Saturday 28 June 2008

More on Post Offices

Talking about post offices must be starting to look like something of an obsession, I'm sure. But with 25 down for closure across Carmarthenshire - a wholly disproportionate share of the 2,500 for the whole of the UK – and a six week consultation period, it is inevitably very high on the agenda locally.

Last night I was at a meeting in Llangathen, in the Carmarthen East constituency; this time as an interpreter to provide a simultaneous translation into English for the benefit of those not able to understand Welsh.

It didn't surprise me to find that the Labour parliamentary candidate was issuing a leaflet opposing the closure. What was a bit of a surprise, however, was to find that it used the same design and wording as those issued by the MP for Carmarthen West - only the village name and the name of the publisher was any different. I had naively assumed that it was a local campaign by Labour in one constituency; it now looks like a co-ordinated campaign across a wider area.

I thought it was bad enough in one constituency to be arguing in favour of the plan, but against every individual closure; to be doing so on a widespread basis across the country starts to look like pre-meditated dishonesty. And they wonder why people are cynical about politicians.

PSAs with any good campaign, there are always moments of comedy. My second favourite to date was Dai Trelech, the 'character' who represents the Trelech ward on the county council, referring to the outreach service as the 'out-of-reach' service. But the best has to be the report by the post office on Llansteffan post office which said that the nearest branch was only one and a half miles away – in Ferryside. That's one of those pieces of information which is perfectly true, but utterly useless (except to a crow) unless someone is proposing to reinstitute the long-gone ferry service.

Thursday 26 June 2008

Another day, another post office

On to Talog last night for another extremely well-attended meeting. Talog is another small village facing the loss of its post office. Taking the post office closure proposals as a whole locally (Llanboidy, Trelech, Talog, Blaenwaun), there's a huge sweep of the northern part of this constituency which will be left with no fixed post offices at all, just a travelling van.

We had the usual speech from the local MP about how he supports the plans and processes in principle, but the post office have got this particular one wrong. I now have a collection of three near-identical leaflets from him explaining why it's wrong to close _____ post office, and in all of them he claims that the post office is "forgetting the most important factor ( the future of ___ Post Office...) - the wishes of local people".

Er, no, Nick. Not the post office – your government told them the criteria to use, and that wasn't one of them. The post office isn't allowed to take people's wishes into account – if it were they would never achieve the government-imposed target of around 2,500 closures, because no community 'wishes' its post office to close. Neither was the impact of the changes on the environment one of the factors involved – particularly the extra travelling that people will have to do.

Ultimately, that's why this whole consultation process is badly flawed – because the consultation isn't about the programme, or the decisions already taken on which that programme is based, or the criteria used to make those decisions. It's limited to which post offices should close, with the inherent danger that we end up pitting communities against each other instead of making common cause against a bad government decision.

What's in a name?

It wasn't just the Carmarthen River Festival which had to be cancelled as a result of raw sewage being discharged into the Tywi; the Laugharne Regatta suffered the same fate. And it has been claimed that four minutes of heavy rain is all it takes to trigger the problem.

Now a group of 15 organisations has come together specifically to campaign for a clean-up of the river. I wish them every success, and we will of course be supporting their campaign. It is unacceptable that our rivers should be so readily used in this way.

I do have a slight reservation, however, about the name that they've chosen for the group. Carmarthen Residents Against Pollution has a nice ring to it; but newspaper editors may wish to hesitate before shortening it to an acronym.

Tuesday 24 June 2008


Adam Price makes quite a splash today with his story about the Independence Initiative. Adam also made very similar points in his article in Golwg last week, which is posted on his website.

I've said before that I'm personally not in the least uncomfortable with arguing for Welsh Independence, so Adam's comments certainly meet with approval here. But it is something that we've not paid enough attention to in recent years, a point which Adam makes well.

In fact, Adam brought a range of exciting proposals for future campaigning work to the last meeting of the NEC, and got an enthusiastic response to everything that he said (but no, I'm not going to reveal it all here), including his proposed Independence Initiative. So I was more than a little surprised at the suggestion in the Western Mail's report that "some in the party's hierarchy are likely to see it as an unwelcome distraction". Is there another party hierarchy outside the National Executive of which I remain blissfully unaware, or is this just trying to suggest dissent where there is none?

I've never understood why anyone in Plaid would be in the least afraid to argue for our vision for our nation – after all, the fact that we have such a vision is probably the one single thing which most marks us out as being different from the rest.

Monday 23 June 2008

Many a slip

I found myself on Radio Wales' "Called to Order" on Friday evening, just before taking myself off to Trelech. One of the topics for discussion was the little verbal slip made by Alun Cairns a week or so ago.

There can be no doubt that what he said was unacceptable. He should have known better, even in what was a pretty light-hearted exchange, so no defence was forthcoming from this quarter for what he said.

But most systems of justice recognise that there are degrees of wrongdoing; some things are worse than others. In politics, however, it seems to be becoming the norm that any slip by any individual leads to the other parties, and the media, baying for blood; and there is a danger that people will be so afraid of being caught out saying the wrong thing that they will end up saying very little at all, unless it's been carefully scripted by Party HQ.

It is right that political parties should use their disciplinary processes to deal with transgressions; but are there also occasions when the electorate can be left to make their own judgement on an individual? And how should we decide between the two?

In this particular case, it seems to me that both the verdict and the sentence on Alun Cairns will have more to do with the image which Cameron wishes to portray than with any cold and careful assessment of the words actually used, the context, and the degree of offence caused. People may or may not feel that it is the 'right' verdict and sentence; but the process of arriving at it looks rather dubious to me.

From Llanboidy to Trelech

Another big turnout from the local community on Friday night, this time in Trelech, another village whose post office is earmarked for closure. The community centre was packed as people made their views known on the post office's plans. In the case of Trelech, it seems beyond doubt that, if the post office goes, so will the only shop in the village, which will become unsustainable without the post office salary.

Our local MP was there, ready to help the village oppose the closure. But hold on, isn't it his government that's behind the closures? His line is an interesting one, outlined in Llanboidy a week ago and repeated in Trelech. He fully supports the plans of the government to make the post office a viable business, and to oblige the post office to close 2,500 offices. But the post office have got it wrong by picking the wrong ones, so it's their fault, not the government's. Used for one post office in one village, it might be credible; applied to every village where there is a campaign to keep the post office open, it starts to look a bit like "I'm in favour of closing post offices, as long as they're in someone else's constituency".

The point is that we face a very simple choice. As long as politicians and governments are wedded to the idea that the post office must become a viable, profitable business as though it were in the private sector, then closures are inevitable. The debate we're having in village after village is purely about which offices will be sacrificed to achieve that. The debate we should be having is whether the post office is also providing an essential service for which we should be willing to contribute from our taxes. That would be a much more meaningful discussion.

Thursday 19 June 2008

Wrong dilemma

Whilst disagreeing with the detail of what Peter Black said in response to yesterday's post, he's right to suggest that Plaid do face something of a dilemma. Actually, we face a number, but making tough decisions in government is just about the least of them. (And as an aside, I'm really not sure that I'd say deciding how many health committees there should be is about 'taking a tough decision' either).

Here are two for starters:

In Plaid, we draw up our policies through a democratic internal process, culminating in the decisions of our annual conference. There is much that needs to be done, and much that we would like to do for Wales and her people. But when it comes to preparing an election manifesto – and even more so, when it comes to preparing a coalition programme for government – we have to make compromises. We have no option but to recognise that not everything which we would wish to achieve is possible within a single term – and not everything which we wish to achieve will be acceptable to a coalition partner.

Making such compromises does not change our party policy one iota. Our first dilemma is always about how to present a long term vision of the future that we want for our nation, whilst being realistic in the promises we make for a single term of government. The other parties wouldn't recognise this dilemma, and don't suffer from it – because none of them really seems to me to be much troubled by the idea of a long term vision.

The second is this; in government, our ministers inevitably have to make decisions at a detailed level on a day to day basis. To what extent should I, or other candidates, be bound to support them? This is a complex area, but I do not believe that I serve either my party or the people of the constituency that I seek to represent if I become a clone in the style of New Labour politicians. I support the content of 'One Wales', but there's a lot of detail to be added to the bones when it comes to government decisions. And if I think that there's a better way of doing that than is being suggested by Ministers – of either party – then I shall say so, particularly if the issue is open for consultation anyway. The alternative – simply parroting ministerial statements – would make this blog a little boring, wouldn't it?

Wednesday 18 June 2008

Not healthy enough

I’ve been spending some time reading the Assembly Government's consultation paper on the proposed Health Service reorganisation in Wales, mostly to try and understand what impact it will have locally. The One Wales agreement included a commitment to ending the internal market in the health service, and the proposed changes seek to implement that commitment. In that respect, at least, I welcome the proposed changes. It’s also good to see a government consultation document which has been written in a style which makes it digestible and comprehensible, with some of the detail available in backing papers rather than incorporated into the text.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are the right changes, however. During the Assembly election last year, I argued three things as a candidate, and I inevitably find myself comparing the proposals with what I, and Plaid, said at the time. Apart from anything else, I gave people a very explicit commitment that I would not say one thing before the election and another afterwards, unless I had very good reasons that I was able to explain.

I said then:
  • That agreement on the configuration of services locally was a more important priority for action that re-arranging the management deck chairs.
  • That there were too many bodies running the health service in Wales, and that a thorough review was needed to determine the right number, but that that was not my first priority. Plaid proposed a commission to study the whole question in detail rather than urgent piecemeal action.
  • That it was important to take an integrated view of services – one of the problems with the proposed reconfiguration of secondary care at the time was that it was predicated on the increased provision of primary care for which there was simply no viable plan.

Looked at through this prism, I find the proposals at this stage to be more than a little disappointing.

On the first point, we still do not have the clarity that I would like to see on what services will be provided where. Whilst in the short term, the proposed reconfiguration was halted, there are still legitimate concerns about the long term future of Withybush hospital and the services to be provided there; embarking on a reorganisation is likely to divert attention from the questions on which people locally want real, hard answers to the questions which SWAT and others have raised.

We have direct experience of ‘diverting attention’ locally, where five former bosses at Ceredigion Health Trust have claimed thet the merger which created the new Hywel Dda Trust was "rushed and chaotic". They allege that there have been delays, a lack of consultation, and failure to appoint key staff. The experience does not bode well for what looks like another round of piecemeal change.

On the second point, this proposed reorganisation will certainly reduce the numbers of health bodies, but the final number proposed looks to have been arrived at by accident rather than by design.

And on the third, whilst the proposed changes remove the unnecessary division between 'commissioners' and 'providers', they seem to be strengthening the split between secondary and primary care providers, which appears to me to be a potential new source of conflict. The original rationale for having 22 LHB’s was that they would be co-terminous with the county councils in order to ensure effective co-working. Removing that co-terminosity leaves another potential question over the way in which the county councils' social services departments relate to the health providers. (Unless this also presages a re-organisation of local government...).

Overall, therefore, I am unable to support the proposed changes, and have submitted comments accordingly in response to the consultation. Whether people agree with my view or not, I would urge people throughout the area to submit their own views to the Minister.

Tuesday 17 June 2008

Countryside Front?

It's natural enough that, when they need help, people turn first to their elected representatives. The meeting at Llanboidy last Friday duly included a top table with 10 people on it:- the Chair, two people from the post office, one from Postwatch, the local MP, the local ward councillor, three AM's - and the Countryside Alliance. I had been told in advance that candidates such as myself would not be given a platform, which was a perfectly fair and reasonable decision, given that the main purpose of the meeting was to hear local views. Sometimes, people can have more than enough of politicians!

However, surprise, surprise, the Tory candidate popped up on the platform after all – as the representative of the Countryside Alliance. Some of his comments were overtly party political, and he was clearly working closely with the official Conservative spokesperson at the meeting.

I'm sure that he would argue that there is a degree of crossover between the views of the Alliance and those of the Conservative party. But if people were to believe that the Alliance is little more than a Conservative front organisation locally, it would utterly discredit the organisation of which he is the highly paid Chief Executive (£100,000 according to the 2005 financial accounts). And I wonder how supporters of the organisation, who come from a range of backgrounds, would feel if they thought that their membership fees and donations were being used to pay someone to campaign for election as a Tory candidate?

Monday 16 June 2008

Llanboidy United

There was a magnificent meeting in Llanboidy on Friday, where some 250-300 local people came together in an attempt to save their post office. There were a number of politicians there, of course, but what absolutely shone through was the huge effort being made by the local community themselves to save their facilities.

They had even produced a DVD which included a presentation which forensically challenged many of the post office's assertions, and a series of interviews with local people about the importance of their post office. The Post Office asked for a copy, and I hope that they will study it very carefully indeed.

This is a campaign which deserves to succeed, and if it does succeed, it will be first and foremost because of local community action. I'm sure that some politicians will attempt to claim credit for any success - but it was obvious to me, and I'm sure most of those there, who will really make the difference.

Mathematically Challenged

The Tories have been busy this week distributing leaflets on behalf of their parliamentary candidate. His little letter claims that "the Council results showed that this seat will be a two horse race between me and whoever is the Labour candidate". These were the elections in which Plaid won 7 seats in the constituency, Labour 3, and the Tories and Lib Dems managed one each.

Now, I don't think that the council results are actually that good an indicator of parliamentary outcomes, but if they were, they would suggest that the Tories are indeed in a two-horse race - with the Lib Dems to see who comes last. I happen to think that that is nonsensical as the Tory statement - but then I'm not making the ridiculous claim.

One has to ask whether someone who either has so much difficulty with simple arithmetic, or is prepared to make statements which are at such obvious variance with the truth, should be standing as a serious candidate for political office. Do you really want an MP who tries to tell you that 1 is a higher number than 7?

Wednesday 11 June 2008

It's consultation, Jim,

…but not as we know it.

The post office closure programme has now reached Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, with a total of ten post offices across this constituency earmarked for closure or downgrading. It’s already rolled through Powys, as Glyn Davies has posted on more than one occasion. Closing the post offices is only part of the danger. Many post offices are operated as part of local shops; the post office salary often makes the difference between viability and failure; so it’s not just post offices that we could be losing.

What’s really staggering is how little real scope there is for local views to influence the process. All the key decisions have already been made, and they’ve been made not by the post office, but by the government. The government has decided how many post offices will close, the government has decided that the closures will be compulsory rather than by agreement, and the government has set the criteria for closure. (The government, of course, is the only shareholder in the Post Office.)

The Post Office have been left holding a consultation exercise in which the only real question is whether they’ve selected the right ones to close, and in which the grounds for challenging those decisions are very limited. It’s hardly a meaningful consultation exercise about an issue which will have a major impact on a large number of rural communities.

Listening to representatives of the Post Office explaining the process and their decisions to community councillors last night, I was reminded of the words of Aneurin Bevan – “There is no reason to attack the monkey when the organ-grinder is also present”. The problem is that on this occasion the organ grinder was very much absent, obviously happy to let the monkey take the flak (with no disrespect intended to the Post Office representatives).

Of course our post offices are facing some real problems as the number of people visiting them has fallen and the amount of business which they transact has reduced. Again, however, the hand of government lurks behind much of this. It isn't an accident that services such as TV licensing were removed from Post Offices; it’s a deliberate decision. Government, and its agencies, have chosen to use services such as PayPoint in preference to using post offices. And the threat of removing the Post Office Card Account from post offices is another potential blow.

It is claimed that the government are acting to reduce the £150 million subsidy which they pay to the Post Office. However, the value of services withdrawn from Post Offices by government decision was £168 million in 2006/7.

Closure isn’t an inevitable fact of life, but it is an inevitable result of government decisions, past and present. A truly meaningful consultation, and a truly meaningful commitment to protecting post offices would involve a review of those government decisions, not an assumption that they are inviolate. We need the organ grinder to listen as well.

PS I don’t know quite what to make of the Tories’ position on this issue. They are making a lot of the right noises, but how sincere are they? They did, after all, close 3,500 post offices themselves when they were in government, and they are still banging on about reducing government expenditure (such as the subsidy being paid to post offices?) and taxes. So how would they fund the network?

Monday 9 June 2008

A Conservative Obsession

On Friday, I met with a couple of local animal aid activists, who wanted to know my views on a range of issues associated with the Hunting Act. As a candidate, I get a range of invitations to discuss specific issues with all sorts of groups, and always try and oblige.

Hunting is an issue which can be difficult for candidates in elections. Both sides of the argument hold strong and passionate views, and the gap is not an easy one to bridge. My response on issues like this one is simply to state what I think. I know that I can never please everyone, so I just try and give people information on my views, and let them make their own judgement. Some will agree with me; others will not. And there are differences of opinion within all parties, as well as between parties.

On this particular issue, my position is a very simple one. I do support measures to allow the control of wildlife, particularly in support of agriculture, and I do support the killing of animals for food. I do not support the hunting and killing of wild animals purely for 'sport', and I think that whatever methods we use to catch and kill animals should be as humane as possible.

Hunting is likely to be made something of an issue in this constituency come the General Election, of course, not least because the Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance is the Tory candidate. (Although, for some reason, he chooses not to make mention of that rôle on his election material, despite it carrying a salary of around £100,000 a year. He prefers to describe himself as a former chartered surveyor. Quite curious really). And, of course, Cameron has said (as Evidently Chickentown posted, although the blog seems to have completely disappeared) that if he is elected, he will hold a vote on repeal of the act. Inevitably the anti-hunting lobby will also therefore concentrate a certain amount of their effort on the constituency as a result, so, as I said, it will be an issue.

In the series of questions that I was asked, one in particular stands out for me as being a very good question indeed, and one on which I can only guess as to the correct answer:

“As the Countryside Alliance (CA) states that more people are attending hunts but are operating within the law, hunting jobs have not been lost, horses and dogs have not been put down, in your opinion since the 2004 Hunting Act why does it appear to you that the Conservative Party and the CA wishes to repeal the Act and what are the hunts now missing that they wish to repeal the 2004 Hunting Act?”

Indeed. I don’t know why the Tories are so obsessed with the issue. Even their candidate has himself said that there are 1001 more important issues to the countryside. I for one will be concentrating on the top few of those, rather than on number 1002!

Thursday 5 June 2008

Uncomfortable? Not I.

A letter in yesterday’s ‘Western Mail’ suggested that “many senior party figures do not feel comfortable in advocating independence”, despite it being the party's stated aim. As far as I am concerned, I beg to differ. I think I can count myself in the broad category of “senior party figures” (although it’s not a term I’d use in such an egalitarian organisation) but I have no problem whatsoever in supporting and advocating the party’s aims, and am not in the least afraid to say so. And I don’t do so just to "please a hard-core of party activists”; I do so because I believe that it is the most appropriate status for Wales to seek.

There has, of course, been a long-standing debate in the party about using the word 'Independence', and the word is one which many have traditionally shied away from. I have some sympathy with that position – not because I disagree with the aim, but because ‘Interdependence’ is a much better description of the relationships between states in the twenty-first century. That looks to most people, however, to be something of a semantic rather than a substantive argument, which is why the use of the word ‘Independence’ eventually became inevitable for the party.

Whether it is called ‘Independence’ or ‘Full National Status’, the party’s position is quite clear, and it didn’t change one iota as a result of espousing the I-word. We seek full membership of the European Union and the United Nations on the same basis as any other state. We seek the same status in the world for Wales as that enjoyed by Ireland or Denmark for instance.

There is, of course, a question of timescales. I’ve been a member of the party for close on 40 years, and I don’t think that there’s ever been a significant element in the party who honestly believed that Wales would or could sensibly move from where we are to full independence overnight. It has to happen in stages; we need to build the institutions of government which have been lacking in our nation for so long, and take on responsibilities in an incremental way.

Above all, constitutional progress in the direction which Plaid seeks can only happen with the informed and explicit support of the people of Wales themselves. In that context, I reject the view that because the majority of people in Wales do not currently support the aims of Plaid Cymru, that we should therefore change the aims. Phil Williams used to tell the story of how a man in Bargoed came up to him and said, “If only you’d drop this talk of self-government, Plaid would sweep the Valleys”. But what would we then be for?

I believe that it is the job of any party which has a vision of a different future to seek to lead public opinion on big issues rather than to follow it. Parties which merely follow public opinion all end up saying the same thing, and elections become nothing more than glorified beauty contests. And we would still have hanging and flogging as standard elements of our justice system.

Wednesday 4 June 2008

Who's the real winner?

When it came to the election of a new leader for Carmarthenshire County Council, Plaid’s group proposed Peter Hughes Griffiths against the incumbent, Meryl Gravell. It is, of course, no surprise that Mrs Gravell won, with the support of the 'Independents' and the Labour Group guaranteed in advance. Only the Plaid group supported Peter in the vote, as might be anticipated.

But the Plaid group insisted on this being a recorded vote, so that the names of all of the councillors who voted for each of the candidates would be recorded, and known to all. It seems that this has caused not a little distress to some of the 'Independent' members of the council.

According to the 'Clecs' column (sorry, not available on-line - you'll have to come to Carmarthenshire and buy a copy!) of the Carmarthen Journal, one of them approached the editor furtively, pleading with him not to publish the list (although I'm delighted that this did not diminish the editor's appetite for publishing the details!). “It would mean,” said the councillor, “that all the people who elected me would see how I voted”.

Indeed. It’s called open democracy. But why would (s)he be so worried?

Firstly, of course, because Peter is well-known and highly respected throughout the county for his work in a variety of arenas, not just his political commitment to Plaid Cymru. Whereas Mrs Gravell is, shall we simply say, not exactly the county's favourite person.

And secondly, because some of the ‘Independents’ have done their best to convince their electorates that they are really Plaid supporters at heart, and are free to vote in the best interests of their communities.

I can fully understand why they would not want people to know that they voted for Mrs Gravell rather than for Peter. But they have only themselves to blame for the inevitable electoral consequences of their actions.

Tuesday 3 June 2008

Dib Lemming

That’s the name of a Lib Dem blogger from Pembroke who seems to have gone rather quiet recently. But it’s a catchy title, it suits my purpose here, and, as they say, imitation is the sincerest from of flattery.

For almost a whole week, Carmarthenshire County Council actually contained one Lib Dem councillor. Indeed, the news reports actually suggested that the said councillor had taken his whole party into the coalition which is running the council.

But it turns out to be not as simple as that. After going to all the trouble of getting himself elected under his party’s banner, the county’s sole Lemming promptly signed up for membership of the ‘Independent’ group, and in doing so, effectively renounced his status as a Lib Dem. So the Lib Dems are not signatories to the coalition agreement after all - because they no longer have a group on the council. Every position awarded to the said councillor has been allocated on the basis of his status as a full member of the 'Independent' group.

I doubt that there’s any political grouping in any elected body anywhere in the world which has extinguished itself with quite such alacrity – anybody able to prove me wrong?

The electors in his ward must be wondering why on earth they bothered.