glamorgan Council will be interesting.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

A Bridge closed too far.

Innocent little headline on BBC Online - Mid Wales. "Bridge damaged by cold weather". Anyone would be forgiven for thinking this is nothing more than a minor inconvenience. Well its a whole lot more than that. The headline should have been "Central Wales economy at risk". Or MP demands Assembly Government acts to save Central Wales from economic meltdown." Actually I haven't yet, but I will have written to Ieuan Wyn Jones by tomorrow night. For those who do not know why this matter is so significant - read on.

Four years ago Tesco sought permission to build a new supermarket on the A483 in Newtown. I, and some others were strongly opposed to this development, believing that it would lead to severe traffic problems. My attitude was not based on any anti-Tesco feeling, which is evidenced by my strong support for the Tesco development in Welshpool, which opens next month. To make matters worse (much worse) Tesco was required to replace a nearby busy roundabout with a ridiculous (my opinion) system of traffic lights - which has brought traffic chaos to Newtown. Sometimes the queues are miles long. Newtown has become a bottleneck which is strangling the life out of the town and westwards. Huge numbers of people, including me have found a way of avoided the lights by taking a back road to Newtown, the B4389 through Aberbechan. Suddenly this artery which has mitigated the problem for those in the know has been cut, by the closure of this bridge.

So what should happen? Hopefully the Council will ascertain whether the bridge can re-open with a weight limit. If this is not possible, perhaps it should consider whether a temporary pontoon bridge could be constructed. What cannot happen is that this road remains closed for the year that has been suggested. We are facing a real crisis here. The economy of Central Wales is under serious threat. In the longer run, the area needs a Newtown By-pass, and it needs a sense of urgency in the office of the Deputy First Minister at the National Assembly to deliver it. For months, my Assembly candidate colleague in Montgomeryshire, Russell George, has been developing a strong campaign in support of early construction of this by-pass. Never has a strong campaign been more needed.

Already I have settled on how I'm going to get around this problem myself. Tonight we dined at the Waggon and Horses in Newtown, an experience we recommend to all, and drove home to Berriew via Bettws. Took only 17 minutes. Sorry Bettws, but prepare yourself for heavy traffic.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

They are off.

Today saw the launch of the 'Yes for Wales' campaign. It's aim is to persuade the people of Wales that law making powers should be transferred to the National Assembly for Wales in all policy areas which are already devolved - and to vote for that outcome at a referendum to be held on March 3rd. The Chair of the campaign is Roger Lewis, Chief Executive of the Welsh Rugby Union. There was hardy a politician in sight. Because this event has major significance in the development of 'Wales the nation' I thought I might attend - not to offer public support (because I'm supposed to be officially 'neutral') but just to be there. Anyway, I was told to keep my nose out, and stay well away. Very much a case of 'politicians not welcome'. Have to accept that the anti-politician strategy is probably sensible.

So all I could do is try to get a feel for things from media reports. They were all there! Not sure what to think. It looked OK to me. I particularly like the argument about law making powers creating an Assembly with "No excuses". Simple message which focuses on the key issue of increasing political accountability - at both Cardiff Bay and Westminster. And I reckon the stuff about developing "Welsh solutions to Welsh problems" is fair enough as well.

But I'm not convinced at all by the assertions that a No vote would put the devolution bandwagon into reverse. I just do not think it's true. There is no evidence for this. And its always risky to build a campaign on an assertion that is not true. My opinion is that the current system of powers transfer, much as I think it madly complex, would continue as now. In fact, I reckon there may well be constructive efforts to streamline the process. Again my view is that political self-awareness amongst the people of Wales is on a roll, and the Welsh voice will not be weakened, whatever the referendum result. I just do not think that the powers of the National Assembly is the only constituent part of the 'Welsh voice'. But on balance, I think the Yes for Wales campaign team made a pretty good start.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Access to hospital from Montgomeryshire.

For best part of a century, Montgomeryshire's hospital services (apart from 'community' NHS care) have been provided over the border in Shropshire - at different sites in Shrewsbury, at Telford since The Princess Royal was opened, with orthopaedics at Gobowen. I remember huge objection to the Princess Royal being built. At the time, a squash playing colleague, the late Dr Paul Brown, was a leading consultant and we discussed the issue at length after our invariably ferocious battles on court. He was adamant that in time, Shropshire would not be able to afford two DGHs, and that the new hospital would lead to the closure of the Royal Shrewsbury. Well, he was wrong about the closure (I think) but he was right about two hospitals being unaffordable. We are currently midst a consultation on effectively merging the two hospitals into one on two sites.

There is no alternative - if services are not going to be lost to Shropshire altogether. Already, and recently, gynaecological cancer surgery and upper-gastro cancer surgery has gone, and more could follow. There are several reasons for this. One is adoption of the EU legislation enforcing a Working Time Directive, which stipulates that junior doctors must work shorter hours. Another is that different training regimes are producing more 'specialist' consultants. I believe that immigration restrictions are also making it more difficult to recruit skilled staff, and then there's the extra costs involved in running two hospitals duplicating services. All of these changes add up to a service which is unaffordable as presently configured.

While much of the service we are used to will remain unchanged, there is a plan to implement some radical changes. A plan for this change has been developed by the managing Shrewsbury and Telford NHS Hospitals Trust. Public consultation began in early December, and will end on 14th March. Public meetings will be held in Feb., and I'm pressing for at least two in Montgomeryshire. If you want a consultation document to read, and respond to, ring 01952 580478 or 0800 032 1107. I will write another post during the next few days outlining the proposed changes. Go on. Telephone and ask for a document. This is important.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

To Westminster with a positive outlook.

Looks as if my first week back at Westminster is going to be interesting - if today's Sunday papers are anything to go by. On Tuesday 11th, second day back, we are debating the European Union Bill, which I'd thought would have been welcomed by any MP of an anti EU-integration bent. I'd been looking forwards to it as a way of putting a brake on the 'one way only' escalator system which has transferred power from the British Parliament to the EU Parliament since we joined in the early 1970s. After the 'confusion' surrounding the Lisbon Treaty 'non-referendum', I'd assumed there would be a rousing welcome on the Conservative benches for ensuring future moves towards Euro-integration would be subject to more Parliamentary and popular control. This Bill creates a legal structure, giving power to Parliament (and in some cases the people) over power transfers from us to them'. How could any Euro-sceptic not approve of this. But it seems (at least according to Melissa Kite in today's Telegraph and James Forsythe in the Mail, and others) that several of my colleagues do object. They are even suggestions that enough Conservatives are going to join with Labour to pass amendments which the Coalition Government will not be prepared to accept. "Commons defeat for Cameron" they announce in big headlines. Must admit that I don't believe a word of it, but then I live well out into 'the sticks'. Who knows what's happening four hours away. I'll just have to wait and see.

Have to say that today's newspapers seem determined to put a damper on my anticipation of going back on the 10th. There was so much negative stuff about 'purple plotters', the European Union Bill, and votes for prisoners, which all seemed designed to cause dissension in the camp. Saw somewhere that I may even be a 'purple plotter' myself - except that I'm not a plotter, purple or otherwse. Janet Daley in the Telegraph takes the view that the Coalition will survive, (which it will) but become hated by everyone. Well I hope she's not right about that. Anyway, I've had enough of reading all this miserable c***, have dumped all the newspapers in the recycling bin, and decided to be positive about the New Year and look forward with relish to returning to Westminster.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Year End's Message.

I put out my Year End's Message yesterday. Here it is;

"2010 was a momentous year in my life. It was also a groundbreaking year, in both Montgomeryshire and British politics. Locally, decades of Liberal Democrat parliamentary representation came to an end when I was elected as Montgomeryshire's Member of Parliament. I will forever treasure the confidence that the people of Montgomeryshire showed in me, and will always try to put the interests of the constituency first.

At Westminster, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats came together to form the Coalition Government, the first since the Second World War. Both in my own life and at Westminster, a great adjustment has been necessary to meet new expectations. I've had to become used to spending every Monday to Thursday in London. The British people have had to become used to a Government willing to take the tough action needed to tackle the massive challenges involved in rebuilding sound public finances.

Representing Montgomeryshire in the House of Commons has been a wonderful experience. Only very few politicians are lucky enough to serve their home area in the British Parliament. It was also a great honour for me when the Prime Minister appointed me a PPS in the Wales Office, the first of the 2010 intake to be promoted. This is the first time that an MP representing Montgomeryshire has ever served as part of a ministerial team. I will do my utmost to carry out my extra responsibilities in a professional way.

It has been unusual for me to work alongside Liberal Democrat MPs, and look on them as colleagues. In Montgomeryshire, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have always been fierce political opponents. But the reality is that I have found it very easy to work with Welsh MPs and Cabinet members of both Coalition partners. We have forged good working relationships, putting party interests aside in favour of the national interest. The Coalition has been very successful, and in general, I sense is supported by Montgomeryshire people. Government over the next few years is going to be very difficult, and it's a strength to have two great parties working together.

There have been several 'highlights' in 2010. Playing my part in ensuring that David Cameron replaced Gordon Brown as our Prime Minister was one special experience. Also, ensuring that S4C moved forward with a sustainable budget was another 'highlight', even if I have been disappointed by aspects of how the Channel's board has performed. However in the words that Tip O'Neill made famous, "All politics is local", and the most satisfying event of the last year has been the agreement of the Assembly Government to build a kidney dialysis unit in Montgomeryshire, at Welshpool Hospital. I've been one of many who have been campaigning for this, over many years. I do not think it would have happened without the campaigning. The arrival of this new service at the beginning of 2011 will be a great 'local' start to an important year.

On 3rd March, there will be a referendum about granting more powers to the National Assembly. My official role will be to encourage as many as possible to go out and vote. On May 5th, there will be another referendum on changing the system by which we elect our MPs. And also on May 5th there will be an Assembly election (when I will be out and about in Montgomeryshire, supporting Conservative candidate, Russell George). Naturally, I hope that 2011 will be politically successful for my party, but much more than that, I hope it will be a successful and satisfying year for the people of Montgomeryshire.

Lloyd George - The Great Outsider.

If I had to choose one politician in British history who fascinates, it would be David Lloyd George. In many ways not an admirable man, but an extraordinarily devious, charismatic and influential man. Just read a review of Hattersley's biography by Paul Johnson in an old Spectator issue (one I'd marked to read sometime).

Let's consider his achievements, and think of them what you will. He laid the foundations of the Welfare State with old age pensions and national insurance. He provoked the row with the Lords which ended in their emasculation. In the Great War, he first solved the munitions shortage, then ousted his own party leader, Asquith and drummed the nation to victory. He solved the problem of Ireland by dividing it. He enlarged the British Empire and presided over it at its greatest extent. He smashed up the old Liberal Party of Gladstone and would have done the same for the Tories had not Baldwin bundled him out of office. He was a radical left-winger from North West Wales, whose first language was Welsh and who was Prime Minister and de facto leader of the Tory Party for 6 years. Few at the time , or since have doubted that Lloyd George won the war. Some respected historians reckon he was a greater war leader than Churchill. What a truly amazing man.

Unfortunately, any reference to Lloyd George must include his prodigious appetite for women. This was why his nickname 'The Goat' stuck - even though it was coined for another reason. His sexual compulsion was so great that in the twentieth century it would have been diagnosed as a psychotic condition - rather like Tiger Woods today perhaps. LG played a little golf, but his only recreation was women. Perhaps he came to mind tonight because I took in a few holes at Lakeside this afternoon.

When I stood beside his life size statue at the museum dedicated to his life at Llanystumwy, I was struck by how small and dapper a man he was in his prime. But not that small. His factotum, A J Sylvester is renowned to have said after seeing the great man naked "There he stood as naked as when he was born, the biggest organ that I've ever seen. It resembled a donkey's more than anything else...No wonder they are always after him and he after them." Perhaps Britain's greatest Prime Minister, and he would not have survived a week with today's media on his tail.