Friday 29 August 2008

Feuds and frustrations

The sort of thing which leads to some of my biggest frustrations as Chair of Plaid Cymru is when some members take it upon themselves to start feeding unwelcome stories to the media, and hiding behind such descriptions as 'a senior strategist' or 'senior sources'. I usually have a pretty good idea who the miscreants are (what on earth makes them think that I don't know who they are?), but a combination of denial and lack of proof inevitably leads to frustration.

There was, therefore, an unavoidable element of schadenfreude when I read this week's reports about what 'senior Labour sources' are saying about that party's leadership contest. I don't know who briefed the Western Mail, but based on my own experience I'd lay odds that a number of people in the Labour Party know exactly who has been speaking out of turn, even if they, too, are unable to prove it, or take any action.

(As an aside, in their position, I'd be angry enough at the deliberate public rubbishing of the abilities of their elected AMs, but I'd be absolutely furious over what looks like an attempt, through the media, to put pressure on a seriously-ill member to resign and make way for someone else. Not the most caring way of behaving.)

Looking in from the outside it's interesting that some 'senior members' have such a low opinion of their own AMs, and it means that the leadership contest may end up being more damaging to Labour than it really needed to be. As a politician from an opposing party, that's not something that I would generally be likely to be complaining too loudly about.

It left me wondering, though, whether Labour MPs - and it really does look to me as though the most likely source for much of what was said was an MP rather than an AM - understand that this contest isn't just an internal Labour Party feud. It is also a contest to select the next First Minister of Wales – and the First Minister of a coalition government at that. It's not for me to tell Labour who to choose (although I have my own preference, of course!) or how to conduct themselves. But I inevitably have a degree of concern that their internal feuding might damage the 'One Wales' project.

Thursday 28 August 2008

Post Office Disappointment

The Post Office has now confirmed its plans to close post offices at Talog, Trelech and Llanboidy, despite the efforts of local campaigners to save them. It's a huge disappointment, but I can't honestly say that it's a surprise. Given the guidelines and instructions given to the Post Office by the Government, it was always hard to see how they could both listen to local communities and obey the government's instructions.

In this case, given that they're in government, Labour must inevitably take the brunt of the responsibility; but the Tories don't come out of it at all well either, and not just because they closed thousands of post offices themselves when in government.

From the outset, Labour MPs were on something of a hiding to nothing. After all, there is no real debate about the fact that the programme has emanated from the government, rather than from the Post Office. The line taken by our local Labour MP was a very simple one. He claims that he didn't actually vote for the closure programme; what he voted for was the financial package which backs up the closure programme, and without which the closure programme couldn’t go ahead. Bit of a fine distinction to me.

And although he supported the government, and the government has told the post office to close 2,500 post offices, that didn't prevent him objecting to any and all of the closures if they were in his constituency, on the basis that the Post Office had chosen the 'wrong ones' to close. Presumably therefore, he'd be happy if they were all in someone else's constituency. And he repeatedly insisted that the Post Office was supporting 'too large a network' and had to become 'more efficient'. To me, and many other, it all sounded like support for the plans.

The Tory line suffered from a few problems as well. The Post Office has lost a lot of business because it's been put out to tender by the Government. So, claimed one Tory, it's the Post Office's fault for tendering too high. Well, er, no, not quite. The Government has told them to cut their losses, so how exactly does cutting their prices help them - especially when their competitors are able to offer 'loss leaders' in order to win business?

In case that isn't entirely clear, let me put it in these terms – the government is closing post offices because they're making a loss, because the government has taken business away from them and given it to private companies who are probably also making a loss on the same business.

Now it sounds at first as if the real crazies here are the companies who are taking on business at a loss; but there's method in their madness. The more business they take from the post office, the more the post office network shrinks; and the more the post office network shrinks, the more business there is for the private companies to win. And, when they've succeeded in closing the post office down more or less completely, they'll be able to raise their prices again, won't they?

Closing a first class network of outlets for government services in order to pass the work over to the private sector is a classic example of LabourTory short-sightedness.

Just as a PS - One of the lines peddled by our Conservative AM was that she knows from personal experience how damaging that it is to local communities when their post office is closed, since the office in her village has already been closed. One slight problem with this empathy – her post office was closed by the Conservative government. I'd be more convinced if I thought a future Tory Government would behave any differently.

Wednesday 27 August 2008

Words of reassurance

There's a major redevelopment in progress in Carmarthen at the moment, and it seems that there have been rumours that the number of parking spaces may not be as high as the 960 which people were led to expect. I have no idea whether there is any truth in the rumours or not, but I must say that the 'reassurance' given by the developers' spokeswoman left me with more doubts than it resolved.

She said "I can confirm that we are still on target to provide up to 960 spaces". The word "still" leaves just a shadow of doubt in my mind; but the phrase "up to" succeeds in undermining the whole sentence. Doesn't "up to 960" include every possible number between 1 and 959, as well as the 960 expected? On the basis of this statement, they'd 'still' be 'on target' if they provided a solitary parking space. With reassurances like this, who needs rumours?


Access to this blog has apparently been banned by the bosses at Carmarthenshire County Council; councillors and staff can no longer read the blog from the Council's network.

I suppose that I earned no favours by comparing the ruling 'independent group' to a duck, or suggesting that the council leader might not be the most popular person in the county, but nevertheless, blocking councillors' access seems a little harsh. Still, I suppose that I can now say what I want about them with no fear that any of them will read it.

Tuesday 26 August 2008

Dentists' Bills

Yesterday, the leader of Wales' dentists, Stuart Geddes, called for dentistry to be free in Wales. He was right to draw attention to this issue, and I welcome the fact that it is dentists themselves who are saying this.

There can be little doubt that charging for dentistry acts as a disincentive to people to seek treatment for problems, and encourages them to seek the lowest cost treatment rather than the best treatment. It is also a regressive form of charging, in that those on lower incomes find it harder to find the money for necessary treatment than do those on higher incomes.

It is an anomaly in the NHS that treatment for other forms of ill health is free, whilst dental treatment has to be paid for. Above all, a proportion of dental work - and thus cost - is preventable, but charging for a check-up deters people from visiting their dentists regularly and thus identifying problems early. The decision of the Assembly Government earlier this year to freeze charges in Wales, even though they were being increased in England is, of course, welcome, as are the initiatives which are being taken to improve provision of dentistry across Wales. But we need to go further; we should be planning for free dentistry.

What really disappointed me in the report was the response of the government spokesman. There are all sorts of answers that he could have given. I understand that governments have to make choices and set priorities, and that the government cannot afford to do everything it would like. An answer which said something like "this is a long-term aspiration, but we are concentrating our resources on other initiatives at present" would at least have been something that I could have understood. It would demonstrate that the idea was receiving a degree of consideration at least.

But to justify charges by saying "…since 1951, successive governments have considered that those who can afford to make a contribution to the cost of their dental treatment should do so" must surely rank as one of the most inadequate responses ever to issue forth from a government spokesman. So there has been a cosy little LabourTory consensus to charge for dentistry for 57 years – that's no basis for justifying anything. It tells us only that the anomaly is a long-standing one; but the fact that something has been done in this way for a long time is absolutely no basis for arguing that it should continue.

Friday 22 August 2008

From the ridiculous to the bizarre

At first sight, it struck me as a little odd that Labour would use a virtually unknown councillor to respond to the debate on Independence. In a rather wordy piece, the actual arguments seem to distil down to a very small number of points, when the rhetoric is discarded.

The first argument is that Wales would have a budget deficit of around £5.4 billion per annum. For a number of reasons, I'd dispute the precise amount, but I am prepared to concede that, assuming all other aspects of taxation and spending in Wales remained the same, then there would be a deficit in the annual budget. But so what? The UK runs at a deficit, but that does not make it unviable. Many, many countries run a deficit, some more or less permanently. It doesn't make them unviable; and it wouldn't make Wales any more unviable than the UK.

The second is that Wales would have to take on a share of the national debt from day 1. The proposed basis of calculating Wales's share of the UK national debt, on a percentage of the population, seems reasonable to me, and I'm certain that Plaid have used the same basis in the past. So I agree with his suggestion that Wales would have to take on around £25billion of debt. On the same basis of course, England would be left with around £425billion of debt. How on earth will they manage?

The point, of course, is that a national debt in itself makes no difference to the viability of a country. Almost every developed country carries a substantial national debt at one time or another – why would anyone expect Wales to be any different? Wales and England, like the UK at present, would have substantial national debts - around £8,300 per head of population in each case – which would have to be serviced from revenue in both cases.

The third argument suggests that comparison with Ireland is meaningless because so much of Ireland's GDP is generated by multinational companies. Has he looked at the UK economy recently? Or the economy of any other country? Multinationals are a significant factor in most economies - it's irrelevant from a GDP point of view, and it doesn't make countries unviable.

The fourth argument suggests that Wales would lose civil service jobs as the DVLA and HMRC closed the day after the independence vote. This moves from the silly to the bizarre. It's not in the interests of either Wales or England to simply shut up shop the next day; both countries would be left without the facility to tax cars and issue driving licences, looking just at the DVLA. There would have to be discussions and negotiations. But Wales would need its own civil servants to perform a variety of functions currently performed in London. I suspect that the impact on civil service jobs overall would be positive rather than negative, given that so much of the UK civil service is currently centralized in London.

If these are the best arguments that Labour can put forward against Welsh independence, then perhaps, on reflection, it's not surprising that no more substantial figure in the party was prepared to put his or her head above the parapet.

Thursday 21 August 2008

Cheap Food vs Food Security

It has taken a lot of hard graft by farmers and their unions to push up the price of milk at the farm gate over the last year. The price had previously been forced downwards by supermarkets in a price war, and the suggestion that the supermarkets may be about to start another price war over milk is of concern to many in rural areas.

There's nothing wrong, of course, with the supermarkets competing for customers by selecting certain products and cutting their prices. Few consumers will complain about getting the foodstuffs at a lower price. 'Loss leaders' have long been a staple weapon in the competition between retailers. But 'loss leaders' should be exactly that; and supermarkets should expect to take a loss on them.

What is unacceptable is for the retailers to arbitrarily drop their prices of staple products and then use their buying power to force producers' prices down, beyond even the point at which producers make any money at all. When they do this, the retailers protect their own profits and margins, so they lose little or nothing by introducing price cuts - and the winners of the price war may even increase their overall profits by drawing in more customers. The real losers in such a price war are the producers.

Ideological supporters of the free market might argue that it doesn't matter – there's plenty of milk around, and the retailers can simply buy it from elsewhere if the farmers won't match the prices which they are willing to pay. That may make ideological sense, and it may make economic sense to the supermarkets who look only at their own profit and loss; but it does not make sense in social or environmental terms.

'Food miles' is already a significant issue, and food security will soon be another. Food production is not something that can simply be turned on and off like a tap – capacity lost now will take many years to restore later. It is in all our interests to ensure that we have a viable agricultural sector in Wales, and that short-term game-playing by the major retailers is not allowed to destroy our production capacity.

Pills and Potions

I'm not convinced that yesterday's story about numbers of items prescribed actually tells us anything meaningful about the effects of the introduction of free prescriptions in Wales. Without a good deal more background information on trends before and after the introduction of the policy, and a lot more detail on what is being prescribed to which categories of patients, I don't see how anyone can conclude that the policy is a "disaster" as some have been quick to claim.

That lack of precision has not prevented those who oppose the policy from jumping to conclusions, of course. It's the old politician's motto - why let mere facts get in the way of a good press release?

The basic case for free prescriptions – which I entirely support – has always been that medicines are an integral part of health care, and that health care should be free to users at the point of demand. The chief argument of opponents has always been that some people can afford to pay for their medicines and that would free up money for other purposes; but I've never understood why they apply that logic only to prescription medicines. Why single out just one aspect of health care for means testing, and why choose this particular aspect?

Some people can afford to pay for visiting the doctor; some can afford to pay for their operations, or their physiotherapy, or their nursing care. Why do some politicians argue that all of these should be free, but medicines should not? I've never heard any of them explain why medicines are so different from all other aspects of health care that they should be paid for whilst everything else should be free.

And since the objections to free prescriptions generally come from the political right, I wonder whether this isn't the thin end of the wedge for people who really believe, but don't admit it, that large swathes of our health services should be means tested rather than free, in order to give yet more tax cuts to the better-off.

That doesn't mean that the policy is entirely without its problems; some people do now visit the doctor unnecessarily to get a prescription for over-the-counter medicines. But some people also visit casualty departments unnecessarily for trivial injuries – isn't the effect the same? If there are cases where the system is being abused, I'd prefer that we attempted to deal with the abuse rather than re-introduce means-tested elements to the health service.

Wednesday 20 August 2008

Far away places

Seventy years ago, Chamberlain could talk meaningfully of Czechoslovakia as a "far away place of which we know little". It is hard to say that about any part of the world these days, given the immediacy of telecommunications. However, even if places seem a lot less far away, that doesn't necessarily mean that we know much more about them; and it doesn't help when the news media 'simplify' the story for us, let alone when coverage is slanted.

Georgia is a classic example. The story seems to be about plucky little Georgia subjected to attack from a brutal Russian neighbour. But the situation is a good deal more complicated than that - and it was, after all, Georgia which started the war, even if it wasn't Russia itself that they attacked.

Politics and ethnicity in the Caucasus are extremely complex, with a long history of rivalries and conflict, and it's not at all easy to decide which side are the 'goodies' and which are the 'baddies'. Unlike the old cowboy films, it's not as easy as looking at the colour of their hats.

It certainly isn't as easy as simply supporting the rights of Georgia against Russian intervention. Georgia has a history of insisting on what it calls its 'territorial integrity', meaning that it regards boundaries which have been set on a pretty arbitrary basis over the centuries – largely as a result of previous conflicts - as being sacrosanct. It has shown itself remarkably unwilling to recognise the rights of small nations contained wholly or partly within its borders – nations with their own languages and history – to exercise their right to self-determination. Georgia has even decreed that Georgian is the official language throughout the whole of what it considers to be its territory.

Nor is it as easy as supporting the rights of the 'secessionist' movements within Georgia (although whether they actually want secession or simply transfer to Russia isn't entirely clear either). And surely no-one can support the ethnic cleansing which has been happening in those areas.

Clearly, the reaction of Russia, in invading Georgia, was contrary to international law, but the US and UK are hardly in a position to start spouting the law books after the illegal adventure in Iraq. The bellicose nature of some Western responses is of enormous concern. David Cameron jumping on a plane to go off and support Georgia might play well in the domestic newspapers, but his solution - getting Georgia into NATO asap – is downright dangerous. Giving a pledge of mutual military support ("an attack on one is an attack on all") to a man who starts an invasion of a client of Moscow seems more than a little reckless to me.

As with all human conflicts, what we need in the Caucasus is dialogue and discussion, not sabre-rattling and invasions. And it would be nice to think that at least some of those trotting off to support Preisdent Saakashvili might, at the same time, drop a few words in his shell-like about the folly of attacking Russia's clients.

Tuesday 19 August 2008

Dams and Bridges

The logic of putting a new Wales-England link along the top of any barrage as part of a single engineering project seems at first sight to be obvious, as was highlighted in the Western Mail last week. I'm not convinced, however, because the two things are responding to two very different needs; and the arguments surrounding the two are very different.

I am not at all convinced about the building of a barrage across the Severn in the first place, and never have been. (I remember back in the 1970's calling it an idea which didn't hold water. Poor joke, I know, but at least the South Wales Echo used the press release.) The environmental damage done by such a barrage will be significant, and the carbon cost of construction will be enormous. Tidal lagoons, on the other hand, will be far less damaging in environmental terms, and are likely to produce electricity at a cheaper unit cost, even if the total amount of electricity produced might be lower.

So I hope that no barrage will ever be built - which is why creating a dependency between such a barrage and a new crossing looks like a major mistake to me.

I am not convinced of the need for a new road link across the Severn estuary either, but I am absolutely convinced of the need for a new rail link. The Severn Tunnel is expensive to maintain, and the near continuous maintenance works make it a bottleneck on the rail network, frequently causing delays and diversions. And as long as the rail link eastwards from South Wales depends on the Tunnel, our capital city will never be linked into the European high speed rail network. The tunnel needs to be replaced, and we should be planning for that now.

Continental Europe is surging ahead with a modern high speed rail network. Plans exist to link the continent from North to South and from East to West with new additions to the high speed lines. Whilst the rest of Europe has spent the last 30 years investing in rail, the UK has been fragmenting and privatising the railways in the name of right wing dogma; and instead of being used to fund investment, UK government subsidies to the rail industry have effectively gone into paying dividends to shareholders.

There are plans in existence stretching to at least 2020 for investment and expansion on the continent, and in the UK, we have... well, no plans at all to expand high speed rail beyond the link from London to the Channel Tunnel, just vague, empty discussions. We need to bring the railway network fully back under public control, and we need an imaginative and bold plan to extend the high speed network across the UK. A new rail crossing of the Severn has to form part of that.

As far as Wales is concerned, the high speed network certainly needs to reach the ferry ports – and why not plan for a north-south link as well? Expensive – certainly, and tremendously so. It will take many years to bring to fruition. Our European neighbours have all recognised the advantages, and have had the imagination and courage to make that infrastructure investment, but we are already 30 years late and haven't even started.

Against that background, linking the future of South Wales rail links to the barrage creates an unnecessary dependency, and is just a recipe for further prevarication.

Monday 18 August 2008

Sport and Tribalism

Sport almost always seems to lead to a degree of tribalism (although tribalism expressed on the field of play always has to be better than tribalism expressed on the field of war). As the medal count increases, so the media start to take ever more interest in what 'our' athletes are doing in Beijing – and the headlines grow more jingoistic.

It is entirely natural for those of us who feel ourselves to be first and foremost Welsh to feel a degree of pride in the successes of our compatriots; and is just as natural that those who consider themselves to be first and foremost British feel the same pride towards the whole of the GB team.

Like other members of Plaid, I wish that Wales were competing as a nation in its own right; that Welsh athletes could be competing under the Ddraig Goch rather than under the Union Jack. And I know that there are some athletes who would themselves prefer to be competing for Wales rather than GB; and of course, doing well for their country is something that most athletes take pride in.

But it seems to me that the primary motivation of most Olympians is that they want to be the very best in the world in their chosen sport. That is what they train and work for, over many years, so that they reach their peak at the Games which mark the pinnacle of most sports.

Whilst all the athletes benefit from backup and support from trainers, sponsors and the rest, success in most Olympic sports is still very much an individual achievement on the day itself. I find myself wondering whether there isn't far too much stress being placed on the medal table, which artifically compares so many countries of diverse sizes and resources. It tends to focus attention on the country rather than on the individual athletes, of all countries. It is the individual athletes who have given of their best; and that level of endeavour is surely worthy of celebration in its own right.

Tuesday 12 August 2008

If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck...

At the county council elections a few months ago, we expressed a number of concerns about the way in which many so-called 'independent' candidates behaved. The Electoral Commission have produced a report in which they have highlighted some similar concerns.

The problem is not with 'independent' candidates per se; it is knowing which candidates are genuinely independent and which are part of an 'independent group'. In Carmarthenshire (in coalition with Labour) and in Pembrokeshire (as a majority group), the 'independent' groups control the council; and in the case of Pembrokeshire, the group has delegated all appointments to the Leader, who now wields an astonishing amount of power personally, a point highlighted often by Old Grumpy.

The result is that candidates who claim that they are 'independent' are, in fact, beholden to vote as they are told by their leader - which is not quite the impression that they give to voters before the election. There is nothing at all to stop groups of people coming together and registering as a party of course – at least then, the voters would know that they were likely to vote as a group if elected. But political parties are regulated in all sorts of ways that don't apply to 'independent' candidates; and I entirely agree with the Commission's warning that "it is important that independent candidates are not perceived to be standing as a group to campaign in an election, without registering as a political party, in order to avoid the regulatory regime in the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000 that applies to political parties".

We also had in Carmarthenshire the curious incident of a large newspaper advertisement exhorting people to 'Vote Independent'. The advert claimed that it had been 'paid for by independent candidates standing for election in the forthcoming Carmarthenshire County Council ballot on May 1st'. As the Commission states, "This begs the question for voters as to whether the advertisement was placed on behalf of all independent candidates standing for election in the county or a group of them". Quite. There were a number of independent candidates who were not sponsored by and did not support the 'independent' group – how are voters to know the difference?

Interestingly enough, complaints were not expressed by political parties alone - some genuinely independent candidates also expressed concern "that if there is an ‘independent group’ it is very difficult for others to distinguish themselves from that group".

I have no objections at all to the idea of people standing as independent candidates in elections if they wish. There have been some notable independents over the years who have made a real contribution and fought for the communities that they have represented. But it is surely right to call time on the idea that there can be any such thing as an 'independent group' which jointly campaigns to win control of an elected body. These groups are political parties in all but name, and should be obliged to register as such.

Monday 11 August 2008

When the wind blows

The proposal by Powys County Council to refuse all consents for wind farms on highways grounds looks pretty sweeping. I'm open to be proved wrong, but I doubt that they will be able to sustain the policy in the event of any appeal, unless they can prove that the reasoning is sound in the case of any individual application. It has already been successful, however, in drawing attention to the fact that wind power is not necessarily as 'green' as it is painted.

As with most environmental questions, it is hard to work out where the balance of advantage lies when it comes to wind power, and it comes down to a matter of judgement.

Many of the objections relate to the aesthetics of wind farms on our mountain tops, and are made very vociferously. Living within the buffer area around the Brechfa Forest SSA, I can understand the argument. But the quality of an argument does not depend on its volume; and given the impact that unchecked climate change would have on our landscape, I think that the aesthetics argument is just about the weakest reason for objecting to wind farms.

I don't doubt that some wind farms are being built for the 'wrong' reasons. The 'renewables subsidy' is encouraging the construction of wind farms by distorting the economics, and means that they are being constructed because they will bring profit to the operators rather than for 'green' reasons. I really don't believe that many companies, particularly large ones, are anywhere near as 'green' in their motivations as they pretend to be. They are in business first and foremost to make money.

But conceding that point to the opponents doesn't mean that they win their case. Doing something for the 'wrong' reason doesn't mean that it's the wrong thing to do.

Another of the arguments used by opponents is that wind farms only produce electricity when the wind is blowing; and the times when the wind is blowing don't necessarily coincide with the times when the electricity is needed. This in turn means that conventional power stations need to be kept on standby, so that electricity is available when required.

It's a powerful argument. And it underlines the way in which sight has been lost of the real target. The original objective was surely to do with reducing our carbon footprint. That has been 'translated' into a target that a percentage of our electricity needs is met from renewable sources, and using windpower helps to achieve that secondary target. But it doesn't help to achieve the original goal unless we actually succeed in closing, or at least turning off, conventional power stations as well.

Again, however, conceding the merit of that argument still doesn't mean that building wind farms is the wrong thing to do. What it does mean is that we need a more integrated and coherent energy policy.

One of the problems with electricity is that it's not easy to store; it generally has to be used when it is produced. There are some ways of 'storing' electricity – the pumped storage scheme at Dinorwig is an excellent example. And there are other ways of 'storing' electricity as well – one of them, for instance, is to use surpluses to extract hydrogen (for fuel cells) from water, a technology which holds a great deal of promise for the future.

Why don't we have an integrated energy policy? Ultimately, because the then Tory government fragmented and privatised the electricity supply industry. Each of the companies is competing to sell its electricity to the customers. Each of them has a direct interest in beating its competitors; none of them has a real vested interest in an overall strategy for supply. And the government has abdicated its own responsibility in that regard to the 'market', with a few subsidies and incentives thrown in to try and encourage particular approaches.

Wind energy has a key role to play, but it can only play its proper role as part of a planned approach to securing our energy supplies. And we'll only get that when government accepts its responsibility for producing a plan and insisting on its implementation, rather than simply setting targets and leaving the implementation to the whim of the market.

Thursday 7 August 2008

Borthlas is a 'must-read' - says Carmarthen Journal

And I always take very seriously anything the editor of the Carmarthen Journal, Robert Lloyd, says, especially when he says it in his weekly 'Clecs' column. I'd put in a link to the column, but he doesn't include it in the online edition of the Journal (come on, Robert, don't be so shy!). I suppose it helps increase sales of the paper version though.

It seems that the local Tory candidate is amongst those who can't get enough as well (welcome Simon, yes, you get another mention). He has told the Journal that he welcomes my prediction of a Tory victory in England in the coming General Election. I'm not sure he read and understood the whole piece though, so I'll just reiterate some of the key points.

I currently expect the English Conservative Party to win a majority of seats in England at the next General election, and to win a big enough majority in England to have an overall majority in the Westminster Parliament. Indeed, whilst not everyone is saying that out loud, I know of few people outside the Labour Party (and not a lot inside the party either) who seriously believe that they have any chance of recovering their position. And I don't think that I'd be very credible as a politician if I tried to deny what looks at the moment like an inevitable outcome.

But, and this is a very big but, I also expect the English Conservative Party to be once more rejected in Wales, as it has been in every single election since the universal franchise. And, although the Tories won't admit it, they know this too. Wales needs to be protected from the result – a doctrinaire Tory government in England imposing its will on Wales despite a lack of popular support.

So, one of the key questions which people in Wales will have to answer in the election, whenever it comes, is this: "If you know that Wales isn't going to vote Tory, but England is, and you're going to have a Tory government whether you like it or not, who will best stand up for the interests of Wales over the next five years?" The answer is not yet another Labour-Tory MP, is it?

Wednesday 6 August 2008

Wasting energy

We have a classic example of the failure of government to act in a 'joined-up' way on climate change with the proposal to build a LNG-fired power plant at Pembroke, and probably another one on the other side of the Haven near Milford Haven.

Natural Gas is promoted as being a 'clean' fuel. It is certainly cleaner than say coal or oil, but burning it still produces massive amounts of Carbon Dioxide - about 6 million tonnes per year for each of the two stations. To put it in context, 6 million tonnes would be adding around 15% to Wales' annual CO2 emissions, at a time when we have governments in both Cardiff and London which claim to be committed to reducing emissions.

Worse than that, the type of power station proposed is extremely wasteful in the way the gas is burned. In fact, less than half of the energy content of the gas will be turned into electricity - the rest will just be wasted. Most of what will be lost will be lost as heat, probably dissipated into the Haven by use of water for cooling. FoE Pembrokeshire have calculated that the amount of heat wasted from two such power stations will be equivalent to around 80% of Wales' total electricity demand - a staggering waste of scarce energy resources – and roughly equivalent to the potential output from a barrage across the Severn.

Does it have to be this way? No, of course not. It would be possible to build a larger number (3-4) of smaller Combined Heat and Power stations. If some of these were sited closer to the Natural Gas terminals in the Haven, the 'waste heat' could be used to re-gassify LNG imports. Others could be sited in other locations where the heat could be used for other purposes. Using the waste heat in this way would increase the energy efficiency of the use of the gas from less than 50% to possibly 85%. Put simply, we could get twice as much useful energy out of the same volume of gas; and that would halve the CO2 emissions per unit of energy.

So why aren't we doing that? Simply because the government has abdicated its responsibility for energy policy. Since the Electricity and Gas industries were fragmented and privatised by the Tories, decisions on which power stations to build where are taken not in the interests of the overall energy needs of the country, nor on the basis of a plan for reducing our carbon footprint, but in the interests of the profits of the energy companies. If they can make more profit by building the most wasteful type of power station, then that is what they will do.

The underlying message here is that no government can ever achieve the changes which are needed in our patterns of energy generation and use as long as they leave the key decisions to individual companies competing with each other. We need a clear national strategy for energy, and the government must be prepared to enforce it. As long as Labour-Tory politicians simply welcome the construction of wasteful power stations because of the jobs they will bring, we are unlikely to get a sensible or coherent energy policy. And their commitment to action on climate change is shown to be a very shallow one.

Tuesday 5 August 2008

Independence Initiative

Helen Mary's piece in the Western Mail on our 'Independence Initiative' speaks for itself; I shall not repeat it here.

The accompanying article by Tomos Livingstone contained a suggestion that "some senior figures … (within Plaid) … feel it is something of a distraction." I haven't a clue where he gets that statement from. Nobody in the NEC raised any doubts when we agreed the plan, and not one single member of the party has subsequently told me that they have any such reservations. I'm afraid that this looks rather like an attempt to invent discord where there is none.

The response of the arch Labour-Tory MP Bryant was, as ever, entirely predictable and completely devoid of substance. The simplistic posing of rhetorical questions based on unstated and unfounded assumptions might look like a neat political trick, but it makes no contribution to any serious debate. Nothing new there then.

We do need a serious debate about the economics of Independence; and we need well-researched figures to underpin that debate. The problem with the sweeping statements which our opponents make about the economics is that they never spell out the underlying assumptions and caveats which inevitably surround any estimates.

It's very easy to say that government expenditure in Wales is higher than government revenue raised in Wales; but that isn't the same as saying that it's higher than the tax paid by people living in Wales, which is the more meaningful figure. People who work for large companies in Wales will often find that their income tax is paid in England, by the company's headquarters, along with the corporation tax on profits made in Wales, and the VAT on goods and services bought in Wales.

Putting that aside a moment, we should be challenging those whose opposition to Welsh Independence is apparently based entirely on the assumption that we would be worse off. If it could be proved that this argument is untrue, would they change their minds? Thought not – which tells us that their real objections are not economic at all. Serious debate requires them to be honest about their real objections to Independence.

Monday 4 August 2008

Charities at risk

The Tories started the trend towards greater use of charities and volunteers in the provision of services, and Labour have accelerated it. It's a trend which has always left me a little uneasy, however.

It's not that I want to knock the work of the charities concerned, nor to belittle the excellent work done by volunteers. They make a valuable contribution, and they both give and get a great deal of satisfaction out of the work which they do. 'Extra' services have long been a part of the work of charities. Nor is there anything wrong at all with central and local government giving grants to charities to help them fund the valuable work they do.

But what leaves me uneasy is the feeling that, increasingly, 'core' services are effectively being contracted out to charities and volunteers because the government can get the services cheaper that way, largely because of lower staff costs. What are often called 'partnerships' (don't government agencies just love that word?) seem often to be ways by which 'efficiency savings' can be made by simply moving the provision of some services from the public sector to the 'third sector'. The movement is only ever one way of course.

The services provided by charities are more and more subject to service level agreements which have to be met to justify the 'grants' which they are given. They're still called grants, but they look awfully like 'payments for services supplied' to me.

Today's story about the CAB seems to be taking this trend even further, as the organisation has been told it will have to bid for funding in competition with other organisations in future. This looks a lot like 'tendering for work' to me; with the charity competing directly against private companies providing the same services. Having tried to introduce private sector disciplines and practices into the public sector, it almost seems as though they are forcing charities to go the same way as well.

The government spokesperson said "The most important thing is to ensure equity of access to good quality advice services, coherency, cohesion and value for money". Well, yes, indeed. But that brings me back to the main point. If those are the criteria, should such services really be dependent on charities and volunteers in the first place?

Friday 1 August 2008

The other S word

John Osmond, of the IWA, has produced a good paper on the question of Welsh sovereignty, looking at how things have changed since the establishment of the National Assembly.

In principle, I share his view that we should really be looking beyond the powers contained in the Government of Wales Act 2006 and more towards the model set out by the Richard Commission. (And, of course, Tomorrow's Wales raised similar concerns recently). In practice, however, I tend to the view that the easiest and quickest way forward from where we are today is to hold a referendum, as soon as possible, on the basis of the 2006 Act, rather than to seek a new act of parliament as a pre-requisite for moving forward.

Waiting for Parliament to pass a further act would slow the process down. We won't get such an Act before the next General Election – and I'm certain we won't get one from a Cameron government after that. Better to take what we can get pragmatically today, and honour the One Wales commitment for a referendum at or before the 2011 elections. An Assembly strengthened by that process can then start to look at the other aspects of Richard.

'Sovereignty' is not a word often used in the debate, but it's an important one. (Given the connection of the word with the idea of a 'sovereign', it's not a word with which I'm entirely comfortable; but I don't have a better one to offer.) On my understanding of the (unwritten) UK constitution, 'sovereignty' is vested by God in the monarch who graciously devolves it to Parliament to exercise. (Although the 'graciousness' in this case was forced onto a long-dead ancestor rather than having been an entirely voluntary act of grace!). It is a centralised, top-down concept, which leaves we mere citizens as 'subjects' to be 'ruled over'.

My own view of sovereignty – and I think that I'm squarely in line with Welsh radical tradition on this point - is that it actually belongs to the people, and any government can only rule by consent - consent which can be withdrawn at any time. It's a decentralised bottom-up concept. Not surprisingly it leads to a natural and instinctive republicanism; believing that the people are absolutely sovereign is not something that could sit easily with the concept of an hereditary 'ruler'.

Although unspoken, I wonder if this complete clash of world views doesn't cause some of the problems for us when we are discussing Welsh Independence. I start from the viewpoint that power belongs to us; it is for us to decide how much of it we want to see exercised at a Welsh level, and how much we want to share at a British or European level. Many opponents seem to be starting from the viewpoint that power belongs to the UK Parliament (exercising it on behalf of the monarch), and it is therefore for them to decide how much to allow us to exercise.

For me, calling for a referendum on the next step is simply about allowing the people of Wales to exercise their legitimate right. Those who oppose, in principle, the holding of such a referendum are effectively seeking to deny that right. (From my perspective, the jury is still out on whether or not some of those who claim to be arguing only about the timing are really just making excuses for denying Wales the right to choose.)

PS The fact that we have the right to decide that power should be exercised at different levels does not necessarily mean that we should do so of course. The right to self-determination necessarily includes the right not to seek self government. Our job as a party is to convince people that we are right in saying that there are better options for Wales; but we sometimes forget that we haven't convinced everyone yet that the decision is ours to take in the first place.