Thursday, November 29, 2012

Statutory Regulation - Welsh Gov't Style

You really couldn't make it up. And on the day Lord Justice Leveson recommended statutory regulation of the press. OK, he used the gentler, more innocent sounding 'legal underpinning' to make it sound more palatable - but statutory regulation is what it is. We are watching interviews on our screens where worthy sounding people are claiming how there is no danger to the 'free press' we have benefited from since 1695. Well lets just look at the breathtaking stunt the Welsh Gov't has just tried to pull off.

Before the last Assembly Election, Welsh Gov't's policy was to proceed with a targeted pilot cull of badgers in West Wales as part of its strategy to tackle the bovine Tb crisis. After the election, my old friend John Griffiths inherited responsibility for this policy. Now John is a fine fellow in many respects, but I knew immediately that he would not allow a badger cull. So he duly cancelled the policy, and has done something with vaccination instead - which many of us consider to be pointless.

Now to the funny bit. The highly popular Welsh Language soap, Pobol y Cwm, included a line from a distressed farmer disagreeing with this policy change suggesting that the Welsh Gov't "doesn't have the backbone" to carry on, and that the Welsh Gov't "doesn't care about the countryside because there aren't enough votes there". I can imagine this drawing a derisive snort from Welsh Ministers plus an affronted "How dare they"

So we have an official complaint to BBC, S4C and Ofcom - demanding a right of reply and claiming the programme beaches editorial guidelines. Now you might think this is not real - that I'm making it up. But it seems that it is. The only reason I don't claim this is where statutory regulation of the press will end up is that its so utterly ridiculous as to be incredible. "Avin a laugh" readers would think. And what's worst of all is that they will not be able to see it. Lib Dem AM came up with the brilliant comment that the Welsh Gov't will want Derek Brockway taken off air because he looks like the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones. I think this was a joke but.......

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

My 'Take' on Leveson - the day before publication.

Lord Justice Leveson has now delivered his report to the Prime Minister. Not sure its an issue that excites my constituents, but its going to dominate 'The Village' for days. On Monday, I sent an article to a national newspaper, which was not published, which represents my 'take' on the issue. So here it is;

 A free press is as important to a civilised society as free-running sewers. Their effect is similar. Neither are looked on with affection and both are capable of carrying deeply offensive material. But try to imagine life without either. All sorts of detritus would be allowed to fester uncleansed. We need a free press to “keep the waters pure”. Thomas Jefferson wrote “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a Government without newspapers, or newspapers without a Government, I shall not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” I agree with Jefferson. When we consider Lord Leveson’s Report we should remember that another way of describing the ‘freedom of the press to publish’ is the ‘right of the citizen’s to know.’ 

Appearing on the radar of a newspaper can be a very uncomfortable experience. I’ve had my share over the last 30 years. I know what it’s like to be brought low by unfair coverage. Only last week, the Daily Mirror set aside three pages on consecutive days, portraying me as a “Tory Gun Nut” – as inaccurate a portrayal as its possible to make. I’ve had threatening letters and emails giving me both barrels. But I have no complaint. If I allow my quirky sense of humour free rein on twitter, I’m inevitably going to take the odd hit. Anyway, I could see the humour as well as the outrage in the reporting. Anyone who can’t take a bit of stick shouldn’t be in public life - or the entertainment business.

Much of the clamour for statutory regulation stems from the outrage felt about the hacking of mobile phones by a minority of journalists. I felt the same outrage. The nation was rightly horrified. The uprising of public anger is what led to Lord Justice Leveson being asked to hold the inquiry, which has produced the report just presented to David Cameron. But phone hacking is illegal. What happened was an abject failure of law enforcement. Of course the press have behaved badly, and the current system of regulation will have to be significantly strengthened. The press realise this as well. The debate is going to be what form this change takes.

While I am implacably opposed to the state regulating the press, I know there must be change. The people of Britain expect change. It’s not possible to be precise about what this change should be until the Leveson Report is public on Thursday, and we've had time to digest it.. Many will demand statutory regulation of the press (for the first time since the Middle Ages). No doubt it will be dressed up as a 'small step' involving 'statutory underpinning'. It will sound innocuous.They are wrong. I will want to see some form of effective, strong, genuinely independent self regulation, backed up by fines that hurt, and threats of going further if it fails.

If we introduce statutory regulation, even if disguised under gentle weasel words, it will hasten the end of our newspaper industry, already under threat from Internet based news sites. It will tip the balance even more in favour of digital platforms. It will be especially destructive of our much valued local newspapers. It will do harm to our way of life. After digesting the contents and recommendations of Lord Leveson, we will have to do something, but for the future of our civilisation, let it not be statutory regulation.

Not everyone is going to agree with. At present my own party seems split in half. But I'm hopeful that after reading His Lordship's report, there will be a greater measure of agreement.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

More on Votes for Prisoners.

Lord Chancellor made a Statement to the House of Commons today about the thorny issue of 'Votes for Prisoners'. He informed MPs that the Gov't intends to bring forward a bill which includes 3 options for MPs to decide on - votes for those serving less than 4 yrs, for those serving less than 6 mths, and no votes for prisoners at all. (except for those who currently qualify). Lots of us asked questions of Chris Grayling. Its a very important issue.

Its reasonably clear that when the debate takes place, MPs will vote for no extension of votes for prisoners at all. It follows that potentially, after the next election, prisoners could appeal to the European Court, and the UK could well face large fines. Of course the UK could simply refuse to pay the fines. This is what other states could do. But we are the UK - a country rightly proud of our commitment to the rule of law. Some of us are appalled at the prospect of the UK being seen to refuse to accept the law when we don't like it. Impossible to say what impact this would have on reputation.

This afternoon, I asked the Lord Chancellor to do his utmost to avoid this looming confrontation. Root of it is that Strasbourg Court is spreading its wings further, into policy that has been hitherto a matter for national courts. If this process isn't challenged, important parts of our sovereignty will continue to be transferred to the ECHR. Perhaps there would be no willingness to compromise by the Court. But it looks to me, we are heading to a standoff that could mean UK withdrawing from the European Court altogether. Personally, I would see this as a huge blow to the UK's standing in the world, but my feel is that there are a fair few MPs who do not share opinion.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Thoughts of Shooting Feral Deer

Voicemail this afternoon. Daily Mirror wants me to ring back. What on earth can I have done now? Hope Phill hasn't messed up my expenses. Perhaps they've uncovered that I once voted for Plaid Cymru before I'd properly grown up. Anyway, nervously rang back. "There's a problem with one of your tweets". Not again I thought. Once had a bit of bother after blogging that Paul McCartney's lawyer looking good after his ex, Heather threw a jug of water over her. Been very careful to avoid trouble ever since. General policy is that 'Boring is Best'.

Anyway this is the offending tweet. "Beautiful antlered stag in the garden, browsing on the shrubs border. "Oooh", said all the family. I just wished I had my 12 bore handy". It seems that some animal rights groups had considered this an offencive comment for an MP to make. I accept that reference to a 12 bore was wrong. It should have been a .22 or some other rifle. Someone I know once did shoot a deer with a shotgun - a truly dreadful thing to do. He never did it again. In the interests of completeness, I should add that I've not shot anything for over 40 years, though I have 'shot at' grey squirrels and a horrid feral cat with an airgun. Always missed. But when it comes to deer in the garden, I can still think about shooting them. I thought it was a Mirror joke to begin with - but No. The complaints were for real. So now I'll be right up there with Prince Phillip in the public consciousness. Unfortunately I do not have a gun, or a gun licence - so it can be no more than a dream. I suppose I could buy a bow and arrow. I am after all the reigning Parliamentary Archery Champion.

Deer are a nightmare in our garden. Escapees from nearby Powis Castle have established wild herds of Red and Fallow Deer numbering thousands. Every year, a few of them sneak into our garden, usually during very early hours, and home in on our most valued shrubs. Adding insult, they normally just spit out the severed bits uneaten. Always go for the variegated Aralias and choicest bamboos. During the spring/summer, I hide a switched-on radio in the middle of the borders all night to put them off. Even change the station to prevent them becoming addicts of certain programmes. Friend of mine told me he thought subjecting them to listen to John Humphrys grilling hapless politicians was more cruel than shooting them. Anyway, I wonder what the Mirror will make of this. Something like "Heartless Tory makes joke of killing Bambi". I expect my career to survive.

Votes for Prisoners

Seems as though we MPs are going to have an opportunity to discuss 'Votes for Prisoners' this coming Thursday. As writing this post, I don't know whether its a 'statement', where we don't actually vote or a debate where we could vote. Doesn't matter for the purpose of this post, because its the principle that I'm reflecting on.

Discussion seems to revolve around three options, one where votes are allowed for prisoners serving less than 4 yrs, one where sentences are less than 6 mths and one where no prisoners at all are allowed to vote (except those on remand). If there's a vote I will probably vote for the third option, but its by no means straight forward. There is a case for allowing prisoners the vote - even is almost no-one in the UK agrees with this and it would make the Prime Minister "physically sick".

The reason I do not support votes for prisoners at all is that I think the people I represent, and the people of the UK are overwhelmingly against it. Gov't should not ignore people's strongly held opinions. But there are two reason's for the alternative view. Firstly, I'm hugely enthusiastic about rehabilitation of prisoners into civilised society - because it greatly reduces the level of re-offending. Gerry Hendry, Governor at HMP Shrewsbury has done magnificent work on this. And secondly, a refusal to allow votes for any prisoners will be unacceptable to the European Court of Human Rights (which is nothing to do with the EU). The UK has been a leading champion of promoting human rights on the international plain and I certainly would not want to lose this British influence for decency and good in the world. The ECHR is not a "Micky Mouse" body. In fact I think its judgements are part of UK law. Personally, I well understand why some MPs will support 'Votes for Prisoners' but I just do not think this is an issue where the powerful opinion of British people can be ignored. So its still No.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Police and Crime Commissioners in Wales

Must admit to never having been a great supporter of the Police and Crime Commissioner idea - though did become more supportive after sitting through the Prime Minister's Statement on the Hillsborough Disaster a few weeks ago. I cannot imagine police behaviour so incredibly awful happening if there had been a head of police answerable to voters at an election - even if it was over 20 years ago. The idea of PCCs was a clear Conservative manifesto commitment in 2010, so I dutifully voted in favour as the legislation went through the House of Commons. Soon as it became an act, I wanted the new system to work as successfully as possible.

Of course yesterday's turn-out was disappointing. In large part this has been because people decided to just not vote, or spoil their ballot papers, as their way of registering disapproval. Personally, I think it would have helped if each candidate had been allowed one free election communication. In Dyfed/Powys we put a lot of effort into helping Chris Salmon engage with voters, but still many felt they knew nothing about who was standing. Its a very difficult job for a candidate to engage with such a large dispersed population. But I do not buy this stuff about low turn-out depriving the new PCCs of credibility or authority. That will depend on the personalities of those newly elected and how well they work with their Chief Constables.

Wales threw up some surprising results - in two of the four elections anyway. Labour were expecting to win three for certain with high hopes in the fourth, but won only one. Very bad day for Labour in Wales. Alun Michael was elected as PCC for the South Wales Force. Had my run-ins with him over the years, but he's a very sound man on law and order. So I reckon he'll do a good job. Big surprise in Gwent where Ian Johnson, an ex-policeman standing as an Independent defeated the favoured Labour candidate. And another surprise in North Wales where Lib Dem member and former Counsel General of the National Assembly for Wales defeated Labour's favoured Tal Michael. The competition in Dyfed Powys was close, with our man, Christopher Salmon just squeezing out Labour's Christine Gwyther.  I believe Chris will be a great success in the job.

Lots of very sensible people decided not to vote, and several thousand defaced their ballot papers. It is their right of course, but I just do not agree with this. The PCCs legislation was properly enacted within our democratic system. Lots of things have become law over the decades that I disapproved of - but I've always voted, and accepted the result of the ballot. That's how democracy works. We now have PCCs in place, and if any of them do not perform as required, those who did not vote will not be in any position to complain. Lets hope that in four years time the turn-out will be nearer the 50% it should have been.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Are MPs allowed an opinion?

Yesterday I wrote that I would vote against redefinition of the word 'marriage'. Only did it because I'd been forced to declare publicly my opinion. Chris Eakin asked me directly when I was reviewing the papers on BBC News Channel on Tues night. I would have preferred not to have been asked, but it was an entirely fair question and not one I felt I could avoid. So I expressed my honest opinion. Worst fears have been realised. I have been widely branded a homophobe, a description I find deeply offensive. It leads me to reflect whether MPs are wise to ever express honest opinions. Probably a better tactic to waffle -be slippery - avoid answering the question.

I've been around a long time, and I'm comfortable with my opinions. And I'm not afraid to say what they are. I'm usually willing to consider amending them if confronted by logical persuasive argument. But since being elected an MP, declaration of opinion seems to cause trouble.  Lets look at a few examples. I am in favour of a pilot cull of badgers. I oppose legalisation of assisted suicide. I oppose introduction of presumed consent into organ donation system. I support stricter rules for abortion. And I oppose redefinition of the meaning of the word 'marriage' to allow gay marriage. I fiercely oppose  mass building of wind turbines and pylons in Montgomeryshire. And much else as well. Made all of this public before I was elected. Now I receive emails from constituents informing me that they will not vote for me again because of one or more of these opinions. I don't object to anyone disagreeing. Because no two thinking people agree on everything, this seems a bit odd. We settle these things by voting on them.

The strongest response so far has been about gay marriage. Some of the commentary has been unpleasantly condemnatory. I have been accused of being a bigot and homophobic. I deeply resent being so branded. Its utterly ridiculous. Gay friends tell me they agree with me. They tell me they resent being used in a rebranding exercise for a political party.

Now here's another opinion. Nothing damages politics more than politicians refusing to answer questions, using a form of words to disguise what they are saying. The curse of modern politics is 'The Line to Take'! I don't much like being given stick on the Internet - especially by constituents. But I think I will carry on trying to be open about what I think.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Is Redefining the Meaning of Marriage Popular amongst Tories?

I am opposed to redefining the meaning of the word 'marriage'. I'm disappointed that the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Chancellor are supporting the change with such enthusiasm. When my whip discussed this matter with me soon after I was elected an MP, I advised that I wouldn't vote for it. I will vote against it, even if its a 'whipped' vote (which it probably won't be). This is the second time I have stated this opinion publicly. And its only because BBC News Channel's Chris Eakin put me 'on the spot' in last night's paper review (which was the first time). The Chancellor, for some reason, went big on it for today's papers and I couldn't avoid the issue. The reason I've not chosen to speak on the matter is that I will be accused of being homophobic - which is just not true. If this proposal was going to confer some new right upon gay people I would probably support it. But it doesn't. It just redefines a word which has great meaning for hundreds of thousands of good people across Britain - for no real purpose, other than to convey some ill-defined 'message'. Anyway, I had to say this on national TV last night, so I'm repeating it in a considered way. And hope that I don't have to discuss it again.

But this post is not about the rights and wrongs of redefinition of the meaning of marriage. In the end that will be decided on a majority vote, (which I fully expect to approve the change). Sadly, I will just have to accept it. What this post is about is whether this proposal will benefit the Conservative Party at the polls. The leaders of my party think it will boost our popularity. I don't. So today's spat about comments from ComRes's CEO, Andrew Hawkins about a letter sent by the Prime Minister to my old boss, Cheryl Gillan is particularly interesting. Its also an unusually direct criticism of the PM, accusing him of misleading voters. He says that the letter to Cheryl Gillan used statistics to show that refining the meaning of marriage would make the Conservative Party more popular. However, Andrew Hawkins insists that his polling shows that the Conservative Party loses more votes than it gains, and former Conservative voters are especially less likely to return. Andrew Hawkins also refers to a general detrimental impact on the Party's fortunes. He describes the PM's claims that all polls show more votes support the change in the law than oppose to be simply not the case. I am looking forward to reading reports in tomorrow's papers, challenging these statements. Whatever, I need to have a chat with my old boss about this next week!

Must add that I'm certainly not suggesting that the Government I support should back off doing something because its not popular. Clearly David Cameron, Nick Clegg and George Osborne think redefining the meaning of marriage is absolutely the right thing to do. Perhaps where they all live and in the circles they inhabit there are many who agree. Its just that I don't. And I would be genuinely surprised if a majority of Conservatives where I live do either.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Value of the BBC

Quite often, I disagree with the BBC. I think Auntie is biased in favour of European integration, of wind farms, and almost every 'leftie' fad going. In Wales I always think she's is biased in favour of Plaid Cymru. But its never bothered me at all. Viewers and not daft and they allow for this bias. Always feel that if I answer straight, I get a fair deal and get my message across. And anyway, in a few years time she may be biased in directions I approve of. Despite all the above, I have a deep rooted love for the BBC and am very alarmed indeed by much of what is happening at present.

Personally, I did not think that George Entwistle needed to resign. Its a measure of his decency that he has done so quickly. He knows that a great wrong was done to Lord McAlpine by the BBC, and though he wasn't involved in the decision to broadcast the offending edition of Newsnight, he has decided, because he is editor-in-Chief to take the hit. Its tough, but its sometimes what happens to the person at the top.  I just hope that whoever it was took the decision to broadcast is sacked as well. Such appalling journalism cannot be allowed to remain unpunished. It was driven by prejudice, and it must be rooted out.

I am horrified by the idea that Newsnight should be scrapped. Its my favourite programme. Its the only BBC programme I aspire to appear on (but that only happens to Conservatives in the 'favoured set'). I'm very happy with the New Channel paper review every three weeks. Come to think of it, that's my favourite programme. But Newsnight has been a part of my life for decades - even if I do think Jeremy Paxman sometimes poses like a clever dick prima donna. And some of the other presenters sometimes copy. Give me Eddie Mair any day.

Its important to understand what happened. Someone was so excited by the prospect of a mega-scandal linked to the name 'Thatcher' that normal journalistic standards went out of the window. An innocent man's reputation was shredded. Of course there was no intent to lie and defame in such disgraceful fashion, but such was the scale of sloppiness that the person/persons responsible must be sacked.

But this post is about balance and proportionality. The BBC is hugely respected across the world, and is one of Britain's greatest assets. We must cherish the BBC. While we try to ensure standards, lets remember just how important the BBC is. No doubt there will be a few jumping on the 'Kick the BBC' bandwagon. But I'm not. Bad mistake. Sack the offender. Apologise profusely. Learn what went wrong. Move on. Don't do it again. Its like when a much loved member of the family errs. They are still family and admonition must be balanced with rehabilitation. Come on BBC, hit us with quality and make us forget.

Weekend No 1 - Autumn Internationals

Off we go. Autumn internations time. It may be crazy that our top players are playing so much international rugby, shortening careers and diminishing value of club rugby.  But its unmissable stuff. Here's my first round of prediction.

Wales will bt Argentina. It will be tough and close. Wales will miss physical presence of Mike Phillips, though quicker ball could be important. Will miss Adam Jones even more. Could be behind at half time.

England will bt Fiji easily. Don't expect a pretty match.

France will bt Australia in what should be the match of the weekend.

Ireland will bt South Africa by a point. Irish at home are tough nuts to crack.

Italy will bt Tonga.

New Zealand will bt Scotland, though the Scots will do better than expected. I'll want to watch rugby gods, McCaw and Carter playing. Somehow feel the greatest openside that has ever lived is reaching the end of the road. There is only so much even his amazing body can take.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

No Statutory Regulation of the Press Please

Must admit I am not greatly impressed that dozens of my Conservative colleague MPs are leading a public campaign for some form of statutory press regulation. So far its just a letter which has been well covered on ConservativeHome. It seems that there are 42 names appended to some letter, which has clearly been made public - taking a view on this issue before Lord Leveson has reported. This demand for statutory regulation is backed by words of comfort, such as a free free being needed for a free society. Hmmmm. Not convinced.

It may well be that I will eventually sign up to this opinion (in spirit if not in writing) but I want to know what Leveson says first. What on earth is the point of setting up such a high profile and costly inquiry - and then drawing conclusions before its reported. And I'll want to know what Lord David Hunt makes of it before I commit myself. Now I know a bit more about what a press intent of shredding a reputation can do than most. I've taken a fair bit of stick myself over the years - some of which I considered to be outrageously unfair. It upset me a lot at the time. But I always felt it was a price I had to pay as a leading figure in public life. Even though I just took it on the chin at the time, I'd say that most Welsh people didn't believe it. Its just the way it is. I've suffered a lot of very generous unwarranted coverage as well. The swings and roundabouts of public life.

We do not yet know what Lord Leveson is going to recommend - probably some sort of regulation more independent of the press than now. Don't think it can be unfettered self-regulation. After Leveson reports, we will have to look seriously at this. But I will take a lot of persuading that statutory regulation is the right way to go.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Stirred up by BBC on Organ Donation System

Just watched the  BBC's 'Week In, Week Out' programme of last Tues on IPlayer. The subject was one that I had decided not to say much more about - but the programme has stirred me up. This issue is as controversial as it gets - the Welsh Gov't'd proposals to introduce 'presumed consent' into the organ donation system in Wales. It was a very good programme, and I strongly recommend anyone interested in this issue watch it. It builds on a Dragon's Eye programme, also produced by BBC Wales on the same issue last year - the best ever edition of Dragon's Eye ever broadcast.

I have always been in favour of doing what we can to increase the number of organs available for transplant. I share the desire to do what we can to meet the needs of those awaiting new organs. Its just that I have never believed that introducing 'presumed consent' will increase the number of organs at all, and there is not a shred of evidence to support those who claim it will. I always feel a surge of anger (which I've learned to contain) whenever I hear 'spokepersons' stating that the change will increase number of organs available by 25%. It is simply not true. At least the Welsh Gov't Health Minister has started to say "could increase etc" which I suppose is true even if deceptive.

Worth mentioning how impressive former Conservative AM, Jonathon Morgan was on the programme. Class act - clear, concise, confident, and leaving viewers with the impression that his view was based on evidence - the same evidence that informs my view, and everyone else prepared to study it. And it was clear he knew what he was talking about. Must admit I was a bit alarmed that the Health Minister repeatedly refused to use words that would make clear that next of kin's opinions would be over-ruled by clinicians if the Welsh law is introduced. She made herself sound like a politician trying to hide her true intentions. Left me thinking - So much for 'soft opt-out'.

Perhaps my greatest concern is that a change in Wales will damage the entire UK organ donation system. I am reluctant to become involved in what the Welsh Gov't does, but I do have a responsibility as an MP for the UK system. I have no choice but press the Dep't of Health to study the effects and make public what they calculate will happen, including the dangers. Will begin asking questions on the issue in the House of Commons.

Another concern I have is that I cannot believe that the welsh Gov't has competence to pass a law which so clearly threatens the human rights of individuals. If no transplants are allowed to take place without next of kin approval, I can see that the proposal may fall within Welsh Gov't competence - but not otherwise. As sure as night follows day, an organ would be taken from someone who's next of kin objects and takes a case to the European Court of Human Rights. This proposal, if enacted, will inevitably finish up in the Supreme Court. I have taken no pleasure at all in writing this blog post.