Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Let's see the follow-through

One very good point coming out of the transport plan was the recognition that transport planning needs to be integral to the planning for other services.

Intervention 5 sets out very clearly that the government will "ensure that transport planning is a part of the development of 21st Century Schools plans and the transformation of post-16 education, and that transport planning decisions support these plans".

If the government are really serious about this – and if it isn't just a vague statement of intent - than the Government will be obliged to reject Carmarthenshire's proposals for secondary school reorganisation in the Dinefwr and Gwendraeth areas, which have taken little or no account of transport issues.

My colleagues on the county council have already called for the county to rethink its proposals in the light of the Transport Plan, but based on history, I have zero expectation that the Labour/Independent coalition will waver for one micro-second. Hopefully, the Assembly Government will be more resolute in sticking to its stated policies.

It's an acid test of course – there's no point making such statements unless they are followed through into hard action.

Getting Pembrokeshire back on track

This week's announcement of the Wales Transport Plan by Ieuan Wyn Jones contained much that is good and should be welcomed. At a strategic level, I am convinced that transport policy in Wales is starting to move in the right direction, with the emphasis switching from road building to improving public transport.

That's not to say that I'm entirely happy with it though, and there is one issue which jumped out at me. The plan continues to argue that the 5 mile stretch of single rail track between Gower and Loughor is a major pinch-point, and that it restricts the potential growth of passenger traffic to the west of Swansea.

This is, to put it bluntly, simply not true. There is no reason at all why services should not run along the alternative, already dualled, Swansea District Line, which effectively bypasses Neath and Swansea, as well as bypassing the single track section of line in question. Indeed, a small number of services already do use this line. Working with our colleagues in Preseli-Pembrokeshire constituency, we put together a clear and comprehensive case for the use of that line, and refuted totally the argument that there is any dependency on the Gowerton line.

Services to Llanelli and Carmarthen, and more especially to Pembrokeshire, which receives a much less frequent service from Whitland (where the line splits, as shown in the picture) onwards could be increased significantly with no investment at all in track – the investment we need is in rolling stock. The real dependency is not on the single line stretch, but on the insistence of government and train operators that all trains to West Wales need to stop at Swansea. That is, of course, a completely different argument.

It's not an argument that convinces me, however. We did not propose any reduction whatsoever in the services to and from Swansea – what we proposed were extra services to the far west which simply bypass Swansea completely. Longer term, there's the potential for another Swansea station on that alternative route – a parkway station at the M4 service would be ideal – but for people travelling between West Wales and Cardiff, say (or further east), those extra services could be easily introduced now.

This is an issue where we locally will not accept the conclusion of the plan – we will continue to campaign and pressurise for a better rail service for Pembrokeshire.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Care homes campaign

There has been a campaign group in Llanelli for some time now, organising the campaign against the possible closure of council-run care homes. Last night, there was a very well-attended meeting in Carmarthen to establish a similar group in the town.

The council's position is that the 'task and finish' group set up after their previous proposals were soundly thrown out by scrutiny committees is still working on the issue, and that we should all wait for that to complete its work before getting too excited. But then, they do generally prefer that we all wait until after they've taken the decision before commenting - at which point, it's usually too late. Somehow, I don't think that the relatives, staff and others are going to sit back and wait until the council has decided to close them before they start making their voice heard - and they're absolutely right not to wait.

I find it difficult to believe that the council's leaders will really try and come back with the same proposal again, but from the responses that I've heard from the leader and others in council meetings, I simply wouldn't put it past them. They're certainly still using the same arguments.

One of those arguments is that demand will drop as more and more people opt to try and continue living in their own home. But there's a huge gulf between the number who would like to go on being independent and the number who are capable of remaining independent. And the council's projections are open to great question anyway - they openly admit that every year for the past three or four years they have underestimated the demand for adult care, and consequently overspent the budget for that department.

They'll need to demonstrate a much greater capacity for accurate forecasting before anyone will believe their projections.

No advance knowledge...

It was only last Friday, at the Question Time session in Narberth, that one of the questioners asked the panel why the budget announcement of more rate relief for small businesses applied only to England, and why nothing similar had been announced for Wales. The questioner obviously had no advance knowledge of yesterday's announcement by the Welsh Government - and neither did any of the panellists.

My response was that Darling had no power on the matter in England, and had not discussed his budget with the Welsh Government in advance, so that there was no way at all that the Welsh Government was able to respond instantly. Yesterday's announcement that the Welsh Government will indeed use the extra cash to provide more rate relief for small businesses in Wales is welcome.

It won't help all businesses of course, but it will do a great deal for a lot of the smaller businesses in this part of the world.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Shellfish and question times

Another question time session on Friday night, this time in Narberth, organised by Planed. It was the third to date, and there are currently another four in the diary between now and the expected election on 6th May.

I enjoy the sessions, and usually come away having discovered something else that I need to swat up on. In this latest session, it was European Union directives on shellfish, and the associated bureaucracy. Not something that anyone's ever asked me about before...

Pink chinos and Barbours

It was no surprise to see that Carmarthen West and South Pembs featured on the hit list of seats to be targeted by supporters of hunting. The Tory campaign locally is largely funded by hunt supporters, and this one issue is the prime motivation for the Tory campaign. (Although the candidate continues to follow his own advice and avoid all mention of the subject).

I hadn't realised, though, that I should expect them to be dressed in pink chinos. But now they've been warned that they can be thus identified, I guess they'll resort to some sort of cunning disguise. All suggestions for other means of identifying them will be gratefully received.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Ring fencing

The E-coli outbreak five years ago was a very serious matter, and justified the holding of a public inquiry. But public inquiries are only of any real value if lessons are learned. From the Consumer Focus Wales report published on Tuesday, it appears that not enough has yet been done.

One particular point which emerges from this is the question of resources – who supplies them and how they are used. There seems to be a difference of opinion on whether adequate funding has or has not been supplied to councils; but whether the funding was adequate or not, it seems not to have been directed to the necessary activities.

Consumer Focus Wales argue that this topic is so important that money must be ring-fenced to ensure that it is spent in the way required. I think this raises two issues.

The first is that merely ring-fencing the extra cash doesn't necessarily ensure that it achieves the desired result. To ensure that the money really is extra, the whole budget for relevant activities probably needs to be ring-fenced, otherwise authorities can simply add with one hand and take away with the other.

The second issue is that merely spending the requisite amount of money does not, of itself, guarantee the outcomes required – and I think it's the outcomes which are more important to us.

The whole issue also takes us back to the point I've raised a few times recently – what is local government for, and what is the right balance of centralisation versus local control?

In the case of food hygiene, central government already sets the standards and rules under which it operates. If it is also going to decree exactly how much each council spends on the issue, and how that is spent, and then monitor performance, what exactly is the input from locally elected democratic representatives? If the answer is, to all intents and purposes, none, then why not say so and run a single national food hygiene service?

I'm not necessarily advocating that, simply pointing out that that is a logical outcome of ring-fencing money. On this issue, as on so many others, we really need to decide whether, and to what extent, local variations are acceptable - if we decide that they are not, then there is no real value in pretending that this is a locally run service.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

How long is long?

Nick Bourne claims today that "Welsh Conservatives have long called for a review of the Barnett formula and a proper needs-based assessment of funding for Wales".

I wonder what 'long' means on planet Tory. In 2007, when the Holtham Commission was being established, Bourne had this to say about the formula, "There is no harm in looking at it, but I am not convinced, as they are, that this is necessarily bad news for Wales."

Interesting that he quotes Cameron, too, as saying that "even Lord Barnett says it’s coming to the end of its life". Actually, Lord Barnett has been saying for a number of years that the formula is already well past its sell-by date, and that he had never intended it to last more than a year or two in the first place.

Some of us really have been banging on about this for a long time, but trying to suggest that the Tories are amongst that group looks like another attempt to re-write history, as they realise just how far behind they've been left.

A public service for Wales

It's easy to attack the salaries of senior public servants – and the public sector seems at times to have a knack of providing easy targets. It's a lot harder to decide how much they really should be paid.

We certainly need competent people at the top of any organisation - but I've had enough experience in both the public and the private sectors to know that high salaries are absolutely no guarantee of competence - in either sector.

Comparisons with the private sector are pretty meaningless in a lot of cases, given the differing nature of the jobs requiring to be done. Whilst there is some movement between the sectors, I struggle to find any real evidence that people are bleeding from the public to the private sector in search of higher salaries. Not that they're not seeking higher salaries; it's more the case that the private sector wouldn't want a lot of them, for reasons to do with relevant experience or culture.

I don't really believe that there would be large numbers of senior public sector jobs left unfilled due to lack of applicants if the level of salaries hadn’t risen so rapidly in recent years. Finding the indians to fill the low-paid jobs has long been a problem, but I'm not aware that there's ever been that much of a problem finding the chiefs.

Yet, for all that, we've seen an almost relentless rise in the salaries of the chiefs in recent years, and the revelations this week about the growth in the number of high paid officials in the Welsh Government are part of that pattern.

One of the reasons given, i.e. so that "senior civil servants working for the Assembly could communicate on equal terms with their counterparts in Whitehall departments" astounded me at first sight. Then I thought about it, and actually, I can quite believe that some of the mandarins in Whitehall would disdain to talk to people on a lower grade than themselves. It quite fits with my perception of a lot that's wrong with the civil service culture in London.

That doesn't mean that increasing the status and salaries of civil servants in Wales is the right response, though! That amounts to an acceptance of the culture and an attempt to fall in with it, instead of challenging it.

Rather than fitting in with outdated status and privilege conscious Whitehall ways of working, Wales would be better off developing a public service structure of our own, encompassing central government, local government, and other public sector bodies such as the health service, and creating a new and different ethos of public service. And, of course, setting the top salaries in line with Welsh needs, rather than slavishly aping London.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Only half a job, Dave

Cameron's promise to clean-up the lobbying business is a good sound bite, but looks more than a little insincere and incomplete to me. It's also highly partisan, aimed at departing Labour figures. Stopping MPs and Ministers from taking up lobbying jobs when they leave office is an obvious move, which most people will support.

But how about movement in the other direction? What about all the lobbyists standing for election – mostly, but not exclusively, as Tories? Is there no possibility that they are being paid good salaries by lobbying companies, not so much in the hope of influencing the present government from the outside, but more in the hope of influencing the next one from the inside?

Perish the thought. But no chance of Cameron taking action on that, I'd guess.

Campaign funding

'True' Wales seem to be getting a little bit worked up about the conditions which might apply to any campaign funding from the Electoral Commission for the forthcoming referendum. It's interesting, but somehow not all that surprising, that an organisation which has argued that holding a referendum at all is a costly waste of money should now be trying to maximise the amount of money which it might receive from the state as part of the process.

They're staking their claim from the outset to be the officially funded anti campaign, but on my reading of the rules, there doesn't actually need to be one at all. The relevant legislation allows, but does not oblige, the Electoral Commission to designate an official campaign on either side, and allows, but does not oblige, it to fund both campaigns up to a set limit. The only obligation is that if official campaigns are to be designated and/or funded, then there must be equity of treatment between the two sides.

It is perfectly possible for the Electoral Commission to decide not to designate or fund an official campaign on either side, and it seems to me that there is a very good case to be made for taking precisely that decision.

In the first place, any referendum is going to be held against a background where politicians and politics, and the funding thereof, are held pretty low in public esteem. That, in itself, is sufficient ground to argue that the pro and anti campaigns should fund themselves rather than depend on the taxpayers.

It's also the case that the Commission is likely to find it very difficult to identify and designate any group which is able to campaign honestly against the proposal. We don't, of course, know what the question will be yet, but however it is worded, the choice before us will be whether we stay with the current arrangement, or whether we implement Part 4 of GOWA 2006.

To date, I have seen no evidence of any group or campaign which is prepared to campaign openly and honestly for the retention of the current system. Most opposition to the proposition on the table is based on an entirely different set of arguments. I can't really see any good argument for the taxpayer to fund any group which wants to run a campaign against a completely different proposition.

The Commission may argue that in distinguishing between the funding of organisation and staffing on the one hand, and literature on the other, then they would not be funding material which is irrelevant to the referendum. It's a specious argument to me, since more money means an ability to fund more propoaganda by diverting money which would otherwise have been spent on organisation and staffing. The distinction does seem to be part, though, of what has upset 'True' Wales. Better by far to avoid the problem completely, and give no taxpayers' money to either side.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Power clawback?

I'm not entirely sure what to make of the article by Darren Millar on WalesHome today. Is it a statement of opinion by one individual Tory AM - or is it clarifying and adding detail to the statement made by Cameron - which would make it a great deal more sinister?

The basic analysis – i.e. that a government which has responsibility for the spending side of the balance sheet but not for the income side has no real incentive to wealth creation – is one that I can understand, even if not entirely agree with.

It assumes that governments will only work for wealth creation if they are directly incentivised to do so, rather ignoring the possibility that some politicians might actually do so because they believe it to be right for Wales. I can forgive him that to an extent – most Tories seem to have an inbuilt belief that people will only do what they are incentivised to do. That's one of the fault lines between the political right and the political left.

What is a good deal less clear – and I'm not entirely sure that this isn't deliberate – is what solution is being proposed. The obvious solution would be to give the Assembly Government at least a degree of control over the income side as well. It seems increasingly likely that Holtham will recommend something along those lines, given the report of the Calnan Commission.

Yet Darren Millar ("This is not the same as advocating Assembly powers for raising taxes") seems to be specifically ruling out that option. So what actually is he suggesting? A funding formula which includes "elements which provide incentives for wealth creation" sounds to me like a conditional funding arrangement under which the Treasury only passes money across to Wales if the Assembly Government achieves a set of targets set by London. And that in turn sounds like a major clawback of power from Cardiff to London.

That brings me back to my opening question. If this is just a statement of opinion by one individual Tory about the nature of the relationship between Cardiff and London, then it's no real surprise. I'm sure that it's in line with what many Tories believe - Cardiff needs to be reined in. But if it's a clarification and amplification of what Cameron meant when he agreed that the funding formula needs to be looked at, then it takes on a much more sinister meaning.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Faster action is possible

Last week's figures for the jobless numbers in Wales led to criticism of the Welsh Government by its political opponents. I suppose that's inevitable. To some extent, supporters of the government may have almost invited such a response by some over-enthusiastic cheer-leading for the government's Pro-Act and Re-Act schemes earlier in the recession.

We really need a calmer and more balanced assessment of the situation than using monthly numbers of jobless totals for political point-scoring – in either direction.

People start with an expectation that governments have more influence over the economic situation than is actually the case, and when things are going well, governments encourage this expectation by claiming credit for anything and everything. They should not be surprised if they then find it hard to convince people that 'it's nothing to do with me, guv' when things are not going so well. The truth lies somewhere in between.

As an example, I don't think it's fair to argue that Labour are entirely responsible for the economic catastrophe which hit us after the banking scandal (they can't really be blamed for sub-prime lending in the USA, nor for the short-selling of bank stocks, for instance). But neither can they escape all blame, given that they allowed the markets to do these things with no attempt at regulation as long as they were raking in the taxes, and were building up an excessive deficit even before the bail-outs.

Closer to home, the Assembly government cannot really be entirely blamed for the continuing job losses in the Welsh economy as the recession continues to impact on us. But neither can they entirely escape all responsibility for what is happening in the Welsh economy. (And it's really unhelpful for people to try and argue that the economic situation in Wales shows that 'the Assembly' is a failure, and should therefore be scrapped. This is an issue for government, not the legislature.)

I happen to think that Pro-Act and Re-Act have been a little over-hyped; but that doesn't mean that they were the wrong thing to do. In fact, coupled with the series of 'economic summits' convened by Ieuan Wyn Jones, they showed that a Welsh Government has the capacity to respond quickly and innovatively to situations which arise, and that's an important foundation on which we can build for the future. The approach also earned plaudits from those involved, and a degree of envy from some over the border. As a nation, we're sometimes too quick to see the negative, and ignore the positive.

How much difference the schemes have actually made is something which I hope will be the subject of a proper study in due course – it's too soon to give a final judgement at this stage. Some of the grants made, particularly to larger companies, look a little strange to me; but I do not doubt that there are a number of smaller companies in particular which have been enabled to keep people on at a time when they would otherwise have had to shed workers.

The real question revolves around what else the Government could and should have done - bearing in mind the limitations placed upon it in terms of both finance and powers. It's easy for political opponents to criticise, but where are the constructive alternatives? What would they have done differently?

For my part, I don't think that the government have gone far enough in looking at business taxation – they've certainly not gone as far as Plaid argued that they should in our 2007 manifesto. They don't have the power to cut Corporation Tax, but I do believe that they could and should have done more on the business rates issue, whilst recognising that that would inevitably have had implications for other spending commitments.

The refocusing of economic development activity away from inward investment and onto growing indigenous SMEs is happening, but it's overdue, and happening too slowly for my liking. It seems to me that the biggest problem is a cultural one – too many strategies and too much consultation rather than getting on with it. A harsh criticism perhaps, but one which I would equally make of the UK government in the same context. What we've not yet learned to do is to fully capitalise on the opportunities that devolution gave us to be more fleet of foot and more flexible.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Tourism Week

Last week was Tourism Week, and as part of that, I had an interesting day out with Pembrokeshire Tourism on Friday. During the day, we started with a presentation on their activities, and then they took myself, Henry Jones-Davies (Preseli-Pembrokeshire candidate), and Nerys Evans AM to see some examples of local visitor businesses of different scale and nature across the county. They've previously arranged similar sessions with other parties as well.

It's very encouraging to see the range of activity, and the willingness to invest and expand facilities which will both attract more visitors to the county and generate new jobs. Particularly encouraging was the way in which they're anticipating the move to 'low-carbon' tourism and trying to prepare for that.

On Friday night they organised an event for local politicians to answer questions from those involved in the promotion of the county and for businesses in the sector. This was the second time for the four candidates in the constituency to appear on a panel, although this time we were also joined by the MP for Preseli-Pembrokeshire and a Labour Regional AM. I think it's something we're going to be getting used to - I already have another five dates in the diary between now and the expected election date for similar panel discussions.

A good range of issues came up, but not unexpectedly one of the biggest for companies in the sector is the huge increase in business rates which some of them are facing.

It's a crazy system of business taxation in the first place. Raising taxes on the commercial rental level which businesses would have to pay for their premises bears no relation to either ability to pay, or to the use which the businesses make of local government services. And it is a direct disincentive to businesses to invest in improving their premises or facilities to improve the customer experience, because if they do so, thay're likely to get hit by a large tax hike.

The current system was introduced in something of a rush, of course, when the then Tory Government was forced to back down over the poll tax, but it is no credit to governments of either party that it has lasted as long as it has. And at a time of recession, the rates increases stemming from the revaluation exercise are a bit like rubbing salt in the wound.

Businesses need urgent action in the short term to mitigate the effect of the rise, but I think it's also time to take a step back and ask ourselves what a fair system of local taxation on businesses would look like. It's entirely fair that businesses do pay some sort of contribution towards the services provided by local government, because they do benefit from those services. It would be difficult though to ascertain how much use each business makes of the services.

For me that leaves only one fair and workable option - a tax based on ability to pay, reflecting the profitability of the businesses. It wouldn't be universally popular, of course. There would be winners and losers - some highly successful businesses would find that they would be paying even more under such a system. But that is surely prefereable to a system which is in danger of forcing otherwise viable enterprises out of business - a result from which there are no winners, only losers.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Dastardly plots

Back in the 1970s, I was out canvassing in Barry when one resident told me that he wouldn't vote for Plaid, because "that Gwynfor Evans has got a guerrilla army in the hills". I pointed out politely that Gwynfor was a fairly vociferous pacifist, not exactly the type to lead an army of any sort, to be told in no uncertain terms, "that's just a front to cover up what he's actually up to".

It's the sort of way in which people, when faced with a fact which doesn't support their own preconceived notions, simply turn that fact upside down in some way, so as not to disturb the equilibrium of their beliefs.

The incident came to mind last week when I came across a UKIP supporter. He told me that devolution was all a dastardly plot by the 'Common Market' to divide and conquer the UK. I pointed out that, actually, Plaid had been agitating for a Welsh Parliament for at least 80 years, well before anyone had ever thought about establishing the EU, only to be told "but no-one took it seriously until we joined the Common Market and 'they' started pushing it".

There's not much that one can say in response to that, is there?

Thursday, 18 March 2010

All parties agree - or do they?

End of term spirits are obviously high at Westminster these days. Ministers are putting even more effort than usual into scoring points rather than answering questions. Mind you, some of the questions are just mischief making in the first place.

Take Cheryl Gillan's question to Peter Hain about the date of the referendum. Does anyone really believe that she's so anxious to get on with it that she wants Hain to make the decisions now? Of course not – she'd just prefer that the decision was taken by him so that it doesn't end up in her in-tray if she should find herself inheriting his desk. Much easier to blame the other lot when her own, strongly anti-devolution, back benchers start acting up.

On the other hand, there was never any danger that Hain would actually take the decision before the election. If Labour lose the election, he can then blame the other lot for whatever happens thereafter; and if they win, then there'll almost certainly be a different Secretary of State. Either way, he can, just by sitting on the issue for a few weeks more, avoid facilitating a referendum which he's on record as saying won't happen for a few years.

However, part of his answer went a bit further, because he said "This is a matter for consideration after the general election, all parties agree on that." This sounds like another of Hain's "I said it so it must be so" statements to me. I think that most us knew from the outset that it was a decision which was never going to be taken before the election; but that isn't at all the same thing as agreeing that it couldn't or shouldn't be. Recognising that the intransigence of one member of one party makes something impossible isn't the same as agreeing with him.


The principle of consulting with people before adopting a particular proposal or course of action sounds like one of those 'good' things to do. So good that it's become a statutory requirement in all sorts of circumstances, and a requirement, at that, which causes delay and cost before implementing any proposal.

Now, if the consultation is genuine, then there's a reasonable argument that allowing time for comment and input before making a final decision makes it a reasonable cost to pay in a democracy. Far too often, however, 'consultation' has become a meaningless process during which documents are published and people respond before the consulting body carries on and does exactly what it was planning to do in the first place - usually claiming an increased validity as a result of the 'consultation'.

It can also help to disguise where and how decisions are being taken.

I've mentioned previously that two scrutiny committees in Carmarthenshire rejected a proposal to close four care homes. The council's response was to argue that the committees did no such thing; they merely rejected a proposal to go out to 'consultation' on the plans. Technically, of course, they're right. But had they proposed going out to consultation on a range of possible options, then I'm pretty certain that they would not have lost the vote in the way that they did.

It was one of those examples where there was only one option on the table, and after the consultation, the council's Executive Board would have simply rubber-stamped and then implemented its decision. It's a sad state of affairs when the only stage at which councillors could put a stop to a bad proposal was when they were asked to approve it going out for consultation. It underlines the powerlessness of the average councillor under the Executive Board system.

It's not uncommon though. Most of the 'consultations' launched by county councils and the Assembly Government seem to be of the same nature - a process which has to be gone through but which will not make any difference to the outcome. I'm not sure that I'd want to argue that the 'consultation' phase should be abandoned; but unless it is meaningful, it really does look as though it adds cost for no real benefit in most cases.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Energy Statement

When the Assembly Government published its Green Jobs Strategy, I noted that it was a good strategy, but did not fill me with much confidence that it would actually achieve the objectives. My main reason for saying that was the document was full of words like 'promote', 'support', 'encourage', and 'facilitate'.

Reading the same government's 'Energy Policy Statement' yesterday filled me with a sense of déjà vu. Once again, we have a document full of very worthy and supportable aspirations, but the firm proposals for implementing them are likely to prove inadequate.

The idea of being able to meet the whole of our energy needs from renewable sources within 10 to 15 years is a challenging target, but one which we should certainly adopt. The question is, however, is the content of the Statement going to be enough to achieve that? I doubt it, and for a number of reasons.

The first, of course, is the question of the Assembly's powers. Some of the necessary actions will require decisions elsewhere, over which Wales has no control, and seems unlikely to gain control in the same timescale (they're not included in the powers which would flow to Wales following a successful referendum under GOWA). That is no excuse for not doing other things, but inevitably places limits on what Wales alone can achieve.

The second is the degree to which reduction in energy consumption depends on individual actions taken by people across Wales, something which the Government will urge and encourage, but cannot guarantee.

The third is funding. A number of the actions set out in the document require additional funding in the short term, even if there is a good payback in the longer term. How achievable will this be at a time of financial constraint? Or, to ask the same question in a different way, how much priority will be given to this spending?

The fourth, and probably the most significant, is that the construction of new renewable energy plants is left to the private sector; and there is nothing in place which will prevent the private sector from deciding to invest in more profitable opportunities which are not low-carbon – such as the CCGT power station currently being constructed at Pembroke. No amount of urging and encouragement will outweigh the profit motive if these key decisions on what generating capacity is to be built and where are left to the private sector.

One other point that struck me as I read the document is that it deals at a very high level with total consumption, and shows how Wales' total needs can be met from production in Wales. What was less clear to me is whether the needs can be met at the time that they arise – i.e., does the plan guarantee that power will be available as and when needed to meet peak demands, or is there an unstated dependency on the rest of the National Grid (i.e. England) supplying power (presumably from less 'clean' sources) to meet the peak demands, with clean Welsh electricity being exported off-peak in return?

I have a rather uneasy feeling about the answer to that question. The plan seems to allow for the 'intermittency' effect when calculating the total amount of electricity to be generated, but even if we really do succeed in producing twice as much energy as we are expected to need, there is no guarantee of always being able to meet peak demands. It's not an impossible question to answer in producing an energy strategy, but the question of 'storage' of electricity doesn't seem to figure at all, and without that, I'm not entirely convinced that the plan is achievable at a Wales-only level.

That all sounds pretty negative as a reaction, but actually, the statement is a very useful step forward in showing what is achievable. The weaknesses which I see it in it highlight the need for two things which the plan does not currently propose. The first is a much more directive and interventionist approach to deciding what capacity should be built and where, and the second is an integrated approach to 'storage' of off-peak electricity in order to able to meet peak demands.

And both of those are, in one sense, closely related. They underline that energy strategy is too important to be left to the whim of the free market.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Not efficiency at all

The coverage of, and reaction to, the report of the Auditor General has inevitably concentrated on its headline message about the need to reduce staff in the public sector. The overall conclusion is that the sector somehow needs to deliver more for less.

How practicable is that, in reality? I was interested in the conclusions of the report on the mass of so-called 'efficiency savings' which the government and local councils have claimed to be making over recent years. The key sentence for me was:

"The report has also highlighted concerns that 'efficiency savings' have all too often resulted in cuts to services rather than any real improvement in efficiency."

I can't say that I'm in the least bit surprised. Indeed, it chimes very much with a point I made some time ago. The phrase 'efficiency savings' is one that politicians - of all parties - seem to like. Just like cutting waste or reducing 'red tape' and 'bureaucracy' (or motherhood and apple pie) it's something that no-one can really argue against.

However, the way it is implemented is usually for a budget to be cut and the relevant budget holder told to manage on less. How that is achieved is up to the budget holder, and more often than not, the savings owe more to reducing (or 'redefining' - another good jargon word) the services being provided, rather then delivering them more efficiently.

The Auditor General has bluntly summarised what a lot of us knew already - that an awful lot of public sector 'efficiency savings' are nothing of the sort; they are cuts to the services being provided, just re-labelled to sound like something rather less unpleasant.

Does it matter?

At one level - no, not really. We all know that there is a need to re-evaluate priorities, and some of the savings being made (cutting the grass less often, for instance) are hardly major threats to the quality of life for most of the population. But at another level, I think it does matter. Politicians who pretend that budgets can be cut purely or largely as a result of being 'more efficient' or 'cutting out waste' are being less than honest with the electorate.

Public bodies which simply list all their budget reductions as 'efficiency savings' make it difficult for the public to identify where there are real cuts being made. And it's hard to have a proper discussion about priorities if politicians continue to give the impression that budget cuts can be somehow painless.

It would be nice to think that the report of the Auditor General, in highlighting the transparency of the politicians' cloaks, might usher in a more honest debate about the effect of budget cuts. I won't hold my breath, though.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Competing for customers

More and more counties are now preparing their plans to re-organise secondary education at the behest of the Assembly Government, and it seems that more and more counties are going to find themselves in the sort of battles which people in Carmarthenshire have been fighting for many months already.

Although not all the councils are coming up with completely identical solutions, the similarity of approach seems to me to undermine the oft-repeated claim by the Assembly Government that this is not being driven from the centre. I have suspected for some time that whatever is being said publicly, this is, in practice, a central agenda, being driven by a combination of carrot and stick.

Part of the rationale, of course, is the Measure passed by the Assembly under which it has been decreed that all pupils must have a choice of at least 30 subjects in years 12 and 13. Whilst there are good arguments for ensuring a wide range of choice, ultimately the figure of 30 is pretty arbitrary. Why not 29, or 31?

But the effect of the number is highly significant, and is leading directly to the closure of some sixth forms, and the merger of others. It's been set at a level which effectively guarantees that counties will have to close or merge a number of smaller secondary schools. I do not believe that is merely coincidental. It's surprising that this arbitrary decision has not been more strongly challenged.

Another factor is the way in which FE colleges were given such a high degree of independence that they are now directly competing with schools for 'customers' (pupils or students to the rest of us!). Yes, that's right, in some of our most rural areas, where critical mass is so important in enabling viable numbers on courses, we have two sets of institutions competing for students, and offering the same courses in the process.

It's set to get worse. Although, in theory, schools and FE colleges can collaborate to reduce duplication, it seems to me that, on current direction of travel, FE colleges – currently looking at mergers and consolidations anyway - will be subsumed into HE institutions in the fairly near future. The result will be that 'school' education finishes at year 11 (GCSE year), and education beyond that happens at multi-campus HE institutions.

That may be the right thing to do, although I happen to be highly sceptical about it. But my real concern is that it is happening by stealth, without adequate public debate or scrutiny.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

How far they have fallen

Lord Adonis is absolutely right to call for both sides in the BA dispute to resume talks. Discussion is ultimately the only way of seeking to resolve any industrial dispute, and the inevitable disruption which will result from a strike is something no-one really wants. I can't believe that anyone - least of all the staff who will lose pay - really wants to see the strikes go ahead.

Adonis is also entitled to hold, and to express, his own views about whether the strike is or is not justified, although I'm not convinced that doing so is necessarily helpful to the settlement of the dispute. But the phrase that really struck me was towards the end of his interview today, where he called on the union to "put the company first".

A Labour minister suggesting that the proper responsibility of a trade union is to put the employers' interests ahead of those of its members is a staggering indication of how far that party has moved away from its roots.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Carrots and sticks

In a recent debate about how to change lifestyles in order to reduce the dangers of climate change, a point came up about giving people incentives to do the right thing. I wonder whether we don't need to turn that round, and start talking about increasing the cost of doing the wrong thing.

It's quite a tough call for a politician to make, and I can easily see why so many avoid the question, and keep harping on about incentives. Making some things cheaper, rather than making others more expensive, is always likely to be the most popular option.

But making some things cheaper always involves an element of cost to taxpayers – either through direct subsidy or else through some sort of tax break. The first increases the expenditure; the second decreases the income – both will only add to government deficit. At a time of healthy government finances, it's possible to do more on the incentive side of the equation. At a time of rather poorly government finances, we may be unable to provide all the incentives that we might want to provide.

That can leave us with a pretty stark choice – either do nothing, or else deliberatly increase the cost of those things which we need to stop doing or reduce the frequency of doing.

As an example, I believe that we should make more use of rail travel for many journeys, and less use of air travel. Increased public investment in rail, and subsidies to keep train fares low are both things that I support. But I also support ending the anomaly under which petrol and diesel are subject to fuel duty, but aviation fuel is not.

The first is likely to be popular; the second rather less so. I really do think though that the days of considering only the carrot are inevitably going to be constrained by the financial crisis, and we should not be afraid to say that.

Thursday, 11 March 2010


Passing the buck is not unique to the public sector. I can remember working for one company where I was expected to waste hours of my time arguing whether costs should really be in my cost centre or someone else's, when I felt it would actually be more productive for me to spend that same time trying to improve the overall bottom line.

But, when bonuses and targets are set on the basis of departmental targets, the result is to encourage behaviour which works against the overall greater interest. Something similar happens in local government...

Another of Carmarthenshire's wizard money-saving wheezes is to stop maintaining public conveniences and pass the responsibility to town and community councils. The move will apparently 'save' £100,000 each year, and is one of a number of plans the county council has to 'allow' town and community councils to take over services currently provided by the county council.

It's not really a saving at all of course – it is merely a transfer of cost from one public body to another. But I suspect that we can look forward next year to hearing the council leader praising her own council for its good management in reducing costs, whilst attacking town and community councils for the likely increases in their own council tax levels to pay for the transferred services.

This is no saving at all – it's not even a particularly clever conjuring trick.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

What day of the week is it?

I've mentioned a few times before that the Tories locally seem to have a particular problem with numbers and mathematics. It seems that the problem also affects their grasp on the calendar. The above is taken from the calendar which they kindly distributed to households in the constituency. I'm told that people found it quite useful, until we got to March, when confusion set in.

It's the first time that I've been able to accurately and honestly claim that a political opponent doesn't even know what day of the week it is.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Rationalisation and centralisation

The collapse of plans for a number of local councils to pool certain functions has inevitably led for calls from some to force local councils into co-operating. The Western Mail editorial leads the way with a suggestion that if councils won't share functions voluntarily, then the number of councils should be reduced.

There is a question here about whether the proposed rationalisation should ever have been restricted to local government anyway. If we want a single centralised payroll system for ten councils, why not for 22? And why not include the NHS? Why not, indeed, a single payroll system for the whole of the public sector in Wales? What makes one particular combination 'right' and others 'wrong'?

As I blogged recently, I don't necessarily disagree with the notion that Wales has too many councils, and should re-organise them, but I think we need to start by asking what they are for. The problem with most of the calls for a reduction in the number of councils is that they seem to start from a pretty subjective statement such as "Wales doesn't need 22 Directors of Education", rather than from the question "What's the best way of delivering education services in Wales?".

And it isn't just about education, of course. Local government provides a whole range of services - on what basis do we start with the assumption (which is where most seem to start) that the best way of delivering one service is the best way of delivering all services? Does the structure for delivering education need to be the same as that for delivering leisure services, for instance?

We have an Assembly government with highly centralising tendencies, which is regularly reducing or constraining the scope for local government to add value and make a difference. It sometimes seems to me that differences between Wales and England are considered by some to be perfectly acceptable, but differences between Cardiff and Newport are not.

I find it fascinating to see some arguing for allowing the Assembly Government to do things differently, and then arguing that that same government should enforce a standard approach across Wales' local authorities. This is a particular challenge for those like myself in parties which have traditionally called for more decentralisation. Real decentralisation has to be about more than passing money from the centre to the local authorities and then telling them exactly how to spend it.

I'm not against a reconsideration of local government structures - far from it, I think it's overdue. But we need a proper review, not a knee-jerk reaction. And I think that, as Plaid said in our 2007 manifesto, we really need to look at the governance of Wales as a whole.

Monday, 8 March 2010

The Ashcroft Loophole

At first sight, the announcement by the Electoral Commission last week seemed to be saying that there was nothing at all wrong with the donations made to the Conservative Party through Bearwood Corporate Services (BCS). However, when one looks at the detail, it seems to be, as the Sunday Times put it yesterday, more a case of 'not proven' than 'not guilty'.

The paper went on to say:

'The commission made it clear that it had been unable to find out exactly where the money donated to the Tories by BCS had originated. Papers had been destroyed and the commission had been “unable to obtain any meaningful information” from a Belize company that owned shares in BCS.'

In short, many months of investigation by the Commission have not got to the bottom of the matter, and that has been a result, in no small part, of the Tory leadership being evasive and obuscatory, the relevant Tory officers and staff refusing to attend interviews with the Electoral Commission, and those others directly involved in the matter being singularly uncooperative.

Even the key finding, which is that BCS was 'trading' in the UK, and therefore eligible to donate seems to skip over the fact that the donations were definitely not the result of that UK trading. This seems to expose something of a loophole in the law. On this basis, any company which processes at least one invoice for goods or services supplied in the UK can then proceed to donate millions of pounds without having to disclose where those millions came from.

I don't know what the expectations of those passing the law were, but I would have thought that they would have supposed that a company would be making donations from the profits on its UK activities, yet BCS appears to have made massive donations even when trading at a loss.

In fact, BCS seems to have created millions of new shares in itself, sold those shares to another company or companies in the Ashcroft empire, and used that new-found capital to make its donations. Since the shares were not traded on any open market, it's hard to calculate their worth at the time of their purchase; but the decision to then donate the capital raised to the Tory Party effectively rendered those shares worthless thereafter, since the company had turned capital inflows into revenue outflows.

This loophole, which effectively allows donations from overseas which would be illegal if made directly to then become legal, needs to be plugged. It makes a complete mockery of the law, and politicians exploiting loopholes to avoid the intention of the law should be ashamed of themselves.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Still Digging

The news that Cameron didn't know about Ashcroft's tax status until this week, and that Hague didn't know until a few weeks ago, is pretty astonishing, given that questions and rumours have been circulating for so many years. After all, his lordship has been a key member of the top campaign team for several years and has an office as part of the Conservative HQ structure; successive Tory leaders must have been talking to him on a fairly regular basis.

Yet, assuming that the current Tory leader is telling the truth (and I think we should), we are effectively expected to believe one of two things.

The first is that Cameron (to say nothing of Hague, Duncan-Smith, and Howard before him) never felt that there was any need to ask Ashcroft the question, despite it being asked of him on a regular basis. He preferred to ride out the regular criticism and questioning than to ask one simple question. If this is true, it's diffficult to avoid the conclusion that he had a pretty good idea what the answer would be, but preferred to retain what Nixon memorably called 'credible deniability'.

The alternative is that he did ask the question, but was told to mind his own business, a response which he quietly accepted and did nothing more about. I find it hard to believe either of these, but surely one or other must be true.

All parties, from time to time, have people who for one reason or another are a potential source of embarrassment. I've always believed that it's better in the long run to risk a bit of bad publicity for trying to deal with a problem when it comes to light than to risk a great deal of bad publicity by turning a blind eye.

It looks very much as though four successive Tory leaders have preferred to attempt to ride out the storm for a whole decade - blinded by the vastness of the fortune directed their way. At the moment, I seem to be hearing the sounds of chickens coming home to roost.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Economic Renewal

There was quite a lot of comment last week about the article from Ron Jones of Tinopolis. And the article itself was certainly hard-hitting. But was it entirely fair?

Certainly, drawing attention in a forthright way to the fact that, after all the time and effort directed towards trying to strengthen the Welsh economy, we are still lagging behind is a fair point to make. And I also tend to agree with his assertion that the public sector 'stole' Objective One, although I might not have put it quite in those words. It certainly did not get spent in a way which lifted Wales long term economic performance, which was supposed to have been the original intention.

His comments on the ways in which Wales has suffered from the centralisation which followed nationalisation, and his criticism of attempts to shore up failing or doomed industries also strike a chord.

I do think though, that in some ways, he (and even more so, some of those who have responded to his comments) seems to have looked at the issue over too short a timescale, certainly when it comes to criticising the performance of the Assembly Government since 1999. And I really do think that it's unfair to simply try and pin the blame on the current incumbent at the relevant ministry - and I don't say that just because he's a Plaid minister.

I'm not saying that there aren't some valid criticisms of government policy to be made - merely that the problem has been with us for a long time, and that expecting the situation to be turned round in such a short time is unrealistic. That said, it is surely clear that a change of direction is needed. Carrying on with the policies and approaches of the past was probably inevitable during the first years of the Assembly, but we should have identified and started out on a new direction by now.

On solutions, though, Ron Jones' article was more than a little lacking. It's always easier to criticise what others are doing than to suggest an alternative - that's something which politicians know only too well, of course.

I share at least some of his concern about any government responding by producing yet another strategy – I've previously expressed concern myself about the plethora of strategies and the dearth of clear action plans. Part of that reflects a limited ability to act in some areas, but it would be a mistake to try and hide behind that. However 'Ready, Fire, Aim', is not likely to serve us much better than 'Ready, Aim, … er… that's it', and we need at least some idea of what it is we're trying to achieve.

My biggest worry about the Economic Renewal Programme is not the fact that it is happening, nor the unfortunate wording of the first objective (an open goal for Ron to shoot into), but the fact that it is planned to take up to nine months to complete before it can be implemented. That smacks a little of excessive concern for the partnership and lengthy (and ultimately meaningless) stakeholder consultation of which government seems to be so fond, rather than the short sharp exercise which any private sector organisation would undertake at this point. Nine months is more than enough time to refocus and reorganise an entire multi-national corporation – and to do so at least twice.

For me, the key elements of any revised strategy for driving economic growth in Wales have already been identified by Ieuan – a switch from dependence on trying to attract footloose multi-nationals to an emphasis on nurturing and developing local enterprises, and an emphasis on building growth around industries and activities which support rather then undermine our commitment to reduction of the carbon footprint. Sounds very simple, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the significance of those two changes in terms of economic policy.

Our biggest need is to get on with it – on that much, at least, I can agree with Ron Jones.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010


I don't think anyone would claim that Michael Foot was the most successful leader the Labour Party ever had, but he was the most honest and principled. Labour's election defeat in 1983 is popularly ascribed to his leadership, but I've always felt that to be unfair. There were a series of reasons for Labour's defeat that year. Anyone who argued for the sort of radical policies which Foot espoused was always going to be battling against the press barons as well as the Tories from the outset.

His championing of the disarmament cause was something which I always admired, and he held to his views on that when most of his party deserted the moral high ground in search of electoral success.

I heard him speak several times, most notably during the 1979 referendum campaign, when he was on the 'right' side, and deployed his oratorical skills in support of the establishment of an Assembly.

I only ever met him once. A group of us were protesting outside some event or other (as one does) at which he'd been speaking, and he came across to speak to us afterwards. We mentioned the issue of a Parliament for Wales, and he fixed us with a stare and said something to the effect of, "I've been voting for a Welsh Parliament since before you were born". Put us in our place.

Welsh Labour MPs of his day were more very much more prepared to say what they thought than the voting fodder that seems to inhabit parliament today, and he was a giant amongst them. Wales, and Welsh politics, was the poorer for his retirement from parliament. We could do with more like him - in any party.

Avoiding both tax and the question

After ducking and diving for 10 years, Lord Ashcroft has finally admitted what most of us suspected all along – he doesn't pay full UK taxes. It's still not entirely clear whether his donations to the Tories are from his UK earnings or from the overseas earnings on which he's avoided paying UK tax.

The Electoral Commission are still investigating whether the company used to make most of the donations is actually trading in the UK or whether it's just a device to channel money from Belize to the Tories, which would otherwise be illegal. Their investigation has taken a long time. It could have taken less, of course, if the Tory leadership had not been so "evasive and obfuscatory", presumably in the hope that all would not become clear until after the forthcoming election.

The proceeds of Ashcroft's tax avoidance do not seem to have found their way directly into local Tory coffers, but their own annual accounts reveal that staff from Ashcroft's office are regular attendees at their campaign meetings. Of course, they do not need money from Ashcroft locally, because they are largely financed from the proceeds of hedge funds with the single objective of repealing the Hunting Act.

(As I've noted before, one of the advantages of the way in which hedge funds are generally structured is that the profits are treated as being capital gains rather than income, and therefore taxed at a lower rate. It's another legal form of tax avoidance, and one which Plaid are pledged to stop.)

What I found hardest to believe was Cameron's response to Ashcroft's revelation. The first part was that everything is all right now, because after 10 years of ducking the question, we now know the truth, and the second is that there are one or two Labour donors who make use of the same tax avoidance loopholes. Wrong on both counts.

Finally admitting that one of their donors is avoiding UK tax on a massive scale, and pointing out that others do the same is not enough to excuse it. The second part simply means that Labour also have questions to answer; it's absolutely no reason to condone the practice.

After all that's happened recently, it just amazes me that they still don't get it. They really don't seem to understand why anyone would think that there's anything at all wrong with someone who avoids paying UK tax on most of his income sitting in the UK legislature and using his money to influence the results of a UK election.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Honesty in debate

'True Wales' (all of them, I suspect) came to Carmarthen on Saturday to distribute some of their leaflets. As they told anyone who would listen, what they really want is to abolish the National Assembly entirely, but that won't be on the ballot paper in the forthcoming referendum.

Their leaflet (English-only, of course) is the usual mixture of lies, distortions, and non-sequiturs in which they seem to specialise. Of the six points which they make in their leaflet, four are arguments against Independence, one is a complaint about the Convention having been a tax-payer funded 'yes' campaign, and the sixth assumes that everyone who didn't vote 'yes' in 1997 was against the Assembly. It's more of a rant against the idea of Independence and the Welsh political elite (the UK political elite are fine, apparently) than a reasoned argument for retaining the current system.

So what?

It isn't honest politics of course, but if they're funding their own leaflets, I don't see why they shouldn't be free to say whatever they like, however distorted and dishonest it is, and however much it angers those who read and react to the obvious lies.

But at some point, there will be two 'official' campaign groups, and the campaigning of those two groups needs to be directed to the issue in hand. On the 'yes' side, those of us who favour moving to Part 4 of GOWA face a difficult task in explaining the difference and the advantages of moving to legislative powers in one step instead of salami style. And those in the 'no' camp face what I think is the even more difficult task of trying to defend the status quo. It's easy to see how the 'no' side in particular will find their task easier if they try to campaign on an entirely different question.

However, there is provision under the legislation for public funding to be made available to both official groups. At that point, the question of honesty and relevance in the campaign material becomes very significant. Any publicly funded campaign organisation should surely be expected not to publish outright lies at public expense, and to keep to the brief - in this case, explaining why they believe that the current structure is right for Wales.

There seems to be a widespread assumption that 'True Wales' will become the nucleus of the 'no' campaign. I think they've already disqualified themselves. I have to admit that I'm not sure what happens to the provisions for 'official' yes and no campaigns if no credible option exists on one side.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Wrong, wrong, and wrong again

I sometimes wonder if people inside the Labour Party really understand the effect that Peter Hain can have on their political opponents. For such a tribalistic and antagonistic individual to suddenly discover that there is a 'progressive consensus' with Plaid to such an extent that Plaid's supporters should hold their noses and vote Labour is simply not credible. If it's a deliberate Labour tactic, they would have been better advised to deploy a more consensual politician to deliver the message.

His appeal is wrong on three levels.

His appeal is entirely one-sided. He suggests that people should switch to Labour where necessary to defeat the Tories; but nowhere does he accept the converse - that in other seats, Labour voters should similarly switch to other parties. (Adam Higgitt at WalesHome has defended this in the comments thread, arguing that there are many fewer seats in this category. Maybe – but if you want to project the idea that you're talking about any sort of 'consensus' politics, at least presenting it as a two-way street would surely be more likely to succeed).

It's ultimately a very negative approach to politics. Vote against what you don't want, rather then for what you do want – that's the nub of the message.

But most of all, if the Labour Party want to depend on people's second or third choice vote, then they've had 13 years in which they could have introduced a change to the voting system which might actually achieve the result that they want. They've chosen not to do that – and not even to talk about it until it's too late to be more than a vague promise for the future.

The net result is that, instead of opening a possible conversation about the extent of any consensus and how it might be possible to capitalise on that, Hain has managed to project Labour as an arrogant party who feel that they are entitled to the votes of anyone who doesn't like the Tories. The fact that that was probably done unconsciously rather then deliberately serves only to underline how far the attitude of some people in that party needs to change if they want people to believe that they are serious about working with others.