Friday 28 November 2008

Misunderestimating the numbers

The story this week about the funding of the railways seems to confirm the point that I made recently about the lack of a long-term strategy for our railway system.

What we need is an overall long term plan for investment in railways which deliberately aims to switch traffic from road and air to rail. What we have is an attempt to respond to demand as and when it is identified, based on estimates of growth which seem to be plucked out of thin air, and are significantly lower than recent actual growth.

Being entirely cynical, this does enable the government to claim that they've allocated adequate funding to meet the anticipated levels of growth. No doubt, when the rail chaos and overcrowding continues, they will say it's because the demand has grown faster than anticipated (code for it being our fault for wanting to travel by rail). However, understating the anticipated levels of growth to meet the planned levels of investment is just sleight of hand. This is no way to run a railway – or a transport policy.

Thursday 27 November 2008

Less than impressed

There is more scope for arguing about who is responsible for the economic downturn than one might believe, listening to Brown and Darling, but there is absolutely no question that the downturn is a very serious problem. There are two possible responses to a downturn of this nature – do nothing, or intervene.

The Tories' 'do nothing' approach is basically a return to the 1980's, when their leaders attempted to tell us that 'the market' would deal with the problem, and that unemployment was good for us. Since that unemployment (then, as now) would fall predominantly on the sort of communities which would never vote for them, they largely got away with it, and the selfishness and greed which to many of us personified the Thatcher years moved into full swing.

In fact, it mostly carried on in an untroubled way until that very greed and selfishness brought our banking systems to the verge of collapse. (And it's interesting, as an aside, that the Tories' aversion to intervention in the market to help ordinary families does not extend to an aversion to bailing out the gamblers and speculators who created much of the problem – and who just happen to largely fund the Tory party.)

I am by nature more of an interventionist, believing that governments do have a duty to manage the economy in the interests of the people and to intervene when necessary to achieve that end, so I started out broadly sympathetic to what the Chancellor was trying to do. Sadly, I think that the measures that he has announced fall well short of what is required.

I welcome the increase in income tax for the highest earners of course, but it does look a little bit like too little too late – it doesn't even take effect until 2010. Improvements to benefits are always a welcome move. But these are comparatively minor steps compared to the 2 major items – and both of those are seriously flawed.

The first failing is to try and use VAT as his main weapon. Now, as a general rule, I would tend to argue for more direct taxes and fewer indirect taxes, since that is a more progressive way of raising revenue. But in a crisis where the need is to stimulate the economy, I really do suspect that giving people more to spend would have a greater effect than reducing the prices of the things on which they will spend it.

I am simply not convinced that 2.5% off VAT is going to stimulate the economy very much. It would have been far better to raise income tax thresholds, which would directly target much of the extra help at the lowest earners. And for the very lowest paid, many of the items that they are struggling to pay for are essentials which are VAT-free in any event. Far from helping the lowest paid, if the reduction in VAT provides any stimulus at all, it will surely be for those who are middle or higher income earners.

The second is the increase in cash available for spending on capital projects. It seems like a very good idea at first sight, but I wonder how quickly it can actually be made to happen. Public capital projects get slowed down for all sorts of reasons, not just lack of cash. Indeed, one of the reasons why so many public authorities carry such large levels of reserves is that they often have difficulty spending their capital as quickly as they might wish, so they pop it into the nearest Icelandic bank until they can actually spend it. It simply is not lack of capital which is holding back the capital projects much of the time; and to suggest that it is looks like a serious misunderstanding of the way in which public sector projects work.

Some of the delays are down to bureaucracy, some are down to non-availability of staff to manage and oversee the works or specialist staff such as surveyors and architects; and the public sector procurement process is notoriously slow, even when the project is ready to go. In this context, whilst the extra £140million for capital projects in Wales is something to be welcomed, I can only give it a cautious welcome until we know whether it can actually be spent. An extra £140million simply added to public sector reserves would not actually achieve very much.

Finally, rather than increasing the size of the black hole in public finances, there are things that the Chancellor could have done to close the gap, other than merely promising us tax rises in the future. He could have scrapped the introduction of ID cards; he could have announced the scrapping of the utterly pointless programme to build a new generation of nuclear weapons, and he could have prevailed on Gordon Brown to get UK forces out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Any or all of these would have helped, but in defiance of all reason, they all appear to remain higher priorities for the government than action to help ordinary people.

Wednesday 26 November 2008

Collective Responsibility

Apart from rather unkindly suggesting that I might be in denial, in his response to the government announcement on student finance, Peter Black raises a point about the question of "collective responsibility". To what extent are parties and their members bound to support and agree with all of the decisions taken by their ministers when in government?

It's pretty easy for the Labour and Conservative parties to answer that, because for them, party policy is decided by the leader. Whatever their constitutions and standing orders may say, in effect the membership have no real voice on policy or direction, and are expected to support whatever the leader says – even if (s)he stands on his head and says the opposite tomorrow.

It's more of an issue for a party like Plaid, which belongs to the membership and whose policies are decided by the members. (I haven't a clue where the Lib Dems fit into this spectrum, but I suspect that it will be as complicated and arcane as their other operating processes). Clearly, it is the position of Plaid Cymru which is of most direct interest to me, and it is a question which we didn't really have to face before the advent of One Wales.

All of those of us who stand as candidates are bound to support the party's election manifestos, which are debated and agreed by the party's membership through our National Council. The One Wales agreement was also debated and agreed by the membership through the party's National Council, and it is entirely right that the party's members and spokespersons should be expected to support the content of that agreement as well.

The issue of student finance, however, is interesting in that it is a clear case where the One Wales government has proposed a policy which in the first place is not the only way of achieving a One Wales commitment, and in the second place is directly contrary to a manifesto commitment. There is a real issue for me and many other members here – we may be criticised for inconsistency if we support the proposal and for alleged disloyalty if we do not. And any attempt to bridge that gap will inevitably be described as a fudge.

So, somebody will be unhappy whatever I say - even if I say nothing.

In principle, I'm willing to change my mind on most issues - if the facts change, or if someone can come up with a convincing argument. On the issue of student finance, neither of those things has happened, so I haven't changed my mind; and it would be dishonest to pretend that I had. That means that, in all honesty, I am unable to support or defend the current proposal.

If I choose loyalty to the party's democratically-adopted policy and manifesto, is that necessarily disloyalty to the Plaid ministers in the One Wales government? No, it is not. They have a difficult job to do and are doing it well. As I said yesterday, coalition government inevitably involves short term compromise from time to time, but short term compromise is not the same as long term policy. Plaid ministers make compromises on some issues; Labour ministers make compromises on others. That doesn't mean that they, any more than I, necessarily agree with the position taken by the government on each and every issue.

There is nothing at all wrong with making a particular compromise on a particular issue at a particular point in time whilst making it perfectly clear that we will reverse the policy if and when we have an opportunity to do so. Indeed, such an approach is the only tenable way for coalition government – likely to be the norm in Wales – to operate effectively. What is completely unrealistic, however, is to expect that people who have strongly argued for one position will suddenly start arguing the opposite as a result.

On the specific issue of student fees, we are now entering a consultation process. I expect Plaid, as part of that process, to re-iterate the party's policy. I am confident that the consultation process will be a meaningful one, and I hope that it will lead to a change in the proposal. If Labour are unwilling to change their proposal, then I hope that we can agree to continue with the current regime for the life of the One Wales coalition, and allow all parties to place their proposals before the electorate in 2011.

Whatever the outcome, my own view that higher education should be free is unlikely to change, and no-one should expect me to say that it has.

Tuesday 25 November 2008

Of alligators and swamps

It's many years since I first heard the saying that "when you're up to your waist in alligators, it can be difficult to remember that your original objective was to drain the swamp." Except that it wasn't 'waist' in the original.

It's a neat way of summarising something that happens to all of us – to individuals as well as to organisations, including governments. The problems of the day have to be dealt with, and they can become so pressing that there is no time left to make any progress at all towards the real aim. People in a rush, people under stress, can end up in a mindset of believing that if only they can kill a few specific alligators then all will be fine.

That's what seems to me to have happened in the case of the report published yesterday on Higher Education in Wales. It's a good stab at dealing with a few of the obvious alligators; but the swamp is taken as a given - and the group tasked with reviewing the issues wasn't even asked to consider attempting to drain it.

I'll digress for a moment here. I'm sceptical in principle about the idea of 'independent' reviews where the government both sets the terms of reference and chooses the 'independent' members of the group. I don't wish to impugn the integrity of anyone here; but really, how likely is it that any government will set the terms of reference and the membership of an 'independent' group in such a way that it will produce a recommendation to do the opposite of what the government wants to do? It reminds me of the definition that a 'consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time'. Very often consultants – or 'independent' groups - are used to give credence to what their hirer already knows, or wants to do anyway, but needs some 'objective' or 'independent' evidence to support.

The relevance of this is that in setting terms of reference which told the Higher Education Group to look at 'the extent to which student finance is targeted to enhance widening access opportunities and encourage take up of priority subjects', the minister concerned was effectively pointing out two particular alligators which needed attention. Given that meeting these objectives was not the original purpose of the current policy, it is hardly earth-shattering news that the group concludes that it isn't achieving them. But concentrating attention on these specifics effectively diverts attention from wider issues.

There is detail in the report which I would challenge, and some very valid points with which I would agree, but any detailed critique of the content would inevitably be based on an acceptance of the starting point - and I do not accept it. I will therefore concentrate on the issues of principle, and for me there are three.

Firstly, should we be charging fees for higher education at all? I find it remarkable that most of those who tell us that 'free' higher education is 'unsustainable' are people who obtained their own degrees under a system where higher education was, indeed, free. It looks at times a little bit like they're pulling the ladder up behind them. It is, of course, true that our universities need more funding; but the funding gap hasn't materialised from thin air. It has come about because successive governments have increased the numbers of students (a policy I support) whilst not increasing the funding to match.

That is not an immutable nor an inevitable state of affairs; it is the direct result of deliberate government policy over many years. Governments choose to invest in wars and nuclear weapons; they choose not to invest in higher education - it really is as simple as that. Within any given level of taxation income, governments prioritise their spending – and they have deliberately de-prioritised higher education. I have long supported the principle that higher education should be free; and I remain unconvinced by the arguments against that.

Supporters of fees argue that their principle is that graduates tend to enjoy higher incomes and higher standards of living as a result of their education, and should therefore contribute towards the costs. But income tax claws back more from those who earn more - so there are other ways in which they pay. And the tax could be made more progressive again, if the will was there. If that is really the 'principle' underlying fees, isn't it also true that pupils who leave school with a clutch of A levels do better than those who only have GCSE's, and that those who leave with good GCSE's do better than those without? At the risk of putting ideas into people's heads, if charging for the benefits which education brings is an issue of 'principle', why select only higher education?

Secondly, we need to return to the question of the Assembly's powers. This is a classic example of why the debate about further powers for the Assembly should not be an arid constitutional matter, divorced from the realities of day-to-day life. It should, rather, be about giving Welsh institutions adequate power to implement Welsh policy objectives. The One Wales government is faced with a situation where decisions taken on the funding of higher education in England constrain our freedom to do things differently in Wales. They have little choice about having to respond to that fact. That is not where we should be, and is not where I want us to be.

And thirdly, are the proposals an inevitable consequence of the One Wales agreement? I don't see that they are. One Wales commits both the Labour Party and Plaid Cymru to maintain the current system until 2009/10, and thereafter to "maintain the current level of resource throughout the four year Assembly term, doing whatever is possible to mitigate the effects on Welsh-domiciled students if the Westminster government lifts the cap on fees in 2009". Whilst the recommendations of the Working Group certainly meet that policy objective, they are not the only way of so doing; and there is nothing in One Wales which commits either party to accepting any particular approach to meeting that policy objective. It is nothing but sophistry to attempt to argue otherwise.

In 2007, I, along with the other Plaid Assembly candidates, fought an election on a platform which included the words, "we will continue to rule out top-up fees at Welsh Universities". I believed that that was the right policy at the time, and nothing has happened to change my mind. Indeed, would anyone really expect me to change my mind as a result of a policy proposal from a Labour Minister? Of course not.

But coalition government inevitably involves compromise between the parties involved, otherwise government would grind to a halt. On most issues, compromise is fairly easily achieved, and that is a tribute to the success of One Wales. On this issue, however, it is hard to see how there can be a meaningful compromise between Labour, which is determined to saddle our young people with ever larger levels of debt, and those of us who want our young people to end their education free of debt.

One simple way out might be to agree to continue with the current system for another year or two and let each of the parties put their proposals to the electorate in the 2011 Assembly election. I'm certain that that will form part of the debate during the period of consultation. In the meantime, Plaid Cymru's policy remains entirely clear, it is a policy which I support, and I shall continue to promote it.

Friday 21 November 2008

Cameron's U-turn

In 1997, the decision by the Labour Party to stand by the spending and taxation plans of the outgoing Tory administration for the first two years was claimed to have been a factor in their electoral success. I was never particularly convinced, mind. After all, what's the point of electing somebody different if they're going to do the same thing? I think that they would probably have won anyway, even without that pledge, so strong was the zeitgeist for change.

I was somewhat surprised when Cameron initially made the same commitment – even if the trick did actually have some effect the first time round, surely people wouldn't fall for it a second time? It's no real surprise this week to see him dropping the commitment, which many of his backbenchers were always dubious about anyway.

The question is, though, will he be allowed to get away with dropping the commitment without spelling out his alternative? He and his party are clearly unhappy about the lack of balance between spending and taxation, and intend to close the gap. It's a valid position to take – even though it's one which I fundamentally disagree with - but it means that there can be no question whatsoever that he is either committing to increase taxation or to cut spending (or a bit of both) – and to do so within the first two years of a Conservative government.

"Tell us what you'd cut" is an over-simplistic response of course, but in essence it's an entirely valid question to be asking. A fairer question is "tell us what your alternative programme looks like", but at the moment, he seems to be answering neither.

PS - I note that Glyn Davies is very happy that his party leader "has decided to face down the gamblers". Presumably that doesn't include the gamblers who are largely financing his party?

Thursday 20 November 2008

Plans and assumptions

I thought that the admission yesterday by Lord Adonis, the Rail Minister that "our own forecasting model didn’t anticipate the scale of growth we were going to see in rail travel" was a really astonishing one for its utter candour about the state of rail planning in the UK. Effectively, he has admitted that there is no strategic plan for rail travel, merely an attempt to estimate likely demand and then respond to it.

Whilst most of Europe has been planning and investing in capacity to deliberately expand rail travel, the UK has been simply guessing at what might happen and responding on a patchwork basis. On that basis, supply will always lag behind demand.

This is not a criticism of the investments that have been made in themselves. In Wales in particular, we've seen a number of good schemes to re-introduce rail services on lines, build new stations, and increase the frequency of services, and there are more to come. But I can't recall a single one of these where the investment has been pro-active, as opposed to responding to campaigns by local groups and councils.

And that's my real criticism. Given that rail travel is the most environmentally sound mode of transport (short of walking, biking, or simply not making the journey at all), where is the overall strategic plan? Rather than assuming a level of growth and trying to respond to it, we should be setting ambitious targets for switching travel from road to rail and planning the capacity to facilitate that shift. That requires a step change in our thinking about travel planning.

Friday 14 November 2008

Organ-grinder revealed

The news that the Post Office will be allowed to retain the Post Office Card Account (POCA) is, of course, good news for what is left of the post office network in our rural areas. The government have, on this occasion, made the right decision.

That does not mean, of course, that there are no questions to be answered. I haven't a clue how much it has cost to allow the tendering process to go as far as it did before changing policy. But there has certainly been a cost to that process - and not just a financial cost. I know that many sub-postmasters have been extremely worried for their futures, and have been through a fairly stressful period – completely unnecessarily, as it now transpires.

And I do wonder whether, if this knowledge had been available before the recent round of closures, some of the outcomes might have been different. Some of the postmasters who decided not to fight the closure programme, for instance, would have done so on the basis of a calculation as to what was the risk that they might have been affected by any withdrawal of the POCA – and will have been asking themselves whether the terms of retirement might then be less favourable.

So, although the government decision is the right one, the timing has probably made the closure programme a little easier for the government than it might have been had the certainty of the POCA been assured earlier.

The decision was announced by the government. Quite rightly so, since it is the government which took the decision. But am I the only one to notice that when a popular decision is made about the post office, the government announce it and take the credit; but when it's an unpopular decision, the Post Office is left to take the brunt of the public's wrath?

There were times during the recent campaigns to keep post offices open where I actually felt quite sorry for the post office managers. They were left to defend and explain a decision taken by others. Not only did the government not give them very much support, but Labour MPs up and down the country actually joined in the criticism of the post office – attacking them, in essence, for a decision which their own government had made. It was cynical and dishonest – and taking the credit this time round serves only to make it look even more cynical and dishonest.

Monday 10 November 2008

Who speaks for Labour?

In his reaction to Saturday's story in the Western Mail about the tensions within One Wales, Peter Black is correct in summing up what for me are two crunch issues, although I disagree with his analysis of our likely position on them, and I think he understates the importance of the position we are in on the Housing LCO.

His suggestion that "if Plaid Cymru get the Welsh Language LCO they will be prepared to accept some form of fudge on the referendum" is one which I would reject. I remain confident that the referendum will be held - and as I have said before, if I believed that the leadership of Plaid was in any way back-tracking on the commitment to hold a referendum, then I would find my current role impossible to sustain.

However, back to the Housing LCO for a moment, because this is the nub of the current debate. The real tension here is not between Plaid and Labour in the Assembly, but between Labour AMs and some Labour MPs – but there is a knock-on danger to relationships between the two parties if Labour fail to achieve a satisfactory resolution of those internal tensions.

The core of the disagreement is the extent to which any LCO devolving power to Cardiff could or should be restricted to match the precise scope of any Assembly Measures which may be proposed after agreeing the LCO. The MPs seem to be taking a position of saying that they want to devolve only the exact powers needed to allow a specific Measure to be passed – which means that if the Assembly subsequently wanted to pass another Measure in the same field, it would need to submit a further LCO to London. Effectively, the MPs are trying to scrutinise Measures rather than LCOs.

The key question to which we await an answer is on which side will Paul Murphy come down? Will he, as his deputy, Wayne David suggested last week, come down in favour of the recalcitrant MPs, or will he support the Assembly Government, which remains united on this issue? My attention has been drawn to an exchange which took place at the Welsh Affairs Select Committee back in July (set out below), when Mr David's predecessor in the job, Huw Irranca-Davies, took a very different line on the issue, suggesting that the Welsh Office at that stage actually backed the position of the Assembly Government. I've highlighted one section in particular, showing that he fully understood the difference between a Measure and an LCO.

So – has the position of the Welsh Office changed, or are people just playing games?

Q130 Alun Michael: Could we come back to the terms of the Bill? Are you absolutely satisfied that the proposed Order is defined well enough to articulate clearly its intentions and its scope to all interested parties?

Huw Irranca-Davies: Yes, I am, and it is noticeable that there is support for this and what is within the Bill from TPAS—the Tenant Participation Advisory Service Cymru. They have looked at this and they are confident that it gives them the clarity to satisfy their needs in terms of affordable housing as well as, I have to say, official confidence that this is appropriate.

Q131 Alun Michael: But we are talking about the precision of a piece of legislation here.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Yes.

Q132 Alun Michael: Therefore the precision is extremely important and it seems to me from some of the earlier answers that you have given that it would be possible to use the powers conveyed in this Order in a variety of ways that are quite different to the intention. You have reinforced the view that has come from some quarters that the proposed Order would be interpreted narrowly rather than broadly, but that is not the way that some people see it and it is not the way that some people want the powers to be used, so there does seem to be a degree of confusion here. Are you sure that the phrasing of the Order is adequate for it to be clear what it does not do or are there dangers of unintended consequences?

Huw Irranca-Davies: The only unintended consequence would be an administration that took the competences bestowed within this Order and had a clearly different policy intent behind it, so I do take what you are saying, we could narrow this or another LCO to the extent that we determine what will subsequently be done with it quite narrowly. There is an element here of working within the Government of Wales Act 2006 in transferring this competence, seeing where the policy intention currently is, but recognising and having confidence in the National Assembly for Wales and the Ministers down there that the Measures that they bring forward will be appropriate and will satisfy the needs of the community out there. You are right in what you are saying, what we are not trying to do within this LCO is actually to determine precisely for now and forever what the Welsh Assembly Government may do with it.

Q133 Alun Michael: Given that the Measure can be used in a variety of ways other than the current policy intentions, given also that the definitions are porous in the sense that land can be defined differently for the future and this can raise all sorts of community issues, would it not be to everybody’s benefit if there were an element within the Order that said the use of these powers shall be limited to the intentions that have been set out in the explanatory memorandum, would that not be closer to actually putting on the tin the precision of what the contents are?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I do know what you are saying but I am conscious that when we bring forward either this LCO or when we are looking at framework powers going through on the floor of the Commons there is always an element that once we have passed those powers to the Assembly it is then within the gift of the Assembly to change policy over time, to interpret them differently and there is an element of trust and faith in the institution then of the Welsh Assembly Government and the scrutiny given by the National Assembly of Wales members.

Q134 Alun Michael:
Does it not go well beyond to the possibility that powers will be dealt with in ways that are wholly unintended by yourself or the Assembly Ministers that are proposing the transfer of these powers at the present time?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I do see what you are saying, Mr Michael, but we recognise as well that over time policy might well change in response to what the housing market is and what the needs for affordable housing in Wales are. It is important that within the scope of any LCO that we deliver it does allow that flexibility for change. I know what you are saying is that there could be a potentially detrimental policy intent.

Q135 Alun Michael: No, what I am saying is that it may go beyond what is intended, beyond the powers that the Assembly is actually seeking in its explanation of the powers that it wants. It is a lack of legislative precision that is concerning me.

Huw Irranca-Davies: What I can reassure you about in terms of the definitional points that you talked about—which are laid out in previous Acts of this Parliament—is that there is certainly clarity in terms of the powers that are being sought and the powers that can be conferred. However, what I cannot give you entire clarity on is what the ultimate policy intention may be in 10 years time.

Q136 Alun Michael: No, but the legislative intention needs to be clear so surely we ought to be clear on the face of the Measure as to the powers that are being transferred and that it is limited to those in order to obviate the danger of unintended legislative complications.

Huw Irranca-Davies: You are right in what you are saying in that the powers conferred need to be clear and we are confident that the powers that are being sought and are being conferred are clear in the competence that they bestow. Whilst there is also quite a clear policy intent that is being argued at the moment that might bring forward Measures, what I cannot do and I know you would not expect me to do is to double-guess five or 10 years down the line.

Q137 Alun Michael: With respect—I will just make this point once more—we are talking about the possibility of unintended legislative consequences which is why precision in the legislation surely is necessary to a greater extent than we have. I suggest you should reflect on that.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Right, okay.

Thursday 6 November 2008

Missing strategy

Professor Stuart Cole returned yesterday to a topic on which he has written before – the need for Wales to be plugged into the European high speed rail network. This is an area where the UK has lagged far behind the rest of Europe, which has been prepared to make a massive strategic investment in rail over the past few decades, and is planning to continue with that approach for some time to come.

'Strategic' is very much the key word. The Assembly government has made a number of good investments in improving rail infrastructure, and more are planned, but in comparison with Europe, these are relatively small scale tactical improvements, addressing particular issues and problems. What is missing is the sort of long-term vision which France, Germany etc. have had for their rail networks. The only strategy that seems to exist in the UK is to take short term decisions and ignore the longer term consequences.

Of course, I accept entirely that there is no purpose in the Assembly Government having a strategy for a high speed rail link across the south of Wales if there is no strategy in England for a link from London westwards. Additionally, it's absolutely key to linking Wales into the network that we plan to build a new Severn rail crossing to replace the outdated and problem-prone tunnel. On both of these issues, we need to work jointly with English authorities and the UK government.

But that sort of joint work between authorities is already happening elsewhere in the UK, and as Prof Cole points out, it seems highly likely that the next two high speed lines to be built in the UK will both be from London northwards. It is vital that we not only press for a coherent strategy for a high speed network to be built, but that we make sure that Wales figures prominently in the plans. We are in serious danger of missing out completely as things stand.

Wednesday 5 November 2008

This is no fudge

In current management speak, it's called a hospital pass - a piece of work at which you cannot win, whatever you do. The only surprising thing is that a man of Sir Wyn Roberts' experience was silly enough to accept it.

He was onto a loser from the outset – trying to square the circle between a leader in Wales who wanted to go one way, and a reluctant party which instinctively wants to go the other. So he came up with the classic compromise – he proposed yet another review. (What the difference is between the proposed root and branch review and the one already held by the Richard Commission is an interesting question which no Tory has yet attempted to answer as far as I am aware. I suspect that the key difference is that, for most of the Conservative Party, Richard came up with the 'wrong' answer.)

I think Betsan Powys is more than a tad too kind in calling this a 'fudge' – it seems to me that it has far less substance than that. It's a complete non-answer, which moves his party not one inch further forward than it was six months ago.

There is some debate about whether the report does or does not imply that no Tory Secretary of State would veto a request for a referendum from the Assembly – Betsan and Vaughan seem to be at odds on that specific. But I wonder if it really makes that much difference - I cannot see any Tory majority in the House of Commons ever allowing a referendum to be held, so why would any Tory Secretary of State need to veto it?

We have also had yet more disturbing indications today that Labour are not over-keen on living up to the commitment that they gave in One Wales. Vaughan half suggests that that might put alternative arrangements in Cardiff back on to the table - but Sir Wyn's report has surely scuppered any remaining hope of that. Why on earth would Plaid want to move away from working with a party which is hesitating over a commitment it has given to one which won't even give a commitment? Looks a bit like frying pans and fires to me.

What is most disheartening of all to those of us who want to see further progress is that all this debate isn't even about what powers the Assembly should have next - that's already defined in the Government of Wales Act. The debate is limited to the simple question of whether those powers should be transferred neatly and tidily in one single step, or whether they should be transferred salami-style over the next decade or two, with LabourTory backwoodsmen in London debating and obstructing line by line every step of the way. And the difference between Labour and Tory on this is looking increasingly small.

Sunday 2 November 2008

And then there were none...

A mere six months ago, in May, the Lib Dems celebrated almost unparalleled success (for them) in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, with one candidate elected to Carmarthenshire County Council, and 3 to Pembrokeshire County Council.

It took only a few days for the Lib Dem group in Carmarthenshire to annihilate itself, when the sole member signed up for full membership of the Independent Party on the council.

It's taken a little longer in Pembrokeshire, but last week, that group too finally succeeded in extinguishing itself. It wasn't long after the election when one of the three resigned from the council, causing a by-election which they promptly lost. That left them with a group of two councillors - until last week when one of the two formally resigned from the group.

That leaves both of them now officially unaligned with any group or party – or even with each other. It is, of course, all part of a cunning plan on their part – it seems that, under the council's rules, they'll qualify for more committee seats if they pretend not to be friends any more. It still looks like a very odd thing to do, though.