Friday 31 July 2009

Hain's at it again

Writing in the latest edition of the IWA magazine, 'Agenda', Peter Hain says, "The Government of Wales Act 2006…settled the question of Wales' constitutional status, if not forever, then for generations to come. …there will never be another Act because it provides for full law making powers…"

If there's one infallible rule of politics it is this: politicians who say something will 'never' happen are proved wrong, sometimes fairly rapidly. There are many politicians who have lived to regret ever having uttered the word. Hain will be proved wrong as well, for the simple reason that, even after holding a successful referendum and implementing Part 4 of GOWA 2006, the Assembly will still find itself hampered by the way in which the powers have been devolved.

The contrast is, inevitably, with Scotland, where the devolution settlement is so very much clearer. Scotland can do anything not explicitly reserved to Westminster; whereas, even under GOWA 2006 Part 4, Wales will only be able to legislate on those matters explicitly devolved to Wales. We will be able to do so without having to go through the ludicrous LCO process, and the split in responsibilities will be clearer than it is now – but it will still not be as clear as the situation in Scotland.

Far from being settled 'for generations to come', I believe that the constitutional status of Wales will continue to be a significant issue until at least the degree of stability afforded to Scotland is achieved. Does Hain really believe his own words, or is he just playing to a particular audience in his own party?

Thursday 30 July 2009

When is a quango not a quango?

An interesting call today for the resurrection of the WDA, or something very like it, by Professor Brian Morgan.

My initial instinct, when the then Labour government proposed to abolish the WDA (and a few other quangos as well), was to support what they were doing. There was a feeling that Wales had for too long been run, in practice, not by elected politicians, but by unelected political placemen (and they were mostly men).

Wales had become something of a quango state, where large parts of our national life were actually being run by people appointed through a mysterious and secret process from a list of the great and the good, many of whom just happened to be Tories despite Wales being a largely Labour-supporting nation. It suited the Tories to be able to appoint their people to the various boards and panels without the tiresome business of having to get elected to anything, and it suited the Labour Party, up to a point, since it meant that many of their people would stay in place even if they lost power in London.

So, in principle, sacking the boards and panels and making the various agencies answerable directly to elected politicians seemed like a good idea. Actually, I still think it's a good idea – not only did the old system mean that a number of bodies and agencies were not answerable to the electorate in any meaningful way, it also gave politicians a degree of what Nixon called 'credible deniability' for the decisions taken by those bodies and agencies. In the health service, in particular, that always seemed to be a little too convenient at times.

As far as that last point is concerned, it did seem to me that there was a sense in which the government was being somewhat selective in deciding which quangos to put onto the bonfire though. Those where they wished to take the credit for success seemed to be a higher priority than those for which someone else could be blamed for failure!

What I did not – and still do not – understand is why abolishing the quango necessarily meant turning all the employees into civil servants, let alone merging them into a department of the Assembly Government. What I wanted abolished was not particularly the agencies themselves, but their unaccountability, and most especially, the system of appointing the great and the good to run them.

Giving the Minister responsibility for appointing the Managing Director, and making the appointee accountable directly to the Minister surely achieves the desired result in terms of removing the unelected and unaccountable boards. But it can still leave the organisation free, to an extent at least, to retain a different culture and style from that of the civil service – and it's the loss of that culture and style, rather than the loss of the organisation per se, which seems to be at the root of the problem identified by Prof. Morgan.

Perhaps there's some rule somewhere which insists that such a solution is impossible. If so, we should be challenging and changing that rule rather than allowing ourselves to be constrained by it.

Wednesday 29 July 2009

Staying on the rails

There were quite a few blog posts about the announcement a week or so ago that the main railway line through South Wales is to be electrified – and quite a robust debate took place as a result of a post by Alwyn. Clearly not everyone thinks it was a good decision.

Fundamentally, there are three reasons why I thought, and still think, that electrification is the right thing to do. The first is that electric trains have a lower carbon footprint overall than the diesel alternative. The second is that they are more reliable - and reliability of public transport is one of the key issues in persuading more people to make the switch from car to train. And the third is that, over the long tem, an electric railway is cheaper to run than a diesel railway.

The main counter argument seems to have been that, if we have money to invest in the transport infrastructure in Wales, then the main east-west link in the south is the wrong place to invest it. It's not an argument against electrifying the railways; it's more an argument about transport priorities for Wales. I understand the argument; but disagree.

Part of the problem is that the announcement is very much a 'stand-alone' announcement; not really placed in the context of a wider strategy for rail in Wales. The strategic context itself is not as clear as it could be, at either UK or Wales level. Even the National Transport Plan for Wales published a couple of weeks ago, for all the very positive aspects of it, seems to me to be based on an opportunistic, incremental approach to developing the rail network in Wales, rather than on a vision of where we want to be and how we get there.

In terms of what is achievable within likely budgets, that makes it a realistic, deliverable plan – but I'd still like to see a wider strategy behind that. There's nothing at all wrong with an opportunistic approach to developing the network, as long as those opportunities take us towards the realisation of an overall strategy.

Plaid in this constituency has tabled a motion to this year's annual conference on the issue, where we will debate that wider strategy for the longer term future. Some of the main elements of that strategy should be, in our view:

Electrification of the whole network in Wales
• High-speed links from both the South and the North to join with the European network of high speed railways, including a new crossing of the Severn estuary
• A high-speed link direct from North to South

This is neither a cheap nor a short term strategy; high speed links in particular require planning well ahead, but we are calling for the UK and Welsh governments to at least start the process of designating clear routes which can be protected. (And, incidentally, there are those who seem confused about the difference between electrification and high-speed links, mistakenly referring to the former as being a step towards the latter.)

In the context of this sort of strategy, electrification of the line between Swansea and the Severn Tunnel is probably the best place to start on realising the first of those objectives. Rejecting the idea primarily because the line then extends on to London is to ignore two key facts – firstly, that a great deal of use is made of the line for internal traffic within Wales, and secondly, that it is precisely because it can be seen as an extension to the work on the London to Bristol line that it becomes a more cost-effective proposal from the point of view of the funding body – in this case, the UK government.

Far from being an alternative to the electrification and further development of Wales' internal network, I think it can be – and should be – a spur to doing precisely that.

Tuesday 28 July 2009

More than a Trump needed to win

There is much with which I agree in the analysis by Daran Hill over at WalesHome of the One Wales coalition. There are one or two aspects of the history of the coalition negotiations on which my take would be slightly different, but that's a matter for another time.

There are, however, two other factors which I'd add to his list – even if that spoils the little mnemonic.

The first is 'Preparation'. I don't think any of the parties, let alone the public, were properly prepared for the negotiations in 2007. Certainly, I know that Plaid had not adequately discussed the question; and my perception throughout the process was that the other parties hadn't really done so either.

We're all far too accustomed to 'British' politics, in which, because it is based on a first past the post system of voting, coalition is an extremely rare beast. We are accustomed to a situation where parties fighting an election can only do so on the basis of an assumption that they are going to win an overall majority – even though, in an Assembly context, we all know that that is a highly unlikely outcome.

The result is that none of us were able or willing to spell out clearly to the electorate the extent to which we might be willing - or be forced - to compromise on our manifestoes in practice. It would have meant conceding in advance that we were not expecting to win an outright majority (even though everyone knew that anyway). It won't be easy to change that approach, but if we are to be more honest with the electorate I think we need to.

That does not mean creating electoral alliances, but it does mean being willing to discuss more openly what potential arrangements we would be willing to consider - and any which we would definitely not - as well as which (if any) commitments in our manifestoes we would regard as genuine 'red line' matters, on which we would not be willing to compromise.

It would lead to a rather different style of electioneering – more continental than British – but that's just another plus.

The second additional factor is 'Commitment of the Wider Party'. On the basis of experience to date, we have seen how MPs in London can obstruct and derail elements of any Welsh Government's agenda as part of the unwieldy LCO process. None of us in Plaid were ever expecting the process to be perfect, but I think we had reasonable cause to believe, given that the whole Labour Party signed up to the coalition, that the party's MPs would support the government programme to which their party had agreed.

That doesn't mean supporting everything One Wales government does, or suspending normal hostilities over non-devolved issues. But on the specific matters which were part of the coalition agreement accepted by both parties, the behaviour of some Labour MPs has been disappointing, to say the least.

It follows that from my perspective, in judging any potential coalition arrangements post 2011, one of the things I'd want to look at is the extent to which the prospective coalition partners are prepared to ensure that their own parties do not block the government programme by using their votes in another place. This has been a huge problem with the Labour Party – and I suspect that it would have been an even bigger problem with the Conservative Party, given that their leader in the Assembly has zilch authority to speak for anyone in his party other than the 12 Assembly members (and I wonder about some of them as well).

Friday 24 July 2009

Caption Competition

Thanks to a reader for the scanned image.

On reflection, I think Hain is probably saying, "Not so fast you two. I'm in charge here." All other suggestions welcomed.

Gimmick or precedent?

It's too easy to dismiss the UK cabinet's little jaunt to Wales yesterday as a gimmick - but that doesn't mean it wasn't. It's certainly generated large numbers of column inches of publicity for the Labour Government in the Welsh press - most of it positive. Reading today's Western Mail, one could be forgiven for thinking that not much else happened in Wales yesterday.

The government and their spin doctors will undoubtedly be pleased with the coverage – but how will the public perceive it?

I think the jury's still out at this stage. If it's something which is repeated on an annual basis, then there's a good chance that it will be seen as an attempt to bring government a little closer to the people. And if every visit is accompanied by the sort of good news announcement that we had yesterday on rail investment, then perhaps we should encourage them to come once a month.

If, on the other hand, it ends up being a one-off in what must now be seen as the run-up to a General Election, then 'gimmick' would be the appropriate description, and it will be likely to increase cynicism.

PS – Am I the only one who found it odd that Wales' First Minister (based in Cardiff) should arrive with Brown, whereas the Secretary of State (based in London) was waiting to meet him on the platform?

PPS – Can't find it on the internet, but the photo on pages 4-5 of the Western Mail would make a superb caption competition. Hain's face as he reaches out to Brown's arm is an absolute picture. My entry is "Hey, I'm still here too".

Thursday 23 July 2009

Electric rail

Today's formal announcement that the main railway line from London is to be electrified as far as Swansea is good news, as others have already noted. It's something for which Plaid have been campaigning for many years, and given that not so long ago there was considerable doubt as to whether the scheme to electrify the line would go any further than Bristol, there can be little doubt that having a Plaid minister in charge of transport has been a major factor in extending the project to Swansea. I know that Ieuan has done a tremendous amount of lobbying for this decision, and am pleased that it's paid off.

Following on from last week's announcement that the M4 relief road will not be built, it demonstrates a clear commitment both to a lower carbon footprint for transport, and a switch in emphasis to public transport.

It's important, however, that things don't stop there, and that we continue to campaign on a number of fronts, and there are two things in particular which I'd like to see.

Firstly, a clear forward plan for electrification of the line further west than Swansea. Not all the trains from London stop at Cardiff or Swansea - some come to Carmarthen as well, and an electrification programme which stops at Swansea is likely to lead to a requirement to change trains there for travel further west.

That's acceptable as an interim measure while the work continues – it would be wholly unrealistic to expect the whole job to be completed before starting to replace diesel rolling stock with electric trains – but I wouldn't want to see it used as a reason for ending the service to Carmarthen on a permanent basis.

Secondly, a commitment to a high speed link. Electrification of the existing line is not at all the same thing as linking Wales to the High-speed network; that would require the construction of a new line to the required standard – including a new crossing of the Severn. It's an ambitious and expensive project, but it's a key part of switching at least some short haul air traffic to the railways.

We need a route to be designated and protected, and we need a clear plan to be developed, for the delivery of this link, and we need the Welsh government and the UK Government to be undertaking preliminary work now.

It's excellent news that we are seeing a more strategic approach to transport planning, but we mustn't stop there.

Wednesday 22 July 2009

Selecting the team

Nick Bourne's attempt to recognise the serious deficiency of female candidates and elected members in his party was met by a pretty ferocious response from one of his party's parliamentary candidates. It would be wrong, of course, to see that as a rebellion within the ranks; on my understanding Bourne is not actually the leader of the Conservatives in Wales (although he's often inaccurately described as such) - he's only the leader of his party's group in the National Assembly. His authority, such as it is, does not therefore include the party's MPs, parliamentary candidates or councillors in Wales; they answer only to Cameron.

The spat does highlight one of the problems faced by Bourne in his attempts to adapt his party to a Welsh context, namely that the real authority lies elsewhere. That was certainly one of my concerns about the much touted 'rainbow' coalition - were we dealing with someone who had any real authority to speak for his party? Could he really deliver?

Back to the issue of imbalance amongst candidates, however. Although his authority in the matter is very limited, I do give Bourne some credit for realising that his party has a problem. Only one of their twelve members in the Assembly is a woman (and even that was something of an accident - their expectation was that they would retain Glyn Davies' seat, giving them an all-male team), and they look very much more male-dominated than any of the other parties.

In Plaid, we've had our own problems on the issue, of course. Although the team in the Assembly has a reasonable gender balance at present as a result of a decision we took to prioritise women for the list seats (which is one of Bourne's proposals for his own party), the reality is that if we had done even better than we did in the constituency results, then the balance would have looked very different. Any party that wants to end up with a balance in the Assembly must address both parts of the electoral system, not just the one.

There seems to be no real debate – either within parties or between parties – about the desirability of reaching a position where the make-up of the team of candidates put forward is more similar to the make-up of the population as a whole; the argument is more about the means by which that is achieved. That argument mostly revolves around the question of a formal mechanism to address imbalance - and the most common counter argument is that put forward by Guto Bebb, that candidates should be selected entirely on 'merit'.

For me, there are two major problems with the simplistic 'merit' argument. The first is about how we define and measure 'merit' in a way which is fair and equal – far too many aspects of the selection processes concentrate on a fairly narrow range of skills which are, in my view, indirectly discriminating in favour of a particular type of candidate. And the second is that parties need to think in terms of selecting teams - and 15 brilliant outside halves do not usually make a winning team.

(And that isn't just about achieving a gender balance. It has also to do with a range of other talents, skills, and abilities.)

It means treading a difficult line between taking a more centralised, strategic view of candidate selection, and retaining a strong element of local democracy in the process. I'll admit that Plaid haven't got it right yet; we're still struggling to find the right balance. I think that Bourne faces an uphill battle in his party on the issue – but I'm certainly not going to criticise him for at least trying.

Tuesday 14 July 2009

Being British

It wasn't just David Melding's new book which led me to give some thought to the question of 'Britishness' recently; I've also been reading Patrick Hannan's latest work, "A Useful Fiction: Adventures in British Democracy". This seems to have been sent to quite a number of bloggers for review. It's an interesting approach; not least since I was on Patrick's 'Called to Order' programme some 18 months ago talking about blogging, and I got the impression that he was not exactly convinced of the value of the medium!

In fairness, however, having known Patrick for far too many years, and having been interviewed by him as long ago as the 1970s, it's always dangerous to assume that the way he asks his questions necessarily betrays his own thinking; as often as not, he's trying to be deliberately provocative. He really enjoys a good argument, I suspect.

And that's something which I kept in mind in reading the book itself. Patrick has always seemed to me to be more interested in challenging what people think and why than in expressing a view himself.

So, academic tome this is not; but he is a journalist, not an academic, and what we get is much more of a personal tour around the landscape of a changing Britishness. Insofar as it comes to any conclusions, rather than presenting impressions, it seems to me that it is simply this – 'Britishness', whatever it may be, is not something static or permanent, but something diffuse and vague which is both evolving continuously (and doing so in ways which many 'British' people - and particularly the English - don't really understand) whilst at the same time retaining recognisable elements of continuity.

John Major tried to define 'Britishness' in terms of cricket on the village green, warm beer, and spinsters cycling to church; others have tried to define it in terms of a commitment to justice and fair play. The first is about as far removed as it is possible to get from the everyday experience of most 'British' people; and the second is a set of values which almost any western democracy would also claim to espouse. The only thing uniquely British about the notion of justice and fair play is the idea that those notions are somehow unique to one nation; it's the sort of quiet superiority which is so common amongst the English (public school?) establishment.

I remember years ago reading a book which said something along the lines of "The English always claim that they are not nationalists. This is the first characteristic of English nationalism". And that touches on another problem that people trying to define what it is to be British come up against – they never seem to be able to explain the difference between English and British. Most Welsh people readily understand that there is a difference, despite being entirely comfortable to describe themselves as both British and Welsh.

Although the book isn't really an exploration of Welshness, I'd argue that the same is true for that as well; so one can draw a general conclusion that what our chosen nationality is, and what it means to us, are things which are constantly changing. I understand why some of those for whom "the union must be maintained at all costs" would feel threatened by such a thesis - and why some Welsh nationalists might feel equally threatened!

However, they'd be wrong – in both cases. Understanding our past, understanding the way things are changing around us, and creating our own future based on those understandings is a key element of what our politics should be about.

As Patrick points out, there is a huge mismatch at present between what is happening to the UK and the understanding of it, particularly amongst those in England (and their representatives in Wales) who seem to think that they really can hold back the tide. Trying to cling on to an outdated notion of what we are – whether that be British or Welsh – is the strategy least likely to succeed. And, to end on an optimistic note - at present, I think that nationalists are doing more to understand and embrace change than are unionists.

Monday 13 July 2009

Protecting the Union

David Melding nailed his colours to the mast a couple of weeks ago by advocating a federal constitution for the UK. It's a bold and radical step for a Tory to take, given that he must surely understand how far out of step he is with the majority of his own party's members. Even bolder, in my view, was the pretty explicit recognition that 'sovereignty' belongs, ultimately to the people, not to the monarch. This is a much more radical step; but it goes a long way towards bridging the comprehension gap between 'unionists' and 'nationalists' in the Welsh context.

On my understanding of the (unwritten) UK constitution, 'sovereignty' flows from God to the monarch, whose distant ancestors graciously (or under force of arms, depending on viewpoint) delegated most of the monarch's power to Parliament to govern the monarch's 'subjects'. And Parliament then has an absolute right to choose to delegate (or devolve) that power, or not (subject always to Royal Assent, of course).

For me, 'sovereignty' belongs to all of us as citizens; it is for us to determine how much of it we allow any body to exercise. It follows that self-government for Wales is ours as of right, any time the majority of us choose it, and no parliament has the right to deny it if that is what we choose. Melding is not the first 'unionist' to recognise the validity of that viewpoint; but most others seem reluctant to follow that path.

The significance of that alternative approach to 'sovereignty' is both simple and fundamental. Accepting that it's for the people to choose means that the debate about the future of Wales can focus where it should be - on why people should make one choice or the other, rather than on axiomatic statements from both sides which presuppose that one unit is the 'right' one now and for all time.

I start from an acceptance that we are where we are as a result of history; and in recent centuries the peoples of these islands have enjoyed a great deal of common history. Families stretching across what are currently 'internal' borders is a very common situation. Nobody with a name like Dixon is going to claim to be pure-bred Welsh; like many, or even most, other people in Wales, I have family and other connections in many other parts of the UK.

Whatever future Wales chooses for itself, I would expect that the bonds of friendship and family across these islands would continue in a close working relationship. But are those bonds, in themselves, sufficient reason to maintain the 'union' between Wales and England, as some seem to suggest? Because, in whatever terms it is actually expressed, that seems to be one of the key arguments of some of those who wish to retain the current relationship.

I can understand how some take the view that those recent centuries of a degree of common history have turned us into a single 'British' nation, just as I can understand how others see the retention of some key differences as an argument that Wales remains a distinctive nation. But I don't think either interpretation is enough, in itself, to determine the basis on which we establish governmental arrangements.

If you strip out that axiomatic approach to determining future governance arrangements, then what remains? Arguments about financial means, certainly; arguments about democracy and localisation as well. These are largely pragmatic arguments about what's best and what will serve the people. I have no problem with the idea of sharing, or pooling sovereignty; if I did, I couldn't honestly argue for Wales being a full member of the EU.

Speaking personally, I wouldn't even rule out the idea that there might be some functions best performed jointly between the nations of these islands, if there was a sound basis for so doing, although I'd argue that the governing arrangements for such co-operation need to be designed around the objectives rather than seen as simply a continuation of the UK.

What I don't understand is the basis for the continuation of 'the union' in the eyes of those who place such stress on it. In many cases, it seems to be based primarily on an emotional attachment to a particular arrangement – precisely the criticism which has so often been thrown at those of us who take an alternative view.

Friday 10 July 2009

Saying what you mean

I mentioned yesterday that officialdom seems to have decided that 'schools' are now to be called 'learning settings'. Tomos Livingstone in today's Western Mail draws attention to some other examples of waffle and jargon. Most of us fall into the trap of using circumlocution where a simpler wording would do at times; but governments and public sector bodies seem to make a profession of it.

"Address the agenda" has always seemed to me to be an example, of sorts, of what Churchill had in mind as a schoolboy when he asked why the vocative case was relevant to an inanimate object. And that's one of the simpler ones.

Some other recent examples I've come across are:

"Appoint a caucus of sector champions", which seems to mean setting up a sub-committee.

"Engage a wide group of interested stakeholders" – talk to a few people.

"Develop a network to inform and sign-post" – collect e-mail addresses and send them newsletters.

"Conduct a light-touch evaluation in the form of an exit survey" – ask people what they thought.

The worst of it is that these sorts of phrases often appear in documents which are, apparently, aimed at giving people an opportunity to influence (or as they would say 'become engaged with') what the bodies concerned are trying to do. The phrases used, however, seem almost designed to have the exact opposite effect.

Governments and their officials really need to try harder to start writing in plain simple language. And I won't even start on the question of trying to translate this flowery language into readable Welsh...

Thursday 9 July 2009

Questions and answers

Having received a report on the results of its 'informal' consultation on educational reform in Dinefwr and Gwendraeth (this was the 'consultation' launched in a great rush after they found out that Plaid were planning a series of meetings in the affected area), Carmarthenshire County Council were somewhat embarrassed by one of the findings.

After dismissing at the outset any suggestion of providing a Welsh-medium option in the Dinefwr area (Ammanford, Llandeilo, Llandovery) because of 'lack of demand', a rather unfortunate 46% of the responses received from that area chose to disagree with them. What to do next?

Well, they'd already used their majority in the council to reject a Plaid motion to conduct a proper survey of parental demand, and found themselves pretty much hoist by their own petard. Having obtained a formal council resolution declaring that they would not conduct any such survey, they found themselves needing to do something to get a different answer, so that they could continue down the path on which they'd already decided.

So, a paper was presented to the Executive Board member responsible for education, who decided to "conduct further research with primary school parents to assess the demand with regard to the linguistic category of the proposed new learning settings" ('learning setting' is apparently the new officialese for 'school').

How are they doing this? By sending a letter to all primary school parents asking them what sort of school they want for their children. Looks to me suspiciously like the survey which they'd earlier refused to conduct, with the use of a few weasel words to avoid contradicting the formal resolution which they themselves had pushed through full council.

Within days of that decision, the letters were sent out, and before any opposition councillor even knew that the 'further research' was being undertaken, parents had received and were starting to return the letters – giving no person or group any chance to present any alternative view to the one being presented by the council.

Several parents have commented already to us that the wording of the letter fails to make the difference between the options sufficiently clear, and there is every sign that the council has acted as it has in the belief that this approach is most likely to give the answer that it wants. The difference between category 2A and 2B is an extremely important one – yet both are, very misleadingly, described as being 'bilingual' schools. Whilst 80% of all subjects are taught exclusively through the medium of Welsh in a category 2A school, it is possible for only a very low percentage of pupils in a 2B school to receive any Welsh-medium instruction at all.

It's not even a serious attempt to properly determine linguistic preference; it certainly does not represent any sort of attempt to actively promote the Welsh language and Welsh-medium education in one of its heartlands.

The bottom line is that the council, seemingly aided and abetted by the education department in the Assembly Government, has already decided that one secondary school in the Dinefwr area should be closed. Establishing a Welsh-medium secondary school to serve the area would seriously compromise that objective, and must therefore be resisted.

The actions of the county council in relation to secondary reorganisation in the relevant part of Carmarthenshire make a complete mockery of any suggestion that they are in any way committed to Welsh-medium education, or to giving parents any real choice on the matter. And the strategy for the promotion of Welsh-medium education, recently launched with great fanfare by the Assembly Government, says nothing which would discourage the county council from its proposed course of action.

Wednesday 8 July 2009

What's the real agenda

A couple of days ago, Clive Betts posted about the debate in the Assembly last week on Transforming Education. Clive suggested that "The only people who would have known what was happening were the handful of journalists were attended the briefing by civil servants. What they told us was certainly not replicated during the Assembly debate".

Clearly, I was not at the briefing for journalists, so I don't know what was said there. But I have to admit that Clive has highlighted a point which has been worrying me somewhat – which is that the agenda of the Education Department at the Assembly Government does not seem to be fully explained or understood, not least by the AMs themselves.

When I read the documents whch are at the heart of the particular debate which Clive refers to, I read them as at the very least facilitating, if not actually encouraging, moves to abolish sixth forms and move to a system of tertiary colleges throughout Wales. And setting sixth form funding, alongside FE college funding, at Assembly government level rather than local authority level seemed to me to be giving an extra lever to the education department to achieve that goal.

Clive suggests that the civil servants briefed journalists to the effect that imposing this approach across Wales was precisely their intention. It wouldn't surprise me for one moment to learn that this was their intention – but I'd be surprised if they really briefed journalists to that effect so openly. The policy documents themselves are far from being as black and white as that; and certainly don't seem to match what is being said by individual AMs, which is the point which Clive makes. So, one would have to believe either that the AMs understand what the department is up to and are keeping quiet about it; or else that the civil servants fed an agenda to the press which has not been fed to (or perhaps not fully understood by) the people supposedly making the decisions.

It isn't just on the sixth form issue that I have concerns; I have similar concerns on the question of Welsh-medium secondary education. In both cases, the Education Department seems to be pursuing an agenda with far-reaching consequences, which is not spelled out in the wording of the formal documents, but which is being delivered in practice through the less formal day-to-day communication between the Department and local authorities.

There's nothing wrong, per se, with the government using its majority to push through its policies. But there is something very wrong if, as Clive suggests, the full implications of those policies are not really being made clear to those being whipped to support them.

Tuesday 7 July 2009

Now for Westminster...

The report by Sir Roger Jones and his panel on the pay and expenses of AMs contains a large number of recommendations. In other circumstances, there are one or two points of detail (mostly minor) which I suspect ought to be subject to a little more debate; but in the current climate, I don't see how any of the parties can do other than accept the report in full, and that's what I expect to happen.

I don't doubt that there will be some AMs in all parties who might harbour reservations about aspects of the proposals; but it would be a career-limiting move to start expressing those reservations, let alone rejecting any of the recommendations.

Westminster has already launched its own review of the system of expenses, which will report later this year. Whilst there may be some minor differences as a result of the different nature of the two institutions, they are likely to struggle to justify any significant differences of principle, and I expect Westminster to follow the lead set by the Assembly.

Playing Games

Others have already commented on the 'story' floated over the weekend that some in the Labour Party would like to use the opportunity of a change of leader to change the One Wales agreement in order to include the Lib Dems and demote Ieuan Wyn Jones.

The idea that the Labour Party can decide to change a two-party agreement into a three-party agreement - let alone do so as part of a blatant attempt to marginalise the Plaid leader in the government - is complete nonsense of course. The agreement was made by two parties; and both parties would need to agree any changes.

So why float the idea at all? They suggest that it is about marginalising the Tories in Wales; but it looks to me more like an attempt to punish Plaid for the perceived success of our ministerial team, at a time when the Labour vote has gone into freefall.

It is certainly true that there are some in the Labour Party who are, as the Western Mail put it, "far from happy to see their leaders in cosy co-operation with Plaid". Their objective is not simply to try and bring the Lib Dems in - but to drive Plaid out; it's good old-fashioned Labour tribalism at its worst.

The preference of this little gang for coalition with the Lib Dems has little to do with ideology or policy, and everything to do with hegemony. The Lib Dems are not - and are unlikely ever to become – strong enough or numerous enough to represent an electoral threat to Labour, and are therefore a 'safe' option; one that doesn't challenge the divine right that the anonymous briefers think Labour has to run Wales.

Their party has given us a partly-proportional system of election (far from perfect in my view, but a step along the right road); but some of them seem not to have been able to adapt to the main consequence of that, namely that the days of one-party hegemony are finished.

Friday 3 July 2009

Compulsive arguments

After giving evidence to the All-Wales Convention last week, I noted that I wasn't entirely sure how to read some of the lines of questioning. Was Sir Emyr merely playing devil's advocate, or were his questions telling us something about the way he's thinking?

As a follow-up, there were aspects of his article in yesterday's Western Mail which left me wondering whether he isn't trying too hard to give the impression of a finely balanced debate. I thought his summary of the arguments for and against the implementation of Part 4 of the Act was a reasonable one; but I do wonder how anyone can really believe that the arguments, in the form expressed, are "equally compelling" on both sides.

His summary of the arguments against which have been presented to him seems to boil down to:

It needs more time for the current system to bed down (a 'compulsive' argument, apparently, although on reflection, that's probably a better description than 'compelling')

• The current system is now starting to work

• Letting MPs scrutinise what the Assembly wants to do is the right way to proceed.

For me, that just shows how weak the arguments for the current system are in reality; they are all readily dismissed. The third, in particular, seemed to amount to an argument as much against the principle of legislative devolution as the timing.