Friday, October 26, 2012

Badger Culls, P***ups and Breweries

Yesterday in Parliament witnessed an all-day debate about whether the Gov't's targeted pilot cull of badgers (taking place to establish whether it would help control bovine Tb) should go ahead or not. Interest was heightened because we had Dr Brian May in attendence. After the opening statements the debate was mainly a series of prepared speeches, with very little actual 'debating'. Opinions were being put forward as 'facts' and just repeated ad nauseum, even when it was pointed out they were not factual at all. Mr Owen Paterson, Secretary of State at Defra was reported to have left after 20 minutes having taken as much of it as he could stand - though he claims it was due to diary commitments. What we do know is that around 30,000 cattle are slaughtered every year as a result of the Bovine Tb eradication programme. We also know the cost to Gov't is around £100 million per yr (£1billion over next 10 yrs) and the human cost to livestock farmers in terms of stress and mental pressures is massive. And we also know that badgers suffer from bovine Tb and are carriers of the disease. What we do not know is what part (if any) badgers play in spreading the disease - which is why the Gov't intends to carry out a pilot cull targeted in two parts of England where the disease is most rife in order to find out.

But this post is not about Bovine Tb itself, but about what yesterday's debate teaches us about how to put forward a case to MPs. Its clear that those of us who share my approach to countryside issues have to completely rethink our strategy. Lets look at what happened. I received perhaps 100 emails from constituents opposed to a badger cull in any circumstance. Most emails were exactly the same and had clearly been prepared by some central agency. I did not receive one single constituency email in support of a cull - though I did receive well argued submissions from farmer representative organisations. I suspect every other MP was in the same position - and that everyone who spoke in favour of a cull yesterday was speaking completely against his or her constituency postbag. It's no longer enough for the NFU and others to send us excellent briefing material. They must immediately establish a unit which gathers together a million email addresses and asks them all to write to their MPs on issues that matter to them. No good complain about 38 Degrees. They do a great job for those who have signed up to their agenda. The need is to fight fire with fire. I've already told my local NFU that without a change of tactic, they  might as well wind up their parliamentary lobbying altogether.

And its worth a word about how the Gov't whips handle these issues. Yesterday's debate was a 'Backbench Debate' - and the Whip's Office reckon these debates should not be whipped. This means that since the 'payroll' do not vote on unwhipped motions, the Government will almost always lose if the motion is opposing Gov't policy. It seems the view is that since the vote is not binding, the Gov't should not be concerned. (though I do wonder whether a backbench motion of no confidence in a Gov't minister would remain unwhipped!) I had thought that this did not matter too much because the Gov't could always simply not push it to a vote. But yesterday, Labour got around this by voting both for and against the motion, forcing a division all on their own. Truth is we were comprehensively stuffed. Most Coalition MPs had left the building. I spoke near the end of the debate but had just gone when the division bell rang. The result was a 147-28 defeat for Gov't policy to proceed with a cull. Now theoretically, this has no actual impact on Gov't policy at all, but I'm not at all sure that those who watch proceedings can have a clue what's going on. Personally, last night's vote reminds me of a cross between 'Yes Minister' and 'Monty Python's Circus'.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Looking behind 'Expenses' so-called 'scandals'.

Our national newspapers seem deeply troubled about MP's expenses - in particular the two newspapers that find their way into our house, the Telegraph and the Mail. Over the last few days, two aspects of 'expenses' have made huge headlines. I do think the reporting fails to make the issues clear. So I'm doing my bit to try and help explain what's going on.

Firstly there's the story about MP's renting a flat at public expense while at the same time letting out  a property they own. This is exactly what I expected to happen when it was ruled that mortgage interest payments would no longer be a legitimate MP's expense. While I would have no interest in buying a London property myself, I really cannot see why tenancy should be so preferable to ownership. The base position is that each MP is allowed about £20,000p.a. to cover cost of living in London - rental, Council Tax, electricity etc. I've never seen any sense at all in that allowance not including mortgage interest.I accept that it should not cover any improvement or even maintenance - just mortgage interest.

The position used to be that all sorts of other home expenses were allowed under the rules, many of them utterly ridiculous (duck houses, moats etc.). Thankfully that's all been stopped. Now some of the consequences of the new policy are also ridiculous. An pre-2010 MP who owns a flat finds it not possible to sustain two properties (London and constituency) without support, and has to sell or rent out, and move into a rented property where support is avai;lable. Usually, the cost to the taxpayer is much higher under the new arrangement. The recent coverage describes this as a scandal - despite MPs having no option. The salary simply does not allow for running two homes without some support - unless the MP has another income. The usual criticism of the system that I advocate is that MPs may benefit financially from a property where value has been enhanced by the taxpayer - which is why there can be no help for improvement or maintenance. As always, a property buyer has to take a chance on the market. In passing, we still own the property in Cardiff from when I was an AM and its worth considerably less than I paid for it.

The second 'scandal' has involved MPs using first class travel. The position is that the taxpayer will pay for travel if it less than the open standard fare. So if an MP is well organised and books a first class seat in advance it sometimes falls below the accepted limit. So happens that when first elected I used the train - always standard class. But sometimes found it standing room only from Euston to Milton Keynes (and my back problem means I can't stand up that long). So now I just drive instead - more expensive, more environmentally unfriendly and more stressful.

I'm fortunate in that these issues bother me not at all. I rent a flat, and drive from Montgomeryshire to Westminster. A current disappointment is that I (and other MPs) are having to move out of our flats in the old County Hall (very convenient) and give way to overseas students (probably) because London rents have rocketed while the rent allowance has remained the same. But I have no complaint. I enjoy my job and accept the terms of employment. And there would be plenty of people who would like to step in if I didn't. I just thought I'd try to explain that these so-called 'scandals' are not quite what they seem.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Case for Gary McKinnon's Extradition.

I was pleased to hear the Home Secretary tell us this week that Gary McKinnon was not to be extradited to stand trial in the US. As far as I could tell, almost all of us on the Gov't benches were pleased. In general the opposition benches were more muted. It was only Alan Johnson, former Home Secretary who openly disagreed.  I have to admit that I thought Alan Johnson made a fair point, as he usually does, and was extremely brave to stand up and make it. The Telegraph has given him a platform to go into greater detail. It's worth reading.

I was pleased by Mrs May's decision because 'politics' and 'public opinion' inevitably plays a part in how we feel about issues of this sort. The Home Secretary would be horrified to hear this - and would deny absolutely that any such considerations entered her mind. I'm only saying why I was 'pleased' - not why I thought she was right. And to be frank, I'm not at all sure she was right. Lets consider some of the issues.

It's generally thought that the 2003 extradition treaty is biased in favour of the US. The UK seeks extradition on the basis of the test of 'probably cause' while the US seeks it on the basis of 'reasonable suspicion'. Mrs May accepts, backed by the Coalition Gov't's own Scott Baker Report that there is no practical difference. In any case this was not a determining factor.

Gary McKinnon has admitted that he 'hacked' into highly sensitive US defence infrastructure soon after 9/11. He left a message criticising US foreign policy and warned that he would strike again - even if he later claimed he was looking for UFOs. Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary and I reckon these to be very serious charges indeed. There has been much legal consideration of all the points at law, and all have been fully satisfied. The only avenue open to Mrs May was to decide whether extradition would breach Article 3 of European Convention of Human Rights. Sometime during this process Gary McKinnon was diagnosed as an Asperger's sufferer - which meant that the process was started again. This was not accepted as reason to prevent extradition by Lord Justice Burnton in 2009. Alan Johnson claims that while he was Home Secretary, he saw no reason to bar extradition and that Gary McKinnon refused to undergo independent medical assessment. Only Mrs May has seen the most recent medical evidence, but Alan Johnson believes it must be substantially the same as it was in 2009. I do not claim to have any idea. But it's what Mrs May made her decision on.

Various reasons have been put forward by those supporting Gary McKinnon's case, but the Home Secretary dismisses them all - except that based on Article 3. Wonder when this case will be first used as a precedent to prevent us extraditing some unsavoury character! Having written all this, I have not persuaded myself that I should be anything but pleased by the decision. Just grateful that I'm not a former Home Secretary.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

How Machynlleth responded to abduction of April

Two weeks ago a five year girl named April Jones was abducted from close to her home on the Bryn-y-Gog Estate in Machynlleth, while she was playing with her friends. The Police have charged a local man with her abduction, murder and perverting the course of justice. But the search for April goes on. Its an awful tragedy. I really do not know how April's family can cope with such an evil act being struck against them. Everyone still hopes she will be found. But its the response to this tragedy that this post is about, rather than the tragedy itself.

As soon as news of the abduction went live on twitter and Facebook, the people of Machynlleth left their homes in their hundreds to search for April. They carried on searching, through the night and next day, setting aside everything else they had planned to do. They searched for days- and would still be searching now if the Police asked them to. I went to Mach myself next day, and the days after that. I wanted the people of Mach to know that all of Montgneryshire was thinking of them. I have never before seen a community response remotely like it. I never expect to anything like it again.

The Dyfed Powys Police have been astoundingly good. They have searched and organised by day and night. They have managed tragedy with great sensitivity and firmness. They have through Police Officers, Ian Johns, Reg Bevan and Steve Hughson communicated with the people and the media in an adult and sensitive way. They have brought in specialist reinforcements from across Britain to supplement any weaknesses that a small force inevitably has. They have linked with Mountain Rescue Services, who have also been wonderful and determined and other volunteers. Chief Constable Jackie Roberts can be very proud of her force.

And its not just the searchers. Its the back-up - the supplies to keep the searchers going. Supplies were coming into the Leisure Centre in loads. There were hot drinks and rolls for everyone. Yesterday, there were still enough biscuits and crisps to feed a Millennium Stadium crowd in the Plas. Early on a message went out on Facebook to ask if anyone had a fridge to keep milk cool. Within two hours, 11 fridges arrived. A message went out that plastic cups were needed. Almost immediately a van turned up with 2,500. It was all quite incredible. The Bishop of Bangor was there supporting the local Church, which became a centre for prayers for April. And much else I've not mentioned.

And a word for the media as well. We all know how ruthless and insensitive the national media can be - and it was the biggest media scrum I've seen, including College Green. I did lots of interviews as did the Mayor, Gareth Jones and County Cllr Michael Williams, both of whom were much affected by the tragedy. Every interview was sensitive and entirely proper. I believe the media, including hard-nosed hacks were genuinely taken aback by the public response. They had a story to tell, but they wanted to do it with respect, and mostly they did.

I hope I'm called by Mr Speaker on Wed at PMQs so that I can ask The Prime Minister to join me in a tribute to all of these people. I've never seen anything like it, and through the tragedy I have felt humbled by the way the community of Machynlleth, the Police, the Church and volunteers of all sorts have come together in such a positive way. Nothing will ever compensate April's family for what has happened, but I think they will always be able to remember that the people of their town did everything in their power to help.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Out speaking about an EU Referendum

Have decided to go out speaking at the occasional Tory dinner again. Mainly because I enjoy it. Since being elected I've always refused speaking invites - because having to spend 4 days/wk at Westminster, I've wanted to commit remainder of my time to Montgomeryshire. Don't want to lose ability to speak. Anyway, last night I went to Hanmer in Clwyd South to speak to the local branch - and a thoroughly enjoyable evening it was.

Surprisingly no questions on gay marriage. We had discussion about constituency boundaries (where I said I was increasingly opposed to the proposed changes) and inevitably the EU referendum. I said that I did not think there would be an In/Out referendum in the foreseeable future - but that I did think there would be a referendum on a renegotiated relationship between the UK and the EU - at or soon after the next General Election in 2015, or possibly incorporated as part of the competing parties manifestos. I also think there will be a genuine meaningful renegotiation - because anything less will not satisfy anyone. We know that the EU will froth at the mouth about such a prospect, but froth it will have to - because otherwise there may well be a real prospect of the UK withdrawing.

I think my audience was a touch surprised that I was so adamantly opposed to an In/Out referendum - particularly since I've always been more than a touch Eurosceptic. I told them there are two main reasons. Firstly, I do not believe any potential UK Government would act on an 'Out' vote to begin the withdrawal process - so any vote would (in my opinion) be a deception on the voting public. This of course may change at some stage in the future. And secondly I think that the British people would vote to stay in the EU when it came to it. OK, I can hear my Ukip friends snarling and see them finger-jabbing to emphasise disagreement, but that's what I believe. I remember the last referendum in 1975. I was all for withdrawal then, and thought my side would win - only to be trounced by the 'In' team. The result heralded a great burst of EU integration - which is why I've been careful about what I've wished for ever since.

Whatever it was an enjoyable evening. I sat next to a man who wanted to end the ban on hunting, scrap the welfare state, bring back hanging, do nasty things to Dennis Skinner -  and reckoned riding to hounds was better than sex. He thought of himself as a 'One Nation' Conservative!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Puleese - Not another Reference to the Supreme Court

Since the people of Wales decided in 1997 that a National Assembly for Wales was to be created, I've taken an interest in how my nation is governed. I want Wales to be governed well. So its depressing to read that another 'law' made by the National Assembly is being considered by the Attorney General as to the competence under which its been drawn up. This time it concerns the Welsh Language - or more precisely, the English Language. It seems there are doubts that the National Assembly can pass any 'law' relating to the English Language, and Dominic Grieve's view may well turn on whether the reference to English is no more than incidental to the main purpose of this 'law' (which is actually about the Welsh Language). If the Attorney General concludes that the Assembly has acted beyond its competence, the 'law' will be referred to the Supreme Court. B******  ***. Not again.

If this happens, we are facing a difficulty. The Government of Wales Act 2006 (including the changes brought about by the 2011 referendum) should be clear. I'd expected to be. That's what these well paid drafting lawyers are supposed to ensure. But it seems things are not clear at all. The first Assembly law is currently being considered, at great cost, and total mystery to the public in the Supreme Court. For this to happen once is a pity. To happen twice would be a real problem, which we would need to think about. And then there's the proposed new Assembly 'law' to change the organ donation system to come!

Personally, I'd like the National Assembly new 'laws' to be agreed. But the Attorney General must do his job. He must conclude on the basis of the Government of Wales Act. He has no choice. And its completely pointless blaming the Wales Office, the Welsh Secretary of State, or the Attorney General if 'competence' is found to be absent - though I've no doubt that some with other agendas will use it to drive wedges between Westminster and Cardiff, Making law is a complex, nit-picky, mind-numbingly boring business - but it has to be done properly. If the current law does not work, we need to look at it. This is what the Silk Commission will be doing from November.

I want to see the National Assembly working comfortably within the UK constitution. Most people want this to be the case. Lots of questions beofre us at present.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

In praise of Paul Wood

Would have commented before today, but my eyes have been watering too much to see the screen. I want to write a post in praise of Paul Wood, who played for Warrington Wolves against Leeds Rhinos in last weekend's Grand Final. I watched the fearsome game played between two sides willing to put their lives on the line. I never played rugby league competitively myself, except in training when I played for Shrewsbury RUFC. It helped put pace and urgency into our game. I was built for it. Loved it.

Anyway, on Saturday, Paul ran full tilt into a Rhino named Callum Watkins whose knee came up, scrunched into his 'groin' and smashed one of his testicles. Ronaldo, Suarez or Ashley Young would still be rolling on the ground in tears two days later. Paul just got up and played on. "Really bad pain" he said, "but it was the Grand Final". He'd trained to play through pain. He was conditioned to have the mental toughness to play on no matter what. He carried on for 20 minutes, then stayed to congratulate and shake hands with the Leeds players. Then he went to hospital to have his ruptured testicle removed.

When Peter Allen asked him on Drive the next day whether everything was in full working order, he laughed and said he had not tried it out fully yet. All that mattered was that this removal would not have a negative impact on his ability to play. Paul Wood and rugby players generally play the game to the sometimes brutal limit, and with incredibly good sportsmanship. What a shame it is that those wonderfully talented fit men who play top quality football have been indoctrinated to dive, cheat and generally behave like petulant wooses.   

Friday, October 05, 2012

A day dominated by little children.

Day began at 6.30 with a phone call from LBC, wanting to discuss the 'abduction' of 5yrs old April Jones in Machynlleth on Monday evening. Little to add this morning, except that the community and Police are working together to do all they can to find April. Cllr. Gareth Jones, Mayor of Mach was also on the programme. As for so many others, this 'abduction' has disturbed me. Its impossible to comprehend how anyone could be so evil as to snatch a 5yr old little girl from her parents in this way.

After breakfast it was off to join a presentation by Tesco-Newtown to four local primary schools of equipment following collection of Tesco vouchers. There were two youngsters from each of the schools to receive equipment - or skive off school for an hour (take your pick). Lots of photographs, and smiles from the children.

Next stop was Berriew Church for the local school's harvest festival. Had to go this year because our little Ffion (five yesterday) was there. She's just moved back from Ireland to live by us and start school in Berriew. She was loaded down with her collection of offerings, and was clearly pleased to see her Granny and 'Taidy' there to watch her first public performance. It was a pity that I could stay for only 20 minutes before heading to Tesco-Welshpool for another presentation of school equipment to another five local schools. More children 'skiving off'. Not really.

After lunch it was back up to Machynlleth. For no real reason other than that I wanted to. Plan was just to have a coffee in the Plas, and chat with the Mayor, Cllr Michael Williams and Russell George AM about how the search for April was going. But by this time the Police had re-arrested Mark Bridger on suspicion of murder. Really felt the balance between hope and despair moving in favour of the latter. And the quiet coffee became a round of interviews, which I didn't much enjoy. But I really do want to praise the community and Police for the way they have responded to April's disappearance at every opportunity. Late afternoon was taken up speaking from Newtown studio to around 15 BBC regional radio stations. Although its only repetition, I felt shattered by the end. Needed a coffee on my own to recover. Before going home to face up to our grandson, little Darragh aged two, who is staying over this weekend.

The reason that the tragedy in Mach has had such an impact across Britain is that so many of us have a Ffion or a Darragh in our lives. We cannot comprehend what April's parents are going through. I don't know April or her parents but when spending the day with different little children all over Montgomeryshire, its impossible not to see April in every one of them. If a little girl can be snatched on Bryn-y-Gog (an open plan estate), when playing with her friends, in Machynlleth (one of the safest small towns anywhere), in Mid Wales (safest region in the UK) it can happen anywhere. Tonight, everyone in Machynlleth is still holding on to a little hope.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Tories must own 'One Nation' banner.

"A week is a long time in politics". One week ago Ed Miliband and Mitt Romney were both mocked as no-hopers. By general consensus, both have now climbed the ladder of possibility to be genuine contenders for national leadership. One week ago, I blithely thought that Richard Branson was whinging without justice about a lost contract, only to find his words justified by one almighty embarrassing c*** up in Gov't. And one week ago I would have described the Bryn-y-Gog Estate in Machynlleth in Montgomeryshire as one of the least likely places in the UK where a 5 yr old girl would have been abducted while playing amongst her friends. I've completely forgotten what I was worried about one week ago.

But to this 'One Nation' philosophy that Disreali developed and Miliband was majoring on yesterday. It's so long ago that I read 'Sybil'. I suppose its the same sort of thing as "we're all in it together". Anyway, Peter Oborne has written a very good article in today's Telegraph, where he advises David Cameron to major on his 'One-Nation' credentials - and recommit to his partnership with the Lib Dems in order to deliver it. He wants more 'rose garden' co-operation. I totally agree. Its been a theme of my postings over the last 30 months.

I cannot comprehend what is in the minds of colleagues who would welcome the Coalition's collapse. Two parties came together in a spirit of compromise for the benefit of the UK, following the most disastrous management of our economy in modern history. We knew it would be tough and that sacrifice would be needed. The Lib Dems made even greater sacrifices than my party did. I feel a sense in which I owe them - and I've spent most of my life opposing them in Montgomeryshire! We can only succeed as a team - playing in the same direction.

Lets look at the reasons that this coalition has been struggling. Firstly the collapse of Lords Reform, on top of the defeated AV referendum. Good riddance to both. Then there's the probable failure to approve new constituencies in time for the 2015 election. Personally, I believe that's good riddance as well. I never believed this stuff about it giving a 20 seat benefit to the Tories anyway. It drove a coach and horses through traditional constituencies, with a non-Tory disregard for history - and would be a massive blow to democracy in rural areas. Time to kiss, make up and move on - singing a 'One-Nation' duet in harmony. Let us put behind us what has gone. Our coalition must stand up for everyone in our country (including those who need public support),  must show respect for public servants (especially while reducing public expenditure), must back each other publicly when the going gets tough (and stop the snide undermining comments about leadership of both parties). Of course, we as MPs will sometimes disagree over policy. There is disagreement over our EU relationship. I disagree ferociously over coalition policy on onshore wind, and will say so at every opportunity, but I'll not undermine Ed Davey. We are a team, up against another team. We will only win if we rekindle the spirit of the rose garden that promised so much in 2010.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Welsh Language vital issue for Tories

There are many good reasons why the Conservative Party should become full-blooded champions of the Welsh Language. The main reason is that its the right thing to do. Another (less honourable perhaps) is that it would be a big electoral plus for us. More so than any other political party in my opinion. We are still sometimes dismissed as being 'English', which offends me hugely - something to do with pit owners 100 yrs ago I think! Lord Roberts of Conwy challenged this perception brilliantly for many years, but I do think we need to take it more seriously again.

I don't mean token bilingualism. The odd "Bori Da" by non-Welsh speakers making a laudable effort is not enough. I mean standing up proud for a full-blooded bilingual nation named Wales. No leaflets produced by the central party anything but fully bilingual. All advertising material produced centrally fully bilingual. Major meetings equipped for translation. Constituency offices offering callers a bilingual service, transferring to a central bilingual contact if no Welsh speaker available. We must never force anyone to listen, or join in. That does more harm than good - breeding resentment. But the Welsh Language must be really special to us, and everyone should know its special to us.

Perhaps this is not going to happen. Perhaps its just my imagination on fire again. Anyway that's not the point. My point is that dreaming this dream, and shouting it from the tops of Snowdon and Plynlumon is what we Tories should be doing - not despite us being Tories but because we're Tories. And it will make us more popular, and morev people in Wales will vote for us.

Across the world, it is parties of the centre/right which support 'regional' government, and minority rights. Its a centre/right philosophy to accept freedom of minorities to live as they wish. Its libertarian right to respect people's right to diversity rather than forced compliance to the usual. Its the Welsh Language that makes Wales different. Sure, we have mountains - but so does Scotland. Better bigger mountains. We have a lovely coastline. So does Cornwall. But we are the only part of Britain which has a significantly used and living language. Its a great USP. We should build on it.

When it comes to it, its always been the Conservative Party that took the decisive steps which stopped the remorseless decline of the Welsh Language over the last 40 yrs. When I won a bardic chair for an essay on the future of the Welsh Language in the 1960s I concluded it would wither to academic use only within a century. Not now. Its been a dramatic turnaround, which the Tories can take a big part of the credit for. But sometimes we seem almost embarrassed about what we have achieved. I want to see the Tories loved by the Welsh people. I want to see the Tories admired and voted into power by the Welsh people. Let us become full-blooded champions of our unique language and it could happen.