Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Varied Job of a Politician.

Yesterday's Telegraph reported on the death of Mrs Margaret Herbert of Folkestone in Kent - or more precisely the burial of Mrs Herbert. She had loved her garden so much that her daughter has decided that her mother should be buried in it - nearer to the neighbours than they want. There is no law against being buried in your garden. I've expressed that wish myself, but Mrs D is not having it - and I'll not be in a position to argue, assuming I die first.

At least Mrs Herbert did own the garden concerned. Reason this story caught my eye is that I was once approached by a constituent, who had been involved in a dispute about ownership of part of a garden. The dispute had continued throughout their lives, and led to the neighbours and their families speaking only through solicitors for 30 years. Anyway when one of the protagonists died, his family buried him in the disputed plot - just 3 ft from the neighbour's sitting room window. The neighbour approached me, hoping I'd be able to do something about it. The local authority concerned would not become involved and I didn't fancy resorting to a spade myself - so I ended up not being able to do anything. As far as I know the body is still buried there. I should add that this was when I was representing Mid and West Wales as an Assembly Member. Being a politician is a varied job.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The West Lothian Question

The Government is to consider the 'West Lothian Question', or the English Question'. In the 19th century it was probably referred to as the 'Dublin Question'. It refers to MPs representing Welsh constituencies (or Scottish or N Irish constituencies) voting on legislation which applies to English constituencies, while they (together with 'English' MPs) may not vote on the same issue as it applies in Wales. A current example which demonstrates relevance today - I can vote on any legislation relating to organ donation in England, but will not have any say on the same issue in my own constituency. This is a constitutional anomaly. This blog post asks whether any constitutional change can be introduced which reduces the degree of anomaly. At present, I'm not convinced that it can.

The answers to the West Lothian Question, are many and varied, but fall under three general headings ;

1) A federal UK, involving an English Parliament;
2) Two categories of MP ensuring only English MPs are able to vote for English laws:
3) Fewer MPs in parts of the UK with devolved Parliaments, reflecting the lesser responsibilities.

Lets consider these options in turn.

1) Federal UK. There is a certain logic to this. There is much support for an English Parliament - in England. But it would not be like any other federal state that has ever been successful. 84% of the population would live in one of the four 'federal partners'. Inevitable England would so dominate that it would soon cease to be federal in any meaningful sense. And there has been no work done on the balance of power between the UK and English Parliaments, or how they would relate to each other. Constitutional lawyers tell me that such a one-sided federalism has never succeeded anywhere in the world in history.

2) English votes for English laws. To many, including me, this seems the best answer if change there must be. The problem is the complexity, and near-impossibility of deciding what policy areas Welsh MPs should be barred from voting on. For example, English health policy matters impact hugely on my constituency, because the DGHs that serve Montgomeryshire are in Shropshire. And increased specialist care means that perhaps only one or two hospitals in the UK will be able to provide certain treatments. The same cross-border difficulties would apply in every policy area. At least unemployment would fall as civil servants were recruited to manage the system!

3) Fewer MPs representing devolved nations. Much the easiest answer to deliver - but not favoured by me. The voice of Wales should not be lessened when dealing with those issues that remain with the UK Parliament - for example, the decision to go to war. Traditionally, the Welsh 'voice' at Westminster has been more reluctant to intervene militarily on the international plane. The same principle would apply across all policy areas. This is just not acceptable.

So where are we by now. The West Lothian Question is a constitutional anomaly - to which the only obvious answers are the creation of other constitutional anomalies. Its a case of which is the least bad option - not much of a basis for such a major constitutional change. Seems to me that we should think long and hard about whether the West Lothian Question should be asked.

Monday, November 14, 2011

My Organ Donation Article in 'The Times'

The proposals by the Welsh Government to change the system of organ donation in Wales is interesting from a 'policy', an ethical, and a 'constitutional' perspective. During the discussions so far, I have steered clear of all except the policy issues, and whether a change to 'presumed consent' would be effective. Tomorrow I'm meeting a constitutional lawyer so that I can understand properly the dangers of legal challenge to the Welsh Government proposals. The debate about opt-out will inevitably feature on this blog from time to time over the next two years. In the meantime, I'll share with you the article I wrote for the Times last Friday. It's 500 words long.

This week the Welsh Government launched a consultation paper on proposals for legislation on organ donation. The effect of the legislation, if passed, would be to change fundamentally the system of organ donation in Wales. Rather than an opt-in system, Wales would have an opt-out system. An absence of objection would be taken as considered approval, an assumption that seems ethically improper to many of us. There seems to be compelling evidence that more organs would become available for transplant before moving forward with such a drastic step.

There is a desperate need for more organs to be donated. However, there is no firm evidence that a change to presumed consent would make any difference- and some evidence that it may do harm. There are several organisations that support the Welsh Government's proposals, which is surprising because of the weakness of supporting evidence.

During the past decade I have taken an interest in this issue, knowing of people needing transplants and through campaigning for renal dialysis provision. Throughout that period, supporters of presumed consent have championed Spain as an exemplar.

It is true that organ donation has improved significantly in Spain over the past 30 years, but closer examination tells a different story. Presumed consent legislation was enacted in 1979, on the assumption that it would increase organ donation. However, in 1980 a royal decree stated that objection could be stated in any way, without formal procedures. In practice, Spanish law is only theoretical presumed consent. There is no opt-out register. A donor's wishes are established by discussion with next of kin.

The level of organ donation in Spain did not change for ten years until, in 1989, the Government made several key policy changes that led to a gradual increase to the outstandingly good performance of today. Nothing to do with presumed consent. Now the favoured exemplar has changed to Belgium.

During the final year of the past Labour Government, Gordon Brown began advocating presumed consent, and he established an organ donation task force. I can do no better than quote from its conclusions: "The more the task force examined the evidence, the less obvious the benefit, and more multifaceted and multidimensional the issue of donor numbers was revealed to be.

"The task force reached a clear consensus in their recommendations that an opt-out system should not be introduced." A similar conclusion was arrived at by a cross-party Welsh Assembly committee.

There is a desperate need to increase the availability of organ donors. We need to learn from international experience where great success has been achieved, such as the United States and Spain. People are suffering and people are dying. The UK needs a comprehensive transplant coordination strategy. It does not need an ill-though-through change in the law that appears superficially attractive but remains unproven.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Bale, Ramsey, and Team GB.

Two of Welsh Football's big-wigs live in Welshpool. So it was inevitable that the names, Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey came up in our conversation after the Remembrance Service today. Phil Pritchard is the current Chairman of the FAW, and Tegwyn Evans has been involved for several decades. First thing to be said is that Gareth and Aaron are two of the most gifted young players in the world, and would walk into any team representing GB. And next year may be the only chance they ever have of playing at an Olympic Games. I agree with Wales manager, Gary Speed that its a matter for the two footballers whether they play for Team GB next summer. Phil and tegwyn are not convinced.

There's a real issue behind the row that's broken out after Gareth and Aaron appeared in our press wearing Team GB shirts - even though it was as part of their sponsorship agreement with Adidas. Its about the future participation of Wales in international tournaments. Some very large countries (Germany, France, Spain, Italy etc) compete as one country, and several FIFA members see no reason why GB should, in effect, enter 4 teams. Phil and Tegwyn tell me that there is pressure to change the position - and they fear that allowing one Team GB to compete in the Olympics will set a dangerous precedent. It seems that there is unlikely to be a problem while Sepp Blatter remains in post - but perhaps afterwards.

No time at all for the mindless so-called Wales fans who barracked the two Welsh stars after yesterdays fabulous 4-1 victory over Norway. They might have thought it clever to take the headlines away from the game and from the victory. All they will achieve is to drive away the two key players who delivered the win. Is it a typical Welsh thing to be happier losing gallantly, rather than winning gloriously - and attracting the best Welsh players to turn out for the national team. Ask yourself how often Giggs has played for Wales over his amazing career.

But there is an issue - and its no good just ignoring it. Its too late for the 2012 Olympics, but we should launch a campaign to have Wales included in future Olympics. Its an issue I will raise in Parliament. It will be the subject of my entry into the ballot for PMQs this week. Be a good chance to bring the names of two great Welshmen, Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey to the attention of the non-footballing public of GB.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Welsh Labour Confusion over Constituency Boundaries.

Constitutional arrangements should, in general, be decided on what is right for the people - rather than on what carries electoral advantage for any particular party. Its against this background that the Welsh Labour Party's decisions, taken this morning, about Welsh constituency boundaries should be judged. To be fair, I think Labour is the first party to decide a clear position. But it does look more like political positioning than a genuine attempt to add constructive comment to the debate.

Let's consider the background to this. The Westminster Coalition Government has acted on the manifesto pledge by both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems to reduce the number of MPs (by rather less than promised). This inevitably means redrawing constituency boundaries, and reducing the number of MPs from Wales. For the 2015 General Election, there will be 30 Welsh constituencies rather than the current 40. Until today, we thought that all parties supported changing National Assembly electoral arrangements to being based on 30 coterminous constituencies as well. But this morning, Welsh Labour changed its position.

Welsh Labour will oppose any change in the way AMs are elected - if proposed by the UK Government, which does seem a bit childish. Welsh Labour will fight coterminocity if proposed by the UK Government. This means that its highly likely that there will not be a majority in the National Assembly to agree with any proposal to introduce coterminocity - which is a very significant development. For anyone who wants there to be a good working relationship between the Governments in Westminster and Cardiff Bay, this is deeply disappointing - especially as it just looks like Welsh Labour playing political games.

There is also the rather silly agreement, which had been much trumpeted beforehand by Peter Hain, that there should be no Proportional Representation element. Bearing in mind what Peter has been saying over decades about electoral systems, this is just about as shameless a U-turn as can be imagined. Not much point in taking it seriously really - and I'm not going to.

I note from the BBC's report that the UK Government's position has been put forward by a 'spokesman'. If I'd been invited to comment this is what I'd have said;

"In the interests of clarity and good governance, the same boundaries should be used for Westminster and Welsh Assembly elections. I hope that Welsh Labour will support this principle, which will be helpful to Welsh voters at future elections. It was very surprising to learn that Welsh Labour intends to 'fight' what I've heard Welsh Labour MPs publicly describe as sensible over recent weeks. Welsh Labour does seem to be very confused about what it does actually think. I do understand that there will be different opinions about the balance between 'constituency' AMs and 'regional' AMs - but not about the boundaries being the same. I remain hopeful though, that cross-party agreement can be reached despite today's confused decisions. We owe it to the future voters of Wales to put their interests before narrow party advantage, as Welsh Labour seems to have done today."

Friday, November 11, 2011

Two 'Incredible' Excuses

Sorry but I cannot resist it. Two completely mad stories in today's Telegraph. Firstly we have Mr Graham Gibbons who secretly filmed himself having sex with his girlfriend. When this covert filming was discovered by his partner, he claimed that it was in order to help him improve his performance. He told the judge that his only purpose was to evaluate his technique, from a 'time and motion' perspective. He wanted to strike the most effective balance between the various parts of their activities. He wanted to maximise the satisfaction that he provided. He was only thinking of her. Since the Court case continues in Cardiff Crown Court, it suggests that Mr Gibbons could well be a Welshman. We don't know whether the judge accepted his version of events.

And then we have the story of a couple who were seen throwing a dog into the ocean - 4 times. Now this is not funny at all, but their excuse is almost as incredible as that of Mr Gibbons. They insisted to the magistrates that they were cooling the dog down because it was hot. Unfortunately one of the couple was named Jones - so could again have Welsh connections. This excuse, while being admirably inventive, did not impress and they were found guilty of causing unnecessary suffering. Perhaps they should have thrown Mr Gibbons into the sea to cool him down.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Its not the Lib Dem's fault.

I have had a basinful of people blaming the Lib Dems for the failure of government policy. Don't they understand that we didn't win the election, and that we are in a Coalition Government. Cannot they see that the Lib Dems have had to make more and bigger compromises, and sacrifices than we have. Both parties have members and activists which have to allowed for. Its how coalitions work. Today we had William Langley in the Telegraph blaming the Lib Dems for there being no vote on repeal of the ban on hunting with dogs. Its got nothing whatsoever to do with the Lib Dems. The only MPs who have surprised me by their opposition to repeal are Conservative MPs. Its just that its not the right time to use parliamentary time on this issue.

This blog has touched on this before. It was the ban, (as illiberal and grotesque a piece of legislation as can be imagined), which the Prime Minister responsible for bringing it in is ashamed of which fired my public support for hunting. It led me to become an enthusiastic supporter of local hunts, and the Tanatside now meets every season on my farm. I fully understand the frustrations of Alice Barnard, Chief Exec of the Countryside Alliance who is widely quoted in the article. It is badly drafted, has probably increased cruelty in the dispatch of foxes, and has led to no more than 6 prosecutions which would not have been illegal before the ban was introduced. This Act should be repealed, but there is no point whatsoever having a vote on the issue while MPs are so engrossed in other matters that it will probably not be approved. And this has got nothing to do with my coalition colleagues, the Lib Dems. Rant over.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

A Presumtive Approach to Organ Donation

Seems that not many people are prepared to publicly oppose the introduction of 'presumed consent' for organ donation. I am. The Archbishop of Wales did too, and he was roundly condemned for it - by people who had held him up as the great oracle on other issues. I was appalled by the tone of those who criticised the Rev Barry Morgan - so much so that I am seeking a Westminster Hall debate in Parliament for MPs to consider his words. In the event that I'm drawn in the ballot, I need to begin preparing my case. This is my first brief stab at it. Feel free to challenge.

Lets get one thing clear. The great majority of us want to see more organs being made available for transplant. It will not be possible to ever reach 'enough' but the UK's performance is abysmal. To this end the Welsh Government has decided that rather than donors declaring that they want to opt-in by joining a register, it should be assumed that all of us want to donate unless we join a register to say we want to opt-out. And most people I know believe this would greatly increase the availability of donated organs. I do not - and can find no evidence to contradict.

The main reason I object to a change in the law is ethical. Seems to me ridiculous to equate absence of specific objection with considered approval. The Archbishop's objections were also based on ethics. However, we live in a world where ethical considerations are given little value, so I intend to argue my case on efficacy grounds. Changing the laqw would make no diference. It just would not work. It might even make the position worse.

We're talking about a 'soft' opt out (much is made of this) - which means that next of kin have to be asked. Actually, there is no other practical form of opt-out in civilised coutries. I think it was Brazil that tried an opt-out without next of kin approval a few decades ago, and number of organs available for donation crashed. Trust in doctors also crashed. The law was soon abandoned. So next of kin need to approve donation whichever the system. Since the donor needs to be in an ITU for donation to take place, the only difference between the systems is knowledge of the donor's intention - assuming the register is up to date. All we actually need is an accepted custom that we all tell our next of kin what we want in the event of our death. In Spain, where the levels of donation are more than twice as high as the UK, very few carry a donor card, and there is no national register. Its just that the potential donor will have discussed the issue with next of kin.

So let's look at Spain, which until recently was being held up as the the exemplar by those who want to change the law. In 1979, the law was changed to 'presumed consent'. In 1980, protections for donors had to be approved by Parliament. The levels of donation hardly changed until 1989, when a comprehensive transplant coordination system was introduced. From then on the levels of donation began to improve to today's impressive levels. The law of 'presumed consent' remains on the statute book, but is in effect defunct. We need to learn from Spain's example.

But UK Governments have a tendency to impose its will on the people. In 2008, the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, decided to go down the opt-out road. He established a Dep't of Health Commission to consider the issue. Shock horror, the Commission recommended against. It also recommended that a comprehensive transplant coordination system be introduced. Now this costs a bit of money, but there would be no need for the bureaucracy involved in retaining registers. It would just involve everyone making sure their next of kin knew their wishes. Actually, its as simple as that.

And there's more. In the US, a 'presumptive approach' has been adopted - and again great success has been achieved. It would need checks to ensure a 'presumptive approach' does not become any sort of coercion - but its an approach worth looking at in the UK. There is a whole lot more to this debate. Too much for a blog post. But its a start. Any comment, including challenge will be welcome. I've given my debate, if I secure it, the title of "A Presumptive Approach to Organ Donation."