Saturday, October 29, 2011

Leftover impact of EU Referendum Debate

Its being claimed by some that the 81 Conservatives who voted for the motion to hold a three way preferendum on the UKs relationship with the EU have succeeded in changing Government policy - and that a more Euro sceptic Government will result. This is an ruse to justify last Monday's bungled attempt to pressurise the Government into an In/Out referendum. What a lot more than 81 Conservatives agree about is that we want priority on changing Government's approach to the EU. I voted against the motion because it was so badly drafted that it divided Euro sceptic opinion, and prevented the House of Commons approving a motion demanding the return of powers to the UK Parliament. I much approved of the holding of a debate, the very holding of which did make a difference. But it should not have included a commitment to a withdrawal option. This ensured that party managers could not, and very properly did not, allow a 'free vote'. Withdrawal from the EU is not the policy of any mainstream party. I decided to vote against immediately I saw the motion, and would have voted against if it had been a 'free vote'. Its not the 81 Conservatives that 'rebelled', but them and the rest of us together who have made it clear we need to see a genuine drive to repatriate powers from the EU back to British parliaments.

But Monday's debate has done less harm than I thought it would. Despite the motion being overwhelmingly defeated, its clear to Government that a majority on MPs want a change of approach to our relationship with the EU. Next time there's a motion on the issue, the wording will be thought through more carefully, and we will probably end up with a majority calling for a cultural shift in the relationship. We want the EU to stop taking responsibility for matters that do not need to be taken at a European level,

Of course, the matter could be taken out of the hands of the current Government by the financial crisis that still faces the Eurozone. There may well be a proposal of significance in how the EU is governed which inevitably triggers a referendum in the UK. And if its on any question which does not involve actual withdrawal, I believe the voters will vote No. Whatever, I certainly do not think that we have seen the last of parliamentary debate involving the EU in this Parliament.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Fantastic S4C/BBC deal announced.

So frustrated not to be able to speak in today's chamber discussions on the Public Bodies Bill. I wanted to speak about S4C. I wanted to welcome today's announcement that a deal had been struck between the BBC, S4C and DCMS which answered the concerns which I have had since it was announced that the statutory funding link by which S4C had been previously funded was to be broken, and most of future funds were to come from the BBC licence fee. I had asked for assurances from the Minister during the Committee stage of the Bill - which have been delivered in spades. Here's the highlights.

1) - The current level of S4C funding (around £100 million if programme production is counted) is to continue until the end of the current BBC Charter period in 2017. Not possible to be longer.

2) - Only the BBC's National Trustee for Wales, currently Elan Clos Stephens, is to serve on the S4C Authority. She has been instrumental in delivering this better deal than any of us could have reasonably expected. Wonderful woman.

3) - No BBC representatives are to be included in the Management Board of S4C - giving S4C a level of independence that I had hoped for, but not expected.

4) - The Wales Government is given an involvement in the appointment of members of the S4C Authority, which I had not expected, and which I welcome.

5) - The deal has been welcomed by the Chairs of S4C and the BBC.

I hope we can put the huge problems of the S4C Authority over recent years behind us, and move forward to a successful future for the channel which has done so much since it was set up in 1981.

For months I've defended the Government position over this issue, and taken some serious stick. Comes the day for knocking this stick back, and lavishing praise on those those who have delivered this fantastic result, the chance evaporated as long speeches and interventions squeezed it out. Is it any wonder I was frustrated.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The In/Out EU Referendum.

When stomping around the rugby fields of the North and Midlands, I developed a reputation for diving in front of the feet of a forwards rush to secure the ball. Led to my nickname, the 'Mad Welshman'. Could easily have stood back from the flailing boots, but couldn't resist the point of dangerous conflict. Which is why I'm keen to get involved in Monday's debate in the House of Commons about our relationship with the EU.taking a clear position on the motion before the House of Commons on Monday to put the option of the UK withdrawing from the EU to a referendum of the British people. Much the safest bet would be stand off and not be noticed, but I'm going in and making my position absolutely clear - and I'm hoping to be called to speak in the debate.

I have been a Euro-sceptic ever since Ted Heath took us in to the EEC in 1974. Became involved in the No campaign in the Wilson referendum in 1975 - first venture into public debate. I was also in favour of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, and much frustrated when Gordon Brown signed that opportunity away in early 2010. Also believe there will be a referendum at some stage - perhaps as a consequence of the problems in the Euro-zone. But not now - absolutely not now.

Its right to have the debate. I would have expected it to reflect MP's concerns about the excessive interference in matters that should be for a British Government. Such a debate would have been useful. But we have to vote on a motion which offers the people an option to withdraw from the EU altogether, which I do not believe the Coalition Gov't would or should consider at present. The debate will now be about the wisdom of this proposal to hold an In/Out referendum, which will not come to pass. Opening discussions with the EU about withdrawal would be the most enormous distraction from the Government's work to reduce the deficit, and retain international credibility in financial markets, and cause even more problems within the Euro-zone, any collapse of which would have a massive impact on the UK. Holding an In/Out referendum is far more dangerous than diving into the feet of rushing rugby forwards.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Silk Commission is Important for Wales.

Have been very surprised by the 'unenthusiastic' welcome for the 'Silk Commission' by some. That's the commission set up by the Secretary of State for Wales, with cross party support, to consider 1) How financial accountability can be vested in the Welsh Assembly, and 2) to consider the range of devolved powers. Matt Withers takes a very dismissive approach in today's Wales on Sunday. Wonder whether this reflects the editorial view of the Western Mail. Matt seems to treat it as just another commission to follow the Richard Commission, the Holtham Commission (and you can throw in the Jones-Parry Commission) - none of which achieved very much. Personally I never thought these commissions would deliver much, mainly because they were rooted into places where the power to deliver did not lie. Richard was set up by Rhodri Morgan, while Holtham and Jones-Parry by a Plaid/Labour Assembly Government. The commissioners of these reports did not have the power to implement their recommendations.

The Silk Commission is completely different. It has been set up by the Westminster Coalition Government, with the support of the main political parties in Wales. It is due to report to the Secretary of State for Wales on 'financial accountability' in 2012, and on the constitutional settlement by 2013 - all in time for action before the next General Election in 2015. Again personally, I think this is a far more significant commission than any of the others, because of its direct link to the ability to implement. This time it's not an exercise in constitutional theory - not if I can have anything to do with it anyway

Of course, there is always a chance that one of the parties could walk out - perhaps more so because it's for real. It would be a great shame if this were to be the case. Again personally, I would support driving on whatever. We established a National Assembly for Wales in 1999, against the wishes of almost half of those who voted in a referendum. I oppose it as not worthwhile because it was 'neither fish nor fowl'. It should be transformed into a grown-up law making body which is financially accountable to the people. There will be some who do not want this change - but its what the Silk Commission has been established to deliver. Its very comfortable just spending public money without any responsibility for raising it, and just complaining incessantly that there is not enough. Problem is that when the media do not take it seriously, the people do not become engaged. Selling job needed.

Friday, October 14, 2011

New Pylons - ok but won't stop Mid-Wales uprising.

I think the new pylons design that has won the RIBA competition is an improvement. Its been designed by Bystrop, a Danish company and takes the form of a T. The T-Pylon was judged the winner against criteria which included design, functionality and technical viability. The prise is £5000.

But it will make no difference to the uprising of local opinion against the Mid Wales Connection, which plans to build a 4OOKv cable on 150' high pylons from Mid Shropshire to mid-Wales, together with a 20 acre substation and 600 more wind turbines. The scheme is an abomination, and the people of mid-Wales are determined to stop it. A UK Government would have to simply disregard an entire region for it to happen, forcing through the desecration of mid Wales against the will of the resident population.

And the BBC are at it again - just churning out National Grid propaganda, without checking the truth. The online report of T-Pylon's win includes a line about undergrounding costing 10 times as much as overhead cables. We know, because National Grid gave us the actual costings fot the Mid Wales Connection, that the figure is 3 times. But then why let the facts get in the way of a good story which backs up your already prejudiced opinion. Perhaps the only way to stop it is for the licence fee to be reduced every time a deliberate untruth is reported.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The 'Silk' Commission.

Biggest event of the week for me was on Tuesday when it was announced that Paul Silk is to chair the commission that takes forward the Calman-like process in Wales. Bit disappointed that I didn't have any invites to do interviews on the issue on Tuesday, especially in Welsh, but there you go. You win some and you lose some. Put a lot of effort into preparation - actually not that much because the devolution process is a bit of an obsession.

Paul Silk is a good man, with great experience of the Welsh Assembly and the UK Parliament. Luckily I know him quite well - and almost all of the other Commission members as well. Seen some silly comments from commentators who really should know better - trying to 'leak' things early, and appear informed without getting their facts right. Lets summarise what the Commission has been set up to do, briefly,

First task will be to consider how the Welsh Assembly could become 'financially accountable'. At present its just a spending body, with no responsibility for raising any of its own money. Seems to me that we must be talking some form of tax raising powers - which would involve part of what is currently a UK tax product becoming the responsibility of the Assembly. Again, seems to me that there would be commensurate reduction in the 'block grant' to balance it. Its not a way of just increasing the Assembly's budget - as some would perhaps like. It may be that changes to the formula which decides the size of the block grant will also be considered, but not by the Silk Commission. Every effort will be made to report on this part of its work by next year.

Once this 'first stage' work has been completed, the Commission will move on to consideration of Assembly powers. The people of Wales decided on the current powers in a referendum in March, but devolution is a process, and it seems right to me that there should be an independent assessment of how its going by 2013 - which is the Silk Commission's target date.

There is quite a bit of other constitutional stuff going on as well - outside the Commission. There's the discussion on the Barnett Formula. There will need to be some discussion on Assembly constituencies and method of election, following changes for Westminster elections.. There is talk of doing something about the West Lothian Question as well. Its a damn good job I'm interested in these constitutional issues. Life as a Welsh MP would be quite dull if I wasn't.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The Checkers in Montgomery - Michelin Star.

Mrs D and I like eating at good restaurants. Over the years we've been around most of the noted ones in and near to Wales. So its a real bonus that we have a new Michelin star retaurant just 3 miles from our home - the Checkers in Montgomery. Its only been open a few months, and is the only Welsh addition to the Michelin Guide for 2012 - and there are but 4 Welsh restaurants so honoured.

Until less than two years ago the Checkers was a good place for a pint and a sandwich, That was about it. But when Eric Whittingham died it closed and 'The Frenchman and the Farmer's Daughters' who had been running the excellent Herbert Arms in nearby Chirbury (in England though) bought it, revamped it, and opened it as top quality restaurant. Have been there three times and it really is top class. Not sure what Eric would think of it though.

The other three Michelin star restaurants in Wales are the Walnut Tree near Abergavenny, Tyddyn Llan near Denbigh and the Crown at Whitebrook in Monmouthshire. Over the years we have eaten at all of them, and they are good. I reckon the Checkers is as good as any of them. The chef (the Frenchman) at the Checkers is Stephane Borie, who learned his trade with Michel Roux at the Wateside Inn at Bray. We ate and stayed there a few weeks ago, but could only have afforded it because our issue ganged up to pay, as a birthday present for Mrs D. My part was paying for the room! The waterside really is seriously expensive. Anyway Stephane moved to Les Manoir Aux Quat Saisons, which we have never felt able to afford. Then it was the Herbert Arms - and now its the Checkers. Our good fortune in mid Wales.

Having a Michelin star restaurant in Montgomery is wonderful news for the town, and for Montgomeryshire. The area will now be featuring in promotional literature across the world. Mrs D and I have always been into good restaurants, and appreciate the value they add. Of course, we will have no chance of booking supper at the last minute now - and I'd be surprised if the price didn't sneak up over time - but you can't have everything. Congratulations to the Checkers.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Goodbye Dragon's Eye

Must admit I felt a bit sad appearing on Dragon's Eye tonight. The BBC had just announced that the 'Eye' is to be closed for good. Bit like a few years ago when my vet announced there was nothing to be done with my much loved Charolais bull after some illness befell him but to 'put him out of his misery'. Never managed to find another one as handsome.

Unsatisfactory discussion though - but pretty much what I expected. No criticism intended, but the attempt to link two important issues did not work (in my opinion). The first issue was the Welsh Government's recently announced draft 'spending plans' (I prefer not to refer to it as the draft budget). Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this is what happens to the £40 million 'windfall' that arrives in Cardiff Bay as a result of the Chancellors announcement that Council Tax is to be frozen for the second year running in England. Carwyn Jones made very clear that its not going to ease the pain for Council Tax payers in Wales. I wasn't interested in contributing to this issue (though I do have an opinion). I was carrying the burden of PPS on my shoulders - its a matter for the Welsh Government.

I was interested in the second issue the programme sought to cover - constitutional changes that are on the horizon in Wales. And dramatic changes they are. Truth is we didn't get even the smallest grip on this. It justifies a programme on its own. To summarise, we are expecting the Secretary of State for Wales to announce to the House of Commons soon after MPs return on Monday, who will be taking forward the 'Calman-like process'. This involves a Commission to consider how to grant 'fiscal accountability' to the Welsh Assembly (by 2012) and a new constitutional settlement for the Assembly (by 2013). This is hugely important and complex transformational stuff. It doesn't lend itself to partisan knockabout. Its serious.

Reason I drove 230 miles to do it was that I want to one of the go-to MPs when the announcements are made. I know I'm in danger of being dismissed as a 'geek' but I'm interested. Two general points I picked up tonight. Firstly, Betsan and Felicity have been genuinely taken aback by the Conservative Party's commitment to make the Welsh Assembly into a meaningful governing body. And secondly, it seems that Welsh Labour's idea of 'financial accountability' it simply to grant the right to levy additional taxes in Wales - not a 'constitutional' issue at all. Just a way of increasing the Welsh Government's budget - without accountability. Well, we'll see what the Commission has to say about that. Anyway, it was much nicer to be there tonight than it was to watch my dear old bull being shot.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Coming of age of Cabinet Government in Powys.

Really interesting session in the Council Chamber of Powys County Council today. Question under debate was who takes the decisions about reorganisation of secondary education in Powys, which includes the six secondary schools in Montgomeryshire, and the Newtown base of Coleg Powys. The proposition was that this decision was of such importance that it should be taken by all of the councillors, rather than just the Cabinet. It was proposed by the Conservatives, and supported by others, principally the Montgomeryshire Independents and Labour - plus a few others. The proposal lost 31-28. Several councillors did not attend - there being 73 of them.

From my constituency's perspective this is very interesting - in that the great majority of Montgomeryshire-based councillors voted for the proposal, while the great majority of Brecon and Radnorshire based councillors (with honourable exceptions) voted against - a real split in the county. This is going to cause much resentment if there is a public backlash against the decisions, (expected in November) which will now be taken by just the Cabinet members. I anticipate that the names of those who voted which way will be well featured in the media. Already I have heard two people tell me that they are so angry about what has happened that they are going to stand against cllrs who voted with the Cabinet in elections next May. It will be particularly difficult for cllrs with threatened schools in or adjacent to their wards who effectively voted to extinguish their right to involvement in the decision-making process.

Today's debate will have brought home to many cllrs what a Cabinet system means. They are realising that the power to decide now lies with the few who make up the Cabinet, and that the role of those who are not signed up to the 'administration' is to 'oppose' and 'scrutinise'. Since the Cabinet system was forced through by the Liberal Democrats and Powys Independents last year, I've not thought the 'opposition' to be remotely aggressive enough. Its only opposition councillors who are in a position to challenge the Cabinet, and if that's ineffective, we would have a dictatorship. Today was an important day - the coming of age of Cabinet government in Powys. Some will not like what they voted for last year.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Cheryl Gillan speaks to Conference

Welsh Secretary of State, Cheryl Gillan spoke at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester today. Good speech. Even made a reference to her "popular PPS". Popular with some I thought. Anyway I think its appropriate to share the messages.

Opening line was important - a commitment to the union and our work in Wales, Scotland and N Ireland.

Rightly, since it was her annual speech to what are often referred to as the party faithful, she outlined some of the Coalition Government's commitments to Wales since last year - £1 billion investment in rail electrification, £60 million in superfast broadband, 52,000 lower-paid out of income tax altogether already, and lower Corporation Tax as part of a package of help for business. She also spoke of her delivery of a referendum on law making powers last March, something for which I believe Cheryl deserves the highest praise. I just do not think that Peter Hain would have delivered it - or even wanted to deliver it.

Inevitably there was a bit of mild opposition-baiting - but very limited. Essentially she was telling Labour in Wales that now they have the powers, they should get on with it, not drag their feet, blaming others, complaining about what they have not got.

There was quite a bit about the Welsh economy, which is not in great shape. The Welsh Government are too timid in this area, upon which so much else depends. We would like to see a more dynamic approach to Enterprise Zones. A focus on job creation must underpin all we do, both as MPs and AMs.

The Sec. of State said she will soon be announcing a commission to look at how the Welsh Government gets its money, and how to make Welsh ministers more accountable for the money they spend - an end to power without accountability. This was perhaps the most significant part of her speech. Again, there is no way Labour would deliver on anything like this.

Another important line (in my opinion) was "We will make every effort to work with Ministers in Cardiff to achieve what is best for Wales". Her PPS takes exactly the same view, and thinks this a good line to finish on.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Tax cuts ?

Andrew Tyrie is a well respected Conservative MP. He is also Chair of the Treasury Select Committee. From what I have heard him say in the past I was not surprised by some of the comments attributed to him in today's media. Seems he thinks there should be tax cuts for business to promote growth - and reductions in international aid (despite the manifesto promises) - and less spending on promoting voluntary involvement in society (despite manifesto commitments) - and questions our recent involvement in Libya (or at least the cost of it). Now, I'm sure there are other Conservative MPs who share some of these opinions. Most will have some sympathy with the desire to see lower taxes as part of a growth package. But there are a couple of problems with all this.

Firstly its the timing of Andrew's intervention - on the eve of our conference. At the very least it looks unhelpful to his own team, as they kick off in their most important game of the season. And secondly there's the issue of the deficit. We would all like to see tax cuts, but they have to be paid for. And our absolute priority is to maintain international financial market credibility in the Chancellor's deficit reduction strategy. Coincidentally, the Chancellor has written a powerful article for today's Telegraph emphasising leadership and sticking to his much respected strategy. There could well be a few discussions about this intervention at Manchester next week.

More on S4C - unfortunately

Would be great if there were to be no reason to comment on what's happening at S4C - but its not to be. But the future of the channel is an important issue for me, and a constant source of concern. Don't want to be unkind but the management of S4C over the last couple of years has been chaotic. Any private business which performed in the same way would probably have gone under. I had hoped we were turning the corner with a new Chair, a newly appointed Chief Executive, and a comprehensive review of S4C by the responsible department over the next year or two.

But No. we read in today's Western Mail that Ian Jones has still not been confirmed in the job as Chief Exec. What the hell is going on. It seems that there are discussions about the terms on which he can leave his current employment. Well excuse me, but even a football club usually sorts this sort on thing out before a decision is taken. We have to face up to the possibility that Ian Jones will not be able to take the job. Its not so much that there are not other candidates, as that we have an ongoing impression of chaos.

In passing, I see that in the same article, Cymdeithas yr Iaith have taken some encouragement from my BLOG comment (a personal opinion) that I would like to see a return to a statutory link between inflation and funding sometime in the future - perhaps when prospects for the UK economy are more stable. I'm pleased that they are encouraged. In general, I rather approve of their activities. But the comment made by the Chair of Cymdeithas as a response is plain daft. She reckons that "Welsh Language broadcasting is on its last legs and even the Tories now recognise that if nothing changes, our unique national language will suffer". Welsh Language broadcasting is not on its last legs. And the Welsh Language is going strong, as a consequence of Conservative-inspired legislation - principally the 1993 Education Act. I also note her almost contemptuous reference to 'Tories'. Does she not realise that all the changes that have reversed the fortunes of the language have been by Conservative Governments. And even in respect of the Public Bodies Bill, which has generated such angst, the Minister responding on S4C issues is a Liberal Democrat - and a very good one, David Heath. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Anyway, lets hope the S4C management can sort out the latest chaos as soon as.