Wednesday 23 December 2009

Basis of Selection

The idea of holding debates between the leaders of the parties at election times has been mooted for many years; I can't say that I'm surprised that it's finally going to happen. That doesn't mean that I'm exactly happy about it either.

It works well in the US because the people are actually electing a president when they vote; in the UK, we are not. We are electing a legislature from which a government is subsequently chosen, and the number of people who can actually vote directly for any of the leaders is very limited.

I'm quite open to the idea of holding separate elections for the government and the legislature. There are a whole series of details which would need to be resolved (not the least of which is that it would make changing a prime minister without a new election rather more difficult), but the idea has a number of advantages. However, simply grafting on a presidential style debate to a legislature based election brings a series of problems of its own.

Clearly, the choice of UK prime minister at the next election boils down to only two people, and if we were able to vote directly for a prime minister, I could see that benefit of having a debate between those two. But what is Clegg doing there? He has, to be blunt, no more chance of being the next UK Prime Minister than does Elfyn Llwyd, Plaid's parliamentary leader. I know it, the broadcasters know it - and even Clegg knows it.

It might be argued that the Lib Dems are fighting enough seats to be able, theoretically, to form a government if they won enough. But what if the Greens, or the BNP or UKIP then field enough candidates - do they get to be included?

It might also be argued that, in the event of a hung parliament, the third party would have a degree of influence beyond their numbers, so that people should know where they stand. But there's no reason to assume that the Lib Dems will be the third largest group. It's perfectly plausible that a 20-strong Plaid/SNP group would have just as much influence; everything depends on the final numbers of MPs.

In short, I can see no rational justification to include Clegg which could not also be used to justify the inclusion of a number of other possible leaders. And conversely, the basis on which others have been excluded could also be used to exclude Clegg.

The whole thing is a stitch-up by the broadcasters and the establishment parties. Nothing new there, then.

Friday 18 December 2009

Investing in Skills

This week, I've had cause to read another of the Welsh Assembly Government's many consultation papers. This time it's "Investing in Skills", setting out how the government intends to prioritise spending and support.

Much of it, as with so many government papers, is motherhood and apple pie; but the section on targeting sector priorities raised some concerns in my mind. It was the sentence "The limited evidence available suggests that most learners make broadly rational choices of learning, given the wage returns to different qualifications." which first raised my eyebrows.

The meaning is not immediately clear; it's the sort of sentence which on a quick reading might not have registered at all; but what it actually seems to be suggesting is that 'rational' choices of learning are those which lead to the qualifications which in turn give the highest earnings power. The corollary of course is that choices not based on that criterion are irrational. This interpretation is confirmed by the helpful footnote referring to exceptions with the words, "health and beauty therapy courses are popular despite evidence of relatively low returns".

It underlines a very utilitarian approach to training; and indeed that theme runs through the document, with its proposals to effectively ring fence part of the spending allocation to FE institutions for those courses considered to be most immediately useful by the Sector Skills Councils. One consequence is that courses which are currently fully-funded but which are not in the priority categories may no longer be fully-funded in future; learners will be expected to contribute to the costs. The potential consequences, for learners, FE institutions, and the range of courses available are obvious.

Now there's nothing wrong with employers (and the SSCs are largely composed of employers' representatives) setting out their training needs, and there's nothing wrong with those training needs receiving a degree of priority. That could be seen as a means of promoting the needs of the Welsh economy. But there are two aspects which concern me.

The first is that employers, by and large (and there are always exceptions to every rule), tend to take a pretty short term view of training. That is, they're good at identifying, and often providing, training to meet their own narrow immediate needs; they're rather less good at identifying future needs, let alone the needs of replacement industries.

The second is the assumption that training only benefits the economy directly if it is immediately relevant to today's economic needs. A point which I picked up in a meeting I attended recently is that tomorrow's NEETs can often, sadly, be identified at the age of 5. There are some key factors which identify the likely future employment status of children when they are at the beginning of their primary school years – and one of those factors is the educational attainment of the parents.

We always need to be careful of the distinction between a causal relationship and a correlation; but there is strong evidence to suggest that low levels of educational attainment and training beget low levels of educational attainment and training. If we assume that a reduction in the number of NEETs is itself economically beneficial (quite apart from the obvious social advantages), then addressing the factors which are creating tomorrow's NEETs has a direct economic advantage.

In short, providing training and qualifications of any level, even if the immediate economic benefit of that training is not obvious, will help to improve the level of educational attainment of the next generation and therefore have a delayed economic benefit. A skills strategy which over-emphasises meeting today's needs, on the other hand, may be helping to perpetuate a deep-rooted problem. Joined-up government means taking a much wider view.

Thursday 17 December 2009

Old news

And while I'm on the subject of Carmarthenshire County Council, I have today received my copy of their latest edition of Community News. There is comment elsewhere on the blatantly political attack which passes for an editorial, including a direct threat against local newspapers who dare to be unsycophantic in their approach.

However, it's the council's take on the idea of 'news' that struck me. Delivered today, the front page contains a story about events which people are encouraged to attend - on November 27th, December 4th, and December 12th. Really useful stuff. An inside page tells me about the consultation on closing care homes - which was scuppered two weeks ago.

Just because they use recycled paper, it doesn't mean that they need to recycle the content as well.

Council contortions

In trying to 'sell' the proposals to close four residential homes in the county a few weeks ago, Carmarthenshire's Independent Party council leader was at great pains to try and explain that it wasn't really about money at all; it was about the changing nature of the demand, and the need to help people to stay in their own homes.

Her tune this week is rather different. According to both Cllr Gravell and her deputy, Labour Cllr Kevin Madge, the choice is a stark one - close these four homes or sack a thousand staff. The message is primarily aimed at the 'back-benchers' on the council, telling them that they have no choice but to support the council's plans. It's not true, of course; but will it work?

Actually, it's not really aimed at all the backbenchers either. The Executive Board know full well that the Plaid opposition will not support their plans, but as long as all their own members vote with them, that doesn't matter. And that's the real nub of the issue - they can no longer depend on Labour councillors blindly following the Independent Party's lead on the council. Four Labour members - including the chair of their group - voted with Plaid at the scrutiny committee; they simply couldn't bring themselves to vote to close care homes. There are eight backbench Labour Councillors on the council, and if they all vote with Plaid at a full council meeting, they will defeat the administration's plans once and for all.

This week's alarm story is little more than an attempt to bully and browbeat those eight Labour councillors into supporting the closure of these homes; in a very real sense, the future of these homes now depends on those eight members. Will they have the courage of their convictions, or will they buckle under pressure? This is a critical moment for Labour in Carmarthenshire, and it could represent a turning point for the council. The challenge to Labour is simple - do they paper over the cracks, or do the cracks turn into a chasm?

Incidentally, this is not the only sign of panic breaking out in the council's administration. As Plaid's councillors have pointed out on their blog, the Executive Board has resorted to taking key decisions in 'informal meetings'; meetings where no agenda is issued in advance and the press, public, and other councillors are not even notified that they are happening. Highly irregular, and almost certainly illegal. This is an administration on the ropes.

Robbing Hood

I've never been a great fan of hedge funds. Buying things they don't want using other peoples' money and selling things they don't own in order to redistribute wealth from the many to the few has never struck me as being either a socially valuable activity, or a sound basis for an economy.

I've taken more interest since it became clear that these funds are donating large sums to the Tory party nationally, and that one of them is almost entirely funding the Tory campaign in this constituency.

Many people, myself included, have long harboured doubts that the people involved in some of the more complex financial instruments do not themselves fully understand the nature of those instruments, let alone the risks involved. If they were only working on the fringes of the financial system -- and if they were the only people taking those unquantified risks -- it might not matter. But it does matter -- firstly because their habit of shortselling directly contributed to the financial collapse, and secondly because it became clear that it was us, rather than them, who were taking the risks.

Wrecsam Plaid drew attention a few days ago to the massive payment being made to one hedge fund manager who admits that he made a great deal by short-selling the banks, including Bradford and Bingley. It seems that the people behind funds like this will completely escape the additional tax which is being imposed on bankers' bonuses.

Thee are two reasons for that. The first is, as Wrecsam Plaid points out, that they are not, in the strict sense of the word, 'bankers'. (Although some people may still consider them to be 'merchants'.) The second is that this company operates as a Limited Liability Partnership rather than as a limited company, as do a number of other hedge funds.

LLPs pay no corporation tax at all on their profits. Instead the profit made by the LLP (as opposed to the growth in the assets managed) is treated as the personal property of the partners, who can take it out of the partnership any time they want. And, whilst I don't know the details of the tax status of the particular company involved here, in most cases with companies like this the profits extracted are treated as coming from the purchase and sale of assets rather than as income - so they are subject to capital gains tax rather than income tax. This is an extremely beneficial arrangement - for those involved. It means, in effect, that they can pay themselves millions, but pay tax at a lower rate than the office cleaning staff.

Hedge funds do make some people wealthy, but they don't generate wealth, as some of them claim. The two things are quite different. They actually redistribute wealth - to themselves. They perform no useful function for the many, and the sooner they are closed down the better.

Wednesday 16 December 2009

The Toryside Alliance

A link to an interesting letter found its way into my inbox this week. It's a letter from our local Tory candidate, in his guise as Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance, providing a briefing to Tory candidates in marginal seats. It's a novel way for the Chief Executive of an "all-party" campaign to behave.

The "all-party" campaign has itself, it seems, been conducting "extensive and detailed polling" in some of those self-same marginal seats asking "whether the Conservative Party's position on repeal is likely to alter voting patterns". The boundaries between the CA and the Tory Party seem to be becoming a little blurred here, to say the least.

One of the other points made in the letter is a suggestion that the League Against Cruel Sports may have abused its position as a charity, since its activities might be perceived as being 'anti-Conservative'. The point of principle - i.e. that a charity may not get involved in party political activity - is correct. It's a serious allegation, but it is a matter for the Charity Commission and the law to determine whether LACS have actually breached the law.

I note however, from the CA site that all donations made to them, as well as the greater part of membership monies, qualify for Gift Aid as charitable donations. Most of the work of the CA is, it seems, regarded as coming under the remit of 'charity'. So clearly, if that organisation were to be caught out undertaking activities aimed at benefiting one party, wouldn't that fall to be dealt with under the same rules?

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Do try and keep up

Interesting that Nick Bourne states today that he has written to Carmarthenshire county council opposing the proposals to close four care homes.

It seems that the proposals he is opposing are the same ones which were thrown out on the motion of Plaid's councillors a fortnight ago.

Maybe he's just been on a stable-door bolting course.

Float like a bee

Myth has always been a powerful element of human culture, and that's fine in its place; but it should surely not displace science when it comes to matters of public policy. Mathematics is something that not everyone finds easy; some of us are very comfortable with numbers, others less so. But when it comes to taking decisions, it's surely important that numbers are properly interpreted, rather than completely misinterpreted.

It is in that context that I return again to the magic magnets which Carmarthenshire County Council has decided to fit to its fleet of vehicles "where appropriate". The subject came up again at the full council meeting last week, where one of Plaid's team challenged the decision, given the complete lack of scientific evidence for their efficacy.

The response he got was, basically, that it doesn't matter a jot whether anyone understands how they work; the only important thing is that they do. One councillor suggested that sometimes things happen and we only understand why much later; another memorably trotted out the hoary old urban myth that scientists have 'proved' that bumble bees can't fly, so what do they know about anything. (That particular myth has been well and truly debunked on a number of occasions – here's an example – but still seems to have an amazing degree of traction in the public mind).

In principle, "as long as it works" is a good response – but it does rather assume that the magic has been proved to work. And that's where we move from the unscientific to the unmathematical.

The council actually tried the devices on 22 vehicles, and after analysing the results, came to the conclusion that the devices worked on "some" of them, without having the foggiest notion why that should be.

What their figures actually showed was that 5 of the 22 results had to be disregarded because they were 'outliers' - i.e. so far removed from the sorts of results being achieved on the majority as to be not credible. As for the rest, they showed that in 9 there was a 'negligible' effect, 1 actually showed an increase in fuel consumption, and the remaining 7 showed an apparent improvement of between 3% and 9%.

They also noted that "some results have been skewed by the effect of operating conditions". This was intended to explain why some of the results were so low (after all, they 'know' that the devices work, and were only trying to measure how well). They don't seem to have realised that it could equally be the explanation for all of the apparent improvements. A more corrrect interpretation of the words would be "we haven't been able to exclude an effect from other factors so can't really be certain that any of these figures prove anything".

And in fact, on the basis of their own trial, they have proved precisely nothing. They haven't a clue how the devices might work, or why they might appear to work on some vehicles and not on others. But they have concluded that urban myth and scientific bunkum carries more weight than objective analysis and research.

On that flimsy basis, they are going to fit more of the devices – at taxpayers' expense – on other vehicles in their fleet, presumably based on sheer guesswork as to where they will 'work', since they have no objective basis on which to make such a decision.

And the council's endorsement of the product, showing a saving of 14% (which bears no relation whatsoever to any figures which they have published), remains on the company's website, where it will help to encourage more people to buy into the magic. The particular result on which this wild claim is based actually shows that the vehicle in question achieved fewer mpg with the magnets fitted than did other trucks of the same type without the magnets - a point which no-one seems to have questioned.

I understand that the salesman for invisible clothing is eagerly anticipating his visit to the council.

Sunday 13 December 2009

Rewriting history

During the days of the Soviet Union, one Russian historian was reported to have said, "In my country, only the future is certain. The past is always changing." It was a neat allusion to the way in which the history books were forever being rewritten, and photographs doctored, to play down or delete the influence of those out of favour whilst exaggerating the role of the current leader.

The allusion came to mind yesterday when I read these words "I argued against independence while a Plaid member. I was in a minority and my view was defeated." They are the words, of course, of an essay in the name of former Plaid AM, Mohammad Asghar, in yesterday's Western Mail.

I chair meetings of Plaid's NEC, National Council, and Conference (the clue is in the job title), and I can categorically state that his view on this issue was never 'defeated' in any meeting of any of those bodies. The main reason for that was that, on the few occasions where he was also present, he never raised the issue in any of those fora.

I can understand, of course, why the author of the piece would want to try and present the defection as being based on issues of policy and principle rather than personal advancement. But attempting to re-write history, even on a small scale, completely undermines the effort.

Friday 11 December 2009

Planning and the language

I've referred previously to the Carmarthenshire Draft LDP. Another aspect of this which deserves more attention is its objectives in relation to, and potential impact on, the Welsh language.

Carmarthenshire still has a majority of Welsh speakers – just. Notwithstanding the apparent determination of the county council, aided and abetted by the Welsh Assembly Government, to reduce the commitment to the language in the field of education, there is no obvious reason why the language should not be able to hold its own, or even recover, in the county.

Planning is one of a number of factors in this, but in this respect, the proposed LDP is weak in three aspects.

Firstly, it refers to "language sensitive areas" where "Linguistic Impact Assessments" will be required. It does not, however, spell out which areas are to be regarded as "language sensitive", nor even what the criteria for defining them might be. And in a county which is on the tipping point for Welsh ceasing to be a majority language, it is not immediately obvious to me why any part of the county would be other than "language sensitive".

Secondly, the council's favoured option for development is to concentrate new developments in the major towns. Real support for the language must include enabling our young people to stay in their own communities where they wish to do so, and that involves a degree of development – both residential and industrial – being dispersed rather than concentrated, since the language tends to be in a stronger position in more rural areas. In short, the favoured option does not seem to me to be the one most likely to help retain and promote Welsh as a community language.

Finally, their proposed indicator for assessing the success of their policy in relation to the language is "the number of planning applications determined where a Language Impact Assessment has been required". For me, this misses the point entirely. I don't really care how many assessments are carried out which is what they are proposing to count. I'm far more interested in what those assessments say and what is actually done in response to them.

In the field of planning, as in the field of education, Carmarthenshire County Council is displaying a complete lack of any real commitment to the future of the language. In an area like Carmarthenshire, that is not just a lost opportunity – it is little short of a tragedy.

Thursday 10 December 2009

Toffs and Proles

The opinion polls seem to suggest that the tactics adopted by some in the Labour Party of painting Cameron and his cronies as 'toffs' because they went to Eton or other public schools does actually strike a chord with people. I suspect that means that it will continue to be used as a tactic as a result; it's a reflection of the state to which political debate has largely been reduced that the fact that a particular tactic works has become more important than whether it is right or not. Nor does fairness seem to enter the equation; on the basis of a definition based on which school someone attended, Labour have more than a few 'toffs' of their own.

Personally, I don't care where any particular politician received his or her education; they didn't choose it, their parents chose it on their behalf. And individuals don't choose whether they're born into a rich or a poor family. Family background and education can shape attitudes of course; but those can change over time; none of us is bound to abide by the values or attitudes inculcated in us by either family or schooling. Backgrounds - under-privileged as well as privileged - can leave us with baggage in later life; but baggage can be discarded.

The question should not therefore be about Cameron's background, but about his attitudes and approach; about whether he's been able to overcome the limitations of his background and see the wider picture.

His use of the NHS and the state education sector does seem to be rather more than just a gimmick. But when it comes to financial issues - key to reducing inequality and privilege in society - he shows much less understanding. His obsession with reforms to the Inheritance Tax system which would benefit a very small number of already wealthy people – including not a few members of the shadow cabinet – suggests a continued keenness to protect the wealthy and privileged. That's a much more legitimate political target than his background.

Wednesday 9 December 2009

The Other Resignation

The departure of Mohammed Asghar from Plaid's ranks was a surprise, in that the timing, method, and destination were all unexpected; but I can't honestly say that it was a shock. It had been obvious to myself and many others for some time that his views were, to put it mildly, at variance with the mainstream of Plaid on a range of issues, including our core aims and principles.

Some have asked how we could be in a position where someone who disagrees with the raison d'être of the party could be propelled into such a prominent position. At one level, the answer is quite simple - all members sign an application form declaring their support for the party's aims and objectives, and from that point on, their support for those aims is taken as read. We don't use polygraphs to test their sincerity, nor would I want to.

That, however, would be too glib an answer. Our processes for adding members' names to the approved central list of candidates have been proved wanting. Even that's no great surprise to me; NEC members in particular know that I've been banging on about that for some time. Yesterday's events merely emphasise the need for the internal discussions we are currently having about the way in which we select, train, and prepare our candidates.

Those who say that we need to look again at our selection processes are right; but change was on the way anyway. The reality has been that our attitude to selection has, in some aspects, not moved on from the 1960s and 1970s, when we had to twist people's arms to get them to stand in hopeless seats, and greeted any volunteer with open arms. On a personal level, I've been at both ends of that twisting process myself. One of the problems of success is that we cannot afford to take that approach any longer - but I'd still rather be dealing with the problems of success than those of failure.

Should members who cross the floor resign? In principle, I think that they should. It's more obvious in the case of a list member than a constituency member, since the list election is based on voting for a party rather than an individual, but even at constituency level, the idea that people win because of who they are rather than the party which they represent is something of a convenient constitutional fiction.

It's true that candidates have a 'personal' vote as well as a party vote, but by and large the extent of that personal vote is greatly exaggerated. As a long time canvasser for candidates other than myself, I can say from experience that every candidate (even some of Plaid's highest profile politicians), also attracts a personal 'anti-vote'. That is to say, whilst there are people who will say, 'I'm not normally Plaid, but I'm voting for X', there are others who will say 'I normally vote Plaid, but I'm not voting for X'. Any experienced canvasser, for any party, will understand that point, even if the candidates don't necessarily hear the same message when they knock doors themselves.

In truth, party candidates get elected because they are party candidates, not because of who they are. And whilst they are entitled to change their views, changing party after being elected means that the electorate are no longer being represented by that for which they voted.

Of course, some people end up changing party not because they've changed their views, but because they've held to the views on which they were elected, whilst the party has gone off in another direction, but that's a wholly different can of worms. A story for another day perhaps.

In this case, the situation seems to be perfectly clear – we have an elected member effectively saying that he never agreed with the platform on which he was elected. Of course he should resign.

That resignation

I wouldn't say that I know Rhodri Morgan particularly well, but over almost 40 years of political activity, our paths have inevitably crossed from time to time. Wales is a small place at the best of times; but mostly, it's the Dinas Powys connection – he lives in the ward which I represented for 12 years on the Vale of Glamorgan Council.

His affinity for the Old Arcade in Cardiff has often been referred to, but I bumped into him more often ensconced in the back bar in the Star in the centre of the village. It was one of my late brother's favourite haunts, although I was always more of a Cross Keys man myself. I haven't been there for many a year, so I don't know whether he still makes an occasional appearance.

Politically, we are opponents, of course, but in 1979 (long before he held any elected office) we found ourselves on the same side in the devolution referendum of that year. Rhodri was one of the very few Labour Party members actually prepared to come out and campaign for a yes vote – delivering leaflets on the ground alongside myself and other Plaid members, rather than pontificating from above. It was a time when others in his party - including the man credited as being the 'father' of devolution - were still on the 'wrong' side of the debate. Rhodri had then, and I know still has, a genuine commitment to devolution for Wales.

I haven't always been impressed with him in Government, to be honest. He was definitely an improvement on his predecessor, but overall has turned out to be more cautious and less radical in his approach than I had expected. It's easy to blame the limited nature of the Assembly's powers; but still, from what I knew of him, I had expected more flair and imagination in the use of those powers. He has though made an undoubtedly unique contribution to the 'bedding down' of our Assembly.

He has managed to retain a down-to-earth style, as others have commented. It should be a source of pride in our fledgeling democracy that our First Minister can behave in such an ordinary fashion, and still maintain that contact with the people who put him where he is. And it says a lot about the man that he would want to adopt that style as well.

Like many others, I wish him a long and happy retirement now that he has stepped down as First Minister. I do hope though that he will feel able to perform one last service to the people of Wales. I cannot imagine a better person to take a leading role in the campaign to deliver a 'yes' vote in the next referendum to be held sometime between now and May 2011.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Her most gracious secretaryship

A few weeks ago, Cameron announced that he would not block an application from the Assembly for a referendum under the Government of Wales Act. It's quite kind of the leader of the Conservatives in Wales, Cheryl Gillan, to spell out in a bit more detail that we will be allowed a referendum on implementing Part 4 of the Government of Wales Act within two years if her party wins the election in England. The wishes of the people of Wales, as expressed through a vote in the elected National Assembly, do not seem to be for her a major factor in deciding the timing.

From her perspective, it probably sounds like an entirely reasonable response, but the underlying attitude displayed is one that says that powers are theirs to give rather than ours to take. And it seems to me that it is an attitude based on an implicit assumption about who 'owns' powers in the first place.

The unwritten UK constitution is quite clear - all power has been vested by God in the monarch who graciously allows parliament to exercise most of it on his or her behalf. For me, power belongs to the people, who allow governments to exercise it collectively on behalf of all of us.

In practice, the result usually looks much the same - a parliamentary democracy; but the underlying difference in attitude comes to the surface when we start debating constitutional futures. I start from the view that Wales as a nation has the right to govern itself any time that the people of Wales so decide, and that the debate is about whether we should or should not exercise that right.

Tories start from the viewpoint that it is for London to decide how much power should be passed to Wales and when; and that we have to justify to them what power we want and why. In that respect, much of what many in the Labour Party say is based on the same perspective; Hain's attitude to 'allowing' us a referendum is not that dissimilar, and the Labour-Tory attitude to LCOs has been pretty consistent.

I can understand how a party such as the Tories which is, and always has been, so tightly wedded to the top-down idea of sovereignty, reacts in the way it does, and why Gillan's statement would seem to them to be so utterly reasonable. I have rather more difficulty in understanding how the Labour Party – founded, after all, on egalitarian principles - adopts in practice such a similar approach to who 'owns' power.

Monday 7 December 2009

Just moving it around

Bonuses are a part of the remuneration package of a lot of people in a lot of jobs; it isn't just bankers that benefit. And in principle, rewarding those who achieve targets can help to improve the effectiveness of organisations. There are, however, legitimate questions to be asked about the size of bonuses, and the basis on which they are paid.

It's a mistake to lump all 'bankers' together as though they were all the same – they are not. But they're not all in line for big bonuses either. The bankers who do the more mundane day to day stuff which we all depend upon to manage our money are performing a useful function - but they're not the ones in line for the big payouts. No, it's the gamblers and speculators; the ones who take all the risks with other people's money - they're the ones lining up to claim their rewards.

What some of the people in the financial services sector seem to be unable to understand is that it isn't the mere fact that they want to pay themselves bonuses which raises hackles; it's a combination of the size of those bonuses and the relationship (or lack of) with their contribution to the success of the organisations for which they work.

There is a great deal of difference between making people wealthy, and creating wealth. There is no doubt that the gamblers and speculators achieve the first; some people (and not just the bankers themselves) have become very wealthy as a result of their activities. But it isn't because they have actually created any wealth; all they've done is to move it around a bit.

Like Robin Hood in reverse, they actually take a little from the many to give a lot to the few. In that sense, their activities have not only been socially useless; they have actually been detrimental to the interests of most of us. The fact that some of them have threatened to take their 'skills' elsewhere unless they are allowed to be paid that to which they think they are entitled shows only how far removed they are from reality. I'm tempted to say 'let them go'; my problem is that I wouldn't wish them on anyone else either.

Friday 4 December 2009

Cracks in the coalition

No, not that coalition!

Carmarthenshire County Council is looking to save money, and came up with the wheeze of closing a number of the council's residential homes. To no-one's great surprise (except, apparently, the administration at County Hall), this proposal did not exactly receive a universal welcome from the residents of the homes, or their families or carers. The local papers this week make for interesting reading on the subject, especially the Llanelli Star.

On one of the centre pages, a smiling council leader, Meryl Gravell, explains why the homes are no longer necessary, supported by a statement from the also-smiling Director. The two Executive Board members directly responsible, Labour Councillors Pat Jones and Hugh Evans (also both smiling) set out their reasons for supporting the proposals which they have signed off and put forward for public consultation. The facing page contains a picture of a rather angry looking Nia Griffith, Labour MP for Llanelli, alongside a statement making her opposition to her own party's proposals very clear.

On Wednesday this week, the proposals were put to a joint meeting of the county council's Housing and Health and Social Care Scrutiny Committees, with a recommendation that the document be approved for publication for a public consultation exercise.

One after another, the Plaid scrutiny members savaged the proposals with a series of arguments which the proponents of the scheme found difficult to rebut. When the matter was put to the vote, all four of Labour's voting members supported the Plaid proposal that the document be not accepted as a basis for consultation, realising that their party's Executive Board members had got it totally wrong. The two Labour Executive Board members, who were present but unable to vote, could only watch in anguish as their proposals were comprehensively torn apart before being rejected by a clear majority of the councillors present.

It's the first time that I'm aware of that the ruling Independent Party / Labour Party coalition have lost a vote - or been so obviously split along party lines. I wouldn't mind being a fly on the wall at the next Labour group meeting at County Hall.

Politics aside, however, it's instructional to consider how such an ill-advised policy proposal could have got so far without being challenged. It exposes one of the weaknesses of the current cabinet / scrutiny system in local government, where the Executive members alone are aware of policy discussions such as this. There is a culture of secrecy, and back-benchers, even in the ruling groups, are largely kept in the dark about potential policy changes. A more open discussion, involving all the councillors, would have alerted the council to the likely reaction to these proposals well in advance.

It remains to be seen what will happen next. The current administration at County Hall are not renowned for changing direction - I wouldn't be at all surprised to see these proposals being resurrected in some form. The 30-strong Plaid Group can be expected to continue to oppose them.

Thursday 3 December 2009

WAG double-speak

The contribution to debate made by teaching unions today over the future of Welsh-medium education is to be welcomed. This is an issue which we have been battling in Carmarthenshire for many months, and it is clearly now starting to impact on other counties.

Carmarthenshire's proposals involve totally ignoring the demand for Welsh-medium secondary provision in parts of the county, by adopting a 'bilingual' teaching model; it seems that Rhondda Cynon Tâf are now in the firing line for proposing something similar. The common thread, of course, is that both are trying to act on the advice and guidance being given to them by the Welsh Government in Cardiff. And that advice is fundamentally flawed.

Part of the problem is nomenclature. The phrase 'bilingual school' means different things to different people; and it doesn't help that there are three separate categories of bilingual school. The most common category in Carmarthenshire is category 2C, which officially means that at least 50% of all subjects taught are 'offered' through the medium of Welsh. It sounds impressive - until you start asking about what teaching actually happens in Welsh.

Believe it or not, the council doesn't know the answer to that question. They do not actually record what proportion of children take up the 'offer'; let alone how many find that the 'offer' is illusory, and can in practice be withdrawn at any time (whilst still being counted in the 50%, of course!) if the numbers in any particular subject in any particular year are regarded by the school as being 'too low'. The gulf between the theory and the practice is an enormous one.

There appear to be no checks on this, and no records are kept outside the individual schools. My best guess is that in a school nominally offering between 50% and 80% of its subjects through the medium of Welsh, the proportion of pupils actually receiving any part of their education in Welsh is probably well under 30%; and the proportion receiving the majority of their education through the medium of Welsh is almost certainly zero. What is completely undeniable is that they are all receiving their education in a predominantly English-medium institution.

It is against that background of utter failure to protect and promote the Welsh language that we must judge the encouragement being actively given by WAG to development of a 'bilingual' as opposed to Welsh-medium model for education; advice seized upon by cash-strapped education authorities who see this as an opportunity to introduce a 'one-size fits all' policy, and rationalise their school provision.

The statement by a WAG spokesman, “We’ve made it clear in Y Siwrnai, all Transformation plans must take account of bilingual provision, ensuring there are a range of quality opportunities available across the network for learning options through the medium of Welsh.” is just a laughable piece of Orwellian double-speak. They have consistently shown that they simply do not - or will not - understand the difference between Welsh-medium 'provision' and Welsh-medium education. But it is a piece of double-speak which is in danger of concealing one of the most damaging government policies ever to be inflicted on the Welsh language.


As the dust settles, many are turning their minds to the shape of the new cabinet under Labour's new leader. Glyn Davies and Valleys Mam join in today, after Peter Black and others added their views in recent days.

It's interesting though that the speculation seems to be concentrated on who is to be rewarded, who is to be punished, how the jobs should be spread geographically, whether Carwyn Jones will deliberately seek to spring a surprise or two, and above all, whether he will stamp his authority on his party. In which other profession or organisation would any of those be the main bases of decision rather than the ability and experience of the individuals and their suitability to do the job?

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Investing or gambling

It seems that Pembrokeshire County Council's Executive Board, meeting in closed session with the public and press excluded, has decided to convert a loan made to the Bluestone Project into an equity share as part of the restructuring of that company. The precise circumstances leading to this decision remain clouded in doubt, given the way in which the matter has been discussed and the decision reached, but I know that I am not alone in wondering whether the decision is in the best interests of the council taxpayers.

Old Grumpy has expressed his concern over the exclusion of the public and press (see 'Public Interest'), and Cllr Michael Williams, leader of the five-strong Plaid Group on the council has submitted a series of questions to which he is seeking answers.

The company is not traded on the stock exchange, so valuing its shares is not straightforward. In swapping a loan with an agreed rate of interest and agreed repayment terms for shares of an unquantifiable value, have the cabinet reduced the security of the financial commitment made by the taxpayer?

The decision may or may not be the right one for the taxpayer - I currently have serious doubts. But the way in which the decision has been taken gives me real concern about a lack of transparency and scrutiny over a major financial decision made in the name of the public.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

Bravery called for

The results of the poll published yesterday on Welsh attitudes towards climate change made interesting reading. No doubt, like most poll results, they will be subjected to a range of different interpretations.

What I found most interesting was the conclusion that a little over half had reached, namely that they as individuals can make little difference; and that 72% therefore said that the government had to take a lead, and use the law if necessary to bring about changes in behaviour.

People are right, of course, to conclude that each of us can make only a tiny difference; and that even the total elimination of emissions by the UK would make but a very small difference to the total world situation. Some of the most vociferous opponents of renewable energy projects use precisely that line of argument to justify their stance; but carried to its logical conclusion, no-one would do anything, and we'd all lose out in the end. It's a version of the 'tragedy of the commons'.

There's also a danger, which may be part of what is behind the responses obtained, that when some people are altruistic in their use of resources, then others will merely take their opportunity to help themselves to a greater share; on that basis, only decisions made at a collective level will ensure that altruism is not taken advantage of.

One of the reasons why governments - and politicians more generally - have been afraid to legislate has been a fear of consequent electoral unpopularity. And the question which appears not to have been answered by the poll is whether people would still be as happy to see the law used to implement changes if they as individuals ended up worse off as a result.

It's disappointing that people feel so unempowered; but the fact that so many people feel that government should be willing to legislate should encourage all of those of us involved in political activity to be prepared to be more creative - and, dare I say it, a little braver - when it comes to proposing actions. For instance, offering people carrots for 'good' behaviour, rather than threatening them with sticks for 'bad' behaviour may make politicans less unpopular - but is it really honest in a time when public spending will be coming under pressure?