Friday, September 30, 2011

Charging for plastic bags.

Retailers in Wales will be obliged to charge customers 5p for single use plastic bags in many circumstances as from midnight tonight. Must admit that I'm rather in favour of this, though personally I feel it would have been more effective if they had been banned altogether. Don't suppose many agree with this view.

Wales has taken this decision before England, Scotland and N. Ireland (I think) - though I anticipate that these other home nations will travel down the same route in due course. Ireland introduced a charge for single use plastic bags 9 years ago and the average annual use by individuals is 26 rather than the 328 before the charge was introduced. As one might expect, the FSB and CBI are expressing concerns - which may well be justified. The main charge against the Welsh Government is that the introduction process has been poorly handled. Local retailers are telling me that they have no idea what's happening. Still, there are not likely to be any prosecutions over the first 3 months. There are bound to be a few teething problems, but that's inevitable with a radical change - which this is.

Returning to my personal opinion, I really cannot see why single use plastic bags are not banned altogether. Everyone would know where they were. Be a bit awkward for a week or two, but everyone would soon learn, and always remember a container of some sort when going out buying. Even if there's an emergency and a last minute shop is needed, supermarkets could sell multi-use plastic bags that would serve as long term shopping bags. Admittedly they would cost a bit, but this sort of emergency shouldn't happen often. So there we are. A provisional tick in the approve box for the Wales Government.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Agreeing with The Archbishop

Good article in today's Western Mail by the Most Rev. Barry Morgan, Archbishop of Wales about organ donation. He's got it spot on. I am at one with the Archbishop on this.

Let me outline the current legal position, and why I object to changing it. At present, if any individual wants their organs to be made available to others in need after a pronouncement of death, he or she carries a donor card which makes this clear. I carry such a card, have done for decades, as does the Archbishop. The Welsh Government want to change the law so that it will be deemed by the state that all wish to donate organs unless they specify that they do not - that they have to 'opt-out' rather than have to 'opt-in'. In passing I must note that this issue was used in the run-up to the 'powers referendum' last March in what I thought was a deeply immoral way. And there is uncertainty (in my mind if no-one else's) about whether the Welsh Government has the power to do this. Nevertheless we are told to expect a 'white paper' before Xmas.

The reason I have long carried a card in my wallet at all times is that I believe it would be a Christian and noble gesture to allow my organs to be used if they would be of help. I often suggest to others that they might do the same. After careful consideration I have accepted that the state should in some circumstances force individuals to consider this issue by decaring whether they wish to donate or not - driving licence, census etc. But I do not accept that the state should be allowed to make assumptions about the will of individual citizens in respect of their own body parts.

The Archbishop makes the point that 'presumed consent' means in effect that our body parts belong to the state, unless we specify otherwise. Neither he nor I believe this is 'right' in any moral sense. Even worse it means that the state will be able to take body parts from people who did not wish it to do so - simply because they had not got around to registering their objection, as currently many do not register their approval (unless it is assumed that everyone would wish to donate). Further, at present the state has an interest in encouraging people to think about this matter. Under 'presumed consent' the state's interest will be for there to be no publicity and no knowledge of the system. And I simple do not accept that the undoubted good intentions of those proposing the change of law will last even a generation. Its wise always to 'follow the money' - follow the interest. And for me its also that I know its wrong - like euthanasia, assisted suicide, casual abortion etc. Its just wrong - and the convenience of the state will never make it right.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Our Law Making Assembly

My parents bought me my first bicycle for doing well at school. I was not able to ride a bike at the time, and I contented myself with cleaning it and lavishing love and pride upon it. It was a long, long time until I stopped being afraid to ride it. You may ask why this random thought has flitted across my mind today. I think I know why. Its because of Sir Emyr Jones Parry and Sir George Reid.

In a recent most undiplomatic speech, Sir Emyr, the usually urbane ex-diplomat spoke most uncharacteristic about how Wales is governed. You could see written between the lines, in huge bold lettering, the words "WAS IT WORTH IT". He was reflecting on how the Assembly Government is using the law making powers that the voters of Wales decided should be granted to it last March. He asks whether the needs of Wales, which he sees as about skills, the economy and education "are going to be strengthened by an obligation to have cycle lanes in a joined up network across Wales". He also points out that when seeking suggestions from all four parties in the Assembly about how law making powers would be used as taking evidence for the report which carries his name, he says at the time of the referendum, "I asked all 4 parties (what they wanted to do with the new powers) and got half an answer from one". I've always regarded Sir Emyr as a wise and patient man. He must be very frustrated to offer an opinion so undiplomatic. As an aside, what bothers me is that one significant law that the current Assembly Government does want to pass (introducing presumed consent for organ donation) is in my opinion deeply flawed, and unlikely to reach the statute book.

And now we have Sir George Reid (Second Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament) questioning whether the current Assembly Members are up to the job of exercising law making powers. I'm not with him on this. Individuals who have been elected deserve a bit more respect than that. But his point should not be ignored. Being an AM is a changed job. Its no longer just being a good constituency AM. Sir George is suggesting that staff allowancs shouls only be available non-constituency work. Just as I've found it difficult to adjust to accepting that my main role must be as a legislator in the House of Commons, AMs will have to accept the same. These outside voices (of great wisdom) are only pointing out what they think the people of Wales deserve

Sunday, September 18, 2011

S4C issues for Welsh MPs to ponder.

Been involved in much discussion about S4C, the Welsh Language TV channel lately. Its going to carry on. This post reflects on some of the issues, and outlines some of my thinking - which seems not to be universally popular. The more I've had to confront the issues, the more comfortable I've been with my opinions. Just don't think my critics are realistic - and I don't live in the world of make believe.

A recurring question is whether broadcasting in Wales should be devolved to the National Assembly. Have to concede that personally, I have no real objection to this, but its not going to happen - any time soon anyway. A referendum of Welsh voters was held in March which delivered a new devolutionary settlement, and its not going to be revisited while the signatures are still not dry. The reality is that S4C is accountable to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport at Westminster - and that's how its going to stay. The long-term future is another matter.

A second issue is the level of funding for S4C. Roughly speaking, the budget has been reduced from around £120 million to around £100 million - totals derived from the BBC licence fee, the Treasury and BBC programming costs. This budget figure has steadily grown over the decades by guaranteed annual inflation-proofed increases(written in legislation). In my opinion, it is totally unsustainable that while the budgets of defence, policing, education, welfare, and every other part of the DCMS budget is being cut by large percentages, S4C alone should not be. The link in legislation which guaranteed annual increases has to be broken - which is why its included in the Public Bodies Bill.

A third issue of contention is 'accountability' - and here I share some of the concerns of my critics. Since most of S4C's future budget is to come from the BBC licence fee, I accept that the BBC must be involved in governance arrangements - but it must not be in a position of dominance. We have not yet seen the agreement between DCMS, S4C and BBC. But to listen to the critics, the idea of being 'accountable' at all is unacceptable. While public money is funding S4C, it must be accountable. It cannot be allowed to do just what it wants. No body receiving public money can be. The issue revolves around the right balance between 'accountability' and 'independence'. And there is still work to be done on this before concerns, including mine are met.

Another issue that has not received much public attention is the intention of DCMS to undertake a review of S4C over the next year or so. It seems that Jeremy Hunt intends to take his responsibilities seriously. Important that this establishes the role and objectives of S4C, beyond the reach of BBC. Its also interesting that funding for S4C (currently settled until 2015) will from 2015 to 2017 be decided on by the BBC. Its crucial that there are effective levers over the BBC to deliver budgets acceptable to the DCMS. I need to be reassured that the 'review' process for S4C and licence fee negotiations running up to charter renewal in 2017 are strong enough.

There remain uncertainties, and potential for disagreement and debate - which is why I anticipate an important role for Welsh MPs in ensuring a strong Welsh Language TV channel continues into the future.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The welsh Voice being heard.

I think non-Welsh members of the Public Bodies Bill Committee were beginning to look slightly bemused this afternoon. We Welsh MPs on the Committee took over as we considered the future funding and governance of S4C. Began with one of the Government side (Mark Williams) decided to vote with the opposition, and ended when a protester in the public seats began shouting when the vote was announced, and was carted off by officials to spend some time in the nearest thing we have to a cell. I hope she wasn't kept there long, because all she was guilty of was livening things up a bit.

Its a complex issue, and I'd spent a fair bit of time thinking it through and rationalising my position. Still have lots of concerns but in my opinion it would have been very damaging in the longer run to S4C if it had been removed from the Public Bodies Bill. How can it be sustainable that when the Police, the Armed Forces, education, social security etc. are all taking big funding hits that S4C should be exempt (and guarenteed an annual inflation increase). And I just do not accept that its sustainable that any public body receiving taxpayers money should not be accountable to MP (or AMs if broadcasting were to be devolved). Discussion on this issue is not over yet, and there will be ongoing discussion over the funding of S4C - which I happen to think is as it should be. There remain concerns though. The 'governance' deal between S4C and BBC and the Dep't of Culture, Media, and Sport has not been signed off yet. This is key to the 'independence' of S4C.

Have to admit that when I was asked to serve on the Public Bodies Bill Committee, I thought twice about it. Knew I'd be criticised because of my view that public bodies that spend public money should be accountable. I've always thought that, even when I was a 'Quango king' myself - a view reinforced when I watched the embarrassing chaotic goings-on at S4C over the last year or so. Decided I would because (rather arrogantly perhaps) I thought I could present the case as well as any other Coalition MP. Sure enough I'm getting some stick. Blog comments are calling me a 'bradwr' (Welsh for traitor) though only by anonymous persons - and told by some that they will never vote for me again (again anonymous). Painful and inevitable. This debate is going to run. If nothing else it forces Wales into the conscienceless of the UK Parliament.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

I don't do 'Wobbling'.

I was horrified tonight when it was suggested to me that I might be 'wobbling' about the way I intend to vote on an amendment to the Public Bodies Bill next Thursday morning. I've been considering carefully, but I do not do 'wobbling'. I'm still having serious trouble with my spine, but I've always prided myself on 'backbone'. I was offended to hear it suggested. If I ever decide to vote against my Government, the first to know will be the whips and the relevant ministers.

At issue is whether S4C should remain a part of Schedule 3 of the Public Bodies Bill. To some of you this will be double dutch - but what it amounts to is whether the UK Government (while S4C remains non devolved) should have any overall influence over the governance arrangements of the Welsh Language TV channel, S4C. Since I do believe that as far as possible, S4C should be operationally and editorially 'independent', I have had to think carefully about this issue - particularly since one of the Government MPs on the Committee examining the Bill has made clear that he is voting with the opposition. This means that the Government majority is reduced from 3 to just 1 - and because its known that the Welsh Language is hugely important to me, I have become something of a campaigner's target. In general, I believe in politicians being accountable, and in the end, I really cannot accept that even S4C should be totally without democratic accountability. I also think (and this is a touch provocative perhaps) that some of the poor governance we've seen over the last few years has been because there was so little external 'governance'.

I have received a huge amount of correspondence over this issue. Its been a good well organised campaign. Forced me to think through my position on it very thoroughly. But having decided where I stand on the issue, I'm feeling relaxed and certain in my stance - which is not to say that I will not be asking Ministers for some firm assurances on Thursday morning. Quite looking forwards to standing up without a 'wobble' in sight.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Lib Dem 'Huffing and Puffing'.

There seems to be a lot of threatening noises coming from my Liberal Democrat colleagues at the moment. We're told that Vince Cable may resign unless some sort of Glass-Seagall regulating arrangemnet put in place following the Vickers Report on banking reform to be published tomorrow. And then we hear that Chris Huhne might resign if the 50% income tax rate is abolished. This is not good for team spirit. Perhaps it will all calm down again after the party conferences are over.

I'm no economist and take an entirely pragmatic approach to these issues. Like most people, I've been nauseated by the greed and selfishness of our leading bankers, but would not want to introduce changes which damaged the UK just to spite them. I sense that there should be a division between 'normal' banking activity and the more risky 'investment' banking - but also worry that the UK will lose business if we introduce these changes without international agreement. No point in cutting off our noses for a favourable headline.

And the 50% tax rate is the same. If it transpires that it raises very little for the Treasury, and damages our economy, I'd want to scrap it. But if it does raise a decent slug of tax, it should not be scrapped until we can afford it and at the same time as a tax cut for the less well off. Its difficult to hold a rational discussion with any of my friends about bankers and the 50% tax rate - but I suspect that there are not that many investment bankers or 50% taxpayers in Montgomeryshire.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Next round of battle over onshore wind on Monday.

Its odd to read about what I've always thought of as 'conservative' institutions (Telegraph, National Trust, CPRE and CPRW etc.) laying into the Coalition Government over its policy towards rural England (and to some extent rural Wales). In fact it seems more to be laying into the Conservative Party. There are two bones of contention, one of which I gnaw with relish, and one of which I need to know more about. The first is the horror of onshore wind farms and associated infrastructure, and the second is the proposed planning reforms.

There is a meeting in the Commons on Monday, between 2.30 and 4.00 for a discussion amongst concerned parliamentarians. The Telegraph reckons there will be over 80 of us. Lets see. I'll tell you how many on Mon. night. I'm a bit concerned that the meeting is being trailed as 'a first shot across the Government's bows'. I fired my first shot years ago, and several more shots since. Its the people of rural Britain that has been firing the shots, and its only now that parliamentarians are catching up.

I'm not so sure about the planning reforms - though I've commented on this blog about the intemperate language that seems to have infected this important and needed debate. My views remain unsettled, and are influenced by past experiences - Chair of a planning authority for 7 years, Chair of a development agency for 5 years, president of CPRW for 3 years prior to being elected, and a critic of the slowness of deciding planning applications where I live all my life. In particular, I don't understand the outrage about 'a presumption in favour of sustainable development'. I thought that was the current position. Certainly was throughout my 7 years, leading a planning authority. The underlying principle should be that a planning application should be approved - unless there is a proper planning reason to refuse it.

Anyway roll on Monday. I hope the war against the horrid onshore wind sector gathers strength over the next few months.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Scottish Conservatives no more?

Lot of publicity for the suggestion by Murdo Fraser that the Scottish Conservative Party should be 'disbanded' and replaced by a new centre/right party in Scotland. This suggestion must be taken seriously because Murdo is in with a good chance of becoming the leader of the Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament. The idea (and attendant publicity) is great for Murdo, whom I know, and who has always been a great enthusiast for developing a distinctive 'Scottish' Conservative presence North of the border, in the same way Nick Bourne did in Wales during his period as leader. In passing, I should opine that I believe Andrew Davies will follow the same furrow as Nick. Murdo's suggestion is also good in that it will lead to debate amongst Scots about the Conservative Party, which hasn't happened in any positive way for a while.

I do remember there being some discussion about a change of name for the Conservative Party in Wales amongst Assembly Members a few years ago. I think it was my colleague, David Melding, who is now Deputy Presiding Officer who made the suggestion. I never knew how serious David was about the idea, but he certainly wanted us to consider ways of connecting better with the Welsh electorate. The name change was never taken seriously as I recall - but a change of image and attitude was. Even though I was not in favour of setting up the National Assembly, I've always felt that the referendum result of 1997 was a moment of great change for Welsh governance. Since the result was announced on that fateful Sept 19th morning, I've been supportive of a distinctive 'Conservative' part in Wales committed to a successful Assembly, growing in power and stature - but remaining part of the United Kingdom. It underpinned my politics during my 8 years as an AM, and it has not changed since I became an MP. But in the end, a change of name is not enough. What really matters are positive attitudes and policies towards Scotland and Wales.

Saturday, September 03, 2011


Trudy Baynes Hill had become a good friend over the last few years. She died on Thursday morning. Don't know how old she was, but a lot younger than I am. Trudy was a special person, who overcame huge setbacks to her health, and carried on with a incredible mixture of determination and cheerfulness. I first knew her when we were both working for the Development Board for Rural Wales in the late 80s, but got to know her well through working together campaigning for a renal dialysis unit in Montgomeryshire (Welshpool Hospital). When we established the Powys Branch of Kidney Foundation Wales, Trudy became chair and I became secretary.

Trudy suffered much ill health. She was one of the early heart and lung transplants carried out at Papworth Hospital. She also suffered from breast cancer, and renal failure meant that she was a three times a week' dialyser. I recall her telling how she once 'died' for several minutes, and had several ribs broken as she was resuscitated. Despite all of this, she was always chatty and cheerful, no matter how ill she must have felt.

Sympathies go to her family, who I'm sure will be feeling a great sense of loss. I too will miss the morning coffees we had at the Exchange in Newtown (where she worked part-time as much as she could) and the Old Station in Welshpool (on her way through to Shrewsbury for dialysis). We used to discuss 'renal' matters, and put the world to rights (Trudy was not short of opinions). Montgomeryshire has lost an inspirational woman, and those who knew her have lost a good friend.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Lembit loses out on Mayoral bid.

Inevitably, the activities of my predecessor as Montgomeryshire MP, are reported to me by friends. Today was another big day for him in that the result of the contest to be the Lib Dem candidate for Mayor of London was being announced. I could see it didn't look good when Lembit was quoted this morning as saying "I have been in politics long enough to be able to read writing when its on the wall". And tonight the anticipated bad news was confirmed. The Lib Dems have chosen Brian Paddick to take on Boris and Ken Livingstone - with that household name, Mike Tuffrey in second place.

Must admit I would quite like Lembit to have won the nomination. I always got along quite well with him, and he would certainly have put Montgomeryshire on the map. Even tonight's BBC announcement of the result is all about Lembit, with Brian Paddick's victory a mere afterthought. It was a bit like that when I won Montgomeryshire at the last General Election. It was a very big deal for me, and a stunning win for my local Conservative activists, but the media coverage was mostly about Lembit losing! I fully expect Boris to win next May, but I would have preferred Lembit to Livingstone!

But even by Lembit's standards, his comments in response to defeat were a bit breath-taking. He compared his predicament as akin to that of Nelson Mandela (seriously I think) - in that both of them have been forced to spend time in 'the wilderness'. Must admit that comment did made me laugh. I hear his next aim is to become the Lib Dem candidate to be Police Commissioner for Dyfed Powys. I wonder how that will go.