Thursday, 30 April 2009

Nuremburg - and the Queen of Hearts

Returning to the secondary education re-organisation in Carmarthenshire, the Plaid group produced a fairly comprehensive response, setting out why they believed that the council's approach was flawed, and suggesting a series of principles on which a more acceptable approach could be based.

Plaid's leader, Peter Hughes Griffiths, circulated the paper to all the other councillors, and specifically invited the leaders of the two other groups to state what their groups believed was the right approach.

The response of the 'Independents' was pretty predictable. They went for the Nuremburg defence – they were 'only following orders'. Since they claim that the entire policy is the brainchild of the Assembly Government, they have no choice but to agree with it. The problem is, they've been given no such orders. Basically, it amounts to saying that they have no ideas of their own, they'll simply support anything the officers put in front of them – and then blame someone else.

The response of the Labour leader was exceptional, even for Cllr Madge. He advised Peter that the Labour group would make its views known once the decision was taken. It's the Queen of Hearts approach - sentence first, verdict afterwards. For the Labour Party in Carmarthenshire it seems to be a case of 'decide first, think about it afterwards'.

In both cases, it neatly avoids any necessity for the councillors to apply any thinking of their own to what they are doing.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Winning - and losing - by default

There's something quite sad about a Labour Party which has been in power for 12 years trying to fight the next election mainly on the basis of how horrid the Tories were. That's not to say that I substantially disagree with their analysis of the Tory years; I don't. But arguing that you should 'vote for us because we're not them', serves only to suggest a complete dearth of policy and vision.

The Government looks tired and weary; it looks directionless and lost - but rather than try and address those perceptions, they seem determined to reinforce them at every opportunity.

The tragedy is that they are in danger of allowing the Tories to win by precisely the same route. Not because they have articulated a different vision, not because they will make people's lives any better, but purely because they're not Labour. In short, the Labour Party seems likely to lose by basing its whole approach on not being the Conservatives, while the Conservatives seem likely to win on the basis that they're not Labour.

Whether Labour manage to hang on or whether the Conservatives do win as the polls currently suggest - either way, we will have a government which will have been elected largely because it isn't the other party. It's a pretty dismal position for politics to be in.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Is it me?

There was an interesting job advert in the Sunday papers. A 'global organisation' wants a Chief Enterprise Architect in a 'fast-moving, highly operational environment'. The successful applicant will be expected to make an 'effective contribution to our global business'.

Am I the only one who thinks that 'global business' is a less than entirely complete or accurate description of MI6? Still, I suppose it helps to explain what is meant by leading a team of people 'with diverse and exceptional talents'!

Monday, 27 April 2009

Who are the real fatcats?

According to this story today, if they win the election, the Tories will be publishing a list of all public servants who earn more than £150,000 a year – so that we can all see "whether they're worth the money".

But why stop at the public sector? Why not a list of all the bankers and speculators who earn more than £150,000 a year, so that we can consider whether they're worth it too?

Cameron argued that it isn't the top managers who give value for money, it's the frontline workers. But isn't that equally true for private industry?

He said that the high paid public sector workers are "getting rich at the taxpayer's expense". As opposed to the high paid private sector bosses, presumably – so at whose expense exactly are they getting rich?

As citizens, we receive goods and services from a range of organisations – some of which happen to be in the public sector, and others in the private sector. Ultimately, as customers of private companies we pay their salaries too, just as we pay public sector salaries through taxes.

They won't include the private sector of course. But the way the idea was floated tells us that these are the same old Tories at core. Private sector good, public sector bad is a central part of their belief system, and they simply can't help expressing that.

There's certainly an argument for trying to value what people do, and look at what they're getting paid for it; but it doesn't start and end with public sector employees.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Efficiency savings and job cuts

It's hard to disagree with the notion that organisations, including public ones, should do things in the most efficient way possible. So the phrase 'efficiency savings' has a nice friendly ring to it; much nicer than the idea of 'cuts'. In practice, however, they frequently amount to the same thing - the way the government achieves its 'efficiency savings' is simply to cut budgets and tell the budget holders to find a way of managing on less money. Whether they do so by actually achieving the same outcomes for less money, or by changing the outcomes, is entirely down to what they can actually (as opposed to theoretically) achieve.

One of the major elements of the government's proposed efficiency savings in this week's budget is something called 'extended collaborative procurement'. A lovely piece of jargon; but what I think it means is that if public bodies work together to buy their goods and services, they can purchase those goods and services in fewer, bigger, contracts, and they can manage both the procurement process and the implementation of the contract with fewer staff, as well as getting lower prices by buying in bulk.

Simple, and effective; and clearly a genuine efficiency saving. But it isn't the whole story, because there are other consequences of this.

The most obvious is that bigger contracts are more likely to go to bigger companies – and bigger companies are likely to be less local – so money flows out of local economies into the 'headquarters' of the organisations concerned. The jobs in those headquarters are often better paid than the jobs of the operatives delivering the goods or providing the services. And that differential in salaries is one of the reasons why those places which serve as headquarters for large companies tend to have higher GVA per head than those areas which only have the staff delivering the goods or providing the services.

I'm aware of two instances recently where companies headquartered in Carmarthen have lost out in bidding for contracts to the public sector, to be replaced by larger companies headquartered outside the county. I don't doubt that proper procurement processes were followed, and that the public authorities concerned have duly made their 'efficiency savings' by awarding the contracts in the way that they have. But is the decision 'right' in overall terms for the local economy?

There are times when, for a slightly higher cost, and by awarding a larger number of smaller contracts, public bodies can keep more of the money and jobs locally, and the overall effect on local GVA per head will be more positive – and I'm utterly convinced that too many public authorities are looking only at the short term cash savings which can be achieved, rather than at the greater picture.

It's not helped by government – including in this case, the Assembly Government. Whilst the left hand of the Assembly Government (Economic Department) has talked a great deal recently, as a result of the economic summits, of encouraging public authorities to 'buy local' (quite rightly), the right hand (Local Government Department) seems still to be encouraging local authorities to join bigger and bigger purchasing consortia to achieve more and more 'efficiency savings'. They can't both be right – and it isn't what I would call 'joined-up' government.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Is it enough?

There have really been two aspects to the issue of MPs expenses. The first has been whether the rules have been too open to abuse - and the second is whether some honorable members have been too ready to abuse them. For me, the second was always the bigger problem. The rules were laid down on the basis that honorable members could be trusted to behave as such, and the simple reality is that some of them have not.

The government moved yesterday to change the rules, and as far as I can see, the changes they are proposing are, in principle, sensible ones. But will they be enough to stop the obvious abuses which have attracted so much attention? The omens are not good.

I heard an interview with Liam Byrne yesterday, in which a series of specific cases were put to him, with the follow-up question in each case - 'would these changes stop that?'. I was somewhat puzzled by his inability to give an affirmative answer on any count. It made me wonder whether things aren't quite as simple as they might seem. Even the new rules do not really deal with the attitude amongst so many (and not just MPs, by the way) that, if the rules don't forbid it, then it must be OK; and there are elements of the new rules which are likely to be equally open to abuse.

They say that individual cases make bad law. I agree; but good law still needs to show how it addresses those individual cases. This one has longer to run.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Interesting arguments

At the last meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council, the Plaid group tabled a notice of motion, asking the county council to hold a public consultation on a change to the way the county is run. The aim of the Plaid group was to have a management board reflecting the political balance within the council rather than an administration drawn only from one or two groups. (Legal rules require a public consultation before the council can change its constitution in this way).

Unsurprisingly, it was defeated, with every member of the Labour and 'Independent' groups voting the same way as their leaders, against the Plaid motion. But sitting in the public gallery listening to the debate, what interested me most were some of the arguments being put against the idea.

One 'Independent' councillor told the meeting that there was no point asking the public what they wanted, because the Labour and 'Independent' groups had already decided that they would not accept any change. Still, I suppose it's entirely consistent with the council's usual approach to 'consultation'.

Another pointed out that, since being placed in an opposition role, Plaid councillors had dared to criticise some of the ruling groups' decisions. In his strange world, any disagreement apparently means that there is no way of working together.

Yet another claimed that councils which had adopted such a model were inherently unstable - apparently because the cabinet was actually answerable to the other councillors rather than able to proceed regardless.

The Council's sole semi-Tory (he used to be one, but is no longer) argued that for the council to function, someone had to be an opposition. "I don't see how anything can be achieved if all politicians come together" is certainly a novel concept. Working together as a barrier to progress is a new one on me.

I would have happily recorded the thoughts of the Labour Group leader here as well, but I'm afraid that I didn't entirely understand the points he was making. (I don't think I was alone in that respect.)

People in Carmarthenshire still find it hard to understand why a party (Plaid) which doubled the number of its seats last May (to 30) is excluded from power, whilst a party (Labour) which lost more than half its seats and now has only 11 remains in power. The reasons are probably clearer now.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Unfair criticism?

There was an interesting little letter in this week's edition of the Carmarthen Journal from a resident of the Llansteffan Ward, congratulating the councillor for that ward on making his maiden speech in the council chamber.

After only five years as an 'Independent' member, what was the subject which finally inspired him to rise and speak? Ah, that would be the proposed increase in allowances paid to councillors for all the hard work they put in attending meetings and speaking on behalf of their constituents…

It was a little unfair on the councillor concerned though. I'm told that there are other 'Independents', including some who've been there even longer, who have also yet to contribute to a debate in the council chamber. They don't really need to though – once their leader has spoken on their behalf, there's nothing left for them to say is there? They just need to vote. Altogether now, on the count of three, raise your hands in the air…

Friday, 17 April 2009

They still don't get it

The row over the re-organisation of secondary education in Carmarthenshire continues to rumble on. At the heart of the row is the question of who is taking the decisions, with the ruling Labour/Independent administration trying to argue that they have no choice – they are only following the instructions of the Assembly Government.

As I've noted before, it's not easy to get to the bottom of this; the role of the Assembly Government appears to have been muddied somewhat by the participation of officials from the Education department in workshops and discussions with the county council, and the detail of what was said in those discussions is not public.

What I can say with certainty is that there is nothing in the published, official, advice from the Assembly Government which could possibly be interpreted as permission – let alone an instruction – for the county council to merge a predominantly English medium school with a school which delivers 80% of its instruction through the medium of Welsh. In that respect at least, the mantra of the ruling groups at county hall that they 'are only following orders' is demonstrable nonsense.

Underlying the whole situation, however, is an uneasy feeling that the people shaping education policy at both Assembly and County level don't really understand the concept of Welsh-medium education. They don't seem to understand either what it is, or why so many parents opt for it when given the choice. And this lack of understanding is endangering the future of the Welsh language in one of the most Welsh-speaking counties in Wales.

They seem to believe that a single school offering a choice of medium of instruction in all subjects is an acceptable and viable alternative. It is not, and parents who have spent years fighting for full Welsh-medium instruction will not accept such a proposal. Unless and until those responsible for shaping policy either develop the necessary level of understanding or are replaced, Carmarthenshire seems to be set for a major confrontation between policy-makers and parents.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Dirty tricks not unique to one party

The outrage which the Tories have displayed over the antics of Damien McBride, and his attempts to publicise untrue allegations, is entirely justifiable of course. What was being planned and discussed was dishonest, cynical, and completely unacceptable.

By coincidence, whilst the storm was at its height over the weekend, I chanced upon this extract from Paddy Ashdown's autobiography in the Sunday Times. (How sad is reading that?). The final two paragraphs (referring, I believe, to the 1992 election) made interesting reading, given the statements being made on the media by prominent conservatives at the same time as I was reading the paper:

"All this made life for my family even more difficult and seriously undermined my self-confidence, too. That, it appears, was precisely what was supposed to happen – as we discovered after the election, when we learnt that some Tories had imported a group of US activists called “the Nerds”, whose job was to spread malign rumours and make unfounded personal accusations against senior opposition MPs.

"Perhaps this was done without official sanction from the top of the Conservative party. But after the election Kelvin MacKenzie, then editor of The Sun, revealed that at least one cabinet-level Tory minister had approached him seeking to retail scurrilous and untrue allegations against a number of senior opposition MPs."

They say there's nothing new under the sun (or in this case, in The Sun), but it put the outrage into a rather different context. I don't, by any means, seek to justify or support what McBride and others were trying to do – it's a wholly unacceptable approach to politics. But people who live in glass houses really should be careful what they do with their stones…

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Free Thinkers

Carmarthenshire county council's leader came up with a brilliant idea when one item was under discussion at yesterday's council meeting. She suggested that councillors should have a free vote on the issue.

I immediately sensed a degree of consternation amongst members of her 'Independent' group. They're not used to being allowed to decide anything for themselves; they're much more accustomed to performing a regular display of what Old Grumpy in neighbouring Pembrokeshire refers to as 'synchronised voting'. If they had to decide for themselves, how on earth would they know whether they were doing the right thing or not?

Fortunately, they were saved from having to make any such difficult decision, when a way was found to move on to the next item without having to take a formal vote at all.

The relief at not having to take a decision was almost palpable. I do hope she doesn't suggest anything like that again; it might cause a panic.

All the right notes...

The way the ruling group in Carmarthenshire (composed of the Labour Party and the Independent Party) dealt with a motion from the Plaid group at its last meeting brought back memories of the famous Morecambe and Wise sketch with Andre Previn.

The Plaid motion was simple and straightforward – it simply asked the council to conduct a survey of the demand for Welsh-medium education before reorganising secondary schools in the county, so that any reorganisation would be founded on a factual basis. Logical, sensible, and probably something that the Assembly Government will call for shortly anyway.

But they can't be seen to agree with the opposition on anything, so the ruling groups proposed an amendment. Fair enough, in principle – except that this amendment deleted every word in the original motion and replaced it with a completely new motion which didn't even refer to the subject matter of the original motion. As Plaid Cllr Gwyn Hopkins has pointed out, the amendment contains none of the words of the original motion except those that are in common by sheer coincidence. Words like 'this', 'a', and 'the', for instance.

On second thoughts, it doesn't quite fit the Morecambe and Wise sketch. More a case of none of the right notes...

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Messenger survives shooting

I spent much of yesterday at two consultative meetings on the reorganisation of Community Health Councils; one in Pembrokeshire and the other in Carmarthenshire.

The Pembrokeshire meeting was by far the better attended; not just in terms of numbers, but also in terms of people from outside the CHC itself, representing the public and a range of other groups. It was also the most fiery – there were times when I began to wonder whether the civil servant sent to explain the Assembly Government's proposals and listen to the views expressed would escape with his life. But, in fairness to him, he was only the messenger.

There is real concern in the county - mirrored in Carmarthenshire, although one has to say rather less forcibly expressed – about what looks like a more centralised and less locally accountable new structure for the CHCs. And it's entirely understandable. Pembrokeshire CHC was right at the heart of the battle against the closure of Withybush Hospital in 2006/2007, and the feeling locally is certainly that a more centralised structure would not stand up for local interests in the same way.

The Health Minister, Edwina Hart, clearly feels that the current structure is not working as she would like it to operate, and will be even less fit for purpose in the new NHS structure with a reduced number of Health Boards and the abolition of the Health Trusts. But what is currently proposed simply won't do in the eyes of local people.

There are alternatives, such as a looser federation which maintains the current county identity but allows the three CHCs in the Dyfed area to come together to express a common view as well. I very much hope that the Minister will listen carefully to the views expressed locally, and change the proposal as a result of the representations received.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Closed cabinets

One aspect of cabinet government which people often seem not to understand is how little discussion and disagreement actually happens in meetings of the cabinet. The reason, of course, is that most of the real discussion and disagreement happens before anything actually gets to cabinet, by which time it is, to all intents and purposes, a "done deal". So, openly publishing minutes of cabinet meetings doesn't necessarily actually tell us very much.

Given that the normal situation in the UK has been for cabinets to be composed of members of a single party, such a system has a number of advantages – not the least being that the governing party has its disagreements in private rather than in public. I find myself wondering, however, whether the same system really suits a coalition model of government.

Certainly, it enables the government to appear united on all policy decisions, but it also means that negotiations – often tough negotiations – between parties with different values and policies are happening in secret, in a way which is not visible to members of either party outside the inner group within the government. It also means that the little "quid pro quo's" which happen on a daily basis are invisible to most, and that party members - and the public at large – see only those occasions when one party has had to yield substantial ground.

I can hardly deny that Plaid has had a few difficulties recently about one major concession made by our ministers – I was trying to explain the situation once again yesterday on Radio Cymru. It's a concession about which many members are unhappy. Nor can we ignore the fact that when a coalition is made between two parties of unequal size, the smaller is likely to end up making more, and probably bigger, concessions than the other.

I do feel somehow, though, that we're not seeing the whole picture, and that adherence to a traditional and secretive form of cabinet government is part of the problem.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Missing the train

I'm pleased that the UK government seems to be starting to look seriously at extending high speed rail links within the UK. Thirty years too late, compared to the French, but better late than never. But where does Wales figure in all this?

A few months ago, when they wanted to try and attract more widespread support for the extra runway at Heathrow, they suggested a new rail hub which would facilitate extending the high speed links to the South West of England and to Wales. But this latest report – which they must have been working on for quite a few months – exposes the reality that Wales doesn't even figure in their thinking for the next decade or two.

That is wholly unacceptable, but it does indicate how much work the Assembly Government and others will need to do in lobbying London to ensure that we are not left even further behind.

Shoes, not sandals

Plaid had a very good conference at the weekend. There were a number of things which we tried for the first time, and the response was overwhelmingly positive – the conference was a great deal more interactive than it has been in the past.

I took part in a session on blogging, along with Bethan, Heledd, Dyfrig, Huw and Iain, most of whom have already referred to the event. I'm just a bit slower than them. It was interesting to get someone like Iain along who brought a different perspective.

Overall, the mood was very upbeat – very different from the image of the party given by some recent newspaper reports, which seemed to be talking about a different party at times.

Oh, and whatever Betsan might have said, I was definitely NOT wearing sandals. It's the other John Dixon, from Cardiff, who's a member of the Lib Dems, not me. She was correct in her assessment of the conversation, however - it was entirely amicable.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Polls and Predictions

I'm always wary about believing the results of opinion polls, even when they look like good news, such as yesterday's. I find polls most useful for the trends they reveal over a period rather than for any specific predictions made on the back of s single poll. All parties commission polls from time to time, and whatever the publicity given to a 'good' result, it's the trends which all of us are really looking at.

Polls taken at an all-Wales level are simply not accurate enough to give a valid prediction at constituency level, because of the size of the sample involved. And that's particularly true in Wales where voting patterns are very different across the country.

Some have rubbished yesterday's poll because it was commissioned by Plaid. Superficially, that sounds like an easy way out; but provided a poll is carried out professionally with unbiased questions by a reputable polling company, and without those being polled being aware of the identity of the paymaster, then there is no reason why polls commissioned by any party should be any less – or any more – reliable than polls commissioned by, say, the BBC.

The real concern of some the other parties is likely to be that polls which they have commissioned are showing them the same trends.

So leaving aside the suggested results at constituency level, what the poll seems to me to be highlighting is that opinion in Wales is not moving in the same direction as it is in England. The Labour vote is holding up much better in Wales, and the Tories are making significantly less progress here than across the border. And the trend towards increasing support for Plaid is continuing. No real surprise in any of that is there?