Friday 30 October 2009

Cut them some slack?

When I first heard that the report of the All Wales Convention was to be published in the middle of the Labour leadership election, I did sort of wonder whether that was really such a good idea. Whatever it recommended, it was inevitably going to put all three contenders on the spot, at a time when they were looking to maximise their support in all three parts of the electoral college.

And so it has come to pass. Gareth Hughes is amongst those who wonder where this leaves One Wales, with two of the three sounding at best luke-warm on the issue.

Given the constituency to which they are trying to appeal at present, I'm not really surprised at a degree of equivocation, to say the least. And at this stage, I'm not overly concerned about it either. All three candidates are finding themselves in a position where their target audience is the internal one, but the most effective way of reaching that audience is through external media.

What matters is not what they say now, but what they will say and do when sitting around the cabinet table after the dust has settled. In the meantime, perhaps we should just cut them a bit of slack, and hope that they all have the sense not to say anything too irrevocable.

I'm much more concerned about the continued interference of the Secretary of State, who seems at times to be determined to derail his own government and party.

Ex-future-president Blair

It's surprised me for a while that there's been so much speculation about the idea of Blair becoming president of the EU, but it seems that, at last, reality is starting to dawn.

Surely, only in the UK can anyone have believed that the other countries of the EU would really want as their leader a person who has both consistently tried to keep his own member-state closer to the US than to our European partners and at the same time worked to keep his own member-state out of two of the most important projects for the EU, namely the Euro and the Schengen agreement.

It seemed pretty self-evident to me that the major players would want someone who had demonstrated a degree of commitment to their objectives, rather than someone who would be likely to use the position to undermine those objectives. Diplomatic niceties prevented them from making other than generally complimentary comments, but their comments weren't meant to be taken seriously.

Thursday 29 October 2009

Hain as the new Kinnock?

The collapse of a tired and worn-out government is not a pretty sight. The causes are usually multiple, although those with a particular axe to grind will always blame the one which fits best with their own perspective on events. The obvious comparison between current events and previous examples is the end of the Major government in 1997; but there are also some parallels with the end of Labour's last period in office in 1979.

It's interesting that in both those years, there was also a referendum on devolution; and in that respect at least, history seems likely to repeat itself again – 2010 seems likely to be both a year in which a tired old government is removed and a year for holding another referendum on the governance of Wales. It's yet to be made clear which will come first.

In 1997, the referendum which was so narrowly won followed the election of the new government; whilst in 1979, it preceded the defeat of the old. From a London perspective, I suspect that the influence of that failed referendum in 1979 on the results of the general election is underestimated. The referenda were only held in Wales and Scotland, after all; and both countries remained more loyal to Labour than did England, despite the Tories reaching double-figures here in Wales.

But although the referendum might have looked peripheral from London, there was little doubt that months of internecine warfare did not help the Labour Party. And that sort of warfare sapped the strength of the party as a whole, not just in Wales and Scotland.

A future Labour leader – widely regarded as one of their rising stars at the time – was pitted against the official line of his party in implementing a policy for which the rank and file had voted. I really don't think that Kinnock has been given the credit / blame (choose according to perspective) which he deserves for his role in ushering in the Thatcher era.

At first sight, any comparison between Hain and Kinnock seems unlikely and unfair – Hain is, after all, a self-avowed devophile, whereas Kinnock was anything but. And yet...

A situation seems to be developing where Hain (although I'm not sure that many would still consider him to be a rising star) is positioning himself in opposition to a clear pledge given by his party (as a result of a vote in a special conference, not just a leadership pronouncement) as part of the One Wales agreement.

He claims, of course, that his opposition is based on a pragmatic assessment of the probable result; but this seems to be based largely on the view that his own assessment is more reliable than that of the opinion polls, or of anyone else. But the similarity with the events of 1979 is that Hain, like Kinnock before him, is in danger of doing more damage to his own party than to his political opponents.

Wednesday 28 October 2009

Outside expertise

Over the last week or so, Brown and Cameron have both suggested changes in relation to ministers who are in the House of Lords rather than the Commons. They've both recognised an issue; but neither seems keen to follow the point to its logical conclusion.

Brown has suggested that cabinet ministers (such as Mandelson) who sit in the second chamber should be required to be accountable to MPs, and answer questions in the Commons in same way as any other ministers. Cameron on the other hand has suggested that people might be appointed to the Lords on a 'temporary' basis whilst they serve as ministers, leaving the chamber again once they resign or get fired. The suggestions are not, actually, mutually exclusive.

But why should government ministers be sitting in an unelected chamber in the first place?

At one level, it seems fundamentally undemocratic for people who have never fought an election in their lives (let alone those who have fought and lost, or simply resigned from elected office at some point in the past) to end up running significant ministries of state. But in other countries, where the distinction between the administration and the legislature is much more formal, it's often the norm. And congressional pre-appointment hearings, for example, mean that those appointed as members of the US government are subjected to far more scrutiny of their background, experience, and expertise than is the case for ministers in the UK.

Part of the underlying problem faced by any Prime Minister is ensuring that (s)he has the right talents and abilities in the right jobs. A PM with an overall majority has perhaps 350 MPs to choose from, as well as a number of sitting peers; but still most PMs feel the need to bring in outside talent or expertise on occasion, and they currently do so by simply creating new lords.

On reflection, it should probably be no great surprise that a talent pool of 350 may not be enough to fill all the relevant ministerial posts – the selection process for MPs (both within parties, and through the electoral process) owes little to any assessment of administrative or management ability. And the increasing trend for MPs to be from a 'political' background, rather than having experience of life in the 'real world' outside politics before being elected makes it less likely that the pool will contain the mix of experience and expertise needed for government.

So, to be a little more radical, why do ministers have to sit in parliament at all? Some countries - the US and France, to name but two comparable democracies, elect the legislature and their government entirely separately.

Until fairly recently, I would have argued for the principle that all government ministers should themselves be elected members, but the establishment of the National Assembly has led me to wonder whether an alternative approach needs more consideration. There are two factors in particular which have led me to be more open to alternatives – and both relate to the small number of members of the assembly.

By the time an administration is formed – Ministers, deputy ministers, and whips etc -- the number of backbenchers seems to me (and of course to the Richard commission) to be too small to provide adequate scrutiny of both the government and of legislation.

The second manifestation of the same issue is that the pool of members from which an administration can be drawn is small. Typically, even under a coalition arrangement, the government majority in the assembly is likely to comprise between 30 and 40 members. Around one in three of those are likely to find themselves as ministers or deputy ministers, purely in numerical terms, and the first minister has no "second house" on which to draw – in fact, no means at all of bringing in additional expertise and experience in the way that UK PMs can.

I make no comment on the competence of all of those who are or have been members of the Welsh government since 1999, but it has struck me several times when ministers have come under criticism that even if the First Minister did want to replace them, he may have felt that his choice of alternatives was so limited that he was better off sticking with what he had.

As long as those appointed are subject to proper scrutiny, why not allow the First Minister (or the senior minister of any coalition partner) a way of bringing in outside expertise to run ministries, if that's what (s)he feels is needed?

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Nuclear Carwyn

I understand why some environmentalists have come around to the view that nuclear energy should be part of the mix, usually on the basis of deciding between the lesser of two evils. I respect that opinion and the reasons for it. I still think that they're wrong however, and nothing has happened to date to convince me that anything has changed on my two main reasons for opposing nuclear energy (or that there is not an alternative renewables-based energy future available to us).

The first is that we still have no safe, reliable option for handling the highly toxic waste produced by nuclear power stations, even after 50 years of using nuclear energy.

The second is that I don't think we understand the full cost – either financial or carbon – of the nuclear option; and until we do understand that total cost – including all the costs associated with mining and processing the fuel, decommissioning the stations at the end of their life, and managing nuclear waste, I don't think we are in any position to make a sound judgement.

Last week, Carwyn Jones suggested that he would support a new nuclear plant in Ynys Môn. Of course, if we accept the arguments in favour of nuclear power, then building any new station on a site where all the infrastructure is already in place makes eminent sense. But if one doesn't accept the argument for going nuclear, then pragmatic arguments about the siting are irrelevant, and should never be used to outweigh the arguments about the principle. The energy policy must come first; and it shouldn't be driven by entirely local considerations.

Given that Jones made his statement on a visit to the island as part of an internal Labour election campaign, it's clear that his message was aimed, at least in part, at securing the support of Labour party members on the island. In that context, how seriously should we take his statement?

My concern is that there seems to be a sub-text here that the policy of the Labour Party – and therefore of the Government - can somehow change overnight as a result of the election of a new leader. This is far too important a change in policy for it to be allowed to happen in that fashion.

Sunday 25 October 2009


I didn't see Question Time; any knowledge I have of the programme is based solely on news reports and what other bloggers have to say on the matter.

It was always going to be a bit of a 'no win' situation for the Beeb. They have been criticised for including Griffin; but they could equally have been open to criticism if they chose to ignore the fact that the BNP did actually win two seats in the European elections. And they've been criticised for the format - but I suspect that they would also have been criticised had they not adopted the approach which they chose.

Blaming the broadcasters is something of an easy way out, it seems to me, and I think that Hain in particular has been very unfair in his criticism. The BBC weren't to blame for the fact that sufficient numbers of people voted for the BNP to gain them two MEPs. The BBC have to operate within a legal framework laid down for them - by politicians - and expecting them to decide which political parties are allowed a platform and which are not is giving them a degree of power which does not belong to broadcasters.

Political parties have to operate within a legal framework as well - and that framework is also decided by the politicians. So, when a political party which is legal and registered under the law wins seats in a democratic election, I can't see how a broadcaster which is bound by statute to political impartiality was left with a lot of choice.

Politicians such as Hain may find the BBC an easy target - but they as a government have laid down the framework within which both parties and broadcasters operate. If the lawmakers consider that the law cannot be used to prevent an organisation like the BNP from operating, on what basis do they expect the BBC to do the job for them? Blaming someone else is just dishonesty.

Friday 23 October 2009

Kiss and make up?

I noted a few days ago that the local Tory campaign had received a significant donation from the fourth Baron Daresbury. What I hadn't realised at the time was that this seems to mark something of a reconciliation between his lordship and the local Tory candidate.

In 2004, the two men had a bit of a spat over correspondence between their respective organisations which became unintentionally public, as this report from the Sunday Times notes.

As then-Chair of the Association of Masters of Foxhounds, the Baron wrote to masters and chairs of hunts berating landowners for not doing enough to help foxes breed, leading to a danger that there would be "a shortage of foxes" to hunt.

The Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance replied in a somewhat stroppy e-mail to the effect that this was rather undermining the case for fox-hunting, which publicly at least was claimed to about pest control. Breeding pests in order to control them by hunting might look 'suspicious', he said.

Indeed. Not to say downright dishonest. But clearly the two men have now kissed and made up.

Thursday 22 October 2009

Break up the banks

In calling for the break-up of some of the banks, the Governor of the Bank of England is talking a great deal of sense. It seems unlikely, however, that either a Labour or a Tory Government will take much notice of his call.

Following the Tory 'Big Bang' of deregulation, the distinction between the risky segment of merchant banking and the less risky section of high street banking became blurred. The two were allowed to merge - something which had previously been banned - and the result was that the risky element succeeded in gambling away the stability of the high street element.

We as taxpayers have had to bail them out. But it was mostly the collapse of the high street banks that we really had to avert; if the two hadn't been allowed to merge, the government would have found it a great deal easier to stand back and watch the gamblers take their richly deserved hit. And if they hadn't had the resources of our day to day banks to play with, perhaps the level of the damage they did would have been lower anyway.

Splitting the two segments back out makes eminent sense – and is by far the best way to ensure that the speculators do not destroy the financial services sector again, as they seem not only likely to do, but positively keen to do, if left to their own devices.

Tuesday 20 October 2009

Hereditary funding

It's an open secret that the Tory campaign in this constituency is centred around one issue only, the repeal of the hunting act, although the candidate carefully follows his own advice to talk about everything but that. It's been perfectly clear for many months however that the campaign is almost entirely funded by hunting supporters.

The Daily Mail reported yesterday that the extent of donations to the party and its candidates from pro-hunting groups may be investigated by the parliamentary watchdogs.

I hope that the watchdogs will go further and look at the much wider issue of people with a vested interest donating large sums to policy makers. It happens on both sides of this debate, as well as on a range of other issues. I've always been uneasy with any suggestion that policy might be determined, or might appear to be determined, not on the merits of the argument, but on the size of the donations made to the policy-makers.

Locally, the Tory campaign received another hunting-related donation in May this year, when Lord Daresbury passed them £2,000. Lord Daresbury is, or was, the Chair of the Masters of Fox Hounds Association.

His peerage is of the hereditary variety. The fourth Baron, as he is, seems to owe his title largely to the fact that his great-grandfather was a Tory MP, whose own hereditary title was upgraded from a mere Baronetcy.

(As an aside, the current Baron used his maiden speech in the House of Lords to oppose the introduction of the smoking ban in pubs and restaurants at a time when he ran a business which just happened to own some 2,000 licensed premises. Interest properly noted in his speech, of course.)

The old saying is that he who pays the piper calls the tune. It's obvious who's paying the piper locally - and therefore who's calling the tune.

Monday 19 October 2009

Pyrrhic Victory

For a political party to operate a membership policy which excludes citizens on the basis of their ethnicity is obviously something which most people will find repugnant. So, at one level, it was no surprise at all to see the BNP's rule book being legally challenged. And once challenged, they had little option but to agree to reconsider.

But I wonder whether some little victories like this are actually worth having. Changing their rules will not make them any less racist; nor is it likely to lead to any great rush by people from ethnic minorities to apply to join them. What it will do is to enable them to claim that their membership is technically open to all - a claim which is wholly dishonest in practice.

I really do wonder whether it wouldn't have been better to leave them with their racism openly stated.

Wednesday 14 October 2009

Aiming at the right target

Some of the expense claims made by staff within IBW are truly headline-grabbing. And blaming the man who happens to be at the top when the news comes out makes an easy press release for lazy opposition politicians. But it seems to me that both these approaches are missing the point.

I wouldn't seek to defend the expenses claims made by the staff involved; but I'd be a great deal happier to take a relaxed view if they'd actually been delivering. If I were to rank the elements of scandal in order of importance, then top of my list was not the front page reports of strange expenses claims - it was the detail relegated to the business pages about how the organisation was targeting the wrong companies in the wrong market place, and was delivering poor value for money. And second on my list is how on earth this was allowed to go on for so long under a succession of ministers.

It's not just in the big things that they appear to have been getting it wrong. For a government agency in a bilingual nation to have appointed a non-German speaker to run the office in Munich is something I find hard to believe given the lack of understanding it shows of the need to respect local culture.

It's easy for opposition politicians to have a pop at Ieuan Wyn given that it's come to light on his watch – although it was he who commissioned the report which has identified most of the failings as I understand it. But the issues were obviously missed by his predecessors as well. I'm not sure how valuable it is to play the 'blame' game, even though it's often a lot easier that debating the real issues.

Many years ago, when I was leading an IT project team, I appointed one of the team members as 'team scapegoat'. The idea was that once we'd all decided who was to blame, we could get on in earnest with the real issue of analysing and resolving the problem, rather than everyone being afraid to speak openly about what had happened. A bit of a corny idea, I know; but it was a genuine attempt to get out of a blame culture and into a problem-solving one.

I doubt that some opposition politicians will be in any hurry to move on from blame; but that's surely what we need most now. Recognising that we've been doing the wrong thing - and not even doing it terribly well - is a hard thing to do; but the One Wales government has done that. In doing so, it has established a basis for setting an alternative direction for the future - one based more on expanding and encouraging indigenous businesses than attracting 'footloose' major employers.

I think that's the right way forward. And if we start to re-localise our economy in the process, then we'll be moving much more in the direction of the government's aspirations for a green economy than we have done to date.

Monday 12 October 2009

In it together?

I've not been convinced to date about the Labour tactic of trying to portray the Tory leadership as 'toffs' because of their privileged background. I'm more interested in what they say and what they plan to do than in their own personal circumstances.

Sometimes, however, by their own statements, they invite more scrutiny of their personal position. Last week, one of the key phrases in the speech by the Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, was that 'we're all in it together'. The implication was that we are all going to have to suffer for the economic situation in which we find ourselves; but coming from a man who is, shall we say, not exactly short of a bob or two, it hardly sounds sincere.

And, of course, it isn't really true either. What he means is not that he and people like him will suffer the cost of narrowing the budget gap, but that the burden will be borne primarily by those who work in, or depend on, public services. The bankers and financiers who caused the crisis - and who fund the Tory party - will continue to live the high life, and the Tories' longer term plans involve using savings in public expenditure to cut the taxes of the most well-off.

The spin put on his speech has been that he is being 'honest' with people - it would have been far more honest to have said 'My friends and backers have fouled up big time, and you're going to have to pay the cost'. I won't hold my breath, though.

Wednesday 7 October 2009

More important - or more urgent?

The response given by Carwyn Jones to a question put to him yesterday suggests to me that he is a little confused about the difference between 'important' and 'urgent'.

In saying that "I don’t think we can really make a judgement" (about how important it was for the National Assembly to get primary lawmaking powers) "until we know the result of the general election", he effectively suggests that Wales only needs a law-making Assembly if Labour are not in control in London.

I can certainly understand how a change of government might make the matter more urgent, given the likely Tory agenda at Westminster. But I don't see how it makes any real difference to the underlying justification for those powers.

Tuesday 6 October 2009

The 'c' word

In response to a comment on a recent post, I said that it disturbs me how quickly the political debate has moved from whether cuts in public expenditure are necessary to a simplistic demand that each party should identify its own list of cuts. In a specifically Welsh context, it suggests that we have already given up on two major battles, and I don't understand why people expect us simply to roll over like that without a fight.

The first battle is to ensure that cuts are made to major UK projects before turning to the services on which Welsh households depend. Trident, the new Royal Navy supercarriers, and ID cards are all examples which spring immediately to mind.

The second is the battle for a fair funding formula, under which Wales would get back part of the millions that we currently lose under the discredited Barnett formula.

But, looking more fundamentally than that, are massive cuts in public expenditure really as inevitable as the media and the London parties seem to be assuming? And if they're not, how has one particular view on the 'right' size for public expenditure come to dominate debate so rapidly?

There is, of course, no debate that there is currently a huge excess of expenditure over income in the public sector, and that that cannot go on indefinitely. But it is a big leap from agreeing that to agreeing that we need large cuts, or that we need them now. In reality, there are at least three separate elements to the budget shortfall, and in deciding how to achieve a balanced budget, we need to look at all of these in context.

The first is that there is a cyclical element. At a time of recession, government expenditure on benefits – particularly those such as JSA – rises, whilst at the same time tax revenues – income tax, company taxes – fall. Provided that there is an equivalent surplus during the 'good' parts of the cycle, this part of the deficit is not necessarily a problem, and should not, of itself, lead to a need to make cuts. It is entirely sensible to be borrowing at one point of the cycle and repaying at another.

The second is that there is a large 'one-off' element, in the shape of the billions used to bail out the banks after the collapse of the financial sector. How much of a problem this is depends really on what assumptions we make about how much of it we get back. Since much of it was used to purchase equity, then there is at least a chance that, at some stage, the government will be able to recover all or part of it by selling that equity if the share price should recover.

There's a political question, of course, as to whether the government should deliberately decide to retain all or part of its stake in some or all banks. The bottom line is that, in setting budgets and deciding on cuts, there is a judgement call to be made on the extent to which this money is gone forever and the extent to which it is a blip, albeit a very large one, to be covered by borrowing; and without being clear on that judgement call, using this expenditure to justify cuts is a bit of political sleight of hand.

And the third is the extent to which Government spending, even in the good times, has exceeded the income from taxation. This is where the real debate should be concentrating, but I have to admit that at present the size of this element is about as clear as mud to me, because it's confused by political point-scoring.

The Tories, of course, look simply at the grand total and claim that Labour have massively overspent; but that is a political rather than an economic judgement. It suits their agenda to portray Labour as profligate, and to quote the largest credible figure for the debt. Politically, they are pretty much hard-wired to see all public expenditure as being evil, even if in some cases it's a necessary evil. Labour on the other hand claim that they have 'invested' in improved public services, and spent twelve years trying to make up for the underspending of the Tory years.

I have more sympathy with the Labour viewpoint; but it tells me nothing about the affordability of that investment. They seem now to be admitting themselves that they have spent more than they could really afford based on taxation income; but my conclusion is that the gap is rather less than the Tories are claiming. Both parties have a vested interest in presenting the figures in ways that suit them; but that isn't necessarily conducive to constructive debate.

And, looking at the other side of the balance sheet, there is still a question of whether and to what extent any resultant deficit should be made up by public expenditure cuts or by increased taxation. Superficially, the evidence shows that people will support cutting public expenditure rather than increasing taxes at a general level; but the support doesn't necessarily turn out the same way if certain specific cuts are compared with certain specific tax increases.

What does seem increasingly certain is that whether the next government is led by Brown or Cameron, the block allocation to the National Assembly will be cut, and the One Wales government will be expected to reduce its expenditure to match. The size of that cut will vary according to the colour of the government, and until we know which changes to English public expenditure will have a Barnett consequential, any figure will include a significant element of guesswork.

It highlights, yet again, the problem with the way in which Wales is funded and the need for a proper parliament with fiscal powers, where we can take responsibility for the income side of the balance sheet as well as the expenditure side.

Against that background, demands that I, or Plaid, start spelling out a detailed programme of cuts is simply asking us to work to the Tory agenda. Our proper role at this stage is to defend the interests of Wales, not to spell out how we would implement the London parties' programmes.

Update: Hat tip to Change of Personnel for this link. I am not alone in challenging why so many are falling into the trap of accepting the Tory line.

Sunday 4 October 2009

No impositions here

Not for the first time, I found myself yesterday reading a story about internal events in Plaid which is significantly at variance with reality. "A Plaid source" has given a story to the paper which contains a number of things which are, at the most charitable, misleading.

The most obvious example is the suggestion that the party centrally might try and 'impose' a candidate on Carmarthen East and Dinefwr constituency. As our rules (available on the party's website for anyone who wants to wade through them) make perfectly clear, the party's NEC couldn't impose a candidate even if we were minded to do so. The selection will be made by the members in the constituency, on the basis of one member, one vote.

The NEC cannot even tell the constituency who they should or should not include on the shortlist - shortlisting too is entirely a matter for the members in the constituency. The only rôle the party centrally has is in maintaining a list of approved candidates - a list which any member may apply to join.

Conclusion? "A Plaid source" is either woefully unaware of the party's own rules and processes, or else is using the Western Mail to deliberately spread inaccurate and misleading information in pursuit of his or her own agenda.

The most surprising aspect to me was that a normally perceptive journalist should have been so easily misled.

Friday 2 October 2009

The dangers of alarmism

You don't have to be a global warming denier to have concerns about the way in which the science is presented at times. Wales Home drew attention yesterday to the danger of reading too much into specific weather events. Overstating the evidence merely encourages the deniers; if they can demonstrate one flaw in an argument, it merely spreads doubt about the rest.

There was a classic example in Tuesday's Western Mail.

The latest predictions are that global warming could result in an increase in temperature across the globe of an average of up to 4°C, and the report suggested that the temperature in the UK in September had been - well, about 4° up on average. The implication is that the actual temperatures experienced in September somehow prove the theory, and that's the overall impression which the story gave, even though it wasn't actually stated as simplistically as that. In reality it is very dangerous to read anything into a single month's numbers. Long-term trends are more important than single events or short term experience.

On my reading of the evidence there are only two things of which we can be absolutely certain where global warming is concerned. The first of those is that human activity since the Industrial Revolution is directly responsible for releasing additional quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And the second is that the concentration of such gases in the atmosphere is increasing.

As far as I am concerned those two demonstrable and provable facts are in themselves more than adequate reason to change what we are doing and do so rapidly. There is room for serious discussion as to what the effects will be and how serious they will be. But there is no doubt about those two simple facts.

The overwhelming consensus of scientists actually working in the field is that those increasing levels of greenhouse gases will eventually lead to global warming. The very best that those who disagree with them can honestly offer us is a suggestion that we don't actually know enough to be certain. Faced with that choice I know which side I take.

It is however much harder to debate probabilities and certainties; and dramatic headlines will always get more attention. But action to reverse the damage we are doing will not be easy, and we need to build up a high level of public support. It's a real challenge to keep the issue at the forefront without exaggeration and hype -- but that's what we need to do if society as a whole is to make an informed choice about our future.

Thursday 1 October 2009

Back to the workhouse?

Alwyn has reacted strongly to the proposal announced on Tuesday by Gordon Brown to offer young parents and their families supported living facilities rather than simply allocating them council housing. Personally, I'm not sure what to make of the proposal without seeing a great deal more detail.

Where Brown is right in my view is that far too often teenage parents receive wholly inadequate support, and that it is a mistake to simply see them as a 'housing' issue, to be resolved by allocating a council house. If what Brown is proposing instead of that is an assessment of the needs of such families on an individual basis, and ensuring that there is a range of solutions available offering different levels of support according to those needs, then the proposal is worthy of more discussion rather than being dismissed outright.

If on the other hand, he is simply playing to the gallery, trying to appear to be tough on the young parents involved by making sure that their experience is sufficiently unpleasant to act as a deterrent to others, then he deserves all of Alwyn's condemnation – and more besides.

Teenage pregnancy is a serious issue; but the solutions we need to find are those that prevent it before it happens, not those which stigmatise it after the event. At the moment, I'm still unsure whether Brown is offering more and better support for those who find themselves in that position, or making their lives difficult in order to deter others. Like much of what he said on Tuesday, it's a case of headlines and sound bites rather then substance.